At Le Laboratoire, jellies tell the story of the oceans’ woes

Custom wallpaper printed with jellies lines the walls of part of the exhibition space at Le Laboratoire.
Custom wallpaper printed with jellies lines the walls of part of the exhibition space at Le Laboratoire.

Almost everything humans are doing to the ocean that is bad for most marine organisms – overfishing, pollution, rising sea temperatures, acidification, coastal construction, and the like – turns out to be good for jellies.

“Like the proverbial miner’s canary, jellyfish act as environmental indicators,” said conceptual artist Mark Dion. “Only instead of dying in this degraded environment they thrive.

Dion’s latest installation, “The Trouble with Jellyfish,” opens Friday at Le Laboratoire in Kendall Square.

“They’re stinging swimmers, clogging power plant intake pipes and fishermen’s nets, getting chopped up in boat propellers, and depleting fish,” marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin wrote in her 2013 book “Stung!

Gershwin’s book was the inspiration for the installation, which uses real and representative forms of jellies to shine a spotlight on a vital environmental issue: the burgeoning blooms of these soft-bodied creatures the world over.

David Edwards, founder of Le Laboratoire, inventor, and entrepreneur, says he was moved by Gershwin’s book. “Marine scientists cannot chart jellyfish numbers in the way we chart, for instance, CO2 levels in the atmosphere over the last five decades,” he said. “However, the empirical evidence is quite powerful.”

Struck by Gershwin’s work, Edwards discussed jellyfish blooms with Dion. The artist, who is known for blurring the lines between art and science in his work, had attended the opening of the first Le Laboratoire in Paris in 2007. They had talked of working together, but no subject seemed compelling – until this one came along.

The jellies, Dion said, would be the “fulcrum” around which to discuss broader global environmental issues.

The exhibit mixes antique touches and a salon feeling with technology and a modern aesthetic.
The exhibit mixes antique touches and a salon feeling with technology and a modern aesthetic.
As professor of the practice of idea translation, Edwards teaches a bioengineering class, “How to Create Things and Have Them Matter,” at Harvard.

Ideas emerged as the class, open to graduates and undergraduates of various disciplines, tackled the issue of proliferation of jellies in the spring semester of 2014.

This drawing shows factors contributing to deadzones and jelly blooms.
This drawing shows factors contributing to deadzones and jelly blooms.
Jellies are mostly water, but they also contain collagen and salts. Collagen, which is used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, turns out to be good for other things too. (They are also, technically, not fish, so scientists prefer the term jellies.)

One team fashioned rolls of paper with jellies; the material is both highly absorbent and fire-retardant. Another group hit upon the idea of using an ingredient from jellies to make baked goods moister and delectable. The pastry chef at the adjacent Cafe ArtScience has made cupcakes with that ingredient for the exhibit.

Because there are no tools to monitor the coming and going of jelly blooms, one team proposed the idea of a drone system that hovers in the air and settles back on the water to recharge with solar energy, before heading back into the sky to continue the vigil of the seas.

Not all the ideas that came out of this will translate into real-world products – that’s not the point. Le Lab, which first opened in Paris in 2007 and in Kendall Square last year, is a design center where innovators experiment and the public partakes of the results either at the gallery, or at Café Art Science.

“At Le Lab, and at Cafe ArtScience, you’ll see many examples of ideas that have, in some form, been dreamed up in my class,” Edwards said. “Many more remain as pure ideas, to be picked up, perhaps, by others.”

This seating area invites people to try breathing low-oxygen air through tubes to simulate a hypoxic zone in the ocean.
This seating area invites people to try breathing low-oxygen air through tubes to simulate a hypoxic zone in the ocean.
Can the hardy “insects of the sea” be used for some terrestrial needs? That will depend on the ease with which we can process the abundant jellies, Edwards said. One group has shown that it is possible to spray-dry the creatures, meaning they can be reduced to powder through a process used by the food and pharmaceutical industry.

Bringing marine ecosystems back to normal will not be as simple as taking some jellies out of the ocean, said Gershwin, who has traveled to Boston from her home in Tasmania for the opening of the exhibit.  Jelly lifecycles will foil simple eradication strategies. “What we need to do is take out a bunch of jellyfish, and also address overfishing, pollution, raising sea temperatures, acidification, coastal constructions, and the other drivers of jellyfish blooms,” she said.

After all, the trouble is not really with jellies, Dion said, though that’s the name of the art installation. “Jellyfish are not wrecking the planet,” he said. “We are.”

 

“The Trouble with Jellyfish” will be open to the public Friday, Sept. 18, through Jan. 2, 2016, at Le Laboratoire Cambridge, 650 East Kendall St., Cambridge.