I came across this short piece I wrote a couple years back - maybe you'll enjoy.

At this point in time, almost anybody with a Facebook account and an interest in the sea has been introduced to the crowds and chorus lines, even desk workers, cast in cement and placed in the tropical waters off Cancún. These statues were created by Jason deCaires Taylor specifically for their transient appearance of life underwater - that is, human life underwater - while creating a more permanent home for the community of marine invertebrates that foul hard substrata ( Calcareous beasts, corals, tubeworms, tunicates, sponges, all create a mesh of real life on top of the visual; mobile invertebrates scan through the matrix for food and shelter, and with time the original features are being obscured. At some point, we can imagine that only the arrangement of these structures will be perceived as somehow non-random, the original features masked by a husk of life. If our current culture loses the coordinates of these installations, and they are later rediscovered, will we have left clues that we were once there despite the ways in which other phyla have bent the original message?

Efforts like these suggest our collective desire to achieve art at large scales, as with landscape architecture and massive installation art, and to imaginatively consider how our interaction with the natural world can be a process, not simply an intervention. One question worth considering is whether we have asked the ocean, and its fauna, which of our creations it prefers? Osborne Reef is effectively one of these exercises where we dig a hole only to fill it in; in this case two million tires were lashed to the sea floor near Fort Lauderdale in the hopes that sea life would colonize the structure and provide a boost to local biodiversity and tourism. Unfortunately, while tires at the water surface on floating docks are appreciated by the ‘fouling community’ of tunicates, bryozoans, and hydroids, the project was a distinct failure and is now being used as an exercise for military dive crews to go clean up the unfouled (but unsightly) tires. It is often not easy to know how marine life will respond to our presence. Ecologists famously study the recruitment (larvae settling and surviving at a location) of marine life with what can be afforded at Home Depot. PVC pipes, Saf-T-Walk, plexiglass plates, mesh bags filled with rocks, dish scrubbers, bricks covered with zip-ties; all of these and more have been used in the quest for the appropriate rugosity or ‘feel’ that animals or algae will appreciate, the ability to find the device again once it is fouled (they are usually bolted or staked to the substrate), and something of little value so it is not picked up by curious clam diggers or tourists.

Sometimes, of course, it is less important what component of our modern life has been submerged in the water than that it is voted on by the beasts that live there. Gregariousness is the tendency of marine animals to settle, as nearly passive larvae, near their relatives (preferably the same species). They sense the residue of brethren in the water, as if asparagus eaters preferred each other among humans, and are attracted to settle somewhere that has seemed to be a good choice for those who chose before. Generally, once these organisms choose a home, that is where they will remain for the rest of their life, and the success of their offspring will also in part depend on this choice. The general strategy of marine invertebrates is to produce offspring far in excess of the number that would replace the adult generation: for every thousand or ten thousand offspring released, perhaps one is successful in finding a home that is suitable for releasing another thousand or ten thousand offspring.

The action of settlement, sometimes in pulses of familial larvae, sometimes entrained by the chemical clouds leading to gregariousness, means that limited resources for recruitment often cannot fully represent all the life that is out there. Thus a truism in the field of biogeography, the study of how organisms are distributed: as more area is assayed, more species will be found. They are often non-randomly clumped around the tires ringing floating docks that are tied there to protect boats, themselves harboring barnacles and limpets until their season in dry dock and a fresh coat of paint. If you search all the tires, you will start to recover a distribution of species that better reflects the pool that is out there (though not the corals hoped for at Osborne Reef!): a few species that are quite common, and then a few specimens of things that are quite rare, a plotted curve that defines distributions of cell types in organs, languages in society, and genetic variants (alleles) within the species of fish that come by to nibble away at the organisms that have settled on the dock, close to slicks of diesel fuel but often safe from being exposed to the air as the tide goes in and out.

Really, whenever there is an edge between land and water, humans seem to have an urge to put what they no longer want into the water, and leave it there. Chad Pregracke is a man who has made his life’s calling into that of steward of the Mississippi River. The number of things that he and his crew have recovered and recycled is unbelievable, including a tractor that by that time had trees growing through it and encrusted by zebra mussels along the muddy insertion points. Many local and regional organizations do these kinds of river clean-up events as well. Sometimes what gets into the river is because of storms and flooding, washing our remains into the storm sewers and rivers, and ultimately out to sea where the chemicals we ingest change the genders of fish and invertebrates; where the plastic we toss, so much every day, forms translucent islands the size of states in the middle of our oceans. Sometimes the sofas, vehicles, refrigerators, engines, oil filters, condoms, hair clips, shoes and shopping carts are submerged below the waves or the river so that nothing more complicated must be done, or so something more criminal is hidden. Or, maybe it was just fun - these items are living out a scenario that nobody ever expected. What our detritus adds to the environment is structure, like a submerged stump or brush or a gravel bed might naturally provide heterogeneity in the water. Fishermen know that diversity thrives on edges (and that is where they are most likely to lose their line), and so even as we create unsightly banks of 20th century remains, we can ask how these things – positively as shapes, negatively through the chemicals they may leach – influence the pattern of biodiversity.

Dusty Kemp, a marine biologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told me that in doing survey work on a new cruise ship channel off of Key West the number of things found just beyond the piers and plazas was unbelievable. Bicycles, car parts, and cutlery, as Bjørk might sing, all of them shiny at first and eventually succumbing to the oxidative process of the sea and of becoming a home for animals that must partially burrow in, that change the chemistry near the surface, that are digesting and egesting and eventually replacing the original form, as with fossilized wood. Our trash is home, our trash is food – for something. Shipwrecks, popularized as new habitat for the coral reef community, can temporarily devastate the same community as local concentrations of iron and pollutants goes up, firing up the algal and microbial communities and changing the food web as long as the resource is available.

So what happens when we intentionally place art into the ocean, as with the sculptures, or into the rivers or bays? These events can be treated as minor biogeographic events, where the organisms are distributing themselves across our art to create something more palatable to divers and biologists. But there is an ecology going on there as well. Wim van Egmond ( is a Dutch photomicrographer - that is, he makes his living and his life taking pictures of the miniscule in their drops of water. At some point he recognized, as many aquatic ecologists do, that the distribution of organisms is not uniform in the fluid. This is known as the paradox of the plankton, in some circles. That is, since we assume as big terrestrial organisms that an ocean or lake is just a big well-mixed homogeneous bathtub, it is difficult to envision how so many diverse organisms partition this space and find unique sets of resources on which to thrive without competition eliminating all but the most generalist consumer. However, in any fluid medium there will be adiabatic packets of fluid that contain slightly different environments and mix at a rate slower than we would expect when we are used to cooking and stirring with a wooden spoon. Wim recognized that terrestrial interjections into these fluids also present non-homogeneous substrata for colonization. Putting artwork into the canals of Amsterdam, he discovered that different types of freshwater inverts and algae would colonize particular types of paintings, with greater (and in his words, more interesting) diversity colonizing “good” art than starving-artist-back-of-sofa art, covered in nematodes. This may be the medium: oils and pastels versus acrylics. Or it may be a component of the biological world recognizing the quality at some higher level of what we are inserting into their world.

Van Egmond indicates that this is more than the typical dictum of the microbial biologist: “everything is everywhere, and the environment selects”, meaning that small organisms have a cosmopolitan distribution in the global sense, but are found in varying densities depending on the microhabitat being evaluated. His work in microbial art climatological research depends on careful observation and identification of microscopic organisms after immersion. His project so far has suggested that organisms such as desmids and chrysophytes, two types of algae, are associated with some of the highest quality art. Even with these simple organisms, there may be distinction between masterpieces, and those works that are “aesthetically pleasing…[but] may lack a meaningful content.” Other algae, such as Pediastrum, are observed to “blossom [only] on trivial works of art.”

At times the type of organism attracted to a piece could be indicative of the intent of the art: amoebas with “fluid forms and contemplative works”, copepods on “tense, mediocre works”, nematodes on art with too many colors, and ostracods with “solid and robust works of art” (even an indicator of investment value!). The research, importantly, has controls on its own results. Wim indicates that when radiolarians are found on a piece, it is a “sure sign that the submerged artwork has drifted too far, and you are now situated in the middle of the ocean. Flush the artwork thoroughly and start all over.” With bacterial colonies representing the nadir in artistic merit, it may yet be necessary for modern DNA sequencing technologies to properly sort the association of these microbes from their preferred (and designed) habitats.

Our every creation ultimately interacts with the natural world. A disproportionate amount of what we have made and consumed is now defining either the subterranean microhabitats of landfills or is crossing the boundary into the aqueous through rivers, lakes, and oceans. Here lies an opportunity not only to study the biological impact of excess, but the aesthetic impact. Users on Facebook can 'Like' pages like those showing the images of Jason deCaires Taylor all they want, but until we ask the remainder of the biota, maybe we don't really understand the varied appeal of what we do. The appeal of design is a democratic process, and the designer has to consider her constituency carefully.