Last summer, the Dardanella—a ship unusually suited for both rigorous scientific research and multicourse meals with fine wines to match—sailed the seas of the South Pacific. The crew included artists, designers, biologists, and engineers, and the itinerary involved stops on islands that are more than a little remote. One of the locales, recently graced with the name Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, assumed its status as a landmass only after the volcano beneath it stopped erupting in 2015. Another, Niue, is a tiny idyll with some 1,500 inhabitants whose tourist-luring website boasts “no crowds, no queues, no traffic lights, and a pace of life many yearn for.”
Travel between the two islands requires passage over the Tonga Trench, one of the great unseen wonders of the earth. Plunging more than six miles at its most extreme point, it is one of the deepest trenches on the planet—and it makes for waves of unfathomable size. “They’re almost like landscapes that you sail across,” said Rasmus Nielsen of Superflex, a Danish artist collective that braved the voyage. “You feel out of scale,” he said, “and seasick. There’s so much water underneath you that it’s hard to grasp.”
Equally confounding is debris known to be at the bottom: shrapnel from the ill-fated Apollo 13 space mission in 1970. “There is a piece of a rocket down there,” Nielsen said of a ruin to which he and his partners decided to make a sacrifice. “We had experimental materials we were testing, and we threw them down to the Apollo. Maybe aliens will come in the future and find the remains.”
Superflex had been joined on the ship by an eclectic ensemble invited to work on a project that would involve research as much as art. The group included a marine biologist, a behavioral scientist, an environmental activist, a cinematographer, a “biomimicry designer,” and an architect working on prospective building methods for Mars. “It was a variety of people—let’s call it that,” Nielsen said.
As formulated by Superflex and enabled by TBA21-Academy, an interdisciplinary arts organization behind many ventures of the sort, the premise for the expedition was to work toward building new earthly dwellings that could, in times to come, serve as homes for fish and other marine life when the oceans rise and turn the planet into one large interconnected sea. “We’re trying to learn from the deep because, with climate change, human infrastructure will be submerged at some point,” Nielsen said. “We put experimental materials in the water, and scientists on the boat record how fish react. You could call it interspecies architecture, like a fish IKEA. We’re not alone in these buildings we are making—there is someone coming, and we owe it to them to think about their wishes and desires.”
But first, the trench. “You cross into the wind, so the swells are quite something, really rough and intense,” remembered Markus Reymann, TBA21-Academy’s director and a seasoned traveler of the seas. “Your physical rhythm changes, you slow down, your brain is constantly trying to keep equilibrium. It is extremely exhausting to be on a boat.”
Exhilarating, too, especially atop such a formidable abyss. “It’s a strange sensation to look down at this body of water and know the bottom is 10,000 meters below you,” Reymann said. “You realize you are crossing the second-deepest trench in the world, and you think: Wow, this is like flying on a boat over Mount Everest.”
Established in 2011 and responsible for a planet-spanning array of expeditions and activities since, TBA21-Academy has become the bow of the ship, as it were, for the many art-inclined interests of the storied collector and patron Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza. It grew out of earlier multidisciplinary ambitions but took full form when she turned her engagement with environmentalism more expressly to the seas.
“Jamaica is a place where my mother brought me when I was young,” said Thyssen-Bornemisza, an avid diver who took up the pursuit when she was 17. “I learned to swim there. My first sensual memories are there.” She remembers snorkeling as a child and watching fish swim up to eat out of her mother’s hand. “She had them pretty well trained,” Thyssen-Bornemisza said.
But when she brought her own children to the same place decades later, the bountiful waters of her youth showed signs of distress. “I tried to get them excited about the ocean, and there just weren’t many fish,” said Thyssen-Bornemisza, now 60 years old. “And it got rapidly worse.”
The time between had put her in a unique position to act on a scale that could make for real change. Born a baroness in Switzerland (her father was the billionaire industrialist and fabled art collector Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza), she later married Karl von Habsburg, the archduke of Austria, after having cut a singular swath through the punk and party scenes of 1970s–’80s-era London. Art collecting ran in her family, but her work turned increasingly ambitious with collaborative commissions through a foundation, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), that she established in Vienna in 2002.
“With Francesca and her team, there’s an intensity of process that is very like the way an artist works,” said Matthew Ritchie, whose 17-ton “anti-pavilion” work of art and architecture, The Morning Line (2008–11), took form and traveled around Europe with support from TBA21. “There’s a fantastic ambition that is also followed through. They don’t see an end. They see a process in which everything is of equal value. We spent a month talking about bolts—the right kind of bolts.”
Her early interest in process expanded when the Academy was appended to TBA21 with a commitment, as per its mission statement, to “fostering a deeper understanding of the ocean through the lens of art and to engendering creative solutions to its most pressing issues.”
“We are trying to establish a different value system and an expanded notion of research,” said Reymann, who as TBA21-Academy director has brought artists into contact with a pointedly diverse network of affiliated scientists, policy makers, legal minds, and others. “The will is there to collaborate and embrace art as not just a communication tool but as an integral part of the critical-thinking process.”
It was under the aegis of TBA21-Academy that artist Joan Jonas joined forces with a marine biologist who captured the world’s first footage of the strange jellyfish species known as Deepstaria enigmatica. Other unlikely highlights owing to the thousands of miles crossed on the Dardanella include the German artist Armin Linke’s meeting the archbishop of Papua New Guinea, and Chris Watson and Jana Winderen, field-recording artists who work with underwater microphones, listening to the sounds of whales giving birth off the coast of the Dominican Republic. The Academy sponsored a symposium in Singapore addressing the question “Who Owns the Ocean?,” and another in the company of international delegates during the United Nations Ocean Conference in 2017. (“You’ve heard of Troy?” Thyssen-Bornemisza said of the latter, referring to the legend of the sly and effective Trojan horse.) Still more activities include an exhibition buried on a Costa Rican island and commissions for artists including Olafur Eliasson, John Akomfrah, and many more.
“Each commission triggers so many new and unexpected partnerships that become part of the work,” Thyssen-Bornemisza said. “They are also part of the solution we are trying to find. If you look at artistic research as a process, it’s to try to find solutions that otherwise neutral science does not find or does not even look for.”
Partnerships could also figure in the increasingly important challenge of helping global citizenry understand the stakes related to a matter as overwhelming and diffuse—and invisible, in certain ways—as climate change. “Common folks of the world need to understand that what we’re dealing with is the heritage of mankind, and that they’re the owners,” said Sandor Mulsow, a TBA21-Academy collaborator who heads the Office of Environmental Management and Mineral Resources at the International Seabed Authority. “We need cultural translators of what we’re doing in the world’s oceans. There is a saying in Spanish: ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente—what the eyes don’t see, the heart does not feel.”
Joan Jonas is wearing white, like the foam of a wave breaking against the shore. Piles of props surround her: masks, posters, seaweed, buckets of red paint. Video of bioluminescent coral glows on a screen at her back as abstract electronic sounds bob up and down. The 82-year-old artist, whose multimedia performance work dates back to the 1960s, delivers an invocation: “The mind evolved in the sea . . . Water made it possible . . . We have memories of it in our hearts and in our bodies.”
Jonas was onstage in front of some 400 onlookers in San Francisco, where in January she presented the latest form of Moving Off the Land, a performance and installation work commissioned by TBA21-Academy and supported so far through numerous spells of evolution and revisitation. It began in India, where Jonas traveled to join a TBA21-Academy “Convening” in the coastal city of Kochi in 2016. With full-day schedules following the “biorhythms of different organisms and environments,” Convenings have incorporated exercises, conversations, workshops, lectures, performances, and tours programmed by leaders of The Current, a three-year TBA21-Academy fellowship program through which artists and curators organize expeditions on the Dardanella and invite others to join for stints at sea and stops along the way.
“They built a stage in the city square,” Jonas said of her performance in Kochi, to which she had been invited by the German curator Ute Meta Bauer. “It was a dirt floor right by the water, where the boats were. There were Indians in the audience who had never seen anything like it. That was what I enjoyed the most: instead of being in a compound or in an ‘art situation,’ it was in the city.”
The project ventured on to Vienna, for a presentation in a former TBA21 venue there, before further iterations at the Sequences Art Festival in Reykjavík, the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London, and Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York. All of them shared certain through lines and materials with They Come to Us Without a Word, Jonas’s installation for the U.S. Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. And all of them take up a subject integral to Jonas’s thinking of late: humanity’s ages-old connection with the sea.
“I began by thinking of myths associated with the ocean,” Jonas said of an approach that led her to musings about mermaids, Mexican water gods, and more. She was sitting in the lounge of a hotel in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, surrounded by kitschy signs of the sea: buoys, rope, a book of ocean charts available to guests who would likely not be piloting a ship any time soon. Her piece from the Venice Biennale had just opened for a three-month showing in the city, a few doors down from the home for the Long Now Foundation, an organization concerned with deep time founded by Stewart Brand, the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1960s and ’70s. Close by were the Wave Organ, a Land Art–like series of large concrete pipes played by the comings and goings of seawater off a jetty in San Francisco Bay, and the home of Meyer Sound Laboratories, where Jonas would later listen to an elaborate high-fidelity playback of spacious songs (Buena Vista Social Club, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”) for the sake of procuring speakers for a future TBA21-Academy show.
To commune with the ocean for her piece, Jonas said she read a lot: work by the prescient 20th-century conservationist Rachel Carson, articles from the science section of the New York Times, and especially The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, a book published in 2015 by Sy Montgomery. All figured into her work for TBA21-Academy, which she said helped her make connections she would not otherwise have made. “What they do that’s special is gather all these people,” Jonas said. “They’re sponsoring this project in a very generous way, and they give complete hands-off freedom. They don’t interfere at all.”
At a dinner convened by the Academy in New York, Jonas met a tidal expert who helped plan the invasion of Normandy during World War II. And it was through its network that she forged a special bond with David Gruber, a marine biologist with whom she came to work closely on recent performances and installations. “We realized our work—trying to gain the perspective of marine creatures—is hitting on similar topics but from very different directions,” said Gruber, whose underwater footage (including that of the Deepstaria enigmatica and an even odder-looking bioluminescent weedy sea dragon) features in Moving Off the Land.
Gruber finds TBA21-Academy unique in his experience for the ways it allows different disciplines to mix. “There’s a lot of dialogue about art and science collaboration, but in actuality, it’s hard to find examples where they really come together,” he said. “Some organizations just put a scientist and an artist in a room and expect something to happen. But collaboration is about human interaction and intimate dialogue, and that takes time.”
So, too, does the kind of deep engagement with knowledge and lore that suffuses Moving Off the Land, which, after its stint in San Francisco, migrated for a new incarnation as an inaugural work for TBA21-Academy’s highest-profile undertaking yet: Ocean Space, a public-facing home for the organization in the newly restored Church of San Lorenzo in Venice. Opening March 24 with a wealth of exhibition space and room for the inner workings of the TBA21-Academy and its activities around the world, the new hub transforms a palatial sacred space built in the 17th century over ruins dating back nearly 1,000 years earlier.
The project carried forward an interest in restoration that Thyssen-Bornemisza harbored before devoting herself to contemporary art. She worked for close to two decades on restoring the more than 500-year-old Monastery of Our Lady of the Cave on the Croatian island of Lopud, which reopened last year with an exhibition of TBA21-Academy artwork that also showed at the Museum of Modern Art Dubrovnik. The Venice project was similarly involved, with extensive work on a building that had effectively been off-limits to the public for more than a century.
“Things were falling from the ceiling. It was really rotten,” said Thyssen-Bornemisza. “I thought it would be a fabulous place to save, and then it became an obvious choice to connect Venice to the rest of the world. The oceans are what connect all nations.”
Reymann said Ocean Space—to be completed in different phases in the coming years—will be devoted to “imagining a radically different future that would make the survival of the planet possible.” Programming will be adaptable and prone to change, with exhibitions but also workshops, screenings, lectures, and more relating to subjects—economic policy, legal maneuvering, environmental action—not typically engaged in museums or cultural spaces. After Jonas’s inaugural work goes on view in the new home—with an installation of videos and objects relating to her performances and a soundscape evocative of the ocean transmitted through speakers stationed all around—the artist herself will activate the piece during the Venice Biennale in May. Then Ocean Space will be ready for future swells and churnings.
“The most important thing about restoring something is restoring life,” Thyssen-Bornemisza said. “Many buildings are immaculately restored, but the more people feel precious about it—the more you can’t touch this or that—the more it becomes a monument to the restoration.”
Ocean Space will not be a monument to itself or the land it stands on, she said, but rather a home for a sort of floating institution she hopes will be heard more and more as an active and articulate “voice for the ocean.”
The waters in Jamaica where Thyssen-Bornemisza learned to swim have slowly begun to heal. After years of overfishing depleted resources crucial to life of all kinds in the area, TBA21-Academy helped establish the Alligator Head Foundation—borrowing its name from Thyssen-Bornemisza’s compound there—to align science, art, and community policy toward what materials describe as a “collaborative approach to protecting fish stocks, restoring habitats, and regenerating local economies.” An Alligator Head Marine Lab was set up in 2014, and the foundation followed two years later, in part to help administer a newly designated fish sanctuary that now protects more than two square miles of waters filled with coral reefs, sea grass, mangroves, and other forms of sea life.
So far, the most salient signs tell a tale of recovery. Measured against 2016, the area has seen a 200 percent increase in biomass, accounting for the weight of all the fish together. Welcome returns include surges in the population and size of Nassau groupers, hogfish, parrotfish, snappers, and barracudas.
“Two years ago, when we started all this, it met with skepticism,” said Dayne Buddo, a marine ecologist and the Alligator Head Foundation’s CEO. “Here we were telling fishermen, ‘If we protect this area, your fish will come back.’ There was a lot of speculation about a hidden agenda.” After the local community was engaged and convinced to join the cause, however, the message became clear. “It’s good we are measuring progress in a scientific way,” Buddo said, “but even more important is that people who are snorkeling or just standing on the shore and seeing more fish are calling us and saying, ‘It’s working!’ They are seeing increases and benefits themselves, which is a lot more powerful.”
Buddo called the many artists who have worked with the foundation by way of TBA21-Academy “some of the best peers I’ve had in my career. Artists ask questions that scientists would never ask, and they ask them in different ways.” Among them are the members of Superflex—Rasmus Nielsen plus Jakob Fenger and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen—whose work on human habitats made adaptable for future generations of fish will continue in Jamaica as part of a special new Ph.D. program set up by the collective in collaboration with TBA21-Academy and the Max Planck Institute in Konstanz, Germany.
“With what the Academy provides, we can do things that are not possible in any other institutional framing,” Nielsen said of Superflex’s recent activities, which also include a first U.S. museum survey show—“Superflex: We Are All in the Same Boat”—at the Museum of Art and Design at MDC in Miami and a presentation of work at Desert X in the California Coachella Valley, both on view into April. “If we throw out an idea to someone—‘We’d like to go to the South Pacific and start talking to fish with the aim of building with materials that could be used in 500 years’—it sounds a bit nuts. But the Academy has an interest in these sorts of projects. We’re conducting experiments. The aim is not to produce a bunch of funky objects. It’s more like asking questions we can’t ask anywhere else.”
“What is interesting is they’re very engaged in producing art, not just buying it after it’s produced,” said Armin Linke, who, with TBA21-Academy support, has made filmic and photographic art relating to deep-sea research, some of which is showing in the XXII Triennale di Milano in accord with its theme, “Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival.” “There are not many collectors or institutions that experiment like you would in science,” said Linke. “An experiment can potentially fail in the end. This is very special.”
“This is the way I see the future of the art space,” said Thyssen-Bornemisza. “The amount of art being produced and stored is starting to become insane. It cannot suffice to run a Kunsthalle program and rush from one exhibition to the next and publish a little catalogue just in time to enter into the next panic attack. If the art space could open itself up, it could be the cultural space of the future.”
Part of art opening up, she said, involves engaging interests and curiosities from other disciplines—and probing them in depth. “People are really curious and hungry. If you treat people with intelligence, they respond with intelligence. All the dumbing and numbing down of art is a mistake. We need to take people seriously if we want to take issues seriously.”
Part of that, Reymann said, means allowing artists to add their own strange frequencies to transmissions from other fields. “We’re not talking transdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary,” he said, “but maybe undisciplined.”
Jana Winderen, the field recordist, said her work capturing the sounds of nature with state-of-the-art gear and an aesthetic sense to guide her has been taken up by specialists doing different kinds of research. “As artists, we’re curious to know what scientists know, but some scientists can feel a bit alien,” she said. “Now scientists have started to contact me to hear what I have to say. That hadn’t happened before. People are seeing that we need to join forces, from different perspectives. Then maybe we can start thinking together.”
As advocated by TBA21-Academy, those different perspectives should come from all over the world too. In an enterprising book that has served as a catalogue for a traveling exhibition of the Academy’s actions—Tidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview Through Art and Science (MIT Press, 2018)—Stefanie Hessler, a curator for TBA21-Academy, writes of ways that different seafaring cultures interact with the oceans and their unstable sense of coming and going, rising and falling, storminess and serenity. In Hawaii, she notes, there are 160 words for “wind” and 138 for “rain.” In Micronesia, navigation has been informed for centuries by stick charts, seemingly abstract but actionable icons with routes and warnings embedded in spare constructions made with strings of coconut or shreds of bamboo, with shells woven in. (“Seafarers position themselves within the space they are traveling through,” Hessler writes of sailing by stick charts, “not above or outside it as in the meta-perspective indicated by two-dimensional maps.”)
As devised by Kamau Brathwaite, a poet from Barbados, “tidalectics” is an inversion or expansion of the concept of dialectics, with a sense of the sloshing and swishing and instability familiar to oceanic cultures built in. “Dissolving purportedly terrestrial modes of thinking and living,” Hessler writes, “it attempts to coalesce steady land with the rhythmic fluidity of water and the incessant swelling and receding of the tides.”
Another figure who informs the Tidalectics book is Epeli Hau‘ofa, a Tongan-Fijian writer who conceived of the oceans as a means of connection rather than division. In “Our Sea of Islands,” an essay published in 1993, he wrote, “The sea is our pathway to each other and to everyone else, the sea is our endless saga, the sea is our most powerful metaphor, the ocean is in us.”
Its changes of nature and disposition can be good for us too. As Thyssen-Bornemisza said of the communion that accompanies life in, on, and among the waters, “When you get marooned at sea with people, you develop quite a bond.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of ARTnews on page 38 under the title “Current Affairs.”