The Ocean Decade Conversations is back with an inspirational interview with Anne-Marie Melster, the leader of ARTPORT_WE ARE OCEAN – one of the first Ocean Decade Actions to be officially endorsed! ARTPORT_WE ARE OCEAN is a transdisciplinary artistic project carried out worldwide to raise awareness and engage in dialogue about the environmental condition of the ocean and the role humans play in its current and future state.
Join us on this encouraging talk and get some insights on how we can all contribute to change humanity’s relationship with the ocean, and how through art and traditional knowledge-sharing we can reconnect ourselves with nature and build unique partnerships.
- Please tell us a little about yourself, your influences and how your connection to the ocean started.
My connection with the ocean has a long history. I grew up on the North Sea coast in Germany, with nature, the tides, the autumn and winter storms on the North Sea. My mom took us to the dyke every afternoon for a walk, in stormy fall, cold winter and mild summers. I learned swimming in the waves of the German Wadden Sea. Only much later did I realize that this will be my professional future, my vocation.
In 2004, in a conversation with the co-founder of ARTPORT_making waves Corinne Erni in New York, this became clearer to me. I was in a moment of professional change, and we sat together thinking about the mission and vision of what we wanted to do together in an art project. It quickly became clear that our common interest was not only art and culture, but also the preservation of nature. We wanted to link these two areas together and give art a different value, far beyond the visual, beyond exhibitions, art fairs and biennials.
The book “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006) by Al Gore gave another impulse – Perhaps a door opener for many back then, even if today it seems outdated a bit and also needs to be looked at in a critical way. But it was a momentum and an inspiration for me, because I understood that the issues of climate change and global warming were going to affect humanity a lot, and because it was a thematic area for us, where a lot of environmental and social issues that are influenced by humans, converged. The quality of the air, the health of the sea, the ocean, the preservation of forests, nutrition, the production of food and agriculture, transport and transport, CO2 emissions, the preservation of biodiversity and much more. With our projects we wanted to make a positive contribution to social change: through the arts, sciences and education to raise awareness of a previously neglected subject. As an organization, we were one of the few pioneers in the field at the time, because in 2005 (when we started talking about our idea) and in 2006 we mostly reaped incomprehension and damning comments from the art world. The United Nations experts were also very hesitant about the idea of cooperating with art, while the sciences were still quite isolated in their protected area.
In January 2006 we went public with ARTPORT_making waves and started with video projects on the topic of climate change (COOL STORIES FOR WHEN THE PLANET GETS HOT), which we then presented internationally. The first major assignment for an exhibition on “Women and Climate Change” came in 2009 from various UN organizations and governments for COP15, the UN Climate Change Conference, in Copenhagen in 2009. And this was followed by many more projects, stations and assignments. Meanwhile, ARTPORT_making waves has grown into an international non-governmental organization with non-profit associations in various countries, including Germany, and brings together a large number of partner organizations for each project, all of which contribute with a specific expertise to the success of the respective order.
- ARTPORT_WE ARE OCEAN was one of the first Ocean Decade Actions to be endorsed, can you tell us more about this Decade project?
In 2018 I started developing the concept for ARTPORT_WE ARE OCEAN. With the title of the project, we refer to the book “We Are the Ocean” (2008) by the Tongan writer and ethnographer Epeli Hau’ofa, which deals with topics around the ocean in Oceania, such as globalization and other external influences, as well as alternative perspectives and ways in which the people living there could reorganize themselves in order to effectively address the changing world. The title serves as a symbol for possible solutions worldwide regarding our ocean and the important role of art in drawing attention to these topics.
The starting point was as follows: WE ARE OCEAN was an interdisciplinary art project that initially brought together artists, art collectors and curators, students, teachers, scientists and policy makers in Germany (Berlin and Brandenburg) from August to December 2019, in order to raise awareness of the environmental state of the ocean and the role of humans in this respect. The project, paired with a curated film program, was part of the Marine Regions Forum and several events in Berlin. At the end of 2019, it was clear to all of us that we had succeeded in achieving this goal, because all participants, actors, partner organizations and spectators were enthusiastic, had learned a lot, exchanged a lot with each other in these different social areas, which was an absolute novelty for some.
WE ARE OCEAN Berlin+Brandenburg was followed by many other stops and grew to a Global Program, with first projects held in Marseille, Vancouver, Venice, the Wadden Sea Region, Honduras, and Montreal until the end of 2022. For the next years we are planning to bring WE ARE OCEAN to more countries on all our continents to keep promoting ocean literacy through the arts.
- How do you think art can change humanity’s relationship with the ocean? How do you think we can improve that through the Ocean Decade?
Art works on a different level than science. Through creativity and through imagination, it triggers different parts of our brain than facts and numbers, not to say of course that any would be better than the other. But if we combine scientific knowledge together with artistic production and experience, we are able to reach people on all these different levels, from the more rational (scientific) one to the more emotional (artistic) one. Through the imaginative processes we are for example able to imagine different futures or alternative lifestyles. And through the reflective nature of art, we are able to turn the gaze inward and question ourselves and our societies. If all of this is paired with ocean literacy, it can lead to a different understanding of the ocean and our interdependence with it and hopefully produce a more respectful relationship with the ocean. Art is like a bridge between science and society, a mediator and translator between the two worlds so to say.
The Ocean Decade endorses many different kinds of projects, from research projects, to economic and agricultural strategies, and cultural initiatives. Through this multidisciplinary approach the Ocean Decade can hopefully change the way we perceive the ocean, make it more valued, and treated more respectfully. Both changing our relationship with the ocean and developing new sustainable solutions to protect our oceans.
- We would love to hear about your experience at the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15). How can indigenous knowledge rebalance our relationship with nature and influence our understanding of climate change?
Indigenous peoples have different epistemologies when it comes to understanding our world, nature, biodiversity, and also climate change. Through their works indigenous artists can express these world views and others can experience them, try to see the world through their eyes. These different perspectives can help us all to adopt a more respectful way in handling our earth and our natural resources. Indigenous knowledge is often characterised by a sustainable approach to treating nature and co-living with it. If we are able to share some of this knowledge, hopefully our relationship with the ocean can also evolve this way.
Our commissioned artist T’uy’t’tanat Cease Wyss (Skwxwu7mesh, Sto:lo, Hawaiian, Swiss) is an educator, interdisciplinary artist and Indigenous ethnobotanist engaged in community based teaching and sharing. She brought this expertise and her talent of storytelling to COP15 in Montreal and stimulated the audience, all of them accredited policymakers and activists, to look at nature, biodiversity, the topic they were conferencing about, in a different light. Cease brought humpback whales, botanical plants from British Columbia, marine birds and the Pacific Ocean to the conference halls, reconnecting us all with the real thing.
The audience were reminded of what we were all defining in this conference. She accomplished what the project had promised: To immerse the conference participants into the world of ocean creatures, ocean health, Indigenous perspectives regarding the balance of nature and the health of the ocean. We all had a moment of breathing, listening and reflecting.
- What kind of work are you focusing on in developing countries such as Honduras? What are your next ocean literacy projects in 2023?
Our approach is not very different than with projects in Europe. In countries of the Global South, like Honduras, we also focus on empowering the youth, especially those parts of the population that usually have it more difficult to access interdisciplinary art-science projects like this. We do so for example by working in small communities, or public schools.
In these countries we are also always working with local partner organizations and local funds, so as not to reinforce colonial structures.
One of our goals in these projects is to listen to the local voices and to learn from them. During WE ARE OCEAN Honduras I and the whole team learned so much from the community of the River Chamelecón Delta about living sustainably, respectfully, peacefully and in equilibrium with nature.
In 2023 we are planning to complete our WE ARE OCEAN Wadden Sea project with the last part in Denmark. Then we are also planning a WE ARE OCEAN Mallorca project, in which we want to focus on corals in the Mediterranean Sea around the Balearic Islands, a topic unknown to most people. And lastly, we are working on WE ARE OCEAN Nigeria, where we want to highlight the situation in the Niger Delta and the interdependence of rivers and oceans. And there are already many other projects in the pipeline for which we are currently fundraising (Sápmi, Louisiana, Botswana, Santa Fe New Mexico, France).
- We had our very first #OceanDecadeGiveaway in collaboration with Phaidon Press where the prize offered was their Ocean Book in 3 different languages. Tell us more about your collaboration with them. Do you plan to launch your own book soon?
The experience to work with Phaidon Press was outstanding. They approached me to come on board as an advisor for the OCEAN Book and it turned into a very intense and close collaboration with the ocean in the arts over the centuries as a focus. We were able to give a good overview over how the ocean has been reflected upon over the last thousand years. It became a beautiful, comprehensible and educative book.
And yes, we just launched the first WE ARE OCEAN Book! It is the book about the first project of the program: WE ARE OCEAN Berlin+Brandenburg distributed by lespressesduréel. I am very proud of it and grateful to the whole team who worked on it. Each project will have its own publication, gathering all the voices and outcomes.
- What do you wish to accomplish by the end of the Ocean Decade? Do you see some goals for the artists’ community?
At the end of the Ocean Decade I hope to have promoted ocean literacy among the young generations around the world. I hope to have inspired them to take action and change their behavior towards a more respectfully one and hopefully prepared them to contribute to possible solutions to protect the ocean.
Through the projects I wish to have built a sustainable network of actors and stakeholders that continue the work and keep promoting a healthy relationship with the ocean.
I also hope to have convinced the art world, the academic world, and society in general of the importance and advantages of such interdisciplinary art-science educational projects.
When it comes to the artist community, I hope that the projects and this work inspires other artists, curators and institutions to think in similar ways and explore the impact that art can have on our world.
- Do you have an artist/soundtrack/film that inspires/inspired your work, that you would like to share with the Ocean Decade Community?
I have to admit that I am not good in naming inspirations made by humans for my work. My most important inspirations are always the ocean and nature. Every time I dive into the ocean, the sea, the waves, every time I walk in the forest, I breathe the air filled with fresh rosemary, thyme, pine trees or algae, I am inspired and pushed to continue working on what I am doing, and to make it better every day.
WE ARE OCEAN Wadden Sea Germany “KUNSTReusen” with the artist Insa Winkler (images by Robert Geipel)
WE ARE OCEAN Honduras with the artists Adán Vallecillo, Pável AGUILAR and Sarina Scheidegger (images by Sarina Scheidegger)