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Giving voice to coral reefs in crisis

LED panels imagine how the “flow” of human activity impacts the health of the reef

A teeming world of marine life, displayed on 89 giant panels, immerses viewers inside a thriving coral ecosystem. Colorful, undulating creatures dance to a score of celestial harmonies providing a glimpse of an underwater world often overlooked by humans.

Welcome to “Choral,” an installation combining art, architecture and technology. The multidimensional effort was designed and informed by artists and researchers with ties to Northwestern University and is on display at 150 Media Stream through Sept. 30 at 150 North Riverside Plaza in Chicago.

The creators of “Choral” are composer Jay Alan Yim, an associate professor of composition and music technology at the Bienen School of Music, and 3D/video artist Marlena Novak (’83 MFA Weinberg), an adjunct associate professor of film, video, new media and animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The creative partners work under the name localStyle.

150 Media Stream will host a public reception from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Aug. 29 at 150 N. Riverside Plaza with the project artists. More information is available on the 150 Media Stream website.

Yim and Novak’s interest in coral began after personal encounters with reefs -- and news coverage about large-scale bleaching of coral.

“At some point it seemed obvious that something seriously problematic was going on with respect to corals worldwide, and that there was a ‘canary in a coal mine’ phenomenon taking place, where non-human species were more sensitive to environmental conditions than people were,” said Novak. “It’s essentially an early warning system that we can benefit from if we pay attention and do something about the situation.”

The wavelike structure and grand scale of the LED panels which stretch 153-feet wide and 22-feet high, inspired Novak to imagine the corals’ environment visually, as well as conceptually, in terms of how the “flow” of human activity impacts the health of the reef. 

Rather than focusing on the degradation of coral due to ocean warming and other human-related factors, the work’s narrative follows their “origin myth” from the ascension of polyps to the constellations, through the descension of tetrapods -- geometrical shapes scientifically designed to assist baby corals’ survival -- and culminates in a celebratory dance, and an effervesence of new gametes.

Yim’s composition envisions an otherworldly choir for the coral polyps, which have mouths but no larynx. The score, which takes as its point of departure a 16th century choral work, creates an uplifting atmosphere for visitors.

By surrounding visitors with larger than life coral and enveloping them in music, localStyle hopes the public will be surprised and engaged by the beauty and charisma of these creatures and that it will lead them to greater involvement in ocean conservation efforts.

“We wanted to create an artwork that engendered hope and fostered public engagement rather than despair and cynicism,” Yim said.

Coral researchers Luisa Marcelino and Timothy Swain from Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering advised Yim and Novak on scientific research that shows the factors impacting coral reef habitats and introduced them to colleagues at Shedd Aquarium involved in coral reef conservation.

150 Media Stream, the curated media art space on the ground floor of 150 North Riverside Plaza, combines art, architecture and technology to celebrate the transformational power of art as collective experience, serving as an international platform for both rising and established Chicago, U.S and global media artists.

localStyle artists Yim and Novak have been creating works focused on understanding the contemporary conditions of non-humans and their environments since 2000. Recent large-scale projects have explored the mating behavior of hermaphroditic marine flatworms, the sonification of electric fish from the Amazon and experimental Eurasian blackbird grammar. Their intermedia works have been presented in festivals, museums, galleries and alternative venues worldwide.