New algae exhibit in Madrid: a collaboration that inspires

UCSC professor Jennifer Parker, opens exhibit MIKROS: Un Mundo Oculto with The Algae Society in Madrid

MIKROS: Un Mundo Oculto (or MIKROS: A Hidden World) opened on Nov. 11 at the Madrid Planetarium in Spain and continues through Jan. 31.

Installation at the MIKROS: Un Mundo Oculto exhibit in Madrid. 
Jennifer Parker, co-founder of the Algae Society and UCSC Arts and Digital Arts & New Media Professor.
José Carlos Espinel serves as director/organizer for The Society’s Madrid operations.

Climate change, visual art, the intersection of art and technology—how are these connected at UC Santa Cruz and beyond? 

The short answer is algae, a fascinating and powerful group of organisms. The longer answer relates to several artists, scientists, and designers that have come together to increase awareness about algae. These individuals, known as The Algae Society: Bio Art & Design Lab, explore algae’s power and create exhibitions worldwide while utilizing algae as a “non-human research partner.” Their newest exhibition is MIKROS: Un Mundo Oculto (or MIKROS: A Hidden World) which opened on Nov. 11 at the Madrid Planetarium in Spain and continues through Jan. 31.

MIKROS is a new multi-sensory audiovisual exhibition that invites viewers to enter a hidden world of drifting algae as an immersive art and science experience. MIKROS aims to create an imaginary world of the overlooked unicellular algae, cyanobacteria, or foraminifera in support of life on Earth.

“We hope visitors to MIKROS walk away from the show feeling the power and curiosity of algae as an incredible species supporting life as we know it on the planet,” says Jennifer Parker, co-founder of the Algae Society and UCSC Arts and Digital Arts & New Media Professor. “Our wish is for the exhibition to spark joy and excitement with respect for the biodiversity of our planet.” 

Parker is the founding director of the OpenLab Collaborative Research Center at UC Santa Cruz. She co-founded The Algae Society in 2019 with several artists and scientists, including José Carlos Espinel, who resides in Madrid and serves as director/organizer for The Society’s Madrid operations. He is a Professor in Art at Bellas Artes Universidad Complutense in Madrid, where he created the Sostenibilidad, Ciencia y Arte, or Sustainability, Science and Art (SCIART) Research Group.

Parker and Espinel co-curated MIKROS and contributed works as artists. One of their goals with MIKROS is “to bring people across generations together to be as inspired by Algae as we are,” says Parker. In addition to founding directors Parker and Espinel, there are several founding members and participants from across the globe. 

The Society’s members hope that as people visit MIKROS, they will be motivated to learn more. 

“We want to be a conversation starter for folks—to provide an embodied experience that includes all human senses and engages people in real-time to explore and feel the creativity of the ocean and human strivings to embrace wonder and awe,” says Parker.

When The Algae Society creates exhibitions, they utilize a variety of algal species. These range from the microscopic scales of phytoplankton and chlorophytes to the giant kelp of the Pacific Northwest and the Sargassum blooms in the Atlantic Ocean. MIKROS primarily focuses on the “micro scales,” but larger seaweeds and kelps will also be present. 

Inspiration for The Algae Society 

The roots of The Algae Society go back many years. Parker established OpenLab, a faculty-led center focused on interdisciplinary research covering science, art, technology, and community, in 2010. In 2012, she worked on a project called Blue Trail: Imagination + Innovation for Ocean Sustainability. Gene Felice, at the time a graduate student in the Digital Arts and New Media MFA program, was working with Parker in OpenLab. 

“He pitched an idea to create a project with phytoplankton as part of that initiative,” she says. “Shortly after, Gene accepted a faculty position and established his own studio/lab (Coaction lab), enabling us to continue working together and developing interdisciplinary mixed media projects with phytoplankton.”

In 2018, Parker and Felice invited global artists and scientists working at the intersection of art, technology, design, and ecology to expand what they had been doing with phytoplankton to include all species of algae. Parker says the open collaboration hatched the idea of being a ‘society’ that could engage locally and globally. 

The ideas behind OpenLab are fundamentally connected to the philosophy of The Algae Society. Four founding members of The Society—Dr. Juniper Harrower and David Harris, in addition to Espinel and Felice—worked with Parker in OpenLab when they were graduate students. 

“UC Santa Cruz is a special place to experiment and push the boundaries of what is possible. “They all share a deep interest and connection to their research beyond the confines of any discipline. OpenLab helped fund and support projects they were working on and tapped into the intrinsically human need for creativity in support of knowledge building —as individuals curious about the world and our position as humans on the planet,” Parker says. 

Working together across the arts and sciences enables them to share resources, push the boundaries of interdisciplinary work, and support more opportunities for public engagement around climate change issues, which is at the core of OpenLab’s collective motivation.

Everything Parker does as a professor and OpenLab director comes from her roots as a creative practitioner. 

“No matter if we call it teaching, practice, or service, it all has the potential to transform Society. I see how we live, work, and teach as one piece that we can contribute to the community. This belief is also part of the cultural identity I bring to my position at UC Santa Cruz.”

Algae fun fact

Did you know algae first came into this world more than a billion years ago? This was specifically “unicellular algae.” By producing oxygen, algae changed our planet. Algae has gone through some alterations since then. Today, algae contribute nearly 70% of the Earth’s oxygen and absorb up to half of our CO2. You can learn more at The Algae Society’s website and, of course, by visiting the exhibit in Madrid!