Artists cast a net for safer oceans

June 14, 2013

** UPDATE **  Check out the beautiful new Ghost Below website to see how ghost nets destroy seals, turtles, dolphins and other marine life, and make YOUR promise to help the ocean and its creatures!

This weekend, the Marine Mammal Center in Marin launches a new art exhibit and website aimed at a problem most of us barely know exists: Ghost nets that drift in the oceans snagging sea life and wreaking havoc, maybe for years.

In December of last year, artists Richard and Judith Lang installed the “Ghost Below” monster at the center, using over 400 pounds of fishing nets that Marine Mammal Center scientists extracted from the stomach of a sperm whale that washed up dead at Point reyes in 2007.

That sculpture was inspired by Richard’s childhood memories of the monsters he imagined chasing him up the stairs at night. A familiar memory for many, created out of a rather unfamiliar material.

Indras Net-Ghost Below Preview
Marine Mammal Center exhibit curator Ann Vey (left) and the Judith and Richard Lang. Photo: Jim Oswald, Marine Mammal Center

Now, visitors to the center will enter the courtyard and find themselves looking up through Indra’s Net, an installation made by artists Richard and Judith Selby Lang from a trawl net that washed ashore north of Slide Ranch in West Marin. The net is adorned with hundreds of tiny mirrors — a bit like sunlight glittering through a net viewed from below — but the mirrors also reflect the people looking at it, and their own connection to the ocean.

“It’s from the idea that every point in the world is connected to every other point,” says Richard. “Indra was a great god in India who defeated his arch enemy Rivina, and he cast a net over the world and at every juncture he hung a jewel.”

A key part of the exhibit is an invitation for visitors to write their own promises for helping make the ocean healthier. They tie tags with their promises to ropes hanging down from the net. Beyond the center, people anywhere can learn about ghost nets and make their own promises at the just-launched project website, (created by the major SF design firm Swirl). The site is an interactive dive down to 10,000 feet, about the depth a sperm whale dives when feeding, ending with an opportunity to make a promise to help improve ocean health.

Ghost Below fish net monster
This monster is made from more than 400 pounds of fishing nets and gear found inside a sperm whale that washed ashore in Point Reyes. Photo courtesy Judith and Richard Selby Lang

“We’ve learned that one of the most pernicious pieces of plastic is ghost netting — it’s usually under water and people don’t know about,” says Judith. “Anyone who comes to the physical site and now to the virtual site will be completing the piece by making their pledge for what they will do to help create a healthy ocean.”

The Selby Langs have been collecting plastic from a stretch of Kehoe Beach at Point Reyes for 14 years now, and they seem to have an uncanny ability to create beautiful, thought-provoking installations out of garbage that can be both ugly and dispiriting.

“Beauty is our first job as artists,” says Judith. “We take that very seriously. So it’s really complex and it brings up all sorts of emotions for us and the visitors. People come in and say, wow, this is so beautiful, and then they read about it say, this is so horrifying. We want to just stir things up as it were. The whole beach plastic project is a heartbreak, but we try to make it fun and say let’s go get some free art supplies. We never know what we’re going to find, and that keeps us going forward.”

The Selby Langs have become a significant voice of the struggle with marine plastic in the Bay Area, with additional exhibits at the California Academy of Sciences and the Oakland Museum of California.

With three exhibits at major local institutions, they’ve also turned their attention to helping people change the behaviors that put plastic in the ocean in the first place. Richard explained that they’ve struggled to come up with an understandable metric for how much plastic goes into the ocean. The best one so far: A mile-long line of shopping carts filled to the brim with plastic, dumping into the ocean every five seconds. “There’s no cleaning it up,” says Richard. “You need to turn off the fire hose.”

For these two artists, that’s meant swearing off seafood entirely. That might be more than most people are ready for, but the point of the Indra’s Net installation and website is to encourage people to make public promises for changed behavior.

“On the website, there will be really simple and basic suggestions,” explains Judith, “like ‘I’ll remember to bring a reusable bag to the grocery store’ or ‘I will not use a plastic straw.’ We want people to just get started wherever they are. You start to see that my little choice, with all of these other pledges, means something. You can see all of these people made these pledges in a public way.”

Learn more about the artists and the making of the the Ghost Below monster:

About the Author

Dan was editor of Bay Nature from 2004 until 2013, when he left to work for SF-based Stamen Design. He is now executive director of GreenInfo Network, a nonprofit mapmaking organization. A onetime professional cabinetmaker, he considers himself a lifelong maker of things and teller of stories. Dan has been working at the intersection of journalism and technology since, at age 16, he began learning reporting, page layout, and database design. His enduring interest in environmental issues crystallized into a career path in 1998 when he assisted former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass in a cross-disciplinary nature writing and ecology course at UC Berkeley, from which Dan received a Masters in English literature. In 1999, he became Associate Editor of Terrain, the erstwhile quarterly magazine of Berkeley's Ecology Center. In addition to editing and art-directing Bay Nature magazine, he was also Bay Nature’s chief technology strategist, fixer of broken things, and designer of databases and fancy spreadsheets. And he was even known to leave the office and actually hike outdoors.