Wild Sun Catchers: An audio-visual experiment with algae worldmaking written and narrated by Simone Johnson, with animation and sound design by Jennifer Parker
A kelp forest mermaid living by and within the Channel Islands in Southern California shares thoughts and stories about home, sea otters, time on land, memory, shallow subtidal dream worlds and the impact of the climate crisis.
There! Can you see them? Can you see their legs and arms, their heads? That silver contraption hooked onto their backs? Look!
I’ve never seen these divers before; maybe they are new Restorers. They are slowly making their way to the understory, swimming across the rocky bottom carrying underwater cameras, passing Sunflower Stars and poking at a cluster of purple, spikey sea urchins.
And I am — suspended in cool, jade-blue water, watching intently, directly under a sleeping sea otter who is wrapped up in a green leafy blanket. Fast asleep, blending in. We don’t usually encounter a lot of sea otters here.
The sun is shining through the surface of the water, through a canopy of giant towering, light green kelp. An underwater forest, undulating softly
Bursts of bright orange are slowly swimming around and past me. Garibaldi fish — they are quite otherworldly, and one of the Earth historians and Memorykeepers of the sea. I’ve heard they are great conversationalists, when they want to talk. Ha!
Oh, do you sense that? Listen, listen, listen — listen with your body.
There is a wonderfully strange polka dot octopus in-between those kelp fronds.
If you stop and sense a rocky reef long enough, you may see some of the algae start rustling suddenly, like a tiny dog shaking dirt off itself, but it won’t be a dog you’re looking at. Instead, an algae beetle — they look like, what is it called, rolly pollies, shaking their round bodies, waking up and yawning. The top of their bodies are covered in assemblages of green and red algae, which helps them camouflage.
There is a diversity of marine life here; from Black Rockfish, Red Abalone, California Spiny Lobsters, Sunflower sea stars, Bottlenose Dolphins and vibrant underwater Hibiscus flower shrubs, to Giant Black Seabass, Harbor and Elephant seals, California sea lions, Grey whales and Sweet Cloud Kelp, another macroalgae. Over a thousand different animals and plants call the kelp forests home.
Sometimes, when I am on the mainland, I wear this Giant Kelp harvested ritually wrapped around my head. People ask me about it often. They tell me about a woman who has an ocean shop on a small boat that travels up and down the Pacific coast; they say she is docked in Ventura now selling algae dyed headwraps, funky 70s themed earrings that catch and store solar power, and polaroid photos of different types of algae and underwater landscapes in the Pacific Ocean. Whew! I’ve visited the shop a few times, she looks. . . very familiar.
I tell people in English, “kelp is a brown algae”
“A what?!” some will say
“A brown algae or seaweed. There are many types of seaweed”
There have always been oceanic hair rituals and practices in my community, especially because we consider our hair both a language and multilingual, and what we use to communicate with each other, others living in our underwater worlds, and to convey our identities while on land. That’s why, whatever happens to the ocean happens to us. Whatever happens to the ocean happens to you too.
Some of the Restorers or divers are spacetime travelers and researchers, many interested in the power and politics surrounding trajectories or to shape trajectories. They call themselves algae futurists with an interest in water realities that are a threat to capitalist norms.
Look! There they go, look! Taking more photos and video. I’m curious about them, but still a little cautious. They have now come upon Elk Kelp, which looks different than Giant Kelp.
There are days when I daydream about luscious healthy kelp forests everywhere, teeming with life, what they were like in the region before intense heat waves warmed up our ocean waters, sea star communities started getting sick with sea star wasting disease and purple sea urchin barrens took over.
Sea stars, sea otters and even spiny lobsters like eating sea urchins for snacks, but when they aren’t around, the sea urchins grow out of control, and you know what sea urchins like eating? Kelp! They will eat and eat and eat until there is no more forest left! It’s all so stressful.
“Without sea otters, sea urchin populations eventually exploded and overgrazed the kelp, leaving behind large areas of “urchin barrens.” Today, California sheephead, spiny lobsters, and sunflower stars help keep sea urchin populations in check” — Yasmeen Smalley / NPS
There are nights when I dream about sea otters, and I know I am dreaming, and when I wake up I remember the dreams vividly, especially the ones that are so odd and surreal. Many of the sea snails, sea stars and sand dollars have dreams about sea otters too, and when merfolk from other places in the Gulf of California, the islands of Hawai’i and vast Oceania*, visit the kelp forests along California and the rest of the coast, they too, start having lucid, vivid, surrealist dreams about sea otters, and other things like the purple sea urchin barrens, kelp, the sun, scuba divers.
Our kelp forests near the Channel Islands are doing okay, but further north the Bull Kelp forests are suffering. It’s. . . it’s very painful to watch home deteriorate, and it is especially bad along the central and northern coasts. We often watch dive teams with curiosity as they monitor and restore the kelp. And we. . . we are also grounding more in our algal worldviews, brown algae solar culture and using our own underwater sciences to address the situation. The kelps themselves are healers and alchemists, absorbing excess and concentrated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is disrupting local climates around the world.
It is clear that the Restorers care about this place, and that we are working together in a way, for the same cause. The kelp forest is their home too.
Can I tell you a story? Well first, I better get it out of the way and say merfolk have always been traveling back and forth between land and the ocean. Engaging with land communities isn’t something new, but we still take precautions because we are fish, and people like to fish, as you know, and we also do not want to end up in hatcheries or weird, well funded and human centric biotech experiments. Not today.
Back to the story! My family has never really left the forest, but many many moons ago, two fish — two sisters in our lineage, went to the mainland one time and they never came back. I can’t tell you how gut wrenching it is to have missing family members. No one knows what happened to them, and it’s impacted our family constellation ever since.
So, a few years ago my sister and I, inspired by local merfolk, joined an interspecies ocean literacy and advocacy artist collective* (I know it’s a mouthful), agreeing to share something simple with the terrestrial world. It took us a few tries to swim past the fear embedded in our minds and hearts, but we made it to the surface of the water, and laid down within a cove, holding hands, crying and laughing and screaming with excitement and anxiety. We must have laid there for an hour or so, acclimating and resting with our decision, coming into deep and alternative presence together. In some magical way, we could feel the sisters with us, resonating in our chests, even though, we had never met them before.
A few weeks later, with the help of other merfolk, we started facilitating a breath collective in Ventura and LA, in collaboration with divers, surfers and people called marine scientists, oceanographers and science communicators — folks we could trust. People from all walks of life came to breath together on the beach, spend time with the sea, learn about the ocean and observe different kinds of seaweed: on the sandbar, carried in the ebb and flow of the water or resting on rocks. We took time to notice its/kin’s* colors and shapes, feeling its/kin’s* bodily textures, smelling, touching and holding the algae.
At every gathering we made sure to say: “The ocean helps us breath. Algae helps us . . .”
Sounds: Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale
The forest always reminds us to never forget that our worlds are connected, we are not separated.
Sounds: Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale
“That’s right — more than half of the oxygen you breathe comes from marine photosynthesizers, like phytoplankton and seaweed. Both use carbon dioxide, water and energy from the sun to make food for themselves, releasing oxygen in the process. In other words, they photosynthesize. And they do it in the ocean”.
Reddish-brown bell shapes are slowly drifting past us now, their long tentacles following behind them. It’s a small group of Pacific Sea Nettle Jellyfish.
And. . . what is that? And. . .there is a coolness, growing, growing on my back
A light push of water
A gray sea lion is gliding into a corridor of fish and giant kelp, undulating.
I daydream about so much, especially the healing of the waters, and the Earth. Speaking of which, I know only what I have heard, seen, sensed and experienced underwater and along the coast. I cannot imagine what else exists out there.
Well, thank you for taking time to listen to my stories, I’ve got to get going now. I hope we meet again someday. And whenever you visit a beach or shoreline, look out for different kinds of seaweed: on the sandbar, carried in the ebb and flow of the water or resting on rocks.
Thank you again for listening, see you next time!
This experiment builds off of the explorations and research I did in 2019 with “Ocean Radio” and “Deep Sea Time Warp 2020”, both under the umbrella of a larger ongoing, nonlinear project I’m doing called “The Oceans are Changing”, where I am researching the impact of climate change on the ocean. Through these two iterations, I’ve also explored and written about algae as a wayshower (or messenger) and advocate, especially for a just energy transition and energy education, respectively. For the third iteration “Wild Sun Catchers” I spent time researching kelp forests along the Pacific Coast in the United States and experimented with algae worldmaking through creative writing and voice acting. I also add in four elements from my current residency at OpenLab — Center for Collaborative Research where I am studying understandings of spacetime/temporality at the intersection of water, experimenting with Perspective, Memory, Presence/Presencing and opening up other, old-new, different oceanic and algal spacetimes. I am so excited about Jennifer Parker adding another dimension to the story through animation and sound design! What first started off as solely an audio experiment turned into collaborative worldmaking around algae.
A few notes . . .
- *A note on the use of ‘it’ and ‘ki/kin ‘— I first learned about the use of ki/kin as pronouns after reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Nature Needs a New Pronoun: To Stop the Age of Extinction, Let’s Start by Ditching ‘It’”. I must admit that sometimes I still use the term “it” to refer to other life, but the use of ki has always stayed with me and I’ve tried my best to use other words besides ‘it’. Language is an incredible tool or lifeway for worldmaking and world-building. A lot of the transformational shifts needed in today’s paradigms and ways of being, live in what words and languages we are using. But that ain’t nothing new!
- *A note on the ‘interspecies ocean literacy and advocacy artist collective’ — I know that the word ‘species’ is connected to taxonomy (i.e. “the scientific study of naming, defining (circumscribing) and classifying groups of biological organisms based on shared characteristics”), an invention by Carl Linnaeus and western science’s way of classification and understanding the world. I used interspecies to communicate that merfolk and human beings are working together in the artist collective, but I am also interested in learning about other words, names, languages and framings to understand earth history, bio-commonalities, planetary diversity and describe Life working together.
- *A note on Oceania — I write “many of the sea snails, sea stars and sand dollars have dreams about sea otters too, and when merfolk from other places in the Gulf of California, the islands of Hawai’i and vast Oceania*. . .”. It’s important to say that Hawai’i is generally included in Oceania (which I didn’t know!), a region of the world I started learning more about last Fall.
Selected Research Links:
- Kelp Forests — Channel Islands National Park California
- Kelp Forests: Macroalgae and Marine Plants
- What Animals Live in Kelp Forests? — American Oceans
- With Every Breath You Take, Thank the Ocean
- Sea otters maintain remnants of healthy kelp forest amid sea urchin barrens
- Cold Water Magic In A Monterey Bay Kelp Forest | Video
Keywords: Kelp forests, California, Southern California, Channel Islands, algae, seaweed, sea otter, keystone species, food web, purple sea urchin barrens, climate change, dreams, marine life, scuba diving, ocean, mermaids, merfolk, worldmaking, blue new deals, ocean policy, ocean
Simone Johnson is an interdisciplinary artist, researcher and cultural worker with roots in New York City. She mostly makes work about/with water.
Jennifer Parker investigates methods of Arts Integration in Higher Education by combining creative research practices with science, engineering, and technology. As an artist, Parker carves sites for collective entanglement between disciplines. Facilitating, identifying and determining the boundaries of complex, multi-dimensional space with the aim to develop (a sense of) community to encourage learning, and inform and develop the practice of its members. She is the Founding Director of OpenLab Center for Collaborative Research.
This short animation film was made for The Algae Society’s CONFLUENCE exhibition at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina open January 28, 2022 -April 24, 2022. A very special thank you to Jennifer Parker for her amazing animation and sound design!
On Earth Day this year it will also show at “FlowILM”; a series of art and ecology focused events at the Cameron Art Museum, produced by the Coaction Lab at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, in collaboration with the Algae Society, The UNCW Office of the Arts and the UNCW Office of Community Engagement
The Algae Society is a global collective of interdisciplinary researchers working together since 2018.