Nestled in a building of glass and chrome is what appears to be a Victorian era collector’s room. The theme of the exhibit is obvious: Wispy tentacles undulate across the muted blue wallpaper, the hanging vintage prints are decorated with umbrella-like forms, and the glass cases display slabs of rock which I am told are jellyfish fossils. (It took me a moment to realize what these were because jellyfish don’t have bones.)
This is my introduction to “The Trouble with Jellyfish,” the newest experiment at Le Laboratoire in Cambridge. Le Laboratoire, a Paris-based think tank founded by David A. Edwards, a professor of the practice of Biomedical Engineering, is an intersection of art, design, and science. This particular exhibit, which will be open until January 2, is a collaboration between installation artist Mark Dion and marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin. Together, Dion and Gershwin explore the effects of jellyfish blooms on marine ecosystems.
The space beyond the collector’s room is designed to look like an old-school classroom. In a video projected on the wall, an enthusiastic Gershwin outlines the problem. Blooms, or enormous swarms of thousands of jellyfish, are disrupting human enterprises and natural ecosystems. Jellyfish blooms have recently become notorious for clogging power plants and fishing nets. Within the animal kingdom, jellyfish hold a peculiar role: that of both competitor and predator. Jellyfish eat fish larvae and compete with fish for food, making them a “double whammy” threat to fish populations, according to Gershwin. If the current magnitude of blooms continues, the species could potentially alter the ecosystem significantly.
Jellyfish, however, are not the only ones to blame. Destruction of coral reefs, introduction of new species in different waters, and other forces also interrupt ecosystems, often creating new habitats for jellyfish blooms to develop in the process. Gershwin compares this phenomenon to over-fertilizing gardens: Because of human intervention, weeds (jellyfish) begin to pop up everywhere.
Other exhibit offerings include SNL-style advertisements that satirize the jellyfish’s threat to humanity, an interactive installation that allows visitors to experience low-oxygen respiration as jellyfish do, and a mock storefront for a fictional business called Bloom Bakery. According to my tour guide, Bloom Bakery was conceived by some of Edwards’s students at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Two students from the professor’s “How to Create Things and Have Them Matter” course imagined a bakery that substitutes jellyfish collagen for eggs, and Dion translated their idea into a tangible reality, complete with a glass case filled with clay baked goods and the slogan “Good for you, good for the Ocean” painted on the wall.
Installed in a jellyfish-printed wall is a fish tank, outlined by a wooden circular frame. The hundreds of jellyfish inside it appear to create a glowing, animated painting. The delicate forms ebb, expand, and drift, seeming blissfully unaware of any trouble they are causing.