Talking with the Institute for Figuring’s Margaret and Christine Wertheim

Bleached Reef (2008)

The Institute For Figuring, By Aaron and Cassandra Ott.Bleached Reef (2008)

Margaret and Christine Wertheim are two good things about Los Angeles. Founders of the Institute for Figuring (IFF), a kind of rogue physics laboratory established in 2003, they work out of their home in Highland Park on projects conceived to illuminate the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science and mathematics for the general public.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1958, and raised in Brisbane, the Wertheim twins showed an aptitude for science from an early age. Christine earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, language and literature at Middlesex University, and spent 20 years in England, nine of them teaching at Goldsmiths, where she helped set up a master’s program in critical theory. During the years Christine was in England, Margaret earned degrees in pure and applied physics, mathematics and computing, and on graduating she began her ongoing career as a science writer. She moved to L.A. in 1991, and has subsequently worked for newspapers (including the Weekly, where she wrote the column Quark Soup for five years), radio and television. In 2001 Christine decided it was time to leave England and was hired by the critical studies department at CalArts. Thus, the sisters found themselves living in the same city, and the seeds of the IFF were planted.

In 2005 the IFF embarked on the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef. Described as the “Aids Quilt of global warming,” the work was conceived to heighten awareness of the environmental crisis threatening the Great Barrier Reef, located off the coast of northeastern Australia. The world’s biggest structure made by living organisms, the Great Barrier Reef covers an area of 133,000 square miles and can be seen from outer space. Climate change is taking a severe toll on the reef, and is affecting available habitat of much of the sea life there.

The Crochet Reef took root when Margaret learned that hyperbolic space could be modeled in crochet by increasing the number of stitches in each row. Hyperbolic forms appear throughout the natural world — in lettuce leaves and coral reefs, for example — but for years mathematicians had been stymied in their quest to reproduce them. Crochet was the surprising solution, a discovery made in 1997 by Dr. Daina Taimina of Cornell University. The Crochet Reefmimics the Great Barrier Reef in that both comprise a network of unique sub-reefs that are organized according to color. At this point the Crochet Reef has traveled to two continents, been exhibited throughout the U.S., and involved the efforts of hundreds of contributors.

The Wertheims consider the Crochet Reef to be mostly complete and have shifted their attention to the Toxic Reef, a kind of evil twin to the Crochet Reef. Initiated in response to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of plastic debris located in the north Pacific that’s twice the size of Texas and 30 meters deep, the Toxic Reef is made of yarn and plastic trash.

L.A. WEEKLY: What prompted you to form the IFF?

MARGARET WERTHEIM: One reason I became involved with physics and mathematics is because I thought they were beautiful. I wanted to present science in ways that reveal that beauty, but I found that difficult to do within the confines of the mainstream science world, which can be very conservative. I believed it could be done, however, and I wanted a framework to do it. Chrissie has the skills to frame something that occupies a zone between science and the realm of aesthetics, and her years of teaching critical theory were crucial to the conceptualization of the IFF. However, the IFF was not conceived as an art project.

Is the science community threatened by the kind of creative thinking the IFF espouses?

MARGARET: When we began the Reef, we assumed all the support would come from the science world, that we’d be invited to show at science museums, and that one day the art world might glance our way. It’s been a completely opposite reaction. The art world immediately saw the value of the project, while the science world showed no interest whatsoever until recently. The Smithsonian just opened a new hall of ocean science, and we’ve been invited to discuss the possibility of showing the Reef there in 2010, which is an important year for marine science — the results of a 10-year survey of marine life will be presented then. This is the biggest survey of marine life that’s ever been mounted, and thousands of scientists from 150 countries have been involved. By 2010, the Reef will have been around for five years, so it’s taken the science world that long to come to the project. I can only theorize as to why that’s been the case.

How did you first conceive of the Reef?

MARGARET: In 2005 there began to be a lot of discussion in the science press about how global warming was affecting coral reefs. When we were growing up, every 10 years or so the Great Barrier Reef would undergo what’s referred to as a bleaching event, which means that great sections of the reef go white because the reef is stressed. Over the past 15 years, bleaching events have become more devastating and frequent, and at this point, 30 percent of the Great Barrier Reef has been seriously affected. Reefs are disappearing much faster than rainforests, and if we’re going to stop them disappearing entirely, we have to stop putting so much CO2 in the atmosphere.

CHRISTINE: In 2005 we did a few lectures with Daina Taimina, and Margaret and I started making crochet hyperbolics. One day there was a pile of them on our coffee table and I said, "Oh, it looks like a coral reef. We could make a reef." Literally, two days later, Margaret posted on our Web site, unbeknownst to me, that we were making a coral reef, and two weeks after that, the Warhol Foundation invited us to show our reef as part of a show they were doing on global warming. So we had to make one.

Christine, you’ve single-handedly created approximately half of theReef yourself. What led you to commit yourself to it so thoroughly?

CHRISTINE: I painted for 10 years, and ever since I stopped painting I’ve gone through periods of intensely making things that most people call crafts. So, I did it partly because I like shifting color around. I was also experiencing a dip in my willpower and working on the Reef became a kind of meditation I could turn to.

Because your background is in art, are you primarily responsible for arranging the Reef for exhibition?

CHRISTINE: Yes. Our house was filled with thousands of pieces that I endlessly rearranged on tables and the mantelpiece, and I’ve finally organized them into groupings that are pretty stable at this point. When people see the woolen reef they say, "My god, it’s so coherent, what instructions did you give people?" We didn’t give any instructions at all, and the work we received was incredibly varied. The coherency has come through curation.

How did you decide the Reef was completed?

CHRISTINE: The Woolen Reef is done because we simply can’t handle anymore, but the Plastic Reef is still growing. We’ve been working on it for two years and it probably needs another year of development. Far fewer people have been interested in working with plastics, but there’s certainly an abundance of raw material. We’re using plastic shopping bags, cassette tape and a monumental amount of videotape. I’ve been making out of videotapes giant kelps that are amazing. Many people hate the plastic reef. It’s much less popular than the Woolen Reef.

Can the Garbage Patch be cleaned up?

MARGARET: No. There are six pounds of plastic for every pound of living matter in the Garbage Patch, and it would be unbelievably costly to scoop it all out of the sea. Eventually it will sink to the bottom of the ocean and be recorded as part of the geological history of the planet, but for now, it’s growing every day. The only way we can respond is to stop using plastic. America’s use of plastic is much more extreme than it is anywhere else, and you really notice it when you come here from another country. We’ve been keeping and washing all our plastic garbage for the last two years, by the way, and we’ll be exhibiting that at Track 16, too. More and more things are packaged in plastic, and we’re all called upon to change our practices. It’s going to be like smoking and will gradually become something society deems unacceptable. It won’t be completely eradicated, but it can be dramatically reduced.

The most comprehensive exhibition of the Crochet Reef to date is on view at Track 16 Gallery from January 10 through February 21. The Plastic Reef debuts as part of the show, which includes the New York Reef, the Chicago Reef and parts of the U.K. Reef. On Saturday, January 17, 2-4 p.m., the Wertheims host a workshop on crocheting plastic bags, followed by a lecture, 4-6 p.m., on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Captain Charles Moore. Reception at 6-9 p.m. Track 16, Bergamot Station C-1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-4678 or