Two Artists, One Oyster-Filled Future, and the Vast Internet Archive

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Tanja Geis, 'Reef Ball,' 2017. (Courtesy the artist and Embark Gallery, San Francisco)

Oysters and the internet. Tanja Geis and Christopher Nickel, the inaugural artists of Embark Gallery’s new R&D Projects series, chose vastly different tracks in their research-based partnerships with local nonprofits, the culminations of which are now on view in two concurrent solo exhibitions.

For Lurid Ecologies: Ways of Seeing the Bay, Oakland-based Geis speculates about a re-colonization of the San Francisco Bay by Ostrea lurida. A bit of background: Ostrea lurida, also known as the Olympia oyster, was a common food source in the Bay Area for thousands of years. Today, local populations are critically low. The culprits? Take your pick: over-harvesting, pollution, hydraulic mining runoff, and invasive species have all been blamed for wreaking havoc on the oyster, which filters nitrogen from water and creates important habitats for other aquatic life.

Geis' imagined future may not be far off -- several state and federal organizations are piloting Ostrea lurida restoration, which has the potential to contribute to sea level resiliency and pollution mitigation. In fact, Geis collaborated with one of these organizations, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), to produce the work in Lurid Ecologies.

On view are a series of large paintings of imagined Ostrea lurida colonies. Painted on paper with mud from the San Francisco Bay, these works create a referential loop: material taken from the Bay creates a vision of a more sustainable Bay. The intricate paintings act like aquatic Rorschach tests -- many seem almost anthropomorphic, with faces emerging from the varied substrates. The complexity of the paintings evidences Geis’ commitment to both fine art and the welfare of the marine environment (she holds both an MFA and a graduate degree in coastal and marine management).

Tanja Geis, 'Life in the Greenhouse,' 2017.
Tanja Geis, 'Life in the Greenhouse,' 2017. (Courtesy the artist and Embark Gallery, San Francisco)

The centerpiece of the exhibition is Life in the Greenhouse, a three-channel video filmed in the research tanks at the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies. The video’s connection to Ostrea lurida is less apparent, but unlike some of Geis’ other, more ethereal videos, this one is more straightforward, maybe even scientific.


On one channel, the camera lingers on lace-like organisms or materials. On another, tiny creatures seem to battle or mate with one another. And the third channel spends eight minutes exploring brilliant, chlorophyll-filled plants. The result is almost a narrative -- just poetic enough to evade easy categorization.

Sharing the gallery with Lurid Ecologies is Christopher Nickel’s A Few Select Bits of Knowledge: A Visual Archive, another R&D Projects enterprise. Nickel's work draws from his exploration of the Internet Archive, an online collection of free books, audio, video, software, websites and more. On display at Embark Gallery are five large collages, each made from dozens of images culled from the archive's wide-ranging database.

Christopher Nickel, 'Understanding Whole Systems,' 2017. (Courtesy the artist and Embark Gallery, San Francisco)

Nickel's images at first appear randomly grouped: David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, a Swiss Army knife, a handheld vacuum. But his work engages with systems, particularly in regards to communication, and this becomes evident when reviewing the works’ titles. Bowie, the knife, and vacuum appear in Nomadics. Communications includes images of the Jackson 5, a woman wearing a virtual reality headset, a MIDI keyboard, and Voyager's Golden Record.

These constellations of images conjure connections between the different objects and concepts -- and, most importantly -- across time. Like Geis' Life in the Greenhouse, this work doesn't lead to direct conclusions, only vague suggestions.

If Nickel's collages are inventories of visual representations of specific systems or concepts, I’m left wondering, “Why these images?” Is this how the Internet Archive best represents these specific systems? Are Nickel’s collages microcosms of the Voyager records, picturing how we picture ourselves?

For both Geis and Nickel, the results of their research-intensive projects hint at their processes while avoiding an overly didactic approach. At times this left me wanting more -- I craved a deeper window into the artists' research. But unburdened by explanatory text, the works are afforded the freedom to guide viewers down numerous paths.

'Lurid Ecologies: Ways of Seeing the Bay' and 'A Few Select Bits of Knowledge: A Visual Archive' are on view at San Francisco's Embark Gallery through Aug. 18, 2017. For more information, click here.