The new digital life of Ana Maria Guerra’s Fossils

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Using a mix of 3D mapping, photography and sculpture, Guerra’s Future Fossils blends dead and synthetic organisms to question scientific intervention into the natural world

The past, present and future of coral reefs meet in the digital constructions of Ana Maria Guerra. Exploring humanities shifting photographic and technological processes from the industrial revolution to modern day, Guerra examines the ecosystem and our long-term effects on it. Merging natural subjects with digital mapping technologies, Guerra investigates scientific approaches to the world and their purposes. Guerra uses multiple mediums to produce her work, ranging from sculpture, photography, photogrammetry, 3D printing and 3D animation. Future Fossils, Guerra’s latest project, merges dead coral with synthetic corals produced through 3D printing. The resulting work explores our impact on the coral reef, and the future of these aquatic environments in the new geological epoch of Anthropocene.

British Journal of Photography: Can you tell me a bit about your project Future Fossils? What were its aims?

Ana Maria Guerra: Future Fossils explores the use of photography and 3D technologies by scientists in the study of coral reefs. It aims to raise awareness about how technological progress has a dramatic impact on other species but at the same time is the response in the tackle against the degradation of the environment. Sadly, in our economic system, scientific knowledge often benefits private interests more than the living standards of all beings that inhabit this planet.

From the series Future Fossils © Ana Maria Guerra.

BJP: Future Fossils is a multidisciplinary project – how did you combine sculpture, photography, photogrammetry, 3D printing and 3D animation?

AMG: The process started with merging dead corals that I bought in an aquarium shop with 3D printed corals that were scanned and made available by the Geological Fabrication Laboratory of the Iowa State University.

During the second stage of the project, I converted one sculpture into virtual data using photogrammetry software, which is the same tool that biologists use to monitor corals. Photogrammetry involves taking 360º photos of an object to transform it into 3D geometry. The stitches where the image merges with the photographs are visible to show the process behind the scientific work. The errors in the mapping process make the texture appear to be melting into the 3D coral; this works as a metaphor for the bleaching process. When corals become stressed from human activity, they lose their vibrant colours and turn white. Most of them never recover and die.

The 3D animation shows the coral spinning in a virtual world full of glitches. The camera zooms in and out, allowing the viewer to observe the errors of this technology. There is an ambiguity in the dizzy pace of the video, and it’s not clear if the coral is under construction or if it has been destroyed. The artificial structure of the grid inside the organic shape of a coral represents the workspace of 3D programs used in architecture and product design. Human activities have evolved, depleting natural resources, while technological progress has been a significant factor in the degradation of corals. We are living in an economic system that knows no limits, strives for exponential growth and has a voracious appetite for trading in the Earth’s natural resources.

In addition to this, the virtual coral was brought back to the physical world using 3D printing. This object symbolises how biologists are replacing extinct coral reefs with 3D printed units in an attempt to regenerate decimated marine environments. The 3D printed reefs could be the last trace of corals because, at a certain point, the natural ones will be extinct.

From the series Future Fossils © Ana Maria Guerra.

BJP: Can you explain a bit about how geologists and biologists are using 3D tools in the preservation of corals?

AMG: My investigation into 3D technologies led me to a company in Bahrain, which 3D prints artificial reefs to regenerate the marine environment. This discovery was the cornerstone of my project; I was shocked that biologists are replacing the corals that have disappeared with 3D structures. These artificial reefs cannot perform all the functions real coral reefs contribute to the ecosystem, but they do provide refuge for sea life to hide from predators. I also learned that geologists use 3D reconstruction to understand prehistoric marine life through the study of coral reef morphology. This technology provides them with a new perspective to understand marine organisms in the deep past.

From the series Future Fossils © Ana Maria Guerra.

BJP: How does the work explore the Anthropocene, the new epoch defined by the impact of human activities on Earth’s ecosystem?

AMG: According to some geologists, we have entered the Anthropocene. But this still has to be ratified by academic bodies, who ask for evidence to confirm this new geological period. There is a considerable body of statistics that clarify the impact of humans on the planet, for factors like fossil fuels. But the Anthropocene Working Group is not allowed to consider that data unless it shows up in geological records. If it cannot be measured in climate proxies such as corals, ice cores, tree rings, sub-fossil pollen, boreholes, lake and ocean sediments, and carbonate speleothems; it doesn’t count.

Coral cores are a particularly good candidate for finding evidence in their strata to ratify the Anthropocene. They have annual bands that store relevant information about chemical and physical changes of the waters in which they grew. Nuclear arms testing has been responsible for one of the most significant human imprints on nature. Scientists first identified annual density bands in coral cores from Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, which has been associated with the nuclear tests carried out by the United States during the 70s.

When I started Future Fossils, I wasn’t aware of all of the connections between coral reefs and the Anthropocene, but according to geologists and biologists, they could become the golden spike in the ratification of the Anthropocene.

BJP: How does Future Fossils question the use of 3D technology by scientists to tackle environmental degradation? 

AMG: Future Fossils explores the idea that in spite of scientific efforts, corals will face extinction in the near future. The problem is that scientific progress is often linked to economic power—with nature considered a mere source of wealth. The premise with photogrammetry and 3D scanners is that they deliver objective information, based on mathematical accuracy and impartiality. Nevertheless, the accurate information that photogrammetry and 3D scanners provide could be edited or manipulated. Many companies feel threatened by environmental policies, so they are a significant obstacle to stop harmful activities that affect coral reefs. On the other hand, some companies present themselves as altruistic, but their patents are impediments to scale the regeneration work using 3D printed reefs. The potential of 3D technologies could be reduced to merely recording the extinction of Earth’s species.

From the series Future Fossils © Ana Maria Guerra.

BJP: Why do you think photography is such a powerful weapon in the fight against climate change? How can we utilise it?

AMG: Nowadays, we create and consume more images per day than ever before. The Internet has made it possible for a photograph to reach millions of people in seconds, and this has advantages and disadvantages.

We have seen too many images about climate change mixed with selfies and holiday pictures that in a way we’ve trivialised them. I think that the role of artists in the Anthropocene is finding new ways to motivate real action in society, and creating links between science and the general public.

We’re visual creatures, and photography is a powerful tool to educate people about the degradation of the environment and how they can contribute to the fight against climate change. An example of this is the app iNaturalist which is a citizen science project, where everybody can contribute pictures of animals or plants. These images can help scientists track biodiversity.

Also, I always mention the Hydrous project, which is a non-profit scientific organisation, whose goal is to create open access to oceans. They combine photogrammetry, 3D printing, virtual reality, and expeditions to track coral health and share the marine environment through sensory and immersive experiences. The co-founder Sly Lee explained the method they use to register 3D data. The equipment they use (an average underwater camera) is relatively cheap, so any amateur diver could help scientists study the seas. The tourism industry is one of the leading causes of climate change. If diving tours could contribute photos, we could temper that environmental impact with up-to-date data.

BJP: What do you hope viewers will take away from the photographs?

AMG: That’s a question I ask myself very often. I want my work to trigger an urgency about how everybody can contribute to climate change. However, in retrospect, Future Fossils might be too conceptual. I believe art should be more educational rather than aesthetic. I was commissioned by Adidas Originals and Parley to create a series of images for their collaboration. They created the model EQT Support ADV, made using plastic from the ocean. The trainers are made using upcycled plastic waste intercepted on Maldivian beaches and in coastal communities before it reaches the sea. In 2017 they sold 1 million shoes. I presume that they at least have tripled this figure by now. 

Having contributed to that campaign make me proud because changing consumer behaviour in society can really make a difference. My goal is to raise awareness of how every action we take, from our purchasing decisions to reusing single-use plastics, is a decisive contribution in the fight against climate change.

From the series Future Fossils © Ana Maria Guerra.

BJP: What’s next for you?

AMG: I’m doing a PhD at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. My research explores the interdisciplinary collaboration between scientists and artists in the context of the Anthropocene. I’m from Ecuador, which is the most biodiverse country in the world per concentration of endemic species per area. In the global ranking, the first biodiverse country is Brazil, in second place Mexico and third place Ecuador. Compared to Brazil and Mexico, Ecuador is much smaller in territory. But, because it has very diverse geographic regions like the Andes, the Amazon and the coast, which includes the Galapagos Islands, it has a higher concentration of species per area.

My investigation aims to raise awareness about the speed at which many species are becoming extinct in Ecuador. I’m working with scientific photographic archives which register these endangered species and would like to create an educational project for children and teenagers. The idea is to empower new generations to actively contribute to the fight against the degradation of our planet.