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Women Mind the Water: Margaret Wertheim, California

As told by Margaret Wertheim
Los Angeles, California

Story Narrative:

Two women look at a crocheted coral reef in a red gallery space.

Submitted as part of the Women Mind the Water (WMW) digital stories project produced by Pam Ferris-Olson, in conjunction with Stories from Main Street and the traveling exhibition "Water/Ways." This story is one in a series created for a podcast in 2022, featuring regional and international artists whose inspiration blends conversation, activism, science, and water. Find earlier stories from the WMW initiative by searching for "Women Mind the Water" on this website.

Margaret Wertheim is an Australian-born science writer and artist who with her twin sister founded the Institute for Figuring. The Los-Angeles-based nonprofit explores the interrelationship of art, science, mathematics, and women’s handiwork. The Crochet Coral Reef is one of their projects and what we will focus our discussion on today. Margaret Wertheim holds degrees in mathematics and physics. Based on the mathematical discoveries of another mathematically-minded woman, Margaret and her twin sister Christine originated the Crochet Coral Reef project as a response to climate change. The Wertheims’ crocheted representations of coral has become a global collaboration with tens of thousands of people contributing their own pieces to citizen-generated art-installations.

Pam Ferris-Olson (00:01): Today on the Women Mind the Water Artivist Series, I am excited to talk with Margaret Wertheim. Margaret is an Australian-born science writer and artist who, with her twin sister, founded a nonprofit that explores the interrelationship of art, science, mathematics, and women's handy work. Margaret and I will focus on the Crocheted Coral Reef, a project that has become a global collaboration between thousands of needle work artisans. The Women Mind the Water Artivist Series podcast on engages artists and conversation about their work and explores her connection with the ocean.

(00:43): Through their stories, Women Mind the Water hopes to inspire and encourage action to protect the ocean and her creatures. I am thrilled today to have Margaret Wertheim on the Woman Mind the Water Artivist Series podcast. Margaret holds degrees in mathematics ant physics. Margaret and her twin sister Christine originated the Crocheted Coral Reef Project in response to climate change. The Wertheim's Crocheted Coral has become a collaborative art project. A major exhibition of the project in Germany earlier this year involved a community of 4,000 contributors of over 40,000 corals. I highly recommend that listeners watch the video version of this podcast on to see the colorful variety of coral that has been produced.

(01:36): At the heart of this project are women and math, two data sets that are sometimes thought to be unrelated. Welcome Margaret, I am looking forward to our discussion about corals, math, art, and global collaboration. Let's start with an early chapter in your story. I believe you and your twin sister, Christine, grew up in Australia. Did you grow up near the coast? I ask, because I wonder if this is somehow at the root of your fascination with coral.

Margaret Wertheim (02:06): We grew up Brisbane, which is not on the coast, but not far from a place called the Gold Coast, which is a very famous international beach resort. So we used to go to the beach a lot as children. But the Great Barrier Reef's actually like a thousand miles to the north of where we grew up. So we didn't actually grow up diving or going to coral reefs. But like all Australians, the Great Barrier Reef weighs very heavily on the consciousness of Australians, because we are all aware that it's very fragile and that we're the custodians of it for now.

Pam Ferris-Olson (02:40): So those of us who have not had the experience of having a twin, may be interested to hear what role your sister played in your personal development. How has Christine inspired or challenged you?

Margaret Wertheim (02:52): Christine and I have had an interesting kind of parallel lives, in that she's long been attracted to art and I've long been attracted to science. When we finished high school, she went to art school and I went to university physics and math. So she's had a kind of life in art, as a professional artist in our college, professor teaching art. And I've had a life in science, being a science writer and science communicator. And so our lives have kind of woven together. And we don't really see art and science as being, as it were, diametrically opposed. To us, it's always been two things that have interwoven through both of our lives.

Pam Ferris-Olson (03:36): The ultimate collaboration. Another element in your work is feminism. Is there a particular aspect of the feminine journey that you are exploring with your projects?

Margaret Wertheim (03:46): It's something that we grew up with. Our mother went from being a Catholic mother of six to being one of the leaders of the feminist movement in the state where we grew up. And she in fact, was instrumental in opening the first women's shelters in Australia. So feminism has been huge influence in our life. And our project does definitively have a feminist dimension, because it's not only a project in which most of the participants are women. Of the 20,000 people who participated, 99% of them have been women. But we are very specifically aware that we want to highlight the value and the beauty and the creative potential of women's domestic labors.

(04:30): So the project is based on crochet and we are crocheting artistic objects. This is an art project, there's nothing functional about it. But we are very aware that the technique we are using came from doing domestic handcrafts that had utilitarian purpose, like making clothes or making tablecloths. And for us, we want to keep that association and say, "Look, domestic feminine labor, not only was functional, but it can lead to works of extraordinary beauty and aesthetic power."

Pam Ferris-Olson (05:05): Am I correct in thinking that this started as a mathematical exploration? And why would a mathematician be interested in coral?

Margaret Wertheim (05:17): The project has multiple roots. One of them is in feminism. One of them is in ecology, trying to draw attention to the plight of living reefs. And one of the roots of the project is mathematics, because the frilly curling shapes you can make with crochet are manifestations of hyperbolic geometry, which is an alternative to the Euclidean geometry that we learn in school. And those shapes, it turns out, are the shapes that actual coral reef organisms make. So corals and nudibranchs, and sea sponges and kelps all have these sort of frilly, curling shapes that we all distinctively recognize.

(05:59): And they are actually a radical kind of geometry that mathematicians only discovered in the 19th Century, after spending centuries trying to prove that they were impossible. But it took almost 200 years for anybody to realize how it was possible to make a model of one of these things. And that discovery was made by a mathematician at Cornell named Dr. Diana Taimina in the early 90s. She discovered how you could make models of these supposedly impossible shapes, using the art of crochet. And she was making these things to teach non-euclidean mathematics to her students at Cornell in the math department.

(06:40): And once we learned about the technique from her, my sister started playing around and realized that if you didn't make them mathematically perfect, if you went wild and abhorrent and deviated from the proper mathematical algorithm that produces a perfect hyperbolic surface, it was my sister's realization that if you went wild, as it were, went off the grid, then you produce things that weren't mathematically perfect. You couldn't use them in a math classroom. But what you could do is make things that looked like living objects, particularly living corals.

(07:15): So my sister had a bunch of these wild, abhorrent, non-perfectly mathematical ones on the coffee table and they were sitting there and we thought, "Oh my gosh, they looked like a coral reef." And my sister said we could crochet a coral reef. So the innovation of our project is to realize that if you deviated from mathematical perfection, you got things that look like living forms.

Pam Ferris-Olson (07:36): I love the metaphor. Men say that women, you can't understand them. And then you say that some women who explored the math that's not possible and made it possible. That's lovely, I like that.

Margaret Wertheim (07:52): Well, I should clarify that the mathematicians had discovered this geometric form about 200 years ago.

Pam Ferris-Olson (08:01): Okay.

Margaret Wertheim (08:02): So they had this idea of this thing in their minds and they had formulas and equations to describe it. And where I was at university, I studied these forms in pure math classes. The thing was that they understood them as a formal structure that they could describe with equations. But they didn't know how to make a physical model of it.

Pam Ferris-Olson (08:27): Oh, got it.

Margaret Wertheim (08:27): So there are two things. One is understanding that the thing exists mathematically, and you can make formula to describe it. The other thing is, can you have a physical material model that I can hold in my hand to show people what this thing looked like? And that was the part that they didn't have until Dr. Taimina came along, which also raised an interesting question, because now we know that lots of things in nature make these forms like coral form, like coral organisms and also lettuce sleeves. So it's an interesting issue, how come lettuce sleeves and corals were making these structures, but mathematicians thought they couldn't exist.

Pam Ferris-Olson (09:09): Right. So apparently you and Christine were entirely responsible for all the handy work in the first exhibition of Crocheted Coral. I imagine that you dreamed about crocheting every night. And for that exhibit, did you pre design each piece or did the coral take shape organically?

Margaret Wertheim (09:29): There is a collection of coral reefs that myself and my sister made.

Pam Ferris-Olson (09:36): Right.

Margaret Wertheim (09:37): And that gets exhibited all over the world in places like the Venice Biennale, or they've been at the Smithsonian, many, many other places, the New Museum of Art Design in New York. So we do an ongoing set of large scale coral sculptures that get exhibited in a lot of places. And in those works, there is a small bunch of very skilled contributors around the world who contributed some individual pieces from those. In addition to that side of the project, we also work with communities in places like what New York, London, Abu Dhabi, Sydney, just recently a huge one in Germany, one in Finland.

(10:22): And what happens in that sense, is that we work with the communities to help the communities build a crocheted coral reef of their own that gets exhibited locally and is made by hundreds and sometimes many thousands of local people. Both these aspects of the project are ongoing. So my sister and I continue to make new reef sculptures, and we continue to work with communities to make their own ones that are made by their local people.

Pam Ferris-Olson (10:53): I see. So I'm a great believer in the value of collaboration. I know it's not easy to arrive at a truly collaborative effort. Your exhibition in Germany earlier this year had 4,000 contributors and 40,000 coral. This is a monumental tribute to collaboration. How did the Crocheted Coral Project come to be such a massive collaboration?

Margaret Wertheim (11:18): It has really surprised and astounded us how much this project has taken off. So from the beginning when we first imagined the project, we wanted to have other people involved. And I just put up a little call on our website asking for people who might want to contribute corals to just send me stuff. And a few people did. And then we had an idea in our first big exhibition in Chicago at the Chicago Cultural Center, where we invited the people of Chicago to contribute corals to a reef that we would make with them. And we got 300 people.

(12:00): And then we got invited to do it in New York, and we got invited to do it in London. And it's just kept growing and growing, that lots of institutions want to do community participatory project, and it's actually very hard to come up with good participatory projects. It's really difficult to design one. And this project has really taken off, I think, because it's a very, very good way of engaging people both in a collaborative artistic project, while also engaging them in the subject of climate change, which is potentially the most important topic of our time. And so giving them, as it were, access to learning about some of the foundations of mathematics.

(12:45): So the project combines art and science, environmentalism, mathematics and community making. And I think it's that confluence of things that draws so many people into it. And we don't really promote the project and run around asking institutions to join us in this. What happens is that the phone rings or the emails come in and some institution in Abu Dhabi or Switzerland or Venice or whatever says, "We would like to do a crocheted coral reef project with you. Do you want to do it with us?" And I think it's because of the incredible timeliness of the topic, in global warming, and the confluence of art and science that this project organically brings together.

Pam Ferris-Olson (13:32): Do you see patterns, the work of regional groups maybe in the colors they use or the shapes or the type of yarn?

Margaret Wertheim (13:41): There hasn't really been huge distinctions in, as it were, types of reefs. Every community who does it, everyone is unique and different and its own thing. Some of them they like to hang things on the walls, some people like to hang things in the ceiling. Most people sort of now follow ours, that we've developed and do sort of big islands in the middle of the room, which we try to encourage people to go up as much as possible. There hasn't really been any, as it where, thematic patterns. The one thing I will say is, over time, all of the reefs, including our own, started off being pretty small and low down to the ground. And as time has gone on, the project's been going for 17 years now-

Pam Ferris-Olson (14:34): My goodness.

Margaret Wertheim (14:35): As the project's gone on, we've developed techniques for going up and up and getting ever taller, taller structures. And we've shown these techniques to the people, the communities, and they've gone up and up. So the whole thing has kind of grown organically, literally. It's followed the path of evolution of life on earth in a way. Life on earth begins with pond scum on the bottom of a shallow sea bed, and then gradually it evolves and goes upwards and upwards and eventually you get towering redwood forest.

(15:08): And our project has uncannily, followed the path of evolution in that sense too, that we've gradually learned and taught our communities the way of going up. But the other thing that's beautiful about this in an evolutionary sense, is that just as life on earth starts from simple cells and gradually evolves every more, eventually you get huge diversity like peacocks and giraffes. Well so to with our project, everybody learns the same basic crochet algorithm that Dr. Taimina invented.

(15:40): But then the real challenge is how do you diversify? How do you complexify? How do you make things that are as different as possible? And over the 17 years of the project, we've now developed what we call a whole crochet tree of life, where there's really a huge taxonomic variety of different kind of crochet coral species, as we like to call them.

Pam Ferris-Olson (16:02): That's lovely. So tell us about your new book about the Crocheted Coral Project. What is its focus, and are there lots of photos?

Margaret Wertheim (16:12): We have a glorious new book out that was published in conjunction with our amazing show in Germany at the Museum Frieder Burda. And it's got almost 200 pages of glorious photos, both from the history of the project, the work that we've done over the decade and a half. And it's also got magnificent photos of the German show itself and of this huge, huge reef that we made with the people of Germany, which had over 40,000 corals in it, which is really just quite a mind blowing, It's really hard to imagine 40,000 corals. And the book has essays about the mathematical, scientific, and community, and environmental, and feminist aspect of the project. So it's this beautiful celebration, multi-diversity and the interdisciplinarity of the project. The name of the book is Value and Transformation of Corals.

Pam Ferris-Olson (17:05): Are you working on any new projects?

Margaret Wertheim (17:07): Yes, both Christine and I are working on new projects. I came to this project through being a science writer, and I've written a lot of books about the history of physics. And I have a new book that I'm just starting working on about the history of physics, which is looking at the concept of dimensionality. So what do we mean if we say something is two dimensional or three dimensional or four dimensional? And it relates to the coral reef in a way because the coral reef structures, although they look three dimensional, are actually two dimensional, which is sort of confusing to a lot of people.

Pam Ferris-Olson (17:43): Yes.

Margaret Wertheim (17:43): So I'm very interested in this concept of dimensionality and what do we mean when we say something has certain number of dimensions. And it's also a crucially important issue, not just in mathematics, but it's the foundation of a lot of physics and its foundational idea in a whole lot of big data science from now.

Pam Ferris-Olson (18:04): Okay.

Margaret Wertheim (18:05): So, I'm sort of putting on my science hat again, having spent the last 10 years or so primarily being an artist

Pam Ferris-Olson (18:18): In terms of expression and marine concerns, like what is happening to the corals, do you have any advice for listeners on how they might use their talents and passions to make a difference?

Margaret Wertheim (18:30): I think that the message that I have learned from this project is that we have to operate to solve global warming on multiple levels. We need government action, we need corporate action, and we need personal action. And I think what all of us can do to contribute to the solving the problem, really being aware of our own consumption. So one particular part of the project that's become very important in that respect, is the fact that we have a part of the project where we crochet plastic. And we did that in response to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and those big walls of plastic that are killing so many marine animals.

(19:15): And we decided that we needed to become aware, very much, of our own plastic use. And we've really made a concerted effort to really, really, really try to cut down on the amount of plastic we consume and use. And I do think that, for the health of the oceans, this is something that we all need to do is really, really, really try to cut down how much plastic you use in your daily life.

Pam Ferris-Olson (19:38): I love that. So Margaret, I am really pleased that you've been on the podcast. Stick around afterwards because I'd like to ask you a few questions. My mind is blown that your project has grown so big and that there's so many corals that have been created. It's truly a testament to collaboration, and women's work, and the interrelationship of art and science. I hope our listeners have gained a new appreciation for math, Mother Nature and artistic expression.

(20:10): I'd like to remind listeners that I have been speaking with Margaret Wertheim for the Woman Mind the Water Artivist Series podcast. The series can be viewed on, Museum on Main Street, and YouTube. An audio only version of this podcast is also available on the on iTunes and on Busby. Women Mind the Water is grateful to Jane Rice for the use of her song Women of Water. All writes for the Women Mind the Water name and logo belong to Pam Ferris-Olson.

(20:44): This is Pam Ferris-Olson.

Asset ID: 2022.04.18
Themes: Coral reefs, mathematics, science, STEAM, collaboration, geometry, nature, design, crowdsourcing, crochet, community participation, engagement, climate change, evolution, Crochet Coral Project, feminism
Date recorded: October 16, 2022
Length of recording: 20:46 m
Related traveling exhibition: Water/Ways
Sponsor or affiliated organization: Women Mind the Water
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