Hope Ginsburg, Matt Flowers, Joshua Quarles
Swirling Postcard, 2023, Single-channel video with sound, 3 min. 57 sec.
Swirling Postcard delivers a snapshot of the coral nurseries and outplant sites of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, where we filmed our four-channel video installation Swirling (2019) in the summer of 2017, just before hurricanes Irma and Maria made their devastating paths through the Caribbean and Florida. “Postcard” visually updates Swirling’s coral restoration vignettes and offers a brief dispatch on the state of The Nature Conservancy in the Caribbean’s coral restoration initiatives in St. Croix six years hence.
Swirling took its name from the “swirl” of factors impacting the coral restoration story’s outcome, as well as from one of our shooting sites, the Swirling Reef of Death. The staghorn coral nursery “trees” and outplants at the Swirling Reef of Death were demolished by Hurricane Maria. Cane Bay, another of our original shooting sites, fared much better. Matt shot Postcard at Cane Bay, revisiting the same outplant sites and focusing on new staghorn coral colonies and the dome or “table” nursery structures that have replaced the tree design. The lower-maintenance tables are less susceptible to storm surge and breaking loose from the seabed, though they have not yet gone through a major storm. (The damaged table in the video was likely caused by a boat’s anchor, one of many challenges faced by coral reefs.)
Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornus) is a focus of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) restoration efforts for several reasons. It is fast growing—though some might be older, much of the coral in the video is between one and three years old. The species is “weedy,” it comes and goes depending on water temperature, sediment, and fireworm presence. Fish and other wildlife love to make homes and hiding spots of staghorn coral; it is a habitat-builder. Staghorn coral is easy to propagate in water. If you break off a piece on the reef, it continues to grow; this is actually the coral’s natural life cycle, which lends the species to propagation. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Staghorn coral is not susceptible to Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), which is devastating coral in Florida and the Caribbean.
TNC has launched several new coral restoration initiatives since we shot Swirling in 2017. In that year, the scientists began work on assisted sexual reproduction, collecting the coral’s eggs and sperm when they spawn once or twice a year. The spawn is brought back to land for fertilization in the lab, settling the gametes onto support substrates. These tiny larvae grow either in the lab or field nurseries from three months to a year, after which they’re outplanted to the reef. Unlike the work with Acroporids like staghorn, which is all cloning, assisted sexual reproduction increases genetic diversity among the corals, which is the only way to prepare them for future threats.
May of 2022 saw the launch of TNC’s Virgin Islands Coral Innovation Hub, a terrestrial lab carrying out underwater coral restoration in almost fifty acres of reef, and impacting three times that area of marine habitat in St. Croix. The lab affords the capacity to grow corals in tanks, specifically those that are difficult to work with underwater, such as boulder and brain corals. These slow-growing species are reef-builders, providing structure, strength, and shoreline protection. Another Coral Innovation Hub initiative is exploring new propagation methods like microfragmentation, in which corals are cut into small pieces to spur additional growth. The divers in Swirling Postcard are gathering fragments for microfragmentation in the lab.
The array of coral restoration actions described here is, without a doubt, cause for hope. However, in the words of TNC’s Lisa K. Terry, it is “just one small piece in a very big puzzle.” Climate change, pollution, coastal development, disease, and overfishing are all coral threats that are not addressed by restoration. If root causes like climate change and disastrous water quality are not tackled, restoration efforts will be in vain.
As with Swirling, “Postcard” flickers between optimistic and tragic. Healthy outplanted coral thrives, providing habitat for technicolor wildlife. The nurseries and outplant sites are portraits of labor between human and more-than-human beings for shared survival. But the scene is set in a reef that is a shadow of what it once was and could be. The repeated bell sounds in Swirling Postcard’s score call us to wake up, sounding a subtle yet persistent alarm.
Hope Ginsburg, Matt Flowers, Joshua Quarles
Vast thanks to Lisa K. Terry of The Nature Conservancy in the Caribbean for welcoming the Swirling project over many years and for providing expertise and insight for this update.
Support for Swirling (2019) was provided by the Film/Video Studio Program at the Wexner Center for the Arts and Alumni Residency Project Support from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. The installation was exhibited in Sponge Exchange at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum (2020) and New Earthworks at the Arizona State University Art Museum (2022).