Curious Kombucha

My next exhibition will be in Gladstone Regional Gallery on the topic of using bioplastics to replace single-use plastics which are causing such havoc in our oceans. It will be installed on March 6 and runs until April 15. Here is some of the thinking behind it. If you live in the sera and would like to attend the opening, that will be on Saturday March 18. Check out Gladstone Regional Gallery’s website to register.

Once upon a time, way back in the journey towards complex life forms, tiny algae surrounded themselves with hard shells around their soft bodies. The first exoskeleton was born. As they lived and died in their millions, their tiny exoskeletons formed, like our own, from calcium, built up huge deposits on the sea bottom. When Vera Lynn sang about the white cliffs of Dover to rally the troops during World War 2, she was actually celebrating vast drifts of microscopic white marine exoskeletons.

When 19th-century British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley first put seafloor mud under a microscope, he found tiny round and oval particles in abundance. Not knowing what they were, he dubbed them coccoliths, based on the Greek words for “seed” and “stone.” Only later would scientists learn that coccoliths are calcite plates that surround some species of phytoplankton like armour. Today, more than 100 years after Huxley, teams of researchers are still unravelling the role phytoplankton play in creating the air we breathe, the food we eat, the fuel we burn, even the ground we walk on. Emiliania huxleyi (Ehux for short) is one of the most important planktonic algae on the planet today.

According to the laws of Biology, food chains see the smaller organisms eaten by bigger ones, eaten by even bigger ones. In fact Man is one of the top predators, found towards the high end of this food chain, somewhere in between sharks and killer whales. At the bottom of this food chain are the trillions of tiny organisms collectively known as plankton, which should form a dense layer near the surface of the world’s oceans, where they are swallowed en masse by filter feeders, some as large as the Humpback whale with its baleen plates instead of teeth. Therefore coccoliths and their kin should form the bottom layer of all ocean food chains.

However, in the 5 gyres, those regions where ocean currents gather concentrations of ground-down plastics, these plastic particles now outnumber the plankton by 100 to 1. What happens to filter feeders whose main source of nourishment is a soup with more plastic than plankton? And what happens as this concentrates up the food chain? My challenge was to make artwork that would imaginatively engage people with this issue.

The works in this collection are based on enlarged images of these spherical skeletons. Electron microscopes reveal intricate, beautiful forms which have been used as the shapes for pieces made from both hand-made paper and Kombucha film. Kombucha film is essentially a bioplastic formed from the SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast), also known as the “mother,” or “mushroom” which generates the health drink, Kombucha. When dried, the SCOBY is surprisingly strong, flexible and translucent. The works show the kombucha bioplastic in a number of forms, moulded as coccolith forms, cut into strips and crocheted and combined with palm fronds, felt and hand-made paper to make a statement about the exponential increase in Humanity’s plastics footprint and to encourage creative alternatives to petroleum based plastics.

Will there be a happy ever after? With some goodwill, ingenuity and research dollars, we can create plastics that will break down into safe, non-toxic products. We have the technology. By cutting down our plastics footprint, supporting container deposit schemes and using home-grown sustenance, we can become the knights in shining armour, or organic hemp clothing, who will help the majestic Humpback whale avoid becoming a mere legend to our grandchildren. We all write our own endings to this fairy tale, and they are as many and varied as your own ingenuity, and the interconnections you create with like-minded others.

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Susan Zela Bissett (Zela) is an educator, writer and artist with a lifetime involvement in environmental education and advocacy. Zela was born on Butchulla Country in Maryborough and has worked as an artist, educator, permaculture gardener, studio potter and consultant. She is passionate about sustainable lifestyles, maintaining habitat for wildlife and about unleashing the creativity in all of us.

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