Colleen Flanigan - Bridging Science and Art
2015/09/17
By : Emma Lane


One example of these exhibits was the Biorocker sculpture's presence in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (Portland), where the local community had provided hand-crocheted corals to represent the vibrant regrowth the boat sculpture was aiding in the sea. By encouraging people to decorate the boat Colleen was immersing them in the world of mineral accretion. It also replicated the beauty and delicacy of coral reefs, conveying the vulnerability that defined the coral crisis.

But the exhibit was not just a showcase of the Living Sea Sculpture, but an engaging dialogue with a representative of the sea. Another large part of Colleen's work is her alter-egos or, as she calls them 'interactivists'. For the living sea sculptures she dresses as Amphitrite, goddess of the sea. With no detail ignored she transforms herself into a mermaid-like, vibrant personality who openly engages with visitors to the exhibit. Like the sculptures themselves, this action transgresses the boundaries of performance and education. It cannot be clearly defined as one or the other, and this encourages dialogue in ways that may have been restricted by a different approach. A straight-laced educational talk would not capture the imagination of those present, but a show would not inform and do justice to the incredible technology behind it.

Amphitrite is an entity in her own right, and presents a relatable ambassador for the sea. Her presence is magical as she encourages visitors to immerse themselves in the wondrous nature of the sea. Colleen describes Amphitrite, and her other characters, as "art projects that light people up and open them to conversation"

Colleen transforms herself regularly into other characters, as representatives of other ecological issues she campaigns on behalf of. Miss Snail Pail was the first-born of the group, an activist who promotes healthy alternatives to pesticides. Her mission is to educate people about the harmful effects of poisoning snails and other 'pests' and provide new solutions. She chooses to eat the snails she encounters around her to avoid unnecessary harm and as a source of protein for herself. She then recycles the shells as art - "their empty shells filled with wax and wicks become escarglows to symbolize the ongoing cycle of life, death, and renewal"

Miss Snail Pail's popularity has been testament to the power of her simple message. While the novelty of her performance no doubt captures people's imagination, it is the educational aspects that holds their attention. She was the subject of a short documentary, 'On the Trail with Miss Snail Pail' and part of an installation in the 'Food as Activism' show at the Lab in San Francisco, among other things. The more exposure Miss Snail Pail received, the more people considered the alternatives to pesticides. Again, Colleen's combination of art, science and education captivated the public and shifted perceptions around our responsibilities to the world we live in.

TrashTara is the last of the trio, but by no means the least developed. Colleen describes her as a "compassionate deity of the dregs"following a similar vein to the other interactivists TrashTara advocates on behalf of those who can't.

Colleen had wanted to create a character to defend the environment against littering and pollution, but it wasn't until a trip to Bali in 2009 that she was christened. TrashTara is inspired by the Buddha Green Tara of enlightened activity. She does not set out to criticize or judge; rather she is captured by the complexity of the waste that has become a fabric of modern life.

The materials that decorate TrashTara have been collected since 2009 - a mixture of materials owned and found, brought together to convey the eclectic and unique nature of human consumption. Since 2014 she has roamed Manhattan in search of materials and individuals that will shape and form her existence. TrashTara is "trash neutral" according to Colleen, and is more interested in understanding the conflict between "waste and excess, abundance and consumption". She is yet another performance that evokes a new approach to combating environmental issues - one that is compassionate to people as well as the earth.

Colleen's passions were recognised when she was asked to become a TED Talks fellow in 2009 . This opened up a new platform to introduce others to her work and her unique way style of activism. Staying true to her previous projects she did these events as Amphitrite. In April 2012 she was part of TedxMonterey "Sea Change", a series of talks and presentations about the innovative work being done to combat environmental issues around the world.

It is the relationship between art and science that both defines and fails Colleen Flanigan's work. She is an artist who works at the cutting edge of science and technology, yet she refuses to alienate or judge those who come to learn about her work. The projects she gets involved in combat serious issues that could define future generation's experiences with the environment, yet she brings magic and awe to everything she does. Her interactivist personalities represent a new type of relationship with the earth - compassionate, determined and whimsical. By refusing to limit her achievements she has opened up a dialogue for people all over the world. As her mission continues it grows stronger thanks to its enchanting ethos. No one is unwelcome at one of Colleen's exhibits; her aim is to incite the same unrestricted passion in others that she has held true to her work for more than a decade.
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