Crochet "life" in the form of coral reef art evolves just as real reefs do.
Last week, Sophia Roosth, a historian and anthropologist of biology at Harvard University, gave a talk at Louisiana State University on an ethnographic study she has conducted with the creators of the Crochet Reef Project. Roosth's talk was a fascinating exposition of how collaborative science art projects like the Hyperbolic Crochet Reef adopt underlying principles of math, biology and natural selection while themselves evolving and developing emergent properties. Just as deep-sea creatures evolve and take on new forms dependent on their environments and the ecosystems in which they belong, so collaborative science art projects evolve and diversify.
The Crochet Reef Project was inspired by the technique of hyperbolic crochet originally developed by Dr Daina Taimina, a mathematician at Cornell. In 1997 Dr Taimina discovered how to make models of the geometry known as "hyperbolic space" using the art of crochet. Until that time many mathematicians believed it was impossible to construct physical models of hyperbolic forms; yet nature had been doing just that for hundreds of millions of years. It turns out that many marine organisms embody hyperbolic geometry in their anatomies - among them kelps, corals, sponges, sea slugs and nudibranchs. Thus the Crochet Reef not only looks like a coral reef, it draws on the same underlying geometry endemic in the oceanic realm. - Crochet Reef Project
The Crochet Coral Reef is a "woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft," created and curated by Christine Wertheim and Margaret Wertheim. The Crochet Reef is also a collaborative project, with pieces of the reef created by students and craft groups around the world.
The Crochet Coral Reef relies fundamentally on an approach to crochet that imitates hyperbolic geometries. Hyperbolic geometries abound in the natural world. Hyperbolic forms are nature's way of maximizing surface area to volume. For filter feeding marine organisms like those that create the Great Barrier Reef, this surface-area-maximizing geometry is particularly suitable.
The Hyperbolic Crochet Reef Project is fundamentally about raising awareness of climate and ocean changes that endanger coral reefs around the world. From teaching students about hyperbolic geometries to bringing crafters together around an environmental issue, the project has received significant attention as a hands-on science communication project.
As quoted in a Smithsonian.com article on the project published in 2010, Wertheim says, "A reef is made up of billions of coral polyps. Each one of these is completely insignificant individually, but collectively, they make up something as magnificent as the Great Barrier Reef. We humans, when we work together, can do amazing things."
A ball of yarn—and the work of more than 800 people—could go a long way toward saving endangered sea life
But how does a ball of yarn turn into a living structure that doesn't just imitate real-world marine organisms but develops its own emergent morphologies, based upon natural selection and human collaboration? Roosth emphasizes the tight connections between crochet as a craft and biology. We humans, she suggests, imbue biological structure and processes with our own understandings of craft and creation.
Analogies from the fiber arts run deep in the life sciences, as attested to by the preponderance of terms such as strand, tissue, membrane, fiber, and filament in anatomy and net or web in systems biology and ecology. And while critical and feminist science studies have made many of us well aware of the stale metaphor by which dna is likened to text, book, or code, biologists have also described nucleic acids as “strings,” “strands,” or “threads” that “coil,” “unspool,” “knit,” and “knot.” Such metaphors are woven into Reef crafters’ biologically informed practice, as they thread together richly divergent biological theories ranging from Romantic biology to neo-Darwinism. In so doing, they are engaged in something that, I believe, professional life scientists are also engaged in: installing their own theories and apprehensions into the living things they seek to understand. - Evolutionary Yarns in Seahorse Valley: Living Tissues, Wooly Textiles, Theoretical Biologies
While the Crochet Coral Reef is based upon principles of hyperbolic geometry and mathematics, crafters working on the project are encouraged to experiment with hyperbolic crochet algorithms, rules and forms. "Natural selection" of the crocheted forms proceeds as crafters preferentially pursue recreating those forms they find most pleasing to create and look at.
As you explore, be playful. Don’t worry about sticking too closely to the formal rules, though it’s interesting and important to understand what the rules do. Try things out for fun. Experiment with different types of yarn. Try mixing yarns together, say a thick worsted and a fine mohair, or a silk and a cotton thread. Try varying the rate of increasing in a single model. Consider using string, wire, and plastic, or anything else that takes your fancy. - Crochet Reef Project
Taimina invented hyperbolic crochet as a means of modeling geometric space. Reef crafters, while following her technique, use her algorithm as a starting point from which to digress and upon which to embellish in order to yield what they consider to be “biological” forms. “Liveliness,” for reef crafters, is best captured by swerving away from precision and repetition and toward messiness, error, dynamism, and open-endedness. - Evolutionary Yarns in Seahorse Valley: Living Tissues, Wooly Textiles, Theoretical Biologies
Roosth's research reveals pervasive biological metaphors and "hyperbole" in the language that reef crafters use to describe their creation of crocheted reef "species." The crafting principles they use, beyond creating structures that imitate biological forms, may help us understand biological evolution. The chaos or chance events that serve as the substrate of natural selection seem to also drive the evolution of our creative pursuits.