Deep Data: Art at 400 Fathoms

Alvin lights up the sea floor during a dive. Photo by Emory Kristof and Alvin Chandler

Alvin is almost certainly the world’s most famous submersible. For 50 years, this little sub-that-could has been plunging into some of the deepest parts of the world’s oceans, carrying researchers to depths of more than 4,000 meters* to perform a myriad of scientific and non-scientific tasks. Alvin has recovered a stray hydrogen bomb from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, captured the first images of the long-lost Titanic, and discovered bizarre and heretofore unseen ecosystems around hydrothermal vents.

Sometime over the next week, I’ll be climbing into Alvin‘s seven-foot titanium sphere and descending to the depths of the Gulf of Mexico. I’ll be joining a crew of oceanographers, geneticists and mathematicians aboard Alvin’s mothership, the R/V Atlantis. This multidisciplinary team is investigating vent connectivity: how the unique and highly adapted species native to deep-sea vents got there in the first place, and how these populations vary both within a local area and between vent ecosystems hundreds or thousands of miles apart.

As the artist-in-residence-at-sea (how’s that for hyphenation?) I’ll be working with data collected by Alvin and Sentry. During my dive on Alvin, I’ll be wearing a heart-rate monitor, and recording HD video and four channels of audio. In addition to this, I’ve been researching Alvin’s history, and have collected a fair archive of records stretching back to the first dives in the early 60s. The aim of my work will be to engage both with the science of the expedition and with the human experience of being at and under the sea.

I have Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover, the expedition lead, to thank for this unthinkably improbable opportunity to make art at the bottom of the ocean. During our first conversations, she spoke about the need to bring the experience of the deep ocean to a community broader than just science:

“The deep ocean needs to be a part of art and of culture, if we are to value it.”

In the spirit of this goal, I’m going to do my best to share the results of my work and experiences here over the coming days. Starting today and lasting for a week, I’ll endeavor to publish a small sketch along with source-code on GitHub, every day. I’ll also be sharing photos on Instagram and updates on Twitter where satellite connectivity allows.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. I’ll do my best to answer questions about my undersea adventure, and I’d love to hear your ideas of what kinds of things you would do if you could make art at 400 fathoms.

*Alvin has recently been refitted and is now rated to depths of up to 6500 meters.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Jer Thorp is an artist and educator from Vancouver, Canada, currently living in New York. Coming from a background in genetics, his digital art practice explores the many-folded boundaries between science, data, art, and culture. Jer is an adjunct professor at ITP at NYU, the co-founder of The Office for Creative Research, and a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer.