Massive even in the deep blue gloom, a juvenile whale shark seems to glide through sprawling schools of fish, while staghorn coral branches out, swarms of jellyfish float together, and clown fish peek out of anemones.
The eerie moans of whale song and the hypnotic sloshes of ocean waves are suddenly interrupted by the pounding of small sneakered feet and squeals of youthful enthusiasm. Waving his own fish, cut out of paper and colored with yellow highlighter, Charlie Borg, 4 1/2, of Maryland, rushes through the door of Factory Obscura’s latest temporary exhibition, “Seed Reef.”
“Do you want to go put it in the reef and let it swim?” Oklahoma City artist Emma Difani asked the eagerly nodding boy, who visited the OKC exhibit on a recent morning.
“Let’s go do it. I’ll show you where it goes.”
After carefully adding his fish to the paper schools already inhabiting “Seed Reef,” Charlie posed so his mom could take a picture before dashing off to create more seaworthy life forms.
Longtime artistic collaborators, Difani and Zachariah created “Seed Reef” to offer an opportunity for people to take the plunge under the sea — even in a landlocked state.
Installation recreates a coral reef
An immersive, sculpted paper recreation of a coral reef and many of its inhabitants, the “Seed Reef” installation allows people to take a walk “underwater” so that they can appreciate the beauty and complexity of an environment they can’t easily experience otherwise — and to understand the impact humankind is having on these threatened ecosystems.
“My parents are from India, where they would be near the coast. But I’m just seeing that on a very few visits, and then I’d go back to Oklahoma. So, for me, it was like, the ocean is out there. But this brings it in here,” said Zachariah, who earned a bachelor of science in biochemistry from the University of Oklahoma and studied medicinal chemistry at the University of Utah.
For Difani, her oceanic interests date back to her childhood growing up in New Mexico.
“My parents are from San Diego, so visiting there, I’ve just always been drawn to it. I grew up in the desert, and so I’ve always had this fascination with the exact opposite, which is the sea,” said Difani, who garnered her bachelor of fine arts in studio art and Spanish from the University of New Mexico.
“A lot of the problems and environmental issues we see show up first in oceans. They are kind of like the canary in the coal mine of climate change.”
OKC artist uses Japanese kirigami to sculpt ‘Seed Reef’
After teaming on three previous nature-inspired projects, Difani and Zachariah dived into their “Seed Reef” in 2020, so they were forced to work separately for a time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A grant from the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition helped the artists expand their latest collaborative concept.
“We’ve kind of grown each time, getting a little bigger and bigger. This is definitely the biggest and most challenging so far,” Difani said.
Using various printmaking techniques like dye, silkscreen and woodcut, Difani created an array of patterns based on real-life reef life. Zachariah then designed, shaped and sculpted the printed paper using kirigami. A variation of origami, the Japanese art of folding paper, kirigami involves cutting, as well as folding, paper.
“It’s often kind nice to test the arbitrary limits of how can you make something out of a square. But if you’re trying to do several things … you really need to simplify,” he said. “We’re actually more abstract artists in our regular practice, so this is the most realism that we do.”
Realistically recreating their “Seed Reef” involved crafting hundreds of aquatic animals ranging from lionfish and tangs to brain coral and moon jellies.
“There’s a list of like 30 other fish and corals that we were going to make, but we decided to simplify,” Difani said, standing among a vast suspended school in the exhibit.
“Each of these things maybe takes a few minutes with the folding, cutting and printing. But when you multiply that by hundreds, then it gets to be really a lot,” Zachariah added.
‘Seed Reef’ grows inside Factory Obscura’s ‘Mix-Tape’
After debuting at Ahha Tulsa’s Hardesty Center in fall 2021, “Seed Reef” is open alongside Factory Obscura’s permanent “Mix-Tape” attraction through April 24 at the collective’s Automobile Alley headquarters.
“I’m really excited that the pandemic gave us this opportunity to present these temporary projects that are led by the artists that we work with — and by how well-received it’s been by the community,” said Kelsey Karper, Factory Obscura co-founder and director of logistical creativity. “It’s giving people who’ve been to ‘Mix-Tape’ before a reason to come back to see something new, but it’s also appealing to a whole new audience — and they’re getting so into it that it’s such a pleasure.”
For Difani and Zachariah, collaborating with Factory Obscura offered an opportunity to make even more waves with their underwater exhibit.
“To me, this is a fuller expression of the concept. I just remember the night of the opening, we were both like ‘Oh, this is what we meant,'” said Difani, a member of the collective who has worked on several Factory Obscura projects.
“With Factory Obscura … it’s just like, ‘Let’s brainstorm, let’s dream big, let’s let your imagination run wild a little bit to just really allow those ideas to blossom.’ And then the beauty of collaboration … is that more people have different skills, more skills, to make more things.”
Factory Obscura members created special lighting and sound to make the exhibit more immersive, plus took the concept for a deeper dive with the addition of a deep-sea bioluminescent alcove, which Difani and Zachariah populated with glimmering firefly squid and moon jellies.
“I printed them with florescent ink … so they glow with the UV light,” Difani said. “They are just so fascinating.”
Plus, the extra workspace at Factory Obscura allowed her to create the installation’s biggest attraction: A 16-foot-long papier-mâché whale shark.
“It’s actually a small whale shark, which is the crazy thing. But for the space, it’s a big whale shark,” Difani said with a grin. “It’s a juvenile whale shark … for this miniature ocean.”
Immersive exhibit brings oceanic problems closer to home
The artists said they hope their immersive miniature ocean will bring the problems facing real-life waterways closer to home. Overfishing, pollution and especially warmer waters have the world’s coral reefs in crisis, with a major 2021 report finding that 14% of the planet’s reefs have vanished since 2009, primarily due to climate change.
“These kinds of issues are just as important for us to think about here as they are to people living in Florida … where it is more visible to you, perhaps. But the truth is, it’s going to impact us all sooner or later,” Difani said.
About 25% of the ocean’s fish depend on healthy coral reefs, sometimes called the “rainforests of the sea,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“With this project — as we’ve done with our previous projects — we were like, ‘OK, what can we do to not just show a problem, but help people think about solutions?'” Zachariah said.
That made the interactive portion of the installation vital: Visitors can make their own coral — along with fish, squids and other creatures — to live in the “Seed Reef,” which takes its name from a real-life process scientists are using to restore coral reefs.
“When they’re seeding the reefs … they grow fragments in nurseries or in labs, and then plant them in damaged reefs to revitalize them. So, that’s kind of what we’re asking people to do: You can create your own brain coral, staghorn coral … and then add them to this reef,” Difani said.
So, she and Zachariah were thrilled when little Charlie Borg came dashing back into the installation — this time with his dad, Scott Borg, in tow — to add another of his marine creations to the “Seed Reef.”
“I was surprised that he would be willing to part with his fish,” said Charlie’s mom, Sarah Schram, while taking more photos of the boy and his sister Lucy, 7 1/2, in the exhibit.
“We’re here from Washington, D.C.; I’m on a work trip and they’re visiting me. I was just looking to see what’s here for kids, and this popped up. When I saw the picture of the whale shark I was like, ‘We’re going.’ … This is just so beautiful and creative.”
When: Through April 24.
Where: Factory Obscura, 25 NW 9.
COVID-19 protocols: Masks required for all patrons ages 2 and older.
Tickets and information: https://www.factoryobscura.com.
‘Synesthesia’ Community Make Days
The OKC artist collective Factory Obscura is preparing a new immersive art experience titled “Synesthesia,” scheduled to debut in June at Norman’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. The upcoming attraction will be inspired by color and textural elements of the University of Oklahoma museum’s permanent collection.
The public is invited to contribute to the project at two community make days in Norman: 12:45 to 3:15 p.m. March 30 at the OU Student Union and 1 to 3 p.m. April 9 at the museum. For information, go to https://www.factoryobscura.com/synesthesia.