This month I have the great pleasure of speaking with Colin Foord, a marine biologist and artist in Miami who, among other projects, installed a Coral City Camera that allows viewers to witness the day-to-day life of Miami’s living coral. As the co-founder of the art duo Coral Morphologic, he also developed the world’s first multimedia coral aquaculture studio. In the interview below, we discuss his artwork, what he sees as the commonalities between science and art, and what draws him to studying coral reefs.
Your background is in marine biology. What inspired you to create art?
When I got to the University of Miami I was already into growing corals as a bedroom hobby. I naively expected my classmates and professors to share similar interests, but when asked why they study marine science the answer was usually along the lines of: “I like dolphins,” “I like sharks,” “I like sea turtles,” “I like whales.” No one said “I like corals and reef fish.” This was a couple years before Finding Nemo came out, so the coral reef hadn’t really reached into pop culture yet. It was a bit disappointing to not find classmates with similar interests, so instead I started hanging out with the music and art majors who were a lot more creative and fun. I had grown up listening to punk rock, so the DIY ethos that was behind a lot of that really spoke with me.
Seeing my friends’ bands play in small warehouse gallery spaces in the then nascent Wynwood district of Miami turned me on to a really exciting subculture that was evolving here. At some point I realized that the corals I was interested in studying were just as aesthetically pleasing to look at as the art I saw on gallery walls, and that there was a lack of coral representation in Miami’s iconography. People outside of Miami didn’t really seem to take the creativity coming out of Miami at that time very seriously, but I was finding all kinds of inspiration.
Coral Morphologic was an attempt to showcase a different facet of Miami that wasn’t being shown or even considered. It started with the fact that corals are like living alien art forms that I felt people needed to better appreciate. Because how can you be expected to try and save something that you don’t understand or have no personal connection with? Miami has long been seen as a neon, nightlife city whose fluorescent nature was considered completely artificial. By giving the corals a platform, we wanted to show that Miami has always been home to fluorescent life in the most natural way possible.
What else do you hope viewers take away from your art?
More than anything I want people to be able to relate to the coral and marine life in a humanistic fashion. It is a lot easier to generate empathy between humans and a creature with a cuddly, adorable face like a panda. How do you generate empathy between humans and brainless, faceless creatures that many people aren’t even aware are animals? That has been our challenge. Fortunately coral can be beautifully geometric and vibrantly fluorescent. These aesthetic qualities can attract people on a superficial level of beauty and wonder. Once we have their attention, then we can start showcasing other metaphors that we share in common with them that will hopefully put our human lives in a more universal perspective.
By growing these corals in our laboratory we have become intimately familiar with just how delicate they are, and how interconnected everything is. When you step back from our planet and look at it from Carl Sagan’s pale-blue-dot perspective, you realize that Earth is but a tiny droplet of liquid water floating in space. We, and all living things, are protected by the thinnest layer of breathable gas. Just as it is possible to overstock and overfeed a goldfish bowl, we want people to recognize that humans, along with all other life on Earth, are all essentially living in the same aquarium together. If we poison the air and water for the birds and the fish, we also poison ourselves. So rather than assuming that we are somehow above nature, we try to convey through our art lessons the importance of symbiosis, adaptability, and long-term thinking.
All of your artwork is in Miami. Why is this, and what might we learn about Miami’s marine life in particular through your artwork?
While we could do a lot of our studio/lab work just about anywhere in the world, it really wouldn’t have the same impact. Everything is about time and space. Miami is the only major mainland US city on a coral reef, and it is literally built atop an ancient coral reef using marine-made limestone quarried out of the Everglades that was turned into cement. The buildings here are quite literally made of coral fossils, while also serving as colonies for humans to live and work in, much the way a coral colony provides homes for 25% of all marine species at some point in their lives. With sea-level rise an existential threat here, the idea of the city slowly submerging again and becoming recolonized by living corals is a very poetic concept of the ouroboros at play. This is why we have dubbed it the Coral City. Which is also an homage to the Emerald City of Oz, as well as Miami’s other pop cultural nicknames, the Magic City and Vice City. It is a good place to Be Here Now. Enjoy it for today, because who knows what tomorrow may bring. All it takes is one big hurricane to reset everything.
Your artwork is informed by your scientific background. Have you learned – or been surprised by – anything scientific as a result of your art?
Absolutely! In 2009 I discovered an undescribed species of Zoanthus soft coral, living along manmade shorelines near the Port, that came in a whole palette of fluorescent color morphs. The most beautiful of these (in my opinion) is a blue and pink morph we dubbed the “Miami Vice” Zoanthus. As a licensed aquaculture facility, we’ve been growing these soft corals at our lab for almost a decade and selling clonal fragments to aquarists around the world. That was our primary business up until 2015 when we were finally able to pivot towards photography, videography, and multimedia projects as our main source of income. The “Miami Vice” Zoanthus enabled us to be vertically integrated in order to build Coral Morphologic into the independent platform it is today. You can see all the different color morphs of the “Miami Vice” Zoanthus vinyl wrapping the parking booths at PortMiami.
Speaking more broadly, coral reefs are – and have been – imperiled by global warming all over the world. Is there anything about coral reefs that you’d like my readers to know, especially something that might surprise them?
I think that corals can be really useful in helping us understand our perspective in time and space. They are the original timekeepers of planet Earth. The first astronomers. They are literally cosmic organisms because their sex lives are dependent upon knowing the cosmic synchronicity of the movements of the Earth and Moon around the Sun. Because coral is cemented in place, the only way they can mate with each other is to follow the seasonal and lunar cycles in order to know when to release their gametes into the water column at the exact moment in time (most corals are simultaneous hermaphrodites that release bundles of both sperm and eggs). Most corals are asexual for 99% of the days of the year, but then engage in a reef-wide orgy under moonlight when they can best maximize their reproductive success by combining their genes with as many member of their species (and hybridize with related species) as possible.
From an evolutionary perspective, this is very intelligent behavior. Corals themselves have been on this planet for almost half a billion years. But because of the natural fluctuations in sea level over long periods of time, there aren’t any current coral reefs older than about 10,000 years. Thus, today’s reefs are on average about 5,000 years old – about the same amount of time that humans have been building cities. Therefore, Coral Morphologic takes the position that rather than treating corals like the poor helpless canaries in the coal mine in need of human heroes, humans should instead be paying closer attention to them, and asking ourselves, “what can we learn about life from a coral?” so that we might save ourselves (and the planet). Perhaps it is they who will save us!
After years of studying and living symbiotically with coral, it turns out they have a lot of things to teach! If corals had a motto, I think it would be “adapt or die.” Recall that a coral is cemented in place; it cannot just swim away to someplace nicer if the going gets rough. Their survival skills are all based on having to adapt to their environment. We are now living in a time when not only is the environment changing, but so is technology and society. The world we are born into is significantly different than the one we die in. Unfortunately, humans have accelerated the rate of change on our planet so much so that it is becoming difficult for many ecosystems to remain stable and functional. But I remain hopeful that when paradigms shift, change can occur much faster than ever imagined.
In this age of COVID-19, I think we are seeing a lot of paradigms starting to change. Capitalism wasn’t designed to have any brakes, only to accelerate, and we are now being reminded that something as microscopic as a non-living bundle of proteins can totally reshape our society almost overnight. As inconvenient as this has all been, and as sad as it is to see people succumbing to illness, I think the pandemic might represent our best opportunity to reassess our human priorities to better align with those of the planet. At the end of the day, all life on Earth is comprised of the same types of protein and DNA. We are all part of the same tree of life, and we should be thinking of ourselves as not above nature, but a part of it.
What’s next for you?
I encourage everyone to spend some time each day with the Coral City Camera (CCC). It is simultaneously relaxing and engaging. We have a TV screen on the wall here at Coral Morphologic that is dedicated to streaming it all day long. It’s kind of like our “yule log” or a Windows95 screensaver that’s come to life. The CCC feels like a public aquarium of the future where the fish are free to come and go as they please, and there is always an element of surprise not knowing what might just swim into frame. From manatees, to sea turtles, sharks, and moray eels, along with the reef’s most colorful fish like angelfish, butterflyfish, parrotfish, and lots of charismatic pufferfish, you never know who might swim by next. Our favorite fish in Coral City is a tail-less surgeonfish we’ve dubbed “Oval” who is always swimming around the neighborhood.
We really hope the CCC can become a powerful tool for education, scientific research, and building civic pride through our appreciation for Miami’s underwater biodiversity. We are so appreciative of the support we have gotten from Bridge Initiative and BFI. They believe in the project and made this dream we first had in 2013 a reality. Eventually we’d love to see the Coral City Camera concept duplicated elsewhere, and help develop a global network of underwater livestreaming cameras from reefs across the globe. Be sure to follow both @coralcitycamera and @coralmorphologic on all social media channels to stay up to date on the day’s undersea highlights.
(Top image: “Miami Vice” Zoanthus.)
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.