Rubin and Menden-Deuer: Feeling Plankton

Do Plankton Have Feelings?

Cynthia Beth Rubin and Susanne Menden-Deuer
[ United States ]

Climate change action grows from passion, which in turn grows from awareness and empathy. We owe our very existence to the oxygen producing microscopic plankton that are food for so many species, and yet often the most essential elements at the base of our food chain are overlooked simply because their invisibility renders them unknown or forgotten.  How do we make people passionate about these life forms that are generally invisible?  

The exhibition “Do Plankton Have Feelings?” is an installation of engaging banners of lively and appealing plankton produced through melding gesture drawing, digital manipulations, and scientific micro-photography, set in counter-point to an Augmented Reality mural of artistically enhanced ocean waters revealing drawings of plankton from a broad public of varying experience, resulting from public workshops in gestural plankton drawing.  This series of mixed media images of plankton opens a new pathway for viewers to experience microscopic life, thereby stimulating empathy and advocacy for the preservation and amelioration of our waters. The hybrid nature of digital media facilitated this collaboration between an artist and scientists, as scientists today digitally record the material they study under the microscope in standard imaging formats, ready for artistic interpretation and enhancement.

The ubiquitous nature of digital imaging offers new ways of generating passion and awareness of plankton. Our work is focused on exploring new approaches in science communication, bringing it into the world of visual thinking. The very fact that scientific imagery is recorded digitally is an overlooked technical innovation; so obvious and yet rarely tapped into by artists working beyond direct representation. The work described here and the featured exhibition installation are aspects of an ongoing collaboration between an artist and an oceanographer. The unmediated photographic material generated by scientific study is of little interest to the non-scientist, as it is frequently low-resolution and difficult to decipher. In the eyes of a longtime digital artist, this material begs for enhancement. Not to be overlooked is the ease of large scale output and accessible AR software, which came together for the installation.

The goal is to bring the viewer into a more compelling conversation with representations of plankton, triggering curiosity and empathy for their life-giving role. We hope people will benefit from the awe and gratitude that arises through knowledge of how the natural world, including invisible organisms, provide for our physical and spiritual well-being.

Primary Project Website:

Cynthia Beth Rubin

C B Rubin Studio

Cynthia Beth Rubin is a new media artist whose works evoke imagined narratives through interwoven layers of representation and abstraction, frequently combined with Augmented Reality and interactive experience. She is equally fascinated by the imagined memories of cultural history and with envisioning the unseen microscopic life of oceans and still waters. Rubin’s work has been recognized internationally through exhibitions and film festivals, including the Techspressionism Wrong Biennial exhibition, Creative Tech Week in New York City, the Jerusalem Biennial, the Jewish Museum in Prague, the Siberia State Art Museum, the Kyrgyzstan State Museum, and in numerous editions of SIGGRAPH and ISEA. Rubin’s awards include multiple Connecticut Artist Fellowships, the New England Foundation on the Arts, among others, and artist residencies in France, Israel, Canada, and Scotland.

Cynthia Beth Rubin’s website:

Susanne Menden-Deuer

University of Rhode Island, School of Oceanography

Susanne Menden-Deuer, a seagoing oceanographer and plankton ecologist, focuses her research on examining how microscopic organisms affect the biogeochemistry of the ocean, particularly predator prey interactions of singled celled eukaryotic microplankton. She is a Professor of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, Graduate School of Oceanography. With members of the Menden-Deuer lab, she is principal or co-investigator of research projects concerning ecosystem consequences of cell-cell interactions in marine, planktonic communities and food webs. She feels strongly that humans should know that their microbial plankton pals are essential to their survival, and finds projects building empathy for plankton and making the invisible accessible to non-specialists a satisfying counterpoint to fundamental research.

Susanne Menden-Deuer’s website:


Sarah Fritchey: curator of Artspace New Haven, facilitated and inspired the installation

Music by Bob Gluck ©2016

Thanks to members of the Menden-Deuer lab:

  • Amanda L Montalbano
  • Pierre Marrec
  • Heather M. McNair,
  • Françoise Morison
  • Jacob Strock
  • Gayantonia Franzè
  • Mary Kane
  • Elizabeth Harvey
  • Mikayla Cote
  • Sara Shapiro

Many thanks to the New Haven Public Library and workshop participants:

  • Aurora Aaron
  • Aekrama Ahmed
  • Robbin Benefield
  • Baub Bidon
  • Jeanette Compton
  • Elliad Dagan
  • Mary Beth Decker
  • Sarah Fritchey
  • Aaron Goode
  • Giulia Gouge
  • Ellen Hoverkamp
  • Evie Lindemann
  • Bruce Oren
  • Julie Rose,
  • Rose Simpson
  • Leslie Stasko
  • Maxine Sumrell
  • Maria Celeste Tapia
  • Aric Wellman