The conception of Message in a Bottle grew out of a desire to produce an artistic installation based around the themes of light and sound.
More specifically, there was a wish to juxtapose both natural and man-made elements to produce a thought-provoking piece of art. The incorporation of natural materials and the emulation of natural processes would serve to draw the viewer towards the piece, which, in turn, would influence the ‘performance’ produced much like Sabrina Raaf’s ‘Translator II: Grower’:
‘My research as an artist focuses on making explicit the interdependent relationships of human to machine as vital entity to vital entity. Grower offers a model where both machines and humans affect each other by their involuntary cooperation. It is a model where human and machine behaviors interact in a mutually informative and dynamic manner’ (Raaf, 2006).
Furthermore, the random nature of works such as Grower informed aspects of the finished piece. Grower is a work that is activated by chance factors. A robot draws green lines at the base of a wall. The height of the line is based on the level of CO2 in the room. The act of observing the artwork provides the chance stimulus that drives the artistic process (Raaf, 2004).
Sea-glass is an element that embodies the meaning and metaphor that underpins Message in a Bottle, although this wasn’t explicit at the beginning of the project. But the tale grew in the telling. Sea-glass is an element that, especially when wet, is colourful and translucent, and provides interesting interaction with light. It also, metaphorically, stands with a foot in two camps in terms of the idea of pollution: sea-glass is the result of an originally man-made object being discarded, acted upon by nature, and then returned as almost an organic, natural element; an element that can be visually attractive and even collectible, nestling unobtrusively on the shores of our beaches. An interesting question arises: can sea-glass be considered pollution?
With this question in mind, Message in a Bottle began to coalesce into a more solid idea. The ambiguity of the nature of sea-glass really drove the next stages of the development of the project. Rather than just settling for an aesthetically-pleasing combination of light and sound, there was a realisation that a comparison could be made between what is considered ‘real’ pollution and the more benign sea-glass. When looking more narrowly at sea pollution, it was considered that, like sea-glass, the plastic and other detritus that washes up on our shores is often overlooked (or ignored) because visitors to such places are enjoying the natural spectacle of their surroundings.
Taken together, these questions and ideas could be combined into a piece of art that reflected the experience of the sea-shore – natural elements of water, wood, and wind; of being drawn to look more closely at the surroundings and discovering that, below the surface idyll, there is pollution and rubbish and ambivalence.
Furthermore, Message in a Bottle literally has its message in a bottle, but a message which is not explicit. Like Olaf Elisasson’ Ice Watch (Eliasson, 2014), the use and placement of particular materials (blocks of ice arranged in a clock formation) is key to imparting the work’s message, but it is left to the observer to interpret the work:
‘Twelve large blocks of ice cast off from the Greenland ice sheet are harvested from a fjord outside Nuuk and presented in a clock formation in a prominent public place. The work raises awareness of climate change by providing a direct and tangible experience of the reality of melting arctic ice’ (Eliasson, 2014).
Crucial to Message in a Bottle is an aesthetic that will draw people in and engage them to explore the piece and respond to it as it responds to them. Work such as RAW Design’s Prismatica was inspiring through its use of colourful moving light displays used to engage visitors:
‘Prismatica was created to engage visitors and invoke a feeling or mood from day to night. It consists of 50 pivoting prisms that act as kaleidoscopes that glimmer under natural light by day and provide atmospheric lighting by night’ (RAW Design, 2015).
This project would invite viewers to interact with it by reacting to their presence with a variety of different responses: coloured LED rings would flash more quickly, more bubbles would be produced the closer a person was to a bottle, and various audio clips would be triggered.
Message in a Bottle is composed of both man-made and natural elements; much like Max Liboiron’s Sea Globes (Liboiron, 2014), the elements chosen are integral in contributing to both the meaning and the physical integrity of the piece. Technology is used to enhance the artwork by emulating natural phenomena and providing a mechanism for interaction.
Bottles were chosen early on in development as the most prominent elements of the piece; discarded bottles are the origin of much sea-glass, and they are commonly associated with being used as the carrier of messages to be washed ashore.
It was originally envisaged that a mix of plastic bottles and glass bottles would be used to highlight the issue of ocean plastic pollution. However, a decision was taken to use only glass bottles. This was because, ultimately, Message in a Bottle was conceived to be aesthetically striking and attractive. The use of plastic bottles would have negatively impacted the visual style of the piece.
Careful selection of the bottles was required; they had to be plain, so that their contents could be viewed, yet attractive. They had to be large enough to suit the proposed scale of the piece and also to accommodate the various wiring, air lines, sea-glass, water, pollution, and aerators that comprised their contents for the final piece. Three was chosen as the minimum number of bottles required to illustrate the projects message, with one ‘clean’ and two polluted vessels.
In keeping with the use of man-made and natural elements, another design decision made early in the project life-cycle and kept throughout was the use of wood and fishing line to provide a support and a means of suspension for the three bottles that would hang from the wood. Driftwood was the proposed material to provide a horizontal support and provide thematic consistency; however, a suitable piece could not be sourced, and a tree branch is used in the finished piece. Fishing line was the means of suspending the bottles from their wooden support and provided both the tensile strength and significance beyond its modest appearance:
‘… of the 79,000 metric tons of plastic in the [Great Pacific Garbage] patch, most of it is abandoned fishing gear’ (National Geographic, 2018).
At the same time as the selection of the structural pieces of the project was being made, selection, prototyping, and testing of the technology that would bring Message to life was also being undertaken.
The planning stage saw several ideas discussed and discarded. For example, consideration was given to the inclusion of a text display of tweets relating to ocean pollution; however, this was seen as overly explicit and there was a feeling that ‘the message is in the bottle’. Similarly, an idea to vary the colour of the LEDs based upon the bottles’ orientation (assuming a bottle would rotate on its suspending lines) was considered to be unnecessarily over-complicating the project. On reflection, this was a wise decision, as the bottles do not rotate. The main technology elements, then, are: Light (in the form of flashing LED rings), sound (in the form of audio clips), and air (in the form of bubbles).
Development priority was given to the proximity-sensitive LED rings that would light the bottles from below. This was possibly seen as ‘low-hanging fruit’ and relatively straightforward to accomplish. This was borne out after testing and prototyping produced good early results. However, possibly as a consequence of this rapid progress and a flush of optimism, development languished, and the other elements of the piece were neglected. The week before the Christmas break saw the piecing together of the main physical framework of Message, including successful testing of the lights and proximity sensors.
Work on the audio and air pumps to create bubbles was left until only a few days before the project deadline and there were unforeseen complications with both of these elements. On reflection, development and testing had been severely lacking and more time should have been given to the more technically challenging areas of the project; discussion amongst project members turned towards contingencies and bare minimum functionality. With perseverance and a couple of long days/nights, the project was brought to a satisfactory level of completion.
Despite the lack of early testing of certain elements, ultimately, an original and aesthetically-pleasing artwork was created. The interplay of light, water, air, and sound worked effectively and was visually appealing. The decisions made to avoid over-complicating were justified considering the additional development time and effort that would have been involved. Furthermore, in its final form, the project, realised in a subtle and inviting way, fulfilled its purpose of delivering a Message in a Bottle.
Eliasson, O. (2014) Ice Watch. Available at: https://olafureliasson.net/archive/artwork/WEK109190/ice-watch (Accessed: 8 January 2019)
Liborion, M. (2014) Sea Globes. Available at: https://maxliboiron.com/2014/03/23/sea-globes/ (Accessed: 8 January 2019).
National Geographic (2018) The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Isn’t What You Think it Is. Available at: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/great-pacific-garbage-patch-plastics-environment/ (Accessed 8 January 2019).
Raaf, S. (2006) Sabrina Raaf :: Grower 2004-6. Available at: http://raaf.org/projects.php?pcat=2&proj=4 (Accessed: 10 October 2018).
RAW Design (2015) Prismatica. Available at: https://www.rawdesign.ca/projects/prismatica/ (Accessed: 8 January 2019).