Marie Griesmar setting up an artistic installation underwater
Marie Griesmar setting up an artistic installation underwater

When Art Meets Science: an introduction to Marie Griesmar's underwater world

Hi Marie, it is great to have you for the interview! Could you tell a little bit more about yourself?

My pleasure! My name is Marie Griesmar, I am Swiss from Lausanne and I live in Zurich. I am an artist, but I also do science communication. I just launched an organisation called rrreefs which is about helping corals and marine organisms to have a home again.

Marie and her project partner, Ulrike Pfreundt
Marie Griesmar (left) and her project partner, Ulrike Pfreundt (right)

What have you been up to in these uncertain times and how have they affected your work? I bet the rrreefs project is keeping you quite busy.

It sure is! But the current situation is also difficult for my project partner Ulrike and I. We were not able to travel to meet the people we are collaborating with for the onsite tests in the ocean. That was the tricky part this year. But the fact that we are a new organisation was also positive, as we had more flexibility to manage the different layers of the project, from administrative tasks to strategy development. So yes, it is a more challenging way of working, but it is not all bad.

Get involved and support the rrreefs project! For more information click here

OK, so you were able to adapt and develop another plan?

Yes. If you do not reinvent yourself, you get stuck and you don't push projects forward. And that is a shame because if we don't grow them, then they will be left on the side. We had to find a way! This project is about environmental issues that we want to solve. The challenge was accepted!

Your work is at the crossroads between arts, science and communication. Why do you care about science communication? Why is it important to you?

I would say I do science communication only on one theme. I am mostly fascinated about marine biology as I have been a scuba diver since I turned eight. The underwater world is quite crazy to observe when you have the opportunity to visit it or even if you watch a documentary. It was part of my inspiration for my art from the very beginning. Then I thought to myself that my work can actually serve as a communication tool to promote science related to this field. So I think it came pretty naturally into my work. Suddenly, I was explaining how coral bleaching is happening or what an algae invasion is and how it is happening in Swiss lakes! It is about what is touching me emotionally and how I use it as an inspiration for the divulgation of science.

So in other words, you are using your art to raise awareness about issues related to the oceans?

I do. Because I care about the environment, especially when it has to do with the underwater world. When you live near the water, you sometimes just see it as a surface and you do not imagine everything that lives inside this element and the space it actually takes on our planet. Being able to see that and to understand some concepts of what is going on is definitely what I wanted to focus my work on, and I see my artwork as a good tool to talk about that.

Marie, do you have a role model, someone that inspires you?

I have several! There is one I would love to meet, as she has been a role model since I was young. It is Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist and explorer. As a woman diver, she is a pioneer. She has an amazing team working with her, discovering the underwater world. She goes in the abyss of the ocean with high-tech submarines to discover new species. The amazing thing about her is that she just wants to share everything she sees with the world, and does it in such a passionate way. It is an inspiring model to follow.

I also have a mentor on the artistic side. Her name is Caroline Bachmann and she was my teacher when I was in Geneva doing my Bachelors. She is a painter and she followed me ever since I was a student. Caroline gave me the tools to become an independent artist and she made me believe in my work and myself. Thanks to her, I realised I needed to take the time to develop my practical skills and to have ambition about it. I was also her assistant a couple of years ago and we are still in contact, as she often shares critical feedback about how I present my work. It is amazing when someone that you appreciate and that you look up to challenges you.

Back to your recent project ( rrreefs). Could you share with us how this project started?

It started when I was doing a residency at the King Saud University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia in 2016. It became more specific at swissnex San Francisco back in 2018, where I did some research about creating artificial reef within a scientific context. This sculptural project is part of a body of work called Beneath The Sea. It became rrreefs when I met my project partner, Ulrike Pfreundt, last year when I was a fellow at the ETH Library Lab. At the ETH Zurich, I started to work with digital fabrication architects. One day, an architect told me that he was also collaborating with a scientist on artificial reef structures. What are the odds! I read more about this project and read a paper who was from ...Ulrike! When I learned that she was investigating 3D printing for a coral larvae settlement, I thought to myself: this is crazy, this is karma! There is a woman in Switzerland, a country with no oceans, no seas, and she is investigating the same field as I am.

I contacted her and a few days later we took a coffee and spent two hours together, already having ideas and exchanging on how we could match and merge our approaches. It took a year before we formed a team because we had our own work to do, but the exchange was pretty easy. You know, it is not difficult to talk about something you love. Ulrike knew she had to make a perfect structure for coral reefs and even though it was technical, I understood everything. When I told her about the materiality and the shapes and how I envisioned the reef to be and to look like, she also knew how I felt and what I was talking about.

We then attended a workshop in the Maldives, where we both learned more about coral restoration techniques, which enabled us to start working together in this field. This confirmed that we were a good team together!

Marie and Ulrike working on the rrreefs prototype
Marie and Ulrike working on the rrreefs prototype

You started to mention swissnex. Could you talk about your experience in San Francisco at Pier 17?

I loved being in San Francisco! I think these were the most marvelous 3 months I had. To be in such an active environment was amazing. It is like an epicenter where everything was happening. I initially applied for swissnex’s Pier 17 Science Studio as an artist with my project about artificial reef structures and they said ok! And I also asked if I could be put in contact with laboratories dealing with marine biology. The swissnex team was so enthusiastic about my work and was so ready to help! That was probably the first time anybody contacted other people on my behalf, as I usually did everything by myself. I used to contact people and I tried to reach out and sometimes it worked, sometimes not. But with swissnex you have this kind of status of an established organisation. Making contacts was so easy, it was going super fast, like fireworks. I also think that in California people are very eager to talk, to meet up. We are not used to this in Switzerland, or maybe in Europe in general. You have to do a lot of research to get to know somebody, then you have to be introduced by someone and it takes time to gain their trust. In San Francisco, there were connections, connections, connections! It was really intense, and I loved it! I could develop an entire network. The ocean scientists there were always available to talk and to give me feedback. I looked up to them because they are really well-known and well respected in their area of expertise.

Marie's exhibit featuring on the swissnex San Francisco website
Marie's art being exposed at swissnex San Francisco's Pier 17
Marie's art being exposed at swissnex San Francisco's Pier 17

Check out HERE the exhibit which was held at Pier 17 of swissnex San Francisco

It is great news to hear that, as we are all about connecting the dots! So how were you able to make use of this experience when you got back to Switzerland?

swissnex is never far away from me as I am still in contact with the team and with my network in San Francisco. What I have learned from this experience is to be open and to share contacts, to connect with people. I did not do that so easily before. Thanks to this environment of sharing and openness, I learned that doing this brings so much value. To help each other is what we are supposed to do, right? Another lesson learned was the value of interdisciplinary work, with people from different backgrounds. I try to do this as much as I can, to replicate this model of openness. I am basically creating my own interdisciplinary network here!

What are your plans for the next couple of months?

Maybe the main one would be to succeed in implementing the prototype that we have been developing for coral reefs. The big milestone to reach in the next couple of months is to produce enough 3D-printed bricks and to set them up as adaptable coral reefs. So we need to produce them and install them in Colombia with another team that is partnering up with us, called Corales de Paz. Besides this big challenge, I am also working on other artistic projects with various people, such as a dancer who will perform around some of my sculptures. I also have other exhibitions going on next year, so there are many things happening! But the big, big thing would be to implement our artificial reef prototype underwater.

Plan of the 3d-printed blocks of the rrreefs project
Plan of the 3d-printed blocks of the rrreefs project

As you know, swissnex is celebrating its 20th anniversary! Our job is to connect the dots of Swiss education, research and innovation abroad. What do you think is the role of the arts in the future of our work for the nex20 years?

Art brings up emotion. As an artist, I have the ability of understanding concepts and interpreting them from what I feel. I think people need to connect a little bit more on the emotional side and artists, thanks to their role as experts in expressing themselves through either music, dance or even sculptures, have a big role in enabling that. These emotional connections create moments when an artist and a scientist can find a way to communicate and adapt to a same language. So by bringing more art in the promotion of innovation and research, we can help to transmit it in a more inclusive way, because everyone is unique and receives Information differently. It should be altogether, like a melting pot of ideas being expressed.

Marie, you have already achieved many things in your life. But where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

Oh, that is a tough question, especially in these times where we really don't know what will happen over the next months! I really hope that people are more aware about how lucky they are, where they live and more aware about how they can help to make their environment a better place. So through my work, I hope to continue to reach out to a broad set of people who care and to continue this kind of achievements, destined to improve the environment through enabling the right connections.

Do you have a last message you would like to share with swissnex?

I want to say thank you! I hope the network will continue to exist because it makes so many things possible that we cannot see here in Switzerland, by driving these international connections abroad. So I think you should keep existing in 20 years from now!