Dr onacloV and the Mysteries of the Anthropocene

Our planet has entered into the geological epoch of the Anthropocene; an era where, for the first time ever, humans are the most dominant influence on earth’s climate and environment. It’s a dangerous and defining moment in our species’ history – how we respond to the problems, specifically climate change, we’ve created. At the forefront of this dialogue is the intelligent, provocative, dynamic woman of mystery, Dr onacloV – a creature so interconnected with the natural world that even her name is an extension of the wild.

Dr onacloV, a.k.a Dr Caitilin de Bérigny, is an artist and Senior Researcher in Design at the University of Sydney. Enchanted by the mysterious patterns found in the natural world, onacloV’s career began as a visual artist, studying in Canberra, Paris and Marseille before forging her path as an environmental artist, designer, researcher and lecturer based in Sydney. Her work has taken her all around Australia and internationally. She’s filmed documentaries at the foothills of volcano country, lived on isolated islands while investigating the mysteries of the deep, lectured worldwide about the devastation caused to marine environments from ocean warming to plastic pollution and has recently been awarded an ARC Discovery grant to produce a travelling exhibition of short documentaries about the Anthropocene.

She’s a remarkable woman – passionate about her work, fearless, bold and clever. But most notably, she’s an agent of change. And through her art and design practice, onacloV is exploring the answers to some of the grave concerns our natural world is contemplating.

Dr onacloV a.k.a. Dr Caitilin de Bérigny

Your nom de plume, Dr onacloV, is very mysterious. What is the origin behind this wonderful name change? In 1999, I was making a documentary film in a place called Tacoma in Seattle. It’s surrounded by three very large volcanoes, one which I could see every day from my apartment window while I was editing the film. It’s called Mount St Helen’s by the American people but it’s also known as ‘Mother’ by the Native Americans and the reason for this is its massive size – it’s so big, it goes up past the clouds and is covered in snow all year round. As a child I remember stopping in my tracks, seeing people who lived near volcanoes in a documentary and telling everyone in my family, ‘Aren’t they crazy? Why wouldn’t they just move?’ Yet here I was, years later, living right next to this living, breathing, smoking, fiery volcano, feeling an amazing sense of creative energy from its presence. I’d never felt anything like it before. It helped transform my artistic practice to finish my documentary.

Anyway, some time later I was trying all these words backwards and the minute I tried volcano I knew that it felt right. I changed my name to onacloV and kept it that way for a decade. No one has ever been able to spell or pronounce my actual name properly.

What I love about onacloV is that it’s clean, it’s simple and if people don’t understand it you just ask them to write volcano backwards. They always laugh.”

You began your career as a visual artist – what initially drew you to this field of study? My love of nature and the environment. I’ve always been hypnotised by our beautiful planet. I guess like a lot of artists I get so much joy in trying to visualise nature and its mysteries. I’m particularly interested in water and ice which has become a theme in my work.

Now a practising artist, researcher and lecturer at Sydney University, what kind of exciting projects are you working on this year? At the moment, I’m very blessed – I have a research teaching position which gives me time to focus on my research and creative work in art and design. I’ve just received a huge grant to work on a project collaborating with environmental historians, museum curators and digital artists about the Anthropocene. It will become a travelling exhibition that goes to the National Museum in Sydney and the Australian National Museum in Canberra. For this, I’m producing 100 short documentary films with some of my research students and students about objects that represent the Anthropocene, or human induced climate change. Alex Goad, for example, is creating artificial coral reefs to talk about the very grave issues facing the Great Barrier Reef – like the alarming reality that since 2016 alone we lost 30% of the GBR. For my object, I will be speaking about plastic water bottles to discuss the environmental issues caused by plastic pollution to biodiversity and marine life in our oceans. This actually leads into another project I’m currently working on where I am curating a team of international artists to create short films in public spaces around five different continents to educate people about plastic and the effect it’s having on the ocean.

I’m lucky because the courses I teach, interaction design and digital media production, are my passions and my students can work directly with me to produce content for these exhibitions. I always link my research with my teaching – I think it’s important for students to be working with someone who is inspired by what they are teaching.

What role does art and design have to play in exploring problems of the natural world? In order to solve climate change, every single field must come together and collaborate. The Sydney Environment Institute (SEI), co-directed by Iain McCalman at Sydney Univeristy, is a great example of interdisciplinary fields collaborating to solve climate change.

Design and art communicate and visualise science in ways that are much more digestible – ways that are sexy, truthful and pertinent.”

Scientists are fantastic – they do all the amazingly hard, ground-breaking research, but it can be difficult for people to access their results. Not many people read scientific journals or research reports and certainly our politicians and media aren’t revealing all the vigorous research findings scientists are working hard to reveal about climate change.

Artists can visualise this research, reach people emotionally and therefore educate communities. Designers meanwhile are developing innovative solutions using recycled materials and design thinking to create ways for us to be more sustainable. At the moment, I have a PhD student designing artificial reefs, another is using drone photography to visually record changes in our environment using aerial photography, while another is examining how the ability of plants to convert CO2 can be used to enhance design approaches in architecture.

Design can create a future for us to live on this earth. If we don’t design a future, I don’t think we are going to be here.”

Dr Charlie Veron, one of the most famous marine biologists and leading experts on coral reefs, said to me, ‘what you can do as an artist to get people to listen is touch their hearts’. By doing that, hopefully we can work together with designers, scientists, governments and politicians to create lasting, positive change for our planet.

Reefs on the Edge (2012-2017) is an artwork that explores how coral reef habitats and ecosystems are threatened by the effects of climate change. RotE was designed, led and directed by Caitilin de Bérigny (onacloV); Phillip Gough and Adityo Pratomo designed and built the TUI objects and table; Ge Wu edited the multiple-channel video installation; and Michael Bates, created the soundscape. The artwork was a collaboration with Dr Erica Woolsey, a marine biologist studying the long term effects of rising sea temperatures on coral embryos.
Reefs on the Edge (2012-2017)

What are your thoughts about the slow response of many to climate change evidence? 99% of the scientific community are in agreement about climate change and the damages we are causing to our environment. I find it very alarming and disturbing that we’re having mass species extinction, and changes to our environment are unprecedented in 4.5 billion years of our planet. Some of the really damaging changes are starting to take place now, such as coral bleaching worldwide and the loss of marine environments. The 2017 documentary Chasing Coral records real-time coral bleaching. The average person doesn’t realise that when you lose coral reefs you lose 25% of all animals and biodiversity that live in that reef.

How much of a role does plastic play in the environmental issues our planet is facing? An enormous role. Plastic is killing marine wildlife – whales, seabirds, turtles, fish. All types of marine animals are being found dead globally due to eating or being caught by discarded plastic bags, plastic food wrappers and plastic waste. Almost all seabirds have eaten plastic. The International Whaling Commission reported that 308,000 dolphins and whales drown every year tangled in plastic and fishing gear!

We need to stop using single use plastic, design new materials that dissolve in water, rally governments to stop plastic production, recycle, and bring our own shopping bags and water bottles everywhere we go. Designers have created 100% plant based plastic bags that are biodegradable and dissolve in water. We cannot get all the plastic out of the ocean without killing marine life so we must work hard to stop more entering into the ocean.

I find that just doing small actions every day keeps me sane. I am blessed to live on the water in Sydney and when I walk my dog, Beau, I pick up little pieces of plastic. I know it’s not much, but it makes me think, at least a bird or marine animal isn’t going to accidently eat this piece of plastic I’m picking up.

We need to act to not feel powerless. That is the key to creating some kind of positive impact.”

So much of your work has involved researching the mysteries of the deep and the effects of climate change on coral reefs. Can you please tell us about some of this? During one of my exhibitions, InterANTARTICA, a project exploring climate change in the Arctic, marine biologist, Dr Erika Woolsey, walked in. She loved what I was doing and invited me to work with her to create an artwork about her PhD research investigating the effects of changing sea temperatures on coral embryos on various islands. We spent six weeks on Sydney University’s One Tree Island. It’s an amazing place to study – it’s basically a bird sanctuary on a big coral atoll – and there are no resorts or shops so there is so much beautiful, untouched biodiversity. If you look at places only an hour away, such as Heron Island, you can see a decline in this.

While on the Island, I collected photographs and video for an installation artwork, Reefs on the Edge, and also observed Erika undertaking her scientific experiments. Around the full moon in late October, the time when coral spawns, Erika collected baby corals to see if they could live in changes of sea temperature of 1-4% warmer. Her important research indicates that even the remotest changes of 1% degree warmer sea temperatures had a profound negative impact on baby coral larvae reproduction.

How has this research into changing ocean temperatures and plastic pollution impacted you personally? At times it’s been really disturbing for me, doing this kind of research. David Attenborough, who I suppose, with his team, must have travelled to the four corners of the earth, has said that there is now no single place left that doesn’t have plastic in the water. Even remote Antarctic waters are filled with plastic.

What people don’t realise is when they drink water from plastic water bottles rather than using a recycled one (not only is it stupid that they buy water because it’s free!) but those bottles never biodegrade and end up killing so many birds and marine wildlife.”

I saw David interviewed recently and he was asked what was the single worst environmental problem facing our planet and his answer was albatross birds picking up plastic from the water, thinking it to be fish, and feeding it to their babies. Scientists are finding mass deaths in sea bird populations all around the world and when they open their stomachs they find them to be absolutely filled with plastic. It’s so alarming because all of nature and our species of flora and fauna are so interconnected. Birds are crucial to environments – they pick up grains of sand, fertilise forests and carry seeds for plants.

If we don’t look after our natural ecosystems and the animals who live in them – which we’re not – I believe we’re going to be in extremely irreversible trouble. I still think we have a chance to change our behaviour, but it must happen now.

How do you engage with mystery in your daily life? Through the way I connect during my spiritual practice. I sit in meditation twice daily, a practice derived from Zen Buddhism, and I enter a silent space within myself.

Here, I connect with every living thing on the planet. I connect with myself, I am more compassionate and I find a deep level of awareness of the interconnectivity of all living things.”

I lead a simple life. My mindfulness practice has given me the ability to engage with the mystery of the universe directly. It gives me a moment each day to close my eyes, breathe, and appreciate life. It drives my passion to help our environment because I feel so connected to it.

Outside of your work, what is something mysterious that people may not know about you? I have a beautiful rescue dog called Beau, a very unusual looking poodle – white with brown spots and green eyes. I love him dearly. He is my confidante.

One Tree Island Reef, Research Station, Great Barrier Reef.
One Tree Island Reef, Research Station, Great Barrier Reef.
One Tree Island Reef, Research Station, Great Barrier Reef.