Phantom Passage

In the 1990’s jellyfish populations exploded in the Bering Sea. Since then, jellyfish numbers have been increasing worldwide. Rising sea temperatures and over-fishing are thought to be contributing factors in these massive population increases. As a result, jellyfish have been the cause of nuclear power plants – that use seawater as a coolant – clogging and subsequently shutting down.

The lynchpin of this piece was the location, the Wean Hall boiler room, which provided an example of how chilled water is pumped through the cooling system of a nuclear reactor. If the boiler room had been a nuclear power plant located near a sea, jellyfish might conceivably have been transported through the pipes of the system labeled CHILLED WATER SUPPLY. The overwhelming cacophony of the boiler room evoked the innards of a living machine, negating the need for additional sound design.

While I was interested in exploring the educational aspect of this project, my primary motivation was to honor the spirits of jellyfish that have died in the industrial bellies of nuclear power plants around the globe. By projecting a video of jellyfish onto layered plastic drop cloths within the boiler room, I created a space where the imagined ghosts of jellyfish that had been trapped and killed had now been set free.

I was also intrigued by the concept of jellyfish “stealing energy” in two distinctly different ways; as the cause of ecological destruction, and as potential ecological saviors. In the first case, “[Jellyfish are] eating a lot of the food web, and turning it into gelatinous biomass. They’re essentially stealing a lot of the energy, then putting it away,” said Robert Condon, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science and co-author of a jellyfish-impact study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (You may read the June 2011 Wired UK story by Brandon Keim here.) In the second, to find such seemingly fragile creatures were capable of disabling behemoth power stations when gathered en-masse was astonishing to me. I mused if their deaths were a collectively unconscious sacrifice to thwart the controversial form of nuclear energy…

“Authorized Technician” badges were distributed to visitors just prior to touring the installation. The QR code on the badge linked to a website with in-depth information on the phenomena of jellyfish bloom.


Phantom Passage

  • 2011 • fall
  • boiler room, jellyfish video, projector, strobe light, plastic drop cloths
  • Acknowledgements

    Sincere gratitude to Marty Altschul at CMU for arranging access to the Wean Hall boiler room... To Greg at the Bellefield Boiler Plant (aka: the Cloud Factory where I originally attempted to site the installation) for explaining exactly where jellyfish would be sucked into - and then pumped through - the cooling system of a nuclear power plant... And to Eugenia Loli-Queru for making her gorgeous video of jellyfish available for use on Vimeo under the Creative Commons license. You may view "Drifters of the Deep" in its entirety here.