We Are All Coral Now: A Review Essay

A Review Essay from North Dakota Quarterly 80.4-82.4 by Kate Sweney

Margaret Wertheim and Christine Wertheim, Crochet Coral Reef: A Project by the Institute For Figuring. Los Angeles: Institute For Figuring 2015.

The Institute For Figuring, a nonprofit education organization, was established by Martha Wertheim and Christine Wertheim to develop creative ways to engage the public with science, mathematics, and the technical arts. Crochet Coral Reef, the book, is filled with page after page of beautiful groups of fantastical crocheted coral forms.


The Crochet Coral Reef, the art installation, appeared at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts last summer. It is stunningly beautiful. It is also a call to action and the embodiment of an important mathematical principle.

Martha Wertheim, a science writer, and Christine Wertheim, an artist, started the project in 2005 when there was a lot of talk in the scientific press about global warming and its effects, particularly on coral reefs. Rising ocean temperatures cause corals to bleach. If these effects are not reversed, reefs eventually die and col- lapse. In that one year, 2005, the U.S. lost half of its coral reefs in the Carib- bean due to a massive bleaching event (NOAA). In October 2015, NOAA scientists released a report warning that 2015 and 2016 might have the worst coral bleaching and die-o in history (“NOAA”). ere is a real possibility that coral reefs might go extinct.

The CCR exhibit has its roots in feminine handicraft, mathematics, marine biology, and environmental activism (Ted Talk). It turns out that crochet is the best, perhaps the only way, to model or represent the principle of hyperbolic geometry. For two thousand years, mathematicians believed that there were only two types of space: at planes (or Euclidean space), and spherical space. About 200 years ago, a third type, hypberbolic, was theorized, but most mathematicians believed that the very concept of hyperbolic geometry was impossible and no one could figure out how to model it if it did exist. at was because they weren’t looking at sea slugs, which have been around since the Silurian Period, said Wertheim in a Ted Talk. Sea slugs are the perfect embodiment of a hyperbolic plane. Apparently mathematicians also weren’t looking at the lettuce on their plates because that frilly edge is hyperbolic as well.

In 1997, Daina Taimina, a mathematician at Cornell University, developed a representation of a hyperbolic plane with crochet. When you start making objects with frills or crenulations, what you get looks a lot like corals.

The first small representation of CCR was displayed at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. CCR has since grown and evolved to mammoth proportions. A display later that year in Chicago folled a 3,000 square foot gallery. Since then CCR has been exhibited at museums such as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the Denver Art Museum, and the Science Gallery at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. And the techniques have been taught to thou- sands of crafters. In areas where CCR is exhibited, the local community is invited to create their own satellite reef, and more than thirty have been created around the world.

Last summer Crochet Coral Reef was on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), part of an exhibit dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester and the Creative Mind. e Minneapolis Satellite Reef was coordinated by Krista Pearson, Manager for Community Arts for MIA. She synchronized the work of 183 crocheters in the Minneapolis area who created 1300 pieces. Pear- son also worked with the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO), and when the MIA show closed, the satellite reef moved to MWMO to raise public awareness about keeping the Mississippi River water clean for local and global ecosystems. The display proved so popular that the deadline was extended by eight weeks.

Before the CCR exhibition at MIA, Krista Tippett, the host of the National Public Radio program On Being, interviewed Martha Wertheim, who explained its significance:

The Crochet Coral Reef project is a metaphor, and it goes like this: if you look at real corals, a head of coral is built by thou- sands of individual coral polyps working together. Each coral polyp is a tiny insignificant little critter with almost no power of its own. But when billions of coral polyps come together, they can build the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living thing on earth and the first living thing that you can see from outer space.

The Crochet Coral Reef is a human analog of that. These huge coral reef installations that we build with communities are built by hundreds and sometimes thousands of people working together. So the project capitulates, in human action, the power and greatness of what corals themselves are doing. And I think the metaphor of the project is, look what we can do together. We humans, each of us are like a coral polyp. Individually, we’re insignificant and probably powerless. But together, I believe we can do things. And I think the metaphor of the project is we are all corals now. We are all at risk.

Complementing the book’s impressive photos are ten essays exploring a variety of related topics including connections between art and science, craft, the history of coral in myth and culture, and the use of trash in art. Biographies and stories from satellite reefers add to the rich mixture. e book will require many hours to read, enjoy, and ponder. Here is one small sample from “Matter and Form,” by Christine Wertheim:

Brought into being by a play of nimble fingers, crochet reefs are products of a digital technology. Originally meaning “of or pertaining to fingers,” the term digital was appropriated to its more common usage in the 1930s, when work by mathematicians and engineers led to the development of a new kind of computational device based not on a continuous scale (as on a slide rule) but on discrete dig- its. Digits, of course, had been numbers in the classic decimal system, a nomenclature cued from our hands —10 fingers, 10 numerals. Now in the computer age, the term was reimagined in the binary context of zeros and ones, causing a kind of erasure about its roots in the human body. (90)

Along with other Institute For Figuring projects, CCR offers an invitation to play with physical objects and experience abstract ideas in concrete, embodied ways. Our society values symbolic ways of knowing — algebraic representations, equations, codes—and teaching in that way, but there is another way to learn. Instead of think tanks, we need play tanks, or “kindergarten for grownups,” Wertheim said. In CCR and various satellite reefs, the hundreds and thousands of creators played with the basic code for creating crenulated surfaces. Deviating from the code produced more natural-looking elements and formed an ever-evolving taxonomy of crochet life, similar to the evolution of biological life.

After hearing about crocheting a hyperbolic plane in 2007, I decided to give it a try. The instructions on the Internet were of little help. But knowing that the basic idea was to increase in a set pattern, I knitted something that might be called a hyperbolic plane, a curly yarn snake that, although a lot smaller, looked similar to one of the hangings in the CCR exhibit at MIA. I thought it might be one of several that would be attached to another art object, but other projects came along, and I left the curly knitted snake in drawer. Now I’m thinking it could be part of my very own satellite reef, and I have the perfect spot for it: a glass-topped coffee table in my living room.