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MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE: New UNCW professor, Gene Felice, uses art, science and technology to highlight global climate issues

Gene Felice II has been doing site-specific work as long as he’s been an artist and he walks Shea Carver through his latest solo exhibition.

MOBILE ART AND SCIENCE LAB: The Coaction Lab has projectors, audio, a microscope, and other sensors in it to screen large images that map buildings, which will be done at the Cultural Arts Building on UNCW’s campus Thursday night. Courtesy image

Though Gene Felice II arrived in Wilmington in August, he really just settled in the port city over the last month. The UNCW art department professor evacuated his family during Hurricane Florence, before they could even unpack boxes. Upon return, UNCW classes didn’t resume for another month. Still, in that short time frame, he and his digital art students installed three panels in Cameron Art Museum’s latest teamLab interactive art and technology exhibit, as part of the Hiroshige prints, fine Japanese art, wherein they animated scans onto three LCD panels.

VALIUM: A 3D print of a pancreatic cell tumor as made visible through Valium is one of many pieces in Gene Felice’s retrospective show. Courtesy image

PRESCRIPTION DRUG TUMOR: A 3D print of a societal tumor as made visible through Valium is one of many pieces in Gene Felice’s retrospective show. Courtesy image

Then Felice was off to Africa at the end of November through Christmas, where the state department of Alexandria, Egypt, had him lead a four-week initiative with 20 locals, ages 16 to 60, on water. It was part of Zero One, a sector of a larger project called “American Arts Incubator.” “They send artists out all over the world to talk about different issues that are affecting our global community,” Felice says, as we walk through UNCW’s Cultural Arts Building Gallery, where he is preparing to open a retrospective exhibit of his artwork on Thursday, January 17. “So mine was to talk about global sustainability and climate change and water pollution.”

Ninety percent of Egypt’s water comes from the Nile, which is polluted with industrial and municipal wastewater, oil, agricultural drainage and other elements. Felice worked with the Alexandria Creativity Center to help locals tell their water stories.

“Some were artists, some were engineers, some worked in infrastructure, some marine biologists,” he explains. “And we worked very close to where the Nile empties. I was facilitating and teaching them new ways to collaborate across different disciplines. In Egypt, for artists to be talking about problems with engineers and scientists, well, that’s new.”

To be fair, it’s new in America, too—though Felice has made it his career mission. Just a few years ago, into his first professorship at University of Maine, he and his students lit up the Bangor standpipe with images of water to showcase how the community’s drinking water went from stream through treatment to tap. It’s not lost on him that moving to Wilmington to teach at UNCW comes with its own water and climate change issues. “If we are going to solve big issues, we need more people at the table doing it,” he states.

Felice’s interest in sustainability, climate change, water quality, and environmental sciences weren’t always at the forefront of concern. During his studies at Ohio State University as an undergrad, his mentors led by example: finding a question they wanted to answer first as artists and then discovering the technology and design elements to help answer it. “It’s also how I teach my own students today,” he says. At the time, Felice had a family member diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, who passed away a short nine months later. To work through his grief, Felice began playing with algorithms in a 3D printer to design tumor-like shapes. “Rapid Progression” was the name of the show, as a play on rapid prototyping, a term used in 3D printing, and the rapid progression the disease was taking on his loved one.

“I was learning as I went,” the artist remembers. And the process was long: Felice worked on it from 2005 to 2011. “What started as digital tumors became complex forms and turned into organisms, which became interactive through sound and light,” he describes.

One of the pieces in his show contains a blue mass, constructed of what looks like brightly hued Valium pills. From a distance, they could even be Valentine candies. It’s part of the appeal of Felice’s work: to turn something normally ugly into that which is attractive. “They definitely have a candy-like quality, much like prescription drugs, in general,” he jests. “Valium is blue, because, ooh, it’s like a Sweet Tart!”

Felice printed them by playing with the golden ration algorithm—Pythagoras’ theorem. “When you look into the spiral of a sunflower or seashell, you’re seeing the golden ratio,” he explains. “You’re seeing a perfect mathematical progression.”

As we talk through his work, the tweaking of the ratio is apparent when some of the forms, i.e. “tumors,” become less mutated and appear as halfsies or hybrids. Felice injected them with plastic tubes and matchsticks and made them into hanging forms, whose shadows dance against the walls. Other “tumors” take on shapes like vases and are finished with paint or polyurethane. Bright green, pink and blue ones look like bouquets of flowers; though, really, they’re the output of MRI scans of tumors growing from small groupings into large masses.

“They were specifically built off of the microscopy of a pancreatic cancer cell,” Felice details, “and [I repeated] that cell over and over, while thinking about how they grow exponentially. At the time, I wasn’t aware why I was making them, but later I called them flowers because there is a certain beauty to them.”

In his early work, Felice wasn’t much considering the materials he was using as being sustainable. It wasn’t until he moved to Santa Cruz for his graduate degree that environmental science took hold of his research, which is the beginning and fundamental drive for all of his art today. Fires, drought, water and air quality were all top-of-mind topics.

“Climate change is a daily conversation in California,” he says. “They had a three-year-long drought, longest in history, while I was there, where their wet season just never came. The year I left, they had a year of rain, and then the ecosystems didn’t know what to do. Eco-conscious individuals and companies making eco-minded materials made me think a lot about what I was using, so I stopped with polyurethanes and silicones, and used alginates and pine resin and soy-based bamboo. I’m only on the planet 60 or 70 years, if I’m really lucky, and my art doesn’t need to be 10,000 years in a landfill if it’s not in a museum or gallery.”

Along the way, Felice began zeroing in on microscopic plants—otherwise known as phytoplankton—as key parts of our oceans, seas and freshwater basins. “They’re responsible for oxygen, they’re the base of the food chain, and they absorb half of our world’s CO2,” he says. At University of Southern California at Santa Cruz, with the help of Jennifer Parker, Felice developed “Oceanic Scales.” The large installation is programmed to showcase the balance of ocean ecology. It’s a biomimicry of phytoplankton, and how they clean the ocean and are the base of the food web. Folks interact with the LED-backlit domes (“phytoplankton”), which lightly pulse to showcase when the ocean is balanced. Or they begin to flicker rapidly and eventually shut down for 30 seconds if the user isn’t maintaining balance of the ecology after adjusting temperature, pH and nitrogen levels. The project is on display at a children’s museum in California currently and will be making its way back east for display in ILM at some point. Though it won’t be part of the UNCW retrospective show, smaller offshoot projects from Oceanic Scales will be.

“A lot of wooden planktonic forms will go on the walls,” according to Felice. A 3D-cut phytoplankton will be on display, beside glass-cast forms, some which may glow like the plant’s bioluminescence. Even laser-cut seaweed will be on display, many with messages on them.

“I’ve collected a lot of seaweed over the years and cut it into forms and structures,” Felice tells, “from the West Coast to Maine. I’m just now beginning to find all the good places in Wilmington to search for it.”

As well, Phyto Heroes—an educational app-based game, designed with Core Curriculum lesson plans, for 3rd through 5th graders to learn about aquatic organisms—will be set up for folks to play. Videos about Felice’s work stateside and in Egypt will screen so viewers get an idea of his goals and mission, and his work of an animated lotus blossom in Egypt will be projected. “They are a symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation,”  he says.

Outside, he will illuminate images onto the Cultural Arts Building as part of his Coaction Lab. The wooden trailer is a mobile art and science lab, which uses video projectors and audio systems, and includes a microscope, a 3D printer and an array of air and water quality sensors, to highlight water issues and ecology in various areas.

Felice is already thinking about GenX pulsating through our Cape Fear River. In fact, as part of the exhibit, he is asking the community at large to bring in water samples. They can drop them off to the CAB Gallery director during gallery business hours. Felice will transfer to glass vials and on Feb. 1 teach folks in a free workshop how to take a microscopic image and run it through a projector to make it large and manipulate the image to map onto a surface. Then on Feb. 15 he will teach “Air and Water Sensing/Interaction via Arduino/DIY Electronics.” “People will learn how to use water and air quality sensors and get that information into a computer, then use it to turn on a motor or light up a light or make a sound or change a light,” he says.

Why? Because creating data to make art is an effective tool to inspire change. For instance, he could take data from a river, and turn it into representation through light, motion or sound. “We can make the invisible visible,” he says. “A little micro controller that costs about $35 can be installed in your computer and can take input from our environment and give many ways to output it, so you then can put it in a sculpture or do it as data visualization—like if you just want to know the water quality each week or if you want to see acidity, nutrient or oxygen levels. Or if you want to take the pollen count, so every time it goes past a threshold, you have a certain warning.”

If he were to do an installation on GenX, it wouldn’t contain some image on a water tower with “GenX is bad” scribbled on it. “That’s not my style,” Felice clarifies. However, he may start with images of clean water changing into odd colors and mutating particles that are paired with sounds that may go from pleasant streams to something garbling.

“But I don’t want to be gloom and doom,” he says. “I like to show we can change it back to the clean. And nature can clean itself, if we stop messing with it. I like to start with beauty, show the problem, and bring it back to beauty—the cycles of how humans influence our ecosystems and all the ripple effects in between. I might be talking about phytoplankton but then I’ll show squid eating them, and the whales eating the squid and the fish, and then we’re eating the fish. We aren’t the puppet masters in control of the situation here.”

Felice has been doing site-speciifc work as long as he’s been an artist. He first lived in NC a decade ago in Asheville and created the Mini Moog Museum at The Orange Peel (the full Moogseum, for which Felice did the first 3D model, will open in April 2019, in honor of electronic sound engineer Bob Moog). Felice also founded the art festival {Re}Happening during his time in Asheville, inspired by the school of thought from the nearby Black Mountain College. BMC focused on forward-thinking ideas, and was founded in 1933 before shuttering in 1957. {Re}Happening takes place on its grounds and has expanded from local to regional to national to international representatives bringing art, new media, design, technolgy, performance art, and beyond to the mountains. Felice will be returning in 2019 to participate in {Re}Happening at the end March. Moreso, ideas are already brewing on how to cultivate community events in ILM.

“I’m looking forward to planting roots here,” he says. “It’s a great place, I can already tell.”

Gene Felice II: Solo Exhibition
Thurs., Jan. 17, 5:30 p.m.
Free Workshops
Feb. 1, 1:30 p.m.: Video Projection Mapped Microscopy
Feb. 15, 3 p.m.: Air and Water Sensing/Interaction via Arduino/DIY Electronics
Cultural Arts Building, UNCW
Randall Dr. •

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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