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The Crochet Coral Reef - "Ladies Silurian Atoll" (detail). Photo © The Institute For Figuring (by Margaret Wertheim)

The Crochet Coral Reef Project was created in 2005 by Margaret and Christine Wertheim, director and co-director of the Institute For Figuring. Under the Wertheim sisters intensive direction a Core Collection of Crochet Reefs has been brought into being over the past 4 years. This body of work has been made by the sisters themselves - they have personally crocheted about half the pieces in the collection - plus approximately 40 other Contributors around the world. This unique and eclectic group of individuals are known as the IFF Core Reef Crafters. A list of these people can be seen here.

The collection of works made by the Core Reef Crafters constitutes the Crochet Coral Reef, a work of art owned by and exhibited under the auspices of the Institute For Figuring. Margaret and Christine also act as Curators of the Crochet Reef and take personal charge of the installation of these works in every exhibition venue. As of March 2009 the CCR has been exhibited at the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburg 2007), the Chicago Cultural Center (Chicago 2007), NYU’s Broadway Windows (NYC 2008), World Financial Center Winter Garden (NYC 2008), The Hayward (London 2008), and Track 16 Gallery (Los Angeles 2009). Further exhibitions of the CCR are scheduled for the Scottsdale Civic Center Library (Spring/Summer 2009), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (Washington DC, 2010/2011), and discussions are under way with several other exhibitors.

The Bleached Reef (detail) featuring red and white sea slug by Marianne Midelburg, blue rock-coral by Nancy Lewis, white spires by Evelyn Hardin, bleached dodecahedron by Lily Chin, vintage plastic doillies by makers unknown, and miniature beaded corals by Nadia Severns. Photos © The IFF, by Margaret Wertheim.

In addition to the Core Collection of IFF reefs, the Reef Project entails a community component in which citizens of local cities or regions construct their own reefs. These reefs are known as the Satellite Reefs. Historically the first Satellite Reef was the Chicago Reef, which was constructed in 2007 under the auspices of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and the Chicago Humanities Festival. The second Satellite Reef was the New York Reef, constructed in 2008 under the auspices of the New York Institute of the Humanities, the New York Crochet Guild and the Harlem Knitting Circle. The third Satellite Reef was the UK Reef, which was constructed in 2008 under the auspices of the Southbank Center and the Crafts Council in the UK. As of March 2009 there are further Satellite Reefs under construction in Scottsdale Arizona, Sydney Australia, Latvia, and one is being planned for Washington DC. Individual Satellite Reefs are usually exhibited in conjunction with the core CCR in the cities in which they were made.

"Ladies Silurian Atoll" by the Institute For Figuring, seen here at Track 16 Gallery in Los Angeles (2009). Photo from the IFF Archive by Francine McDougall.

Intellectual History of the Project:

The Reef Project was created by Margaret and Christine out of several intersecting threads that run deeply through their lives. The Project is an unusual fusion of mathematics, marine biology, feminine handicraft, collective art practice, and environmental consciousness-raising that reflects the professional lives of both sisters in the fields of art and science.

By profession Margaret is a science writer. She has degrees in physics and mathematics. When not crocheting coral, she writes books about the cultural history of physics and as a science journalist has written hundreds of articles for magazines and newspapers including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New Scientist, Cabinet, and many other publications. She is the author of several books including "Pythagoras' Trousers" (a history of the relationship between physics and religion) and "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet." Margaret has also written and produced television programs, including Catalyst, a six-part series about science and technology that was aimed at teenage girls (ABC Australia 1990).

Christine has a Phd in philosophy and literature and is a faculty member in the Department of Critical Studies at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. Many years ago she was a painter and for 10 years she taught Critical Studies at art colleges in London, including Goldsmith’s College. Christine is also an experimental poet and co-hosts the Seance series of conference on experiment writing at REDCAT in Los Angeles. She is the author of "+|'meS-pace" a volume of poetry and has edited several anthologies about contemporary writing.

Both sisters now share a house in Highland Park, Los Angeles. The crochet reef emanated from their Highland Park living room and for the first 3 years of its life it took over much of their home.

Detail of "The People's Reef" made by citizens of New York and Chicago (showing here at Track 16 Gallery, Los Angeles, 2009).

The Crochet Coral Reef exhibition at Track 16 Gallery, Los Angeles 2009. At center is the People's Reef - a vast and stunning agglomeration of crochet hyperbolics by the citizens of New York and Chicago. At left is Dr Axt's amazing Whiticus Reeficus, at right is the Toxic Reef along with Helle Jorgensen's exquisite Rubbish Vortex. In the back corner is the Midden plus Evelyn Hardin's gorgeous White Spire Tube-Worm Grove. The blue columns are crochted out of New York Times plastic bags by Claire O'Callaghan. Photo from the IFF Archive by Francine McDougall 2009.

The CCR Project traces its roots to several different fields of interest. One is the Wertheim’s desire to bring attention to the plight of living reefs. Margaret and Christine grew up in Queensland, Australia, home state of the Great Barrier Reef, which is being devastated by the effects of global warming. The idea of crocheting a coral reef was inspired by scientists’ emerging understanding that warming waters are the chief cause of increasingly massive coral bleaching events. It was Margaret’s work as a science journalist that brought her attention to this subject. But the roots of the project pre-date the creation of the Reef itself. Through Margaret’s work as a science writer she discovered Dr Daina Taimina, a mathematician who in 1997 figured out how to make models of hyperbolic geometry using crochet. This is the geometry realized in the anatomies of many reef organisms including many species of corals, kelps, sponges, and sea slugs. In 2004 and 2005 Dr Taimina gave several lectures for the Institute about her work and in 2005 the IFF hosted an exhibition of purely mathematical hyperbolic crochet pieces made by Dr Taimina and by Margaret and Christine.

After exploring the geometry of these forms, Margaret and Christine came to understand that these were the forms embodied in living reefs and they conceived of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project. From the start the sisters imagined the project as a collective enterprise – though they had no idea how far it would spread. To date hundreds of thousand people have seen the Crochet Reef exhibitions, thousands of people have attended workshops, and many hundreds have contributed models. The project has morphed into an amazing worldwide collaboration of creative feminine energy.