Art & Science: Algae by Karenina

by Mette Oorthuijs

For a long time, illustration was the only way for humans to capture the beauty of flora and fauna around them. Even though photography has made it possible to capture all the flora and fauna of the world with only the click of a button, illustrations are still widely used by scientists for clarification. Not only does illustration still play a big role in science, science is also a huge inspiration for artists.

One of these artists is Karenina van den Crommenacker, who recently graduated from the HKU University of the Arts Utrecht with a project about algae. For her graduation exhibition in June she created a video installation concerning algae and their role in the ecosystem: called “Algmachtige” in Dutch (or “Algaemighty” in English).

Karenina van den Crommenacker in the algae cushions made for her video installation “Algmachtige”

At the exhibition, visitors could lay down on cushions shaped like various types of algae with beautiful images overhead explaining the relationship between algae and life as we know it.

Cyanobacteria, the Algmachtige.

Karenina’s installation actually describes the story of cyanobacteria, which were the first photosynthetic organisms to inhabit the earth. Their release of oxygen into the oceans and atmosphere, resulted in what is known as the Great Oxidation Event, or the first mass extinction on earth, which was the cause of a big change in the course of our planet’s evolution. Organisms preferring oxygen-poor environments faced mass extinction, whereas organisms able to use oxygen started to thrive [1]. The sudden increase in atmospheric oxygen even resulted in an ozone layer, which made (and continues to make) life on land for mammals like us possible.

Set-up of the video installation “Algmachtige” by Karenina

Today, cyanobacteria and algae are still a big part of our ecosystems.

In addition, cyanobacteria have applications in biotechnology, and could even be used to solve human medical problems, or environmental issues the planet is facing [2][3]. 

We talked with Karenina about her interest in biology and inspirations for her latest project on algae…

Is this the first time you focused on a biological process, or are you inspired by biology more often?

It’s certainly not the first time. In my first year at the art academy I did a project on gender. During this project I used knowledge from the scientific world to look at a subject that is extensively discussed socially, but from a biological perspective. Then, during my third year my fascination for microbes started! Among other things I created a tarot card set inspired by microbes. I developed an interactive map focusing on lichens from Utrecht and its surroundings. This map displays the present lichen populations, and if you heat the map with a hairdryer, you could see the populations change. This project was inspired by the Dutch researchers who first showed the effect of global warming on lichen species [4].

A set of tarot cards by Karenina. From left to right her interpretation of the tarot cards: Strength, Justice, The Star and The Devil.   
Do you always turn to scientific literature at the start of a project?

Instead of using hardcore scientific articles, I read a lot of books concerning the scientific findings. For my project on gender I read ‘Sex in the Sea’ [5] and for my most recent project I read ‘De dikke alg’ [6]. However, my biggest source of inspiration is Ernst Haeckel (zoologist and illustrator). His fantastic work encouraged my work with microbes. He researched a lot of algae as well, and the forms that I have used for this project are inspired by some of his drawings [7].

You have done a lot of biologically related projects before, why a project on algae this time? What did you like so much about algae that you chose this for your final project?

I started with reviewing all my work. Biology was one of the topics that came back repeatedly and that I really liked. And then eventually I thought about algae. Previously I had created a tarot card set with different kinds of microbes and algae on them. On the Star card, I depicted algae, which is one of the most positive cards in the tarot deck. It represents protection, and this is why I chose for algae, as they are such a huge part of our ecosystem and play a very protective role [to the planet]. When I started reading more, I realized that the protection card was even more fitting. Without the Great Oxidation Event and the creation of the ozone layer, we [mammals] probably would not be here.

So next to creating the air that we breath, algae are the reason that we are here in the first place. The photosynthetic ability of algae might also serve a role in the future: algae is the creator, guardian and savior.

Detail of algae in “Algmachtige” by Karenina

Of all the things that you have learned about algae in this project, what did you find most inspiring?

Humans are so involved with themselves and other humans. To learn about other organisms and whole ecosystems that are so much more ingenious, is really fascinating. That algae, too small to be seen by the human eye, have so much power… These invisible things, like algae, have so much impact on us and on life around us, humans aren’t that great or mighty at all.

Now that you have graduated, what are your plans? Will you continue to follow this biological path?

I would love to continue in making work related to biology. My dream is to work with a biologist or institute that needs me as a creator. I think art can be an addition to science because it has a communicative power that, like science, is constantly evolving and always in search of something new.


Clips from “Algmachtige” by Karenina. From top to bottom:
Photosynthesis by algae, the creation of the ozone layer and the inhabitation of land

While scientists are still debating whether cyanobacteria can be classified as algae, Karenina has translated our complex science in such a way that it can inspire a broad audience of people to think about the world around them, with a new perspective.

Similar to the way scientists use illustrations to clarify complex concepts, Karenina’s work is a perfect example of how art can make the public wonder, and care more deeply about natural phenomena such as algae, as “protectors” of our ecosystems. Indeed to that end, a picture might be worth a thousand words.

Want to see more of Karenina’s work? 

Visit her Instagram: karenina.blue or website: www.karenina.blue

Her next project will be exhibited from 16 november in the Janskerk, Utrecht. This installation is in collaboration with Pim Boreel, and will be part of the project 48 installation by SETUP.
When “Algmachtige” is exhibited again VU:Sci will post it on our social media.

About the writer

Mette is a second year student from the Biomolecular Sciences master at the VU. After a bachelor in neuroscience, she has chosen this master to study the molecular basis that underlies every organ in the body.

Further reading

1. Schirrmeister, B. E., Gugger, M., & Donoghue, P. C. (2015). Cyanobacteria and the Great Oxidation Event: evidence from genes and fossils. Palaeontology58(5), 769-785.

2. Abed, R. M., Dobretsov, S., & Sudesh, K. (2009). Applications of cyanobacteria in biotechnology. Journal of applied microbiology106(1), 1-12.

3. Mazard, S., Penesyan, A., Ostrowski, M., Paulsen, I., & Egan, S. (2016). Tiny microbes with a big impact: the role of cyanobacteria and their metabolites in shaping our future. Marine drugs14(5), 97.

4. Herk, C.M. van, A. Aptroot en H.F. van Dobben (2002). Long-term monitoring in the Netherlands suggests that lichens respond to global warming. Lichenologist 34: 141-154.

5. Hardt, M. J. (2017). Sex in the Sea: Our Intimate Connection with Sex-Changing Fish, Romantic Lobsters, Kinky Squid, and Other Salty Erotica of the Deep. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

6. Mooij, P. (2019). De dikke alg: Hoe algen de wereld gaan redden. Amsterdam: Overamstel Uitgevers.

7. Willmann, R., & Voss, J. (2017). The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel. Köln: Taschen.