The 2010 BP (formerly British Petroleum) Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill was the largest environmental disaster in the history of the United States (Belanger et al. 2010). The Gulf of Mexico is one of the most important and biologically diverse environments in the world—a nursery for thousands of marine species, with numerous endemic organisms inhabiting its warm waters. Gulf seafood is an important source of food for millions of people in North America, and, since marine species migrate by following the Gulf Stream, people throughout Europe also rely on these fish for protein. From an ecological and economic standpoint, the DWH spill could not have occurred in a more disastrous location.
The tremendous amount of oil that was spilled, estimated at 206 million gallons, resulted in an immediate kill zone that measured greater than 200 kilometers wide (Rabalais 2011; Ramseur and Hagerty 2013). It wiped out enormous numbers of marine life. During the cleanup, BP exacerbated the spill’s toxicity and reach by utilizing upward of 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants such as Corexit 9500, which made the effluents as much as 52 percent more toxic than the oil itself (Rico-Martínez, Snell, and Shearer 2013); it also allowed them to be more easily dispersed. According to the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for Corexit 9500, produced by the chemical manufacturer Nalco, no toxicity studies were conducted prior to its use in the gulf (Kujawinski et al. 2011). However, numerous earlier toxicology studies found such dispersants to be teratological1 to marine wildlife and possibly carcinogenic to humans (Rogerson and Berger 1981; Singer et al. 1993; Scarlett et al. 2005; Fontham and Trapido 2010). Regardless, BP applied these dispersants in deep sea as well as to surface water. Normal currents spread the contaminants throughout the region, eventually coating thousands of kilometers of the gulf floor with toxic sludge and impacting over one thousand miles of fragile estuary ecosystems and beaches. A recent United States Congressional Report estimates that after cleanup efforts, almost half the oil (over 100 million gallons) remains in the gulf (Ramseur 2010).
As an artist and biologist, I could not ignore the impact of the oil spill on the biological as well as human communities of the gulf. In response, over the past four years, I created several bodies of artwork2 that have addressed these issues with the primary goal of generating and sustaining discussion on the state of the gulf. Millions of dollars were spent by BP on a public relations campaign that suggested the gulf has recovered from the DWH disaster, while the scientific community and residents paint a different picture (Smith 2010; Cherry and Sneirson 2011). In actuality, it is essential for scientific research to continue in the gulf to monitor long-term impacts and signs of recovery. My hope is that my art in some way will aid in keeping the public informed about these findings and push us to continue to ask questions.
Pictured here is one such series: Ghosts of the Gulf. To create these images I used a process of chemically clearing and staining species I collected from the gulf since the DWH disaster. These specimens were found already dead after the spill, and I wanted to analyze them through the clearing and staining process to screen them for anatomical deviations or developmental malformations.3 These particular species were once common but are now possibly in decline; they appear here as apparitions.
The clearing and staining process entails first preserving the specimens in 10 percent buffered formalin before placing them in an acid bath with blue stain that adheres to cartilage. Next, the specimens are masticated with the digestive enzyme trypsin, which starts the process of clearing away the soft tissues. The specimens are then bathed in an alkaline solution with a red dye that bonds with bone. Different forms of this clearing and staining method have been used to study vertebrate development in the biological sciences for over a century. I use this method regularly to study developmental deviations in amphibians; the used chemicals are disposed of through standard laboratory waste services to minimize environmental impact.
In the final stages of the process, the specimens are transitioned through another series of baths, starting with potassium hydroxide and finishing with glycerin. Any remaining tissue becomes transparent, leaving the vividly dyed red and blue bones and cartilage. The final specimens look like brightly colored x-rays, revealing the complex architectural anatomy of these beautiful and disappearing species.
All works are giclée prints on handmade Japanese rice paper. Editions of 13. 18 x 24 in. each. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York. © 2014 Brandon Ballengée
Teratology is the scientific study of physical abnormalities in developing organisms, such as birth defects or other bodily deviations during growth (Taylor 1986).
Please see brandonballengee.com/collapse-the-cry-of-silent-forms/.
Such developmental deformities among vertebrates may be symptomatic of compromise or decline of ecosystem functioning (Ballengée and Green 2011).