“Sweat it Out” DS Institute Mobile Sauna, a hand-crafted cedar sweat lodge, Fort Point, Boston, 11/25/8—12/30/18, by Caitlin & Misha. (Photo: Lani Asuncion).

I met Caitlin Foley and Misha Rabinovich at “Sweat it Out — Towel Diplomacy in Boston,” their unique participatory project focused on the Mobile Sauna experience set up in downtown Boston. As I approached the installation, I thought I was hallucinating: a bunch of half-naked people of different ages and races, wrapped in towels, were crossing a road towards a small cute wooden structure wedged between Boston skyscrapers. The scene was humorous but brought a lot of interesting issues to the surface: what does it actually mean —a genuinely collective experience? As the artists explained: “DS Institute Mobile Sauna. Inspired by Finnish sauna diplomacy and the saying that “everyone in the sauna is equal,” we invited a range of professionals to guide conversations and activities about how Boston’s changing landscape affects us all.” 

I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the experience—as though the artists were trying to evoke all of the possible pleasures of this ancient ritual: along with their collaborator Heather Kapplow, they curated programming around herbs, traditions, games, and lectures surrounding the subject. They also created a lounge including “sweat prints” made on-site.

Sweat prints made by “Sweat it Out” attendees using pH sensitive paper, Fort Point, Boston,  11/25/18—12/30/18. (Photo: Lani Asuncion).

 Seeing “Caitlin & Misha” collective’s work over the years, I’ve come to realize that, ultimately, their projects are about collective human responsibility as they create a world we experience collectively. So, it is unsurprising that their attention turned towards water pollution with a new project, now on view at the Somerville Museum as part of a group exhibit—”Waterlines.” “Waterlines,” stories of Urban web and flow, curated by Community Curator Arlinda Shtuni, “presents newly rendered works by five noted local artists that invite us to consider the ecological, spiritual, and social dimensions of water and ask us to reawaken our personal connection with it. What is your relationship with water? “

“Surface Tension — Reflections on Realtime Streamflow.” By Caitlin & Misha. USGS open-source streamflow data, Three.js 3D modeling. Made during an Immersive Scholar residency at NCSU. (Courtesy: Caitlin & Misha).

Staring at the browser-based visualization called “Surface Tension — Reflections on Realtime Streamflow” by “Caitlin & Misha,” one experiences a dreamy, trance-like state, where “algae-inspired” pulsating green creates a beautiful but disorienting experience. The color choice is not arbitrary but a result of the artists’ research into our color perception. As artists state: “water supports life but can also drown and destroy. People are mostly water, but the melting ice caps threaten our very existence. Harnessing this elemental force requires a balancing act, and this artwork is a reflection on humanity’s fraught relationship with freshwater.”

The first iteration of “Surface Tension” was created during a 2-month residency funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation at the North Carolina State University. They used open source software to create this beautiful data visualization that updates daily with USGS open source streamflow data, “the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in realtime across the US.” As Caitlin pointed out that freshwater pollution is often being neglected, giving priority to the ocean water problems, so the map is focused on freshwater chemical deposit data—lakes and rivers. 

WHAT: “Surface Tension”  by “Caitlin & Misha”

WHEN:  May 13th – November 18th, 2023.

WHERE: Waterworks Museum (https://waterworksmuseum.org/).

Another recent project by the collective, part of the group show—”WE REFUSE, WE WANT, WE COMMIT” at 292 Gallery Bullet Space E. 3rd St., explores their concerns for our environmental future from a different angle. It creates an exciting juxtaposition between biodiversity and the virtual environment. The exhibition was also a soft launch of the Publication “We Refuse, We Want, We Commit,” introducing the article “Shrine to Fallen Microbes” by the artists.

Shrine to Fallen Microbes: B. Longum by Caitlin & Misha. 3D modeling tools: Maya, Three.js; AI “WE REFUSE, WE WANT, WE COMMIT.” (Courtesy: Caitlin & Misha).

It all started with Misha’s and Caitlin’s shared interest in the problem of diminishing microbes. “Since the invention of antibiotics, microbes started dying out—leading to the potential for dangerous monocultures,”—says Misha. “Our first shrine in Shrine to Fallen Microbes is dedicated to a microbe we learned about from scientists at King’s College in London, B. Longum, a microbe which helps digests breast milk,”—observes Caitlin. While visually alike, each microbe is an individual organism, prompting the search for a unique visual character. “Caitlin & Misha” are very playful in their approach to the projects—it’s always fun to see how they engage with new subjects, discover new ways of working, and experiment with new tools. I sense kid-like curiosity behind their process. In this visual investigation, the artists worked with 3D modeling tools, including Maya and Three.js, to create an environment memorializing these microbes. They also incorporate a few AI-generated images of microbes as a thought experiment for ways to increase microbial diversity.

The bizarre digital sculpture, as though floating in the cosmos, lost in time and space, simultaneously beautiful and odd, is a reflection and depressing futurist vision. As artists explain: “Culture” can refer to bacterial colonies as well as a human achievement, both of which crave diversity to maintain healthy relationships. Online we are surrounded by monocultures with the potential to run astray, including information filter bubbles that can explode. We are now inundated with radical monoculture infections that threaten to fuel contemporary epidemics in both cultural and ecological domains.”

The article raises the question, “Could a healthy balance of more transparent algorithms and people keep bad ideas in check?” and warns, “True sharing is necessary on the Internet because, without diversity of ideas, a filter bubble becomes fragile and susceptible to monoculture infections.”

I hope that “Caitlin & Misha”‘s projects create sufficient “surface tension” to pierce our collective consciousness in time to reverse some of these deadly processes set in motion by us so that there is time to reflect on how each and every action affects the collective whole, and what can be done.