AfterShock, Marine Life Saving Emergency Pillow Project by Jennifer Zackin debuting as part of Pillow Pageant presented by A.I.R. Gallery & PILLOW CULTURE: 16 artist-designed pillows & accompanying films inspired by US patent applications. DUMBO Arts Festival, Friday, Sept. 24: 6-9pm, Sat. & Sun., Sept. 25-26: noon-6pm 55 Washington St., suite 453

When multimedia artist Jennifer Zackin was invited to create a project inspired by a vintage pillow design patent, oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from the blown-out Macondo well at a rate of 53,000 barrels of oil per day. Pillow Pageant curators provided a virtual folder full of actual patent applications for selected artists to riff on – pillows designed to enhance smell, hearing, beauty, health, fertility, and posture. But the pillow that caught Jennifer’s eye was patent #1,470,598 submitted in 1923, “Pillow, Marine Life Saving Belt, and the Like” in the “Emergency” category.  Recently overwhelmed by images of oiled sea creatures, upon reading the title Jennifer did not at first associate the patent with a design meant to recue humans, but as a literal Marine Life Saving Belt – something that could have the potential to rescue the marine life itself.

Jennifer had been impressed by “hair booms” – oil-absorbent nylon tubes stuffed with donated human and animal hair - being manufactured en masse by volunteers as part of a project coordinated by Matter of Trust. She decided to make a sculptural installation based on the Marine Life Saving Emergency Pillow that could be donated to Matter of Trust at the conclusion of the Pillow Pageant exhibition for actual use in helping to clean up oil in the Gulf.

Well known for her use of bold color and pattern, Jennifer was able to secure a generous donation of colorful nylon tights from We Love Colors and a orange mesh material from Delstar Industries. She contacted alpaca and sheep farmers in Old Chatham, Columbia County, New York who were willing to donate tons of lower grade wool that could not otherwise be used in weaving. Interns and high school students were engaged to stuff hundreds of tights to create tendril-like tubes that could lend themselves perfectly to the anemone-like forms Jennifer had envisioned.

Meanwhile, as oil from the exploded well came to the sea’s surface, toxic dispersant chemicals were being used in unprecedented quantities to hide the damage and to make the disaster appear less catastrophic. Hair and other types of boom became ineffectual, as they had nothing left to absorb – the oil itself had, in large part, seemingly disappeared.

With the well now capped and the disaster receiving diminishing attention in the media, the public is apt to believe that life in the Gulf is back to normal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Enormous dead zones have resulted, disrupting vast ecosystems, fisheries, lives, and livelihoods. The most disturbing fact of all may be that this is not an isolated incident. Human impact, including the detrimental effects of mining, drilling, and farming, is causing enormous marine dead zones from the Chesapeake Bay and Scandinavia to China and Japan to the Niger Delta. As of 2008, 405 dead zones were documented around the world.

While it is possible that Jennifer Zackin’s AfterShock project will not ultimately be used to absorb oil the Gulf, it will undoubtedly serve as a potent reminder of the exquisite, colorful, mysterious creatures that inhabit our oceans. By helping us to remember and appreciate life in the sea, the Marine Life Saving Emergency Pillow may function in unexpected ways.

AfterShock will be presented at the 2010 Dumbo Arts Festival in Brooklyn, NY on the banks of the East River between the Manhattan & Brooklyn Bridge in the Brooklyn Bridge Park, Main Street on September 23-26, 2010.

By Alyce Santoro, an internationally-exhibiting conceptual artist, environmental activist, and writer exploring the roll of artist as "social sculptor".