RMIT: Urchin corals and underwater films

3D-printed coral structures – made from sea-urchin shells blended with biopolymers – are on display at the NGV Triennial 2020.

Creator, Dr Pirjo Haikola, is an Industry Fellow lecturer in Design Innovation and Technology at RMIT, designer and SCUBA diving instructor.

Her installation talks about ecological problems in the ocean, in two Australian locations.

In Port Phillip Bay, as in many other places around the world, our impacts on the environment are causing the sea urchin population to soar.

When this happens, Haikola says, they eat their way through the seaweed habitats until there is nothing left, just an underwater desert.

“In many parts of Port Phillip Bay, this has already happened,” she said.

“The underwater film by Tom Park for which we dived together shows several sites in the Bay transition from healthy, to phase shift and finally collapse.”

Dr Pirjo Haikola used 3D-printing facilities on RMIT’s Brunswick campus.
But all hope is not lost – scientists are working to improve the ecological outlook for Port Phillip Bay by discovering ways to remove the intrusive urchins.

Chemists at RMIT, led by Professor Sylvia Urban from Applied Chemistry and Environmental Science, are looking into the chemical properties of the shells.

While in 2019 a bay-wide urchin survey was conducted by The University of Melbourne’s Sustainable Aquaculture Laboratory – Temperate and Tropical.

From that survey, Haikola received more than 2,000 urchins, so she thought of ways to use the shells as material for her artwork.

Her NGV installation features a blend of urchin shells with biopolymers, creating filament and then 3D-printed objects.

Why corals? Researchers, including Haikola, are experimenting with a range of materials – including material like what was used in the NGV installation – intended for reef restoration purposes, part of the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program for the Great Barrier Reef.

Dr Pirjo Haikola has 3D-printed coral structures made from sea-urchin shells blended with biopolymers.
Producing art during COVID
Haikola created her work amid Melbourne’s coronavirus lockdown but was determined to make it work.

“I don’t have a big house, so living and dining room had to double up as a workshop,” she said.

“During the busiest time there were three 3d-printers working simultaneously.”

Some of the work was done in RMIT’s chemistry laboratories, where Haikola processed materials and made filament.

Haikola said the largest piece of the installation was printed with an “enormous” 3D-printer on RMIT’s Brunswick campus.

“I am fortunate that a non-profit organisation – The Hydrous – allowed me to use some of their beautiful coral 3D-models,” she said.

“I am going to do my own photogrammetry work soon, perhaps some of those models will still make it to the installation, or to the next one.”

Haikola said although there were times when it seemed too difficult to achieve what she set out to do, she reminded herself of the bigger picture.

“I had to remind myself that I do this work in order to speak about ecological problems in the ocean and as a call for action for designers to act on these problems,” she said.

“We need to learn about these extremely complex problems, collaborate with experts and participate with our design expertise.”

Haikola’s works, Urchin Corals 2020, are being exhibited at the NGV Triennial 2020 until 18 April 2021.

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