M.O. Turtlegrass Meadow, 2023
A project by the Meditation Ocean Constellation
Six-channel video installation with ambient score, guided meditations, seating, public programming
67 minutes, looped
For M.O. Turtlegrass Meadow, the premiere iteration of Meditation Ocean, a group of eight divers spent four days in Biscayne National Park in the Florida Keys. Experimenting with notions of buoyancy and what they offer to terrestrial concepts of “grounding” in meditative practice–along with new modes of weightless embodiment—the divers rose from the seabed to float in meditation.
This “underwater meditation retreat” was both a live experience and a video production. The resulting footage, captured with three underwater cameras shooting in the round, was used to create the exhibition Meditation Ocean, curated by Jennifer Lange, on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts from February–July 2023.
A series of programs, workshops, and events developed with Dionne Custer Edwards and the Department of Learning & Public Practice accompanied the exhibition. There was also close work with Art & Resilience at the Wex and its incredible student leaders. Additional engagements involve The Ohio State University's Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center and the Schiermeier Olentangy River Wetlands Research Park.
A gallery guide features texts by Anaïs Duplan, Hope Ginsburg, Melody Jue, and Jennifer Lange. A Climate Impact Report with Artists Commit is in progress for the Wexner Center exhibition. Read about Meditation Ocean in Artforum.
Installation photos by Stephen Takacs. All other images are video stills. Trailer credits appear on the Vimeo page.
M.O. Turtlegrass Meadow was filmed (1) in October 2021 at Alina’s Reef in Biscayne National Park in the Florida Keys. The coral reef and surrounding grassy area are approximately twenty feet deep in the Atlantic Ocean, east of Totten Key. The site is off the coast of Homestead, Florida, south of Miami.
We acknowledge that to be present in these coastal Florida waters is to be present with the historical and contemporary traumas of colonization, enslavement, and migration. We remember and honor those whose lives were harmed or claimed by these histories of white supremacy and human brutality. We also acknowledge the importance of telling the Florida Keys’ stories of self-liberation, refuge, and departure.
The Calusa tribe of southwest Florida and the Tequesta tribe of the southeast lived and thrived in the early 16th century during the arrival of the first Spanish settler-colonizers crossing the Atlantic to Florida. We honor the people of the Calusa, Tequesta, and Matecumbe tribes residing on the islands of the Florida Keys during the onset of colonial occupation. We name the fact that due to violent displacement, disease, and the depletion of resources, by the mid-eighteenth century, only a few Indigenous families remained on the islands, forced to move between them for sustenance.
Awareness practice in Biscayne National Park is an exchange with the very waters in which the Spanish ship Guerrero sank in 1827. The Guerrero was one of many ships still sailing after the ban on the Transatlantic slave trade. When the Guerrero entered combat with the British patrol boat Nimble, there were 561 enslaved Africans on board. Forty-one of them drowned in that tragedy. The Atlantic seabed is both a memorial and a place of mourning for those lives and for the millions of enslaved Africans who died in the Middle Passage. Diving with a Purpose, the organization that is searching for the final resting place of the Guerrero, works internationally to preserve and conserve submerged heritage, with a focus on the African diaspora. We thank them for being part of the production of this project and honor the work they do and the histories they are uncovering.
The Florida Keys remained relatively undeveloped by settlers until the 1890s, which made them a site of refuge and departure. In the pre-Civil War era, when US patrol boats seized slave trade ships in the Keys, the city of Key West provided a haven. Those escaping enslavement farther north in Florida and the southern states during the Civil War sought refuge in Union-controlled Key West. Self-liberated Africans and Black Seminoles who arrived on Key Biscayne from the southernmost tip of Florida’s peninsula, making their way to Cape Florida, were able to negotiate passage to the Bahamas, making the Keys a point of escape to the Bahamas and other sites of maroon community in the Caribbean.
The Biscayne National Monument was created in 1968, officially becoming Biscayne National Park in 1980. When land-owners in the Keys municipality Islandia proposed an industrial seaport with an oil refinery, there was protest. Two brothers, King Arthur Lafayette Jones and Sir Lancelot Garfield Jones, who were the second-largest landowners on Islandia, refused to sell, leading to the establishment of the monument. Their father, Israel Lafayette Jones, a Black agriculturalist from Raleigh, North Carolina, grew the family’s real estate holdings by building the largest key lime enterprise in the state. Jones made his way to the Keys in the early 1890s to homestead, shielded to some extent from the violence, racism, and economic struggle of life on the mainland. Though we recognize that the creation of the National Park System is contested due to its displacement of Indigenous people and rural people relying on the land for subsistence, Biscayne National Park owes its founding to the Jones family and resistance to industrial development.
Biscayne National Park is 95% water and is home to the northern part of the third-largest coral reef system in the world. Yet less than 10% of the reef is covered in living coral due to impacts like heat stress and bleaching events, disease, acidification, overfishing, and coastal development. Many coral species face a high risk of extinction. Along with environmental devastation, the climate crisis is wreaking economic havoc. Coral reefs provide tourism, sites for fishery areas, over 70,000 jobs, and hundreds of billions of dollars annually for Florida. We acknowledge that these economic impacts are unevenly distributed, having the greatest impact on communities of color and poor and working-class people. Issues of environmental justice are as bound up with the ocean as they are with the land. (2) Globally, these ocean justice issues include ecosystem loss, sea-level rise, pollution, storms intensified by climate change, and human rights abuses.
Florida’s coastal waters, bays, and coral reef tracts are fed by the Everglades watershed, a “river of grass” originating near Orlando and flowing south. Since the nineteenth century, more than half of the original Everglades have been destroyed by settler development, industry, draining, and reengineering for agricultural interests. Agricultural runoff in the freshwater Everglades causes harmful algal blooms and sea grass die-offs when it empties into Florida’s surrounding salt waters. We recognize the Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation Aboriginal Peoples, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the work they are doing to restore and protect the Everglades. We name the resistance of the Love the Everglades Movement and Defend the Sacred movement, and the clean water activism of many, including leaders Betty Osceola and Reverend Houston Cypress of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.
At the time of this writing, there is a steep rise in asylum seekers from Cuba and Haiti crossing the Florida Straits to the Florida Keys and Miami. Brought on by a longstanding US trade embargo and the coronavirus pandemic, Cuba’s economic crisis has led to food scarcity, blackouts, and political persecution. This wave of Cuban migration is the largest in over fifty years. Current protests in Haiti against outside intervention are aimed at addressing political turmoil, escalating gang violence, displacement, and economic crisis. These conditions are driving migration at levels not seen in almost two decades. We name the connection of this unrest to US foreign policy, as well as the failure of immigration policy to adequately address the situation within the US. We acknowledge the catastrophe of these migration and humanitarian crises and their presence on Florida’s shores and in its surrounding waters.
Finally, this site statement is an evolving document, reflecting learning, changing social and environmental conditions, and new knowledge. Thank you for reflecting on these acknowledgments. Further exchange is invited.
Meditation Ocean Constellation
1. The M.O. Turtlegrass Meadow video shoot went through a National Environmental Policy Act review in conversation with the Environmental Protection Specialist and Supervisory Wildlife Biologist at Biscayne National Park, resulting in a special use permit for the four-day duration of our work.
2. Johnson, Ayana Elizabeth. “What I Know About the Ocean: We Need Ocean Justice.” Sierra, December 12, 2020.
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Goggin, John M. “The Indians and History of the Matecumbe Region.” Excavations on Upper Matecumbe Key, Florida. New Haven: Yale University Publications in Anthropology, No. 41, 1949.
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Johnson, Ayana Elizabeth. “What I Know About the Ocean: We Need Ocean Justice.” Sierra, December 12, 2020.
Love the Everglades Movement. Lovetheeverglades.org.
Martinez, A and Goodhue, David. “Dozens of Haitian Migrants Were Rescued While Trying to Reach the Florida Keys.” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, November 22, 2022.
Mooney, Chris. “The Race to Save Florida’s Devastated Coral Reef from Global Warming.” The Washington Post, June 25, 2017.
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“NOAA/WDS Paleoclimatology - Alina's Reef, Biscayne National Park - Stable Isotope Data.” National Centers for Environmental Information, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, July 4, 2022.
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Sullivan, Becky. “As its Only Remaining Elected Officials Depart, Haiti Reaches a Breaking Point.” National Public Radio, January 18, 2023.
“Threats to the Everglades.” Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida.
“What We Stand On: Reverend Houston Cypress Interviewed by Monica Uszerowicz.” Bomb Magazine, August 20, 2021.