WE ARE OCEAN: Learning the Ocean’s ABC

21 November 2023 - // Features
Anne-Marie Melster
Co-founder and executive director of ARTPORT_making waves

Dive into Ocean Literacy: From childhood ABC to the vastness of the ocean relearning interconnectedness.

If we go back to our early days at school, what did we first learn? The ABC, exactly. Now that we are grown-ups and literates, some of us – even scientists and intellectuals – should be able to know the ABC of many parts of our lives: the ABC of our body, of our health, of work, love, friendships, but most importantly the ABC of our surrounding nature, the forests, the animal habitat, and of course the ABC of the ocean to understand the fragile network and kinship, the interconnectedness.

We just function on autopilot in most of these areas: We eat as best as we can, we work as efficiently as we are able to, we exercise to keep fit, we treat our family and friends in the most respectful way, we recycle, fly as little as possible, we try to produce as little garbage as possible, we plant trees, we only buy used clothes, we repair our things instead of buying new ones – those are the ideal cases. We do all of this because we learn it somewhere, read about it, listen to conferences, and educate ourselves. So far so good.

But then there is something as huge as the world-spanning ocean and we are getting lost. Ok, we know by now that more than 71% of the world is really ocean and we should actually call our planet “Ocean” rather than “Earth”, but we are land-based beings and prefer to focus on what is happening on land because it is much closer to us and better understandable.

WE ARE OCEAN Wadden Sea_Kunstreusen by Insa Winkler, Dorum, Germany, photo: Robert Geipel, 2022

Back to school

Hence, I propose that we all go to primary school again. To the Ocean Primary School to learn from the beginning what the ocean is and what it needs, how the ocean is us and WE ARE OCEAN. Once we understand, we will never act the same way as before because we will have understood how fragile the interconnectedness and interdependence between us, and the ocean is.

I grew up with the seas: the North Sea where I was horseback riding on the Wadden Sea mudflat at low tide to train for races, where I fell in love with the tidal system, the salty waves, the seagulls, the storms in fall; The Mediterranean Sea where I spent a lot of time with friends and family and fell in love with the colors and the taste, the horizon, the tender winds in fall, the hot temperatures in summer. And then later, when I was growing up, I wanted to be close to all the seas of the ocean worldwide.

I traveled, and learned about fishermen in Honduras, about environmental catastrophes there in the 1980s, I learned about the problems in Jakarta, and about rising sea levels particularly affecting small-island countries. But all this knowledge felt like a big mixed salad, a lot of ingredients mixed together which I needed to sort out and start from the beginning, learning the ABC of the Ocean, through Ocean Literacy.

WE ARE OCEAN Venice_Come va li? Photo: Barena Bianca, Venice, Palazzina Canonica, 2022

A project was born

In 2018, I decided to go to the Ocean Primary School by creating WE ARE OCEAN. First, it was a series of three projects in Berlin, Brandenburg, Venice, and Marseille. But soon, it grew into a global program, also endorsed by UNESCO for the UN Ocean Decade. I needed to enable myself to be a trustworthy artistic and interdisciplinary director to such a broad endeavor and contribute not only with my engagement and passion but also with serious knowledge and pedagogical skills.

To create youth empowerment through an interdisciplinary and international program like WE ARE OCEAN I needed not only the selected artists who would inspire and indulge the young people in ocean literacy by involving them in co-creation. I also needed scientific experts, and marine biologists, to contribute with proven research and knowledge.  

And I obviously needed the schools, teachers, and students to come on board – here mainly the less privileged ones. And then my ‘Aufgabe’ was to merge the three areas – artistic, educational, and scientific – to create a language that everybody could understand.

This is what Ocean Literacy means for me: The language that explains the ocean and its variety and complexity, the language that doesn’t only speak about scientific facts, but also creates a new way of bringing us closer to it, to understand, fall in love with, the language which seduces us to become a caretaker and steward of the ocean, evolving from a mere user and exploiter.  

WE ARE OCEAN_intervention at the Marine Regions Forum. Photo: Marie Hahn

And this language, Ocean Literacy, was co-created by all actors and protagonists of the WE ARE OCEAN program so far: The young people in Berlin, Brandenburg, Venice, Marseille, Vancouver, the Wadden Sea region, Honduras and elsewhere, the marine biologists coming on board from our numerous partner organizations, the artists co-creating the collective artworks like performances, installations from natural materials, theatre pieces, songs, instruments, biking, and walking tours, books, applications; the curators weaving everything together, the teachers trying to structure the input to their students, the policymakers who invited or student groups and artists to be a part of international conferences to give them a voice. 

All of this orchestrated interdisciplinary youth empowerment is starting to turn into a worldwide movement for ocean literacy together with all the other ocean literacy advocates. Because together we are stronger, together we can move something, together WE ARE OCEAN.

Anne-Marie Melster
Co-founder and executive director of ARTPORT_making waves

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