Deep Undercurrents: Reflecting on the research insights arising from the DEEP Fund projects

By Stuart Jeffrey

The Undercurrents: Art and the Ocean in Africa and the Pacific exhibition showcased DEEP Fund outputs at the Glasgow School of Art’s Reid Gallery in April 2023 and has now been launched as the Undercurrents Digital Exhibition. It is now is a good time to reflect on the processes that underpinned the exhibition, One Ocean Hub’s DEEP Fund, and to highlight future exhibitions, dissemination routes and publications that arise directly from this work. The DEEP Fund has so far funded nine community-led art-based research projects with makers based in Ghana, South Africa, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. Each project has had multiple impacts in domains such as capacity building, creative economies, and evidencing the value of Indigenous knowledge for understanding the impact of the ocean-climate nexus on local communities. Critically, each project also surfaces and highlights communities’ long-term spiritual and cultural connections to, and claims on, the ocean.  

The current phase of the DEEP Fund 

While the Glasgow exhibition itself was highly successful, with an over-subscribed opening event and attracting over 600 visitors during its short run, it is important to contextualise the exhibition within the DEEP Fund programme of activities. Notably, a key objective in mounting the physical exhibition in Glasgow was to allow us to draw together DEEP Fund outputs in a way that facilitated an efficient and detailed 3D digital recording of the works in the exhibition space. This record, in turn, allows us to reach a global audience via the online digital exhibition. This digital version also provides a platform through which richer, more complex and more detailed information on each projects’ context, objectives, production and impacts can be shared.  

Returning to the context of the DEEP Fund, from which the Undercurrents artworks arose, it is important to make a distinction between traditional art exhibitions – where visitors are invited to consider the works of art as discrete objects in themselves and perhaps critique the aesthetic choices of the artist. Undercurrents took a different approach as each of the featured works of art embody locally self-determined priorities, values and aesthetics that reflect the specific circumstances of their production. The DEEP Fund’s aim is to prioritise marginalised voices in global debates about marine policies and management. Consequently, the works themselves should be considered as one element of each long-term project supported by the DEEP Fund. These projects have used creative responses in order to surface emotional connections to the ocean and the multiple challenges to its health. Importantly, these responses draw on a range of community-based learnings, workshops, intergenerational knowledge sharing and exercises in capacity building for local creative economies.  

Innovative methodologies 

The DEEP Fund itself represents an innovative research methodology that occupies the space between direct commissioning of an artwork from a community group or collective, and the direct application of research activity on the dynamic between community priorities and indigenous art practice. The DEEP Fund represents a collaborative working model where decision making, from inception, to production, to outcomes, is led by community grantees in collaboration with the research team. Counter to conventional commissioning processes, the DEEP Fund specifically gave only general thematic direction to partners, allowing maximum artistic freedom and creating the valuable space for local priorities to emerge. Consequently, there is a focus both on documenting the production process and meaning making, rather than just the final physical outcome.  

A key aspect of this methodology is the rigorous assignment of ownership and copyright of the final products to the originating artists, again this is counter to conventional commissioning processes. The Hub retains a non-exclusive right to share outcomes for agreed purposes, including the Undercurrents digital exhibition. This approach greatly enhances the value of each project’s outcomes in terms of capacity building and creative economies. 

Co-development of outputs and impact pathways  

Following this collaborative model of research, outputs from DEEP Fund projects are being co-written with participants which detail both the project development processes and project impacts from community to policy and decision-making levels. These are to be published in an open access book with Sidestone Press, due for publication in early 2024. Each DEEP Fund project will have a dedicated chapter and will draw on the extensive documentation of the art production process, including images, video and written reflections, that were created as an intrinsic element of each DEEP Fund project. 

Although the DEEP Fund’s focus has now shifted to enhancing the digital exhibition with more and richer details on each project’s activities and findings (e.g. the book chapters mentioned above will be directly linked to the digital exhibition), directly engaging new audiences with the physical project outputs through exhibition and promotion also continues. The London Design Biennale’s Eureka exhibition in June 2023 was another opportunity to feature the tapestry Our Sacred Ocean created by the Keiskamma Art Project (Eastern Cape, South Africa) as well as the book produced by the Erromango Culture Association, (Vanuatu) Netai en Namou Toc. A video walkthrough of the digital exhibition showing all the other works from Undercurrents: Art and the Ocean in Africa and the Pacific was also included in the display. Held at the prestigious Somerset House in London, the Eureka pavilion attracted over 6400 visitors. 

Similarly, July will see all the works generated by DEEP Fund projects in the Pacific region going on display during the seventh Melanesian Arts and Culture Festival in Port Vila, Vanuatu (MACFEST also has an active Facebook page). This will again be curated by the Hub’s early-career research based at the Glasgow School of Art, Dr Lisa McDonald. The Festival offers an excellent opportunity to build on the work of directly engaging with decision makers in the areas of ocean governance and climate change. This is exemplified by the One Ocean Hub session at the Moana Blue Pacific Pavilion at CoP27, which saw DEEP Fund community partners, academics and politicians pull together these issues, including a call for cultural heritage based evidence such, as Netai en Namou Toc, to support the multi-state initiative to adopt a Resolution of the UN General Assembly calling for an Advisory Opinion on Climate Change from the International Court of Justice (which was successful in 2023). 


Looking forward to how we further share the research and learning outcomes that have arisen, and continue to arise, from the DEEP Fund projects, we are looking forward to both the digital exhibition and individual projects being incorporated into the One Ocean Learn platform. In the planning stages, the inclusion as an ‘exhibition’ on the platform of the specifically young audience and educationally focused Aku and the Journey of the Turtle Spirit, a graphic novel by Drama Queens in Ghana. Of course, other individual project outputs continue to have fruitful lives of their own, searching out avenues of influence and dissemination. These are part of an ongoing process of making community concerns about the ocean, and community cultural and spiritual connections to it, more prominent, and in some cases central, to debates around policy and governance. An example of this in the last few months have been the airing of Dr Eric Debrah Otchere’s documentary on the song culture of small-scale fishers in Ghana, Cocooned in Harmony, on Ghanaian national television.   

The original intention of the DEEP Fund in creating a digital outcome incorporating and contextualising elements of all DEEP Fund projects was creating a permanent online access point to the work. This access point can be promoted, shared and incorporated into all manner of other resources and online policy fora long after the projects themselves have been completed, forming a permanent legacy for the communities and collaborators. 

We are also working on distilling the various layers of learning arising from the DEEP Fund, including: 

  • A blog post on the technical aspects of how the digital recording and presentation of the exhibition was undertaken for this project; 
  • An academic paper on the innovative funding methodology co-developed for the DEEP Fund;  
  • A conference presentation on the regional research findings related to Melanesia from different DEEP Fund projects; and 
  • An academic paper on the research ethics characterising the DEEP Fund projects.  

Photo: Laura Meriläinen

Related SDGs:

  • Reduced inequality
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Responsible consumption and production
  • Climate action
  • Life below water
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions