Becoming a Sentinel Species

Video Installation

Plastic pollution in the Earth’s oceans has become a part of marine species’ daily experience. These species act as sentinels – animals which give early indications to environmental hazards – informing scientists who seek to understand the impacts of plastic in the field. Plastic pollution crisscrosses marine and terrestrial realms, and is likewise a part of the human experience. Early stages of research indicate that tiny microplastic particles may also be entering the human “inner ocean” – the bloodstream.

Becoming a Sentinel Species (2020) suggests an expanded awareness of our world. All its intertwined sentinels may lead to a reconnection with our shared deep past, enabling an abundant multi-species coexistence on Earth. The human health impacts of microplastics are yet to be elucidated, but their presence in our bodies and surroundings is a potent reminder that we are not impenetrable entities, but rather fluid organisms – no more pure than the environments we co-create. We have, in a sense, always been sentinels. 

The video work is a fictional story imagining a future in which humans explore and reflect on the role of the sentinel as eyewitness to environmental pollution. The film follows two researchers who experimentally introduce microplastics collected from the sea into their own bodies. In order to “become sentinels” they isolate macrophages from blood and contaminate them with microplastics in a laboratory setting. The story takes a turn as the researchers discover that this encounter between the macrophages and microplastics may have profound neurophysiological consequences.


About Sissel Marie Tonn
Sissel Marie Tonn is a Danish artist based in The Hague, The Netherlands. In 2016 she was the recipient of the Theodora Niemeijer prize for emerging female artists, resulting in her first solo show at the Eye in Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. She was a resident at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht in 2017 – 2018. In 2019 Tonn received the talent development grant from Stimuleringsfonds NL, and in 2020 she was the recipient of the BAD Award, together with scientists Heather Leslie and Juan J. Garcia Vallejo for this project “Becoming A Sentinel Species”. Her work featured in Istanbul Design Biennial (2018), Ballroom Marfa (2018) and Kikk Festival in Namur (2019).