Friday Philosophy: "Functional Aesthetics"

Part of what I love about the aquarium hobby is the many different directions that we can choose to take. And, with so many hobbyists starting to get into this dark and earthy world that we play with, it's important to look at what we do in the context of aquarium hobby overall, and how this affects our understanding and expectations of this approach.

I think it starts with looking at the current "rules" of the aquarium game, and what their implications are.

As long-term readers of "The Tint" know, I tend to take an extremely dim view of "rules" that nature herself hasn't laid out. People ask me why this is, and I think it comes from my deep distrust of "them", and an overwhelming respect for the way Nature has created her ecosystem.

Some of the most offensive "rules", IMHO, tend to be those which dictate the way materials need to be laid out within an aquarium in order to conform to some sort of "style." Now, before you go on and rail on me, I'm not saying that you shouldn't take into consideration some artistic norms, with due consideration that we are working in confined spaces, etc. I'm not saying that utilizing some guidelines from the art world or design is a bad thing! There is a lot of very good stuff we can grab from that world. It's not "us versus them" by any stretch.

That being said, I can't help but think about how Nature forms the ultimate "prototype" for almost everything we do. And how we as a hobby seem to have sort of turned the other way for a long period of time and embraced a more "artistic" style as opposed to a purely "natural" one.

Don't get me wrong- I love artistic 'scaping, and like to incorporate it in the work that I do.  I'm not advocating that you go 360 degrees in the other direction and become obsessively "biotope-centric", either.

It's just that I have looked at the botanical stuff with more than just a nod to how they make the aquarium look, and I think we all need to understand that it's more than just about the pure aesthetics here. I understand why aquascapers embrace some of the theories of color, style, etc...but sometimes wonder if the "pervasiveness" of this mindset  in the hobby has prejudiced us to the point where we have created a "standard" for what we think nature looks like: Orderly, neat, colorful, proportioned.

As we know, Nature couldn't give a $%#@ about our perceptions of her work! 

Is there not also beauty in "randomness", despite our near-obsessive pursuit of rules, such as "golden ratio", color aggregating, etc? Surely there is some happy medium here?

I think so.

Just because last year's big 'scaping contest winner had the "perfect" orientation, ratios, and alignment of the "(insert this year's trendiest wood here) branch" within the tank, doesn't mean it's a real representation of the natural functionality of "randomness." 

In other words, just because it looks "good", it doesn't mean it's what nature looks like.

Or acts like, for that matter.

One of the things that we've noticed lately in the hobby, particularly in our sector, is a trend towards more "realistic" aquariums. Not just systems which look like natural environments; rather, systems which are modeled as much after the function of them as the aesthetics.

"Functional aesthetics."

A less rigidly aesthetically-controlled, perhaps less "high-concept" approach in the eyes of some- setting the stage for...Nature- to do what she's done for eons without doing as much to "help it along." Rather, the mindset here is to allow nature to take it's course, and to embrace the breakdown of materials, the biofilms, the decay...and rejoice in the ever-changing aesthetic and functional aspects of a natural aquatic system- "warts and all" -and how they can positively affect our fishes.

We're seeing that not only do botanicals, leaves, and alternative substrate materials look interesting- they provide a physiological basis for creating unique environmental conditions for our fishes and plants. We're seeing fish graze on the life forms which live in and among the decomposing botanicals, as well as the botanicals themselves- just like in nature...And we are seeing the influence- aesthetically and chemically- that these materials assert on the aquarium's environmental parameters.

Some of the "next" things that I see our community working on are further explorations into understanding and replicating natural water parameters and what the implications are for our aquariums. I also see more developments in trying to recreate some aspects of natural "food chains" in our BWBS aquariums, by facilitating the growth and reproduction of fungi, microorganisms, and small crustaceans within our botanical "beds" and leaf litter.

"Functional aesthetics."

It's really great to see our community exploring some of these ideas that may not tie to any specific "type" of aquarium. In other words, the lessons we're learning from botanical-style aquariums can apply to a variety of aquarium endeavors, like breeding, biotope aquariums, rearing of fry, and oh yeah- aquascaping. We're moving beyond the "will it work?" mindset we collectively had about these tanks just a few years ago, and moving into a "what can we do with what we're learning" era! 

Yeah, for a good part of the first couple of years of Tannin's existence,  I spent a great deal of time worrying about how the idea of a carefully conceived hardscape slowly transforming by the actions of fungi, bacteria, and decomposition would "play" to my fellow hobbyists.  I was worried about potential mistakes and disasters that would befall fellow hobbyists if they pushed too hard, "freelanced" it a bit.

If they ignored the processes behind the aesthetics.

Fortunately, it hasn't happened all that much.

Yes, some of you may have experienced some disastrous results experimenting with botanicals- particularly when adding them en masse to an established, stable aquarium. I had a few bad outcomes in my early days of experimenting with this stuff, myself. There IS a learning curve- even now. Botanical-style aquariums are NOT plug-and-play systems. You can't simply dump a bunch of prepared seed pods and leaves into an established aquarium and expect "Instant Amazon." 

It doesn't work that way. 

And we're learning that, just because the water has a "tint" to it doesn't mean that you're achieving "natural" environmental characteristics in your aquarium. 

This is a concept that we need to embrace. There is a lot more nuance- a lot more things you need to do, observations you need to make, and stuff to learn in order to get there.

Really- there are no shortcuts. 

Now, all that being said, it's not just one big "science experiment", and that there is no room or "tolerance" for the "art" of it all. Absolutely not. 

You can enjoy botanicals and blackwater aquariums in as much or little "detail" as you care to venture into.  You can enjoy this or any approach however you want. I just think that there is a lot of misinformation about blackwater aquariums, botanicals, and their associated use, and I'd hate to see that taint the real enjoyment you can achieve by exploring in a more uninhibited fashion (with due respect to Nature's "rules" about the nitrogen cycle, stocking, etc., etc.- the basics of aquatic husbandry...

It's about expectations and understanding. If you're just looking for a cool aesthetic, that's okay. You simply need to understand what happens to botanicals when they are submerged in they break down, what they do to the appearance and environmental parameters of our tanks. 

It's the era of "Functional Aesthetics"- and yeah, you're right in the thick of things.

Enough philosophical ramblings for today...

Stay inspired. Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

November 20, 2018

I love that story, Susan!

It really does sort of pervade my thinking…I wish more hobbyists would embrace this mindset- particularly ones who express a lot of arrogance or dispense judgement on the work of others, lol.

Here’s to hoping!



November 19, 2018

I love this: “As we know, Nature couldn’t give a $%#@ about our perceptions of her work!”

My boyfriend is an electrical engineer and at a meeting with marketers who wanted the team to do something that defies the laws of physics, the chief scientist said quite empatically: “Nature doesn’t care what you think!”

Hoping to see people from all walks of life and professions and experiences embracing this truth.

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