In answer to quarries about art and science collaboration, below is an excerpt from an article I wrote for the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. The text here recounts several of the art and science collaborations concerning ecological issues that I have authored prior to 2011. I’ve also included some of the article’s conclusion which talks about issues concerning funding, dealing with the media and the role that the arts play in innovation.
I article below details four art projects that I have authored in which science was an integral component and additionally addresses the challenges and rewards inherent in soliciting institutional support, dealing with the media and presenting work in this genre of art making.
As an artist, one of the things that I see in the current state of scientific research is that the study of emergent properties, in areas such as genomic engineering, AI and computer science, finds the scientists of today functioning in an applied fashion. In these fields, researchers make something and then watch to see what it does, which is similar to the way that many artists create artwork. This, coupled with a recognition of the role that the arts play in innovation, seems to have made scientists and scientific institutions increasingly receptive to working with artists. My goal, in presenting artwork in this publication, is illustrate this trend. I used to think that human industry was the greatest threat to the continuation of life on Earth, as we know it. I now both believe and fear that it is our primary hope.
The Hand Up Project: attempting to meet the new needs of natural life forms
The first piece I am going to share is titled The Hand Up Project: attempting to meet the new needs of natural life forms. It is dedicated to land hermit crabs, these are the small crabs with thin exoskeletons that must adopt the abandoned shells from marine gastropods in order to remain housed and protected from predators. The problem is that, right now, there are not enough shells left on global shorelines for this animal to use—so biologists routinely find them living in broken glass jars, plastic bottle tops and any other form of refuge that they can get their pincers on.
Based on what we know about the needs of these animals in their current environment, the Hand Up Project is dedicated to producing alternative forms of housing, specifically designed for use by land hermit crabs, out of biodegradable plastic. The project utilizes an adaptable AutoCAD design and a stereo lithography process for fabrication. The key to this new design is that the spiral in the middle of a traditional shell has been minimized, reducing the overall weight of each house and increasing its internal volume to weight ratio, something that the animal likes.
In its beta version, the Hand Up Project was a great success. Twenty-five percent of the initial crab population chose to move into a new, fabricated, home when presented with the novel structures for a period of two months.
I began this project when I was in the middle of my graduate studies. At the time, I found myself referring to this and other art works that I was making as examples of inappropriate care giving activities.
As might be expected, the project produced what may be the most expensive hermit crab houses ever created and the funding needed to manufacture and distribute the shelters is significant. Although this effort is a minor, genuine attempt to give a struggling life form a hand up, the “art part” of this endeavor centers on the way we propose to fund the new dwellings. The Hand Up Project is currently soliciting corporate sponsorship in order to fund manufacturing and distribution—by licensing the houses for advertising. In exchange for financial support, the project will produce each plastic shelter bearing a corporate logo before placing the structure back in the wild for the animals to use.
Copor Esurit, or we all deserve a break today
The second project is titled Corpor Esurit, or we all deserve a break today (Copor Esurit is a derivation of a Latin phrase meaning the body hungers). This piece offers a population of ants fast food from McDonald’s for the duration of one month, and considers the impact of the industural food sources on us humans as well as the many other species that, by extension, may also end up being dependent upon modern food production for sustenance.
Commissioned by the Center for Exploritory and Perceptual Arts (CEPA), I paired with an behavioral ecologist form the American Museum of Natural Science and created what may be the worlds largest ant farm featuring a sky line of Buffalo. Spanning 20 feet in its installation at CEPA, the exhibition was built at eye height to facilitate first-hand observation of an animal that is rarely seen at an intimate distance. The exhibit also offered a habitat specifically designed to facilitate the nesting and foraging behavior of ants. Pogonomyrmex occidentalis, the ants chosen for this project, are an ant of choice for commercial ant farms, were they typically reside without a queen, have a life span of between 2 and 3 weeks, and eat a wide variety of foods. The fitness of the population was determined by the population’s longevity and foraging behavior.
Visitors to Corpor Esurit were encouraged to participate in observing the ant’s foraging behavior by drawing diagrams and filling out observational questionnaires in the gallery. These questionnaires helped to identify what foods the ants preferred, and the extent of their foraging behavior. The questioneers also asked viewers to describe their own consumption of junk food. In addressing industrial food production, the interconnected nature of our food chain, and the plight of life all forms facing changing food sources, wall-size menus were posted in the gallery listing the constituents of each human food item offered.
During the course of the exhibition, the colony cleaned house by interning their deceased in specific locations at the perimeter of their foraging areas where they were counted and removed twice a week. The average life expectancy of the ants residing in the exhibit was 23 days, which exceeded their commercial ant farm life expectancy by almost a week.
Listening Stations for Birds, That Play Human Music
The third project is titled Listening Stations for Birds, That Play Human Music. A collaboration between the artist James Walsh and myself, it considers the fact that although birds are bombarded by human noise on a routine basis, and many species respond to human song, nobody has ever studied what type of human music birds might prefer.
Created for the woods of Abington Art Center in Pennsylvania, a wooded park land and sculpture garden that is surrounded by the suburbs of Philadelphia, this piece also addresses the nature of a biotope–an environment shared by multiple species where human and animal populations overlap.
The exhibition involved installing a series of four sound-emitting sculptures along a secluded nature trail. Each sculpture or “listening station” played its own genre of human music: classical, jazz, country and rock. Perched on twelve-foot tall poles, each station offered a twenty-minute loop of pre-programmed melodies on an internal ipod nano with an external speaker system and a circular tray of wild bird food.
While our purpose was to observe what kind of music birds might like, our motive was to get viewers out into the woods, to interacting with other species and to hopefully consider the impact of our presence on other life forms. So, much like Copor Esurit, we handed out clipboards with observational worksheets. These worksheets asked visitors to go into the woods, to listen to the music that humans produce and to observe which types of music might be preferred by our avian co-habitants.
Lichen for Skyscrapers Project
The last artwork I am going to describe is titled Lichen for Skyscrapers Project. This project seeks to ameliorate the lack of native vegetation found in global cities by culturing lichen on the sides of skyscrapers and other manmade structures. Lichen, a wonderfully adaptable life form, can grow vertically on many porous surfaces. Once propagated, it forms a protective barrier, insulating its supporting surface from harmful elements while serving to lower the cumulative temperatures and rain runoff in metropolitan centers. This, along with the ability to withstand extreme drought, makes lichen an almost ideal form of “houseplant”. This artwork was originally exhibited as part of New York City’s Art in Odd Places Festival in 2011, which was dedicated to the concept of ritual. As part of this festival, Lichen for Skyscrapers proposed lichen planting as a new ritual for the urban dweller–one that seeks to renew nature in an inner-city context.
In support of culturing lichen on buildings, I held walking tours and workshops on propagation. In addition to handing out an informational brochures during the lichen tours, I gave out sample baggies of lichen slurry to anyone who was able to oversee a planting on an urban structure. One of the volunteers on the project began calling this process “lichaffiti,” like graffiti, because all one needs to do to cultivate it, is to open a high-rise window a few inches and then apply lichen slurry on the building’s exterior surface. If the lichen doesn’t take, it will simply dry up and blow away to propagate itself in other more favorable conditions.
One of the challenges I have found in soliciting institutional support for this work is that, with these pieces, I am interested in simultaneously presenting contradictory qualities. As an artist, it is my aim to present hope, despair and humor all at the same time—being that these pieces often point to the ecologically disastrous but still hopeful point of human production. These artworks may also, in turn, critique institutions, the scientific method, capitalism, design and even human innovation.
In 2007 I presented the Hand up Project to a gathering of scientists and CEO’s from a high-tech global corporation, at a symposium on art and technology. During my presentation on the plight of homeless hermit crabs there was not a dry eye in the house. The higher-ups at the company immediately solicited project information on the artwork, with the intention of possibly funding the dwellings. At the time, the companies current add campaign was “Innovation That Matters,” which seemed inline with the goal of the project. Unfortunately, I was compelled to submit to the company a well-known article on the project that I had authored for the journal Cabinet Magazine, which confirmed that the corporate logo on each home was indeed a critique of global capitalism. The article also included the fact that I had originally based my designs for the fabricated dwellings on the work of the famous fascist architect Giuseppe Terragni. I had done this during the projects inception because, at the time, I had been thinking a lot about how fascism was at its core an example of inappropriate care giving—which in spirit seemed to me to mirror our own cultural interactions with nature. Needless to say, that additional information doomed the projects chance of being sponsored by the corporation.
Art is a powerful way to bring science and the work of individual scientist’s to a wider audience because this genre of work carries the possibility of generating lots and lots of media coverage. The Cabinet Magazine article that was mentioned above, initiated numerous interviews on the Hand Up Project and led to the artwork being detailed in an essay by Bonnie Rought, that was chosen for Houghton Mifflin’s 2007 Best Science Writing compendium.
On the other hand, Corpor Esurit was profiled on the front page of the New York Times Science Section, which was thrilling. However, the first time contributor to the Times, who wrote the article, didn’t seem to know how to approach writing about art or science, and did not include basic information provided in the installation’s didactics. Instead the writer got the species of ants used in the project wrong, and then went on to question three entomologists, none of whom were familiar with the installation, about whether or not the correct species of ant was used, wholly neglecting any mention of industrial food production or the intent of the piece (see the previous post for the letter that was sent to the Times concerning these errors).
Work in this Genera: Challenges and Rewards
A question I often encounter is where does this work belong? While scientific institutions are increasingly receptive to art and artists, I have noticed that traditional art constituents—collections, galleries and collectors are not greatly interested in a medium that is difficult to categorize, commodity and exhibit.
The heartening part of this practice is however that, when the concepts are clear, the general public loves this kind of art, and this genre can become a superb platform for the dissemination of scientific information. When the Hand Up Project was originally shown as part of an exhibition at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, CA, I would go every day to check on the crabs. And I discovered that the lion’s share of the visitors, in the entire museum, could be found crowded around the hermit crab enclosure, watching the animal’s behavior and considering the new needs of this natural life form.