On May 16th, 2020, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Kim Power, founder of Power Art Projects. Kim is a painter, curator and professor.  She is also an art critic and, in the midst of  her own dedicated art practice, somehow finds the time to write for the Brooklyn Rail, ARTPULSE magazine, Art Aesthetics magazine, ArteFuse, the Blue Review, and the Quantum Art Review. Power has curated and co-curated many successful exhibitions including Natural Proclivities, an exhibition of 31 artists at the Shirley Fiterman Art Center at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. I had the pleasure of being an artist in the Natural Proclivities show and that experience has led Kim and I to have many interesting conversations, including this one which was Zoomed in front of a live audience for Power Art Projects last month.

Kim Power: Elizabeth, welcome, and thanks for taking the time to talk to me and partake in this exchange between your art studio in the Dumbo neighborhood in Brooklyn and mine in Riverdale, the Bronx. 

 

Elizabeth Demaray: Thanks for inviting me to your (virtual) studio. I’m so pleased to be interviewed for Power Art Projects.

 

It’s my pleasure. We haven’t collaborated since artist Melanie Vote and I included you in the Natural Proclivities show at the Shirley Fiterman Art Center in New York City two years ago, just around this time of year. That exhibition examined the relationship between humans and nature, both our responsibility and our response to it, how we transform it and how it transforms us. Your work was a superb fit. 

I think Richard Klein, exhibitions director of the Aldrich Museum, hit the nail on the head about your work when he said, “Demaray provokes complex questions concerning memory, knowledge, and the collaborative-cognitive process that exists between artists and viewers, while making a body of work that has consistently confounded expectations by creating connections between diverse and often contradictory bodies of knowledge.”

One of the expectations, or perhaps misconceptions, about your work is that it is conceptual. I see your work as being more rooted in a deep consideration of materials than that of any sculptor that I know. Part of this may be the way you integrate science as part of your art practice. It’s interesting to me that your work has been recognized outside of the art world by the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences, which gave you the Welcome to the Anthropocene Award. Amazing!

 

Thank you. That’s a really lovely thing to say about my work. It’s a pleasure and an honor to be speaking with you today.

 

Over the course of curating the Natural Proclivities exhibition, I became even more fascinated by your work. It’s so close to my own social practice—curating and painting to connect with others through aesthetics to reinforce a sense of empathy and responsibility for our environment in this age of the Anthropocene. You and I have a strong bond on that level. You’re doing this by finding a rare relationship between two seemingly disparate worlds: fine art and science. Can you tell me about how you came to your practice and how it has developed over time?

 

Wow. Thank you for that question. Finding my path as an artist has been a challenge. I went to graduate school in the late ’90s. Back then, we didn’t have names for what we now call community art and art/sci collaboration. When I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, my degree and areas of study were in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. I didn’t actually start making art until my junior year, when I took a ceramic sculpture class at UC Berkeley with Richard Shaw. So, it was an interesting transition to start graduate school in fine art. I had some really disastrous studio visits with curators because I wasn’t comfortable making things that could be readily shown in galleries. I was more comfortable situating my work in the environment. I don’t represent things, but instead, my practice is centered on reordering things and entities that already exist. I remember being interested in what I called “temporally referenced objects.” These are objects that have a discernible past, present, and potential future. Works like Upholstered Stones or sweaters for plants  or even the Hand-Up Project, which involved making alternative forms of housing for hermit crabs, are all temporally referenced objects. And all of these works are created to be out in the world. 

My desire to make work in the environment made me feel like an outlier in the context of studio art. Ernest Hemingway once said that, for him, it was a good day if he was able to write one true sentence. I would remember that quote when I was struggling with my work because whenever I really tried to make something that looked like “art,” it didn’t seem authentic to me. So, I did my best and tried to not internalize other people’s expectations about what I was supposed to be doing. 

 

It’s actually great to hear that you had some skepticism about your work. These kinds of struggles have made your work stronger in the long run.

 

I hope so.      

 

Well, the confidence that you have in your vision is clear now. The artwork you contributed to the Natural Proclivities exhibition was really unique. Your plant sweater stood at the entrance to the exhibition and was the topic of much discussion. It was really interesting to see it progress over the two months of the show. The Japanese maple sapling that you knit a sweater for grew out of the boundaries of the vestments that you constructed for the plant. I recall you explaining that the artwork was a result of your desire to come to terms with futility. Can you tell me a bit about the idea behind that project?

 

Yes. I’m really interested in the nature of our cultural interactions with the natural world. That work has to do with our current ecological moment. I remember wanting to talk about my desire to help the natural world, but it seemed to me that my actions felt so small that they seemed futile and I wanted to communicate that in some way. And honestly, what could be more futile than knitting a sweater for a plant?   

I’m also interested in what happens when a viewer comes across an artwork in the absence of an art context. I like to think of these situations as having an “audience of one.” In the middle of grad school, I had the honor of attending the Skowhegan School, which is on acres of unpeopled terrain in Northeastern Maine. While there, I made art out in the landscape that stayed in the landscape. I knit sweaters for plants, I upholstered stones, and I covered a lady’s handbag in lichen. All of these works were site specific. They were created to be left in the middle of the meadows and forests of Maine. So, there is also an element of futility in this context, because what happens if nobody ever comes along? That is also a quality of futility that I want viewers to experience when they come across these works. 

 

I can relate to that because I’m a plein air painter, so I’m painting outside, and a big part of this is how I interact with the public. It’s interesting to hear about how you physically interacted with plants and stones. That’s something I was wondering about regarding the way you work.

 

I went to Maine determined to figure out how to upholster a stone. From a philosophical standpoint, I was interested in hardness. I wanted to see if it is possible to soften a stone, and by extension, the world. In terms of the actual upholstery process, my eventual ability to map the multiple planes of a three-dimensional object came from the fact that, because I had studied with Richard Shaw, I had experience doing traditional ceramic mold making. In ceramics, you have to figure out how the pieces come off of an object to construct the plaster mold faces around it. It’s a torturous art form, figuring out how to design and construct jackets and coverings for non-symmetrical objects. Nowadays, people typically use rapid prototyping and 3D modeling in these kinds of situations. Nobody makes actual molds much anymore. 

 

That makes sense. I have a question, though. If it’s outside, is the yarn deteriorating over time, and does the sweater affect how the plant grows?

 

I’m so glad that the plant sweaters made you think in this direction. I definitely want the viewer to think about how long it’s going to take for the plant to grow out of the sweater. In answer to your question, I’ve never left a sweater on a plant for long periods of time and I always construct them so that the coverings are loose. 

 

I was thinking that if it fell apart over time, it would also serve a dual purpose in that birds could use it for nesting material.     

                                       

The way that other life forms use human materials is a huge consideration when you’re doing projects like this. It’s wonderful if animals are using natural substances for their own purposes like bedding, but you don’t want them using things like long pieces of string. These kinds of items can prove problematic for a lot of life forms. You have to be very conscious when you put things into the outdoor environment.     

                              

I love that you’re always thinking about the bigger picture. Is the plant sweater series what sowed the seed for your now ongoing practice of “trans-species giving,” a term that I think you coined yourself? Also, how did it develop that you have found yourself at the intersection of the art and scientific worlds?

 

You know, there are so many things that we don’t have words for! I started using the term “trans-species giving” around the same time that I began knitting sweaters for plants. I was teaching a class called Introduction to Visual Thinking at UC Berkeley. I had a show-and-tell in the class and one of my students, who was a cell biology major, brought a little plant that was a variant of the broccoli plant. It turned out that he had genetically modified it himself. He told us that it was standard for juniors in his major to genetically alter their own plants. In his case, the life form had developed spindly stacks and tiny blossoms that had grown extra petals. He said that the extra petals may have been a result of disconnecting the plant’s ability to reproduce. He had also given it a predetermined death cycle of six weeks. It was so sad! He continued to tell us that many of the plants that were on campus had actually already been genetically altered. He pointed out that all of the flowering plum trees didn’t flower anymore because people didn’t like to have to sweep up the petals.

I remember my class wondering about this technology. Our main concern was that if we now had the ability to alter these species, to what degree would we change the life forms around us to simply meet our needs? Considering the fact that natural ecosystems and natural life forms had evolved over geologic time periods, what were we going to lose now that humans could predetermine the death cycle of our companion species? 

In any event, we all had a moving moment with this poor, spindly broccoli plant. I was so taken with the form that my student let me carry it back to my studio. I found out later that this was completely against the rules (it turns out that he wasn’t allowed to even take it out of the laboratory). I put the life form on my work table and I thought, “Oh, my goodness, I have to make an artwork about this.” 

That night, in the middle of one of my walks across campus, I realized that maybe what I really wanted to do was to help some kind of struggling life form that wasn’t important to humans, that we weren’t paying attention to. 

At the same show-and-tell earlier in the day, a student had brought a really beautiful shell into class. She had collected it from a beach in Santa Monica. Have you ever spent any time in Southern California?

 

I lived outside of L.A. till I was ten, so, yes.

 

Okay. As a native, you know that in these areas, the beaches are swept clean and there is very little natural detritus on the shoreline. So, I looked at her beautiful univalve spiral-type shell and said, “Wow! I’ll bet there is a hermit crab that’s without a home right now because you collected this shell.” The class had laughed at my joke, but that night I started to think about the situation and it occurred to me that the lack of natural detritus was probably having a detrimental effect on many species. I did some research and it turns out that hermit crabs are having really significant problems because of this issue. 

If you’re from Southern California, you probably know what these animals are. They’re little crabs that only have a thin exoskeleton on their body, so they have to scavenge the leftover shells created by marine gastropods to remain housed and protected from predators. The problem is, there are not enough shells anymore on shorelines for this animal to use. So, researchers find them living in broken glass bottle tops and glass jars, or anything else they can get their pincers on. The interesting thing about the species, however, is that they exhibit choosing-type behaviors when they assess what kinds of shells they want to live in. Researchers, even back then, had determined the specific size-to-weight ratio that the animal preferred when selecting a shell in which to live.

So, I remember thinking, “I’m a sculptor; I should be able to design and build an ideal dwelling for a hermit crab.” I’m also interested in my culture’s conceit that humans have “dominion” over all things, so I thought that as an artist, I should claim that I could make an even better hermit crab house than nature had ever created for the animal. This was 1997. I got the earliest version of AutoCAD that I could get my hands on and designed the houses and produced them using an early form of stereolithography.

The piece is called The Hand-Up Project: Attempting to Meet the New Needs of Natural Life Forms. I was really interested in this idea that we were making these things that aren’t of benefit to humans, which is where trans-species giving came in. A lot of what we create, even when we’re designing for other species, is really created for the benefit of humans. 

Twenty years ago, I could easily claim that these kinds of quixotic actions were art. From the perspective of the Anthropocene, we now understand that all life forms are working in concert to support the web of ecosystems that, in turn, support us. So actions that are in support of the non-human may also be considered design because there is obviously utility in supporting a shared ecosystem.

In any event, in answer to your question, this is the first art/sci collaborative project that I did, and the kinds of questions that it asks in the space of design for the non-human and trans-species giving are the same questions that I find myself asking in my work today. So, thank you for bringing up trans-species giving.    

                                    

Tell me about the IndaPlant Project: An Act of Trans-Species Giving. It was an extension of the plant sweaters, wasn’t it?

 

It’s great that you noticed that. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about potted plants. It’s interesting to me that our species goes out into the natural world, digs up plants, and brings them back into our homes. There’s lots of research now about how having plants in our homes is beneficial for us, but people have been doing this as long as recorded history has existed. We’ve taken these life forms from the natural world and we brought them back into the built environment for no better reason than that we just want them closer. The desire to care for these life forms is touching.

The IndaPlant Project started in 2010. Initially, my aim was to make a potted plant that was mobile. I also wanted it to be a version of a Braitenberg vehicle. In the 1970s, through a series of thought experiments that were based on the neuronal systems of insects, Valentino Braitenberg designed really simple vehicles that are programmed for attraction or avoidance. They either go toward a source or retreat. If the vehicles have four wheels, you can program each wheel with a different mobility in relationship to response stimuli. Braitenberg showed that even these really simple vehicles could look like they were exhibiting behavior that was more complex than the system that was driving them.

So I knew that I wanted to put a plant on a Braitenberg vehicle. I talked to a friend of mine, Peng Song, who was an associate dean in the engineering school at Rutgers, and he put me in touch with Qingze Zou, the engineer that I ended up working with. While discussing the concept of a Braitenberg vehicle, he suggested that we could put potted houseplants on Arduino-controlled robotic bases. We realized that if we did that, we could make a mobile half-plant, half-robot unit that could be programmed for the basic needs of the plant and the robot at the same time. We also set the system up for simple machine learning. Each unit was able to learn where there were sources of sunlight and water so that the robot could independently care for the plant. 

We created the artwork as a senior workgroup project with engineering and art students. During the first year, we created the very first mobile floraborg, a term I coined for a plant that is supported by technology. I wanted to make sure that people understood that this entity is not a plant bot. Often the suffix “bot,” as in robot, indicates that the entity is doing some kind of task for you. Instead, I was interested in supporting the needs of a non-human species with technology. We made a community of these entities that can freely find sunlight and water. 

 

Wow, that’s amazing. How did they find sunlight and water when they needed them? I’m still not understanding how they know where to go.

 

I’m so glad you asked that question. The Arduino on each floraborg allows the system to use sensors. These entities can go into the world and sense light, soil moisture, and obstacles. The sonar sensors around the base can tell the robot how close it is to walls, so we were able to program the floraborg for obstacle avoidance. There are some really funny videos of us progressively programming the floraborgs not to run into walls. We also had issues with light. Most of the light sensors that are used with Arduinos are for indoor light, so we actually had to build one for sunlight. That was difficult, but we did it. Our design can also find the brightest spot in the middle of a lit area.                                                            

Each floraborg freely navigates while ambulating around the engineering department. In the hallways, it can find the brightest area of sunlight. When it does, the floraborg parks itself in front of the light and while the plant is photosynthesizing, the robot charges its battery pack via the solar panels. So the plant and the robot are able to absorb energy at the same time. The issue of water was more difficult. You don’t want to mix water and robots, so we put a moisture sensor in the plant’s soil. When the soil became dry, the robot was programmed to find a human water dispenser. We then left little cups on top of all the water dispensers in the hallways and put big signs on the front of each that said, “If a floraborg is in the vicinity, please give it a cup of water.” So people could water the plant if it was thirsty. 

 

That’s a big undertaking.

 

Yes. The project was originally supported by a grant from NASA, but led to multiple avenues of investigation. It turns out that plants are extraordinary biosensors. They can sense all kinds of extraordinary things about their environment. After this initial phase of the project, we were joined by the biologist Simeon Kotchoni and the computer scientist Ahmed Elgammal, who I now work with at the Art and Artificial Intelligence Lab at Rutgers, New Brunswick.                                                              

With Dr. Kotchoni, I designed a transpired water collector for plants so the floraborgs could potentially water themselves. With Elgammal’s group, we created a computer vision system so that the floraborgs could see when other floraborgs were wilting and in need of water. The full team also wrote a grant for the National Science Foundation in support of creating a cyber-physical system to better communicate with plants. It was favorably reviewed, but we didn’t get the funding. There wasn’t any primary research in plant signaling that had been done at the time to support what we wanted to do.                                                              

There are now other projects that focus on making mobile plants. MIT recently did one where they actually grew the wires through the plant itself. I’m hoping that these kinds of studies are going to lead us to create cyber-physical systems that better allow us to understand plant communication. The project was also enormously gratifying to work on. And it widened my understanding of the issues in art and science collaboration.

 

I want to ask about machine vision. I see you using this technology in other artworks. How has this become a tool? 

 

Again, thank you for that great question! I’m currently an advisor in the Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Rutgers, New Brunswick. The lab is a platform for the creative uses of AI and machine learning. We are currently working on PandoraBird: Identifying the Types of Music That May Be Favored by Our Avian Co-Inhabitants, which is a site-specific installation that uses computer vision and interactive software to track the music choices made by local feeder birds.

Birds pay a lot of attention to human sounds and musical production. There is even a species of bird in Australia that’s been documented to have learned human tunes and to have taught the songs to its offspring. So, this mobile learning system uses novel algorithms for species identification, plays avian-favored human music, and builds a database of the musical compositions preferred by local feeder birds. Offerings in each music genre will be chosen using standard criteria from web-based music discovery services, such as melody, harmony, rhythm, form, and composition.

 

Wow! How does that work?

 

Well, the current system begins with a small database of different musical compositions in their defined genre. Every time a bird feeds during one of these melodies, PandoraBird will use computer vision to record its species and length of stay. If the feeding continues to the end of a piece of music, the system will select another melody with similar qualities. The presence of an individual bird at any given feeder will be logged by the listening station as a thumbs up or thumbs down for the piece of music currently playing, and this feedback will instantly refine the system’s playlist.

Our plan is that once the system recognizes a species, it will make it a user at Pandora Radio. This way, our avian co-inhabitants will be able to utilize an AI system that was originally created for humans. In addressing the nature of a biotope—an environment shared by multiple species where human and animal populations overlap—this project maintains that if we are to bombard other life forms with human noise, we should begin to consider which types of noise our companion species might prefer. The ultimate goal of this project is to create multiple listening stations that play different genres of human music so that local feeder birds can make human-type musical choices.                                                  

It must be exciting to figure out who has the expertise to collaborate on a project like this.

It’s one of the most wonderful aspects of collaborating with people in other fields. Learning about new fields of knowledge is akin to discovering whole new horizons. It might be like a painter discovering a new color. It’s what makes art/sci collaboration so exciting for me. With every project, I get to learn about other fields and bring my viewers along for the ride. 

In these collaborations, I also find myself doing work in the space of science communication. A number of the pieces that I’ve made deal with depressing issues. These works may focus on the massive species die-off or the glut of plastic in our oceans. When I give artist talks or stage exhibitions, I find myself having to tell my viewers about issues that they might not want to think about. And it can be an uncomfortable experience.

 

What do you mean by an uncomfortable experience? Can you give me an example?   

                                                     

Well, in 2013, I did a version of The Songs We Sing in the Netherlands. The work is a participatory audio piece about the massive species die-off. As many of us now know, the naturalist E. O. Wilson predicts that within this century—if we continue with our current rate of ecological destruction—we’re going to see 50 percent of all the life forms on earth go extinct. While I was talking about the background for the Songs project during a live lecture in Amsterdam, several of the audience members started to cry. Right then, I realized that this was the first time that they had heard about the massive species die-off. While I stood onstage and looked at them, I began to cry as well. Not a lot, but enough that I had to stop and take a couple of big breaths to calm down.

This is actually also one of the painful parts of the IndaPlant Project. Every single plant species may signal differently. What I began to think about with this project is that every single life form that has ever evolved, has evolved into an ecological niche. It has evolved to do something that’s completely unique. There may be species of plants that can sense or produce compounds that we aren’t even aware of. And if they go extinct, we won’t be able to learn what they’re doing or how they do it. We will have lost entire fields of inconceivably deep information. With the floraborgs, we had just begun to study plant signaling. We had managed to figure out that different species signal differently. Individual plants might even signal differently within a species. But we won’t be able to learn about this or any other life form after it’s gone. 

 

It’s important to bring this kind of information to a wider audience. And, talking about the environment and astounding abilities of other life forms, let’s talk about plastic. I’m fascinated with the Plastomach. It utilizes fungi to eat plastic. How did this project come about?

 

Another new term! The “Plas-tomach” is a plastic-eating stomach. It’s a living sculpture in the form of a giant stomach that actually eats plastic by virtue of living fungi. The full title of the project as it was shown at Swale House on Governors Island, New York City, last summer was Home Is Where the Plastic-Eating Stomach Is. It was a community art initiative where we invited people to bring plastic to be prepared and consumed by the stomach. The work is based on extraordinary research that’s being done in the John Dighton Laboratory at Rutgers, Camden, on white rot fungi, which can actually consume plastic. It turns out that the carbon chains in consumer plastics look a lot like the carbon chains in wood. So these are the kinds of fungi, like reishi and turkey tail and oyster mushrooms, that eat wood. And yes, they also have the capability to utilize plastic as a food source.

 

Wow!

 

This project started with a class I teach that’s part of the Biodesign Challenge (BDC). It’s a curriculum for art and design students created by Genspace that is aimed at generating new ideas in the area of biodesign. In 2018, I tasked the class with re-envisioning our waste products as our resources and to work on group projects. Of course, they all wanted to do their own project. One student wanted to make an actual stomach that created energy by utilizing the calories from food waste—which is a great idea, but a bit beyond our resources. Another student wanted to focus on a project she was helping with in the John Dighton Laboratory at Rutgers. She was feeding fungi very tiny pieces of plastic. I suggested that we combine the project ideas and call what we were making a plastomach. As a result, the students created a speculative open-source design that could potentially allow anybody to create a plastomach in their own home.

 

Could I actually do that myself?

 

Yes. You, Kimberly Power, could actually construct one of these fungi growers using the instructions in the design. You could hang it over your recycling bin or trash can. And, if you were willing to carefully clean and sort all of your plastic waste and cut it into super tiny pieces, you could conceivably eliminate your plastic footprint.

In any event, nobody actually made a working plastomach. So, I decided that the design needed to be embodied by a giant sculptural stomach. I enlisted the help of an amazing fungi researcher and we constructed a see-through stomach made out of vinyl. It took up most of the space in the Kitchen Gallery at Swale House last summer. It was a full-on community effort. The artists at Swale House held lectures in support of fungi and even created a cooking show where you could learn how to clean and prepare your plastic called “Cooking for Your Plastomach and You.” 

 

That’s amazing. How long does it take it to eat something?

 

The lab is still in the process of studying this. For very, very tiny pieces, it’s about three months. One of the scientists that I work with says that the kind of fungi that I used for the plastomach, oyster mushrooms, can completely eat holes through a standard plastic grocery bag in about three to four months. It’s a very slow process. We didn’t set up Home Is Where the Plastic-Stomach Is as a scientific experiment because I wanted to allow lots of people to bring any kind of plastic that they wanted to contribute. We did, however, make sure that only the types of consumer plastic that were studied actually went into the plastomach. As a community art effort, part of the work was to allow everyone who participated to bring in their plastic debris and to talk about how they felt about generating the waste. So the installation functioned as a community catharsis. It also grew beautiful forms. Every day that I went out to the exhibition, I was greeted by gorgeous, growing fungi that were gently extending their reach around the plastic items we offered them.                                                   

So, I’m looking forward to making more plastomachs. And I’m also looking forward to figuring out how we can better support these life forms. The Dighton Lab is studying ways that we might be able to actually train fungi to eat specific kinds of plastic. They’re also studying the enzymes that are emitted in the process of plastic consumption. Lots of work will hopefully be done. And if people watching this interview want to learn how to make their own plastic-eating stomach to hang over their garbage can, they can look up the open-source design that my BDC group at Rutgers created. The directions are there so that anybody can set one of these up themselves.       

                                       

Is that on your website?

 

Yes. It’s on my project blog site. I do, however, want to say something. You absolutely cannot eat any of the fungi that come out of a plastomach. Originally, the Dighton Lab started doing this research because they were interested in the idea that we might be able, at some point, to feed our plastic waste to these fungi and to eventually harvest them. The issue right now is that fungi are hyperaccumulators, so the dyes and metals in our current plastic waste are hyperaccumulated in this life form. So you may not eat anything that comes out of your plastomach. However, the dried fungi grown in this way can be used for a variety of other purposes, such as making paper, growing insulation, or even creating natural alternatives for substances like Styrofoam. 

                                           

Fascinating. I’m already thinking of things like egg cartons.       

                                                  

Absolutely.                                    

                    

There’s another project that you’re right in the middle of that I’m really excited about: the Manhattan Tundra Project. You’re planning it with the help of Gaia Technologies. And by the way, they’re a great set of collaborators. They won an open innovation competition for ideas and spaces for the urban environment to change the urban climate. So that was a great pick to collaborate with. Can you tell us more about that?         

                                          

Yes. Gaia Technologies has created a lightweight soil that sequesters Styrofoam. They grind up Styrofoam to make soil that is engineered for rooftops. This process is wonderfully applicable to the Manhattan Tundra Project. The artwork proposes the creation of emergent ecosystems on the unused tops of modernist buildings. The first Tundra Project is slated to open on the top of World Trade Center Building 7 in 2020.  

                              

Good job!

 

Thank you! With An emergent ecosystem on the top of WTC Building 7, we will see what kinds of life forms show up and what ecosystems can survive in these environments. These ecosystems may turn out to each be unique. At these heights, each rooftop goes through really rapid temperature changes. The areas around the buildings are also basically wind tunnels. So, the plan is to cover the open roof areas with topsoil and make a space for whatever life forms can live up there. 

 

Oh, you just wait for them to show up? You’re not actually deciding what grows there?

 

No, this is a generative work of art and we hope that these spaces are going to support emergent systems. If we humans decide, at least at first, what we think should be up there, we may not fully understand what can live best in these conditions. Who knows what we’re going to find. It’s really exciting.           

                                                   

So with the title, the Manhattan Tundra Project, are you thinking about what plants would grow on the tundra?                           

                                

No, I gave the artwork that title so the audience would have the idea that the space was elevated. Tundra landscapes actually happen at much greater heights than our skyscrapers. So no, we’re not going to get a real tundra landscape in NYC. 

I do, however, want people to think about height in relationship to the landscape. I’ve had biologists say, “Oh, you just need to plant these rooftops.” Other people say, “Well, weeds are not very compelling. Maybe you need to do something that’s a little more visually exciting.” But I think at least for the first year, at least on the first rooftop, we’re going to see what life forms show up of their own accord. 

Other biologists have pointed out to me that it’s easier to “sell” the artwork to the buildings’ owners if you can attract charismatic species. Also, people are really interested in birds. Migrating birds often use peninsulas as resting places before they continue their journey over water. So we’re going to see how these spaces might also support bird migration. 

I’ve been making alternative habitats for birds and bats out of old plastic suitcases.     

                                                        

Yeah, I saw that on your website. The Shelter Project

 

I’m still trying to figure this out because there’s something to be said for the fact that it’s good to let viewers visually know when you’re making a piece of art. So, we’ve been discussing possibly installing some sort of a sculptural version of The Shelter Project on WTC 7 as well. When you’re looking down on the space from 1 World Trade, which is the Liberty Tower, viewers may be excited to see sculptures. And I’m a sculptor. So I’m really thinking hard about what kinds of sculpture should or could also go into the space. We don’t want to install something that will encourage birds to nest up here. We already have this issue around Central Park. Hawks are nesting really, really high on buildings. The problem is that when it comes to fledging time, the first flight is supposed to be between trees. That’s how these life forms have evolved. If the first flight is off of a giant skyscraper, that’s not going to bode well for the bird. So these are the kinds of issues we humans need to consider when we are thinking about trans-species giving. You’ve really got to think about the impact that this is going to have on other life forms. And honestly, I would only ever consider these kinds of projects in an urban environment—in a space where humans have made everything—because a lot of other non-human species live there with us and these are not natural habitats. And a lot of life forms other than humans live in the built environment.  

 

What other life forms have you thought about in the urban environment? 

 

There’s another project that I’m working on right now that’s called Communis Spatium with the scientist Amy Savage. She’s shown that ants in urban ecosystems have behavioral and health issues because they’re relying on bonanza-type food supplies. These are the crummy industrial foods that we humans may drop when we’re walking through an urban space. If, for example, you are eating a hot dog, you probably won’t discard any of the actual hot dog part when you’re finished. You may, however, drop the unwanted end of the bun. Well, ants, which do major ecosystem support inside of cities, are having to jump on that bun and eat it as fast as they can. These poor food sources are making city-dwelling ants much more hostile and aggressive than their country-dwelling cousins of the same species. The problem is that they’re not getting enough protein and good fats in their diet.

 

They are having the same health issues that we are!       

                                         

Exactly. They’re eating the same non-nourishing foods that many of us are having to consume. So, I’m proposing that city-dwelling humans adopt urban ant colonies and feed them at urban ant feeding stations. These “stations” are places where we humans can augment the ants’ diet with small amounts of protein and fat. So, I’m currently working on designing architectural spaces that can be shared by humans and ants alike.    

                                            

So, I was actually thinking that you were going to tell me about your first time dealing with skyscrapers. This was another instance where you paired with a non-human life form in the context of a city, the Lichen for Skyscrapers Project. That was in 2011, right?     

                                                         

Yes. That was a project I did for New York’s Art in Odd Places Festival. I paired with a lichen specialist to rethink vertical surfaces in the urban landscape. I’ve always wanted to completely cover a modernist building in lichen. Lichen is an amazing life form. It can grow vertically on rocks. It can withstand huge variations in temperature. There are lichens that are found in deserts that can expand to five hundred times their own size when it rains. Because lichen is a combination of algae and fungi, it can even utilize radiation in the same way that plants utilize sunlight to make chemical energy. 

With Lichen for Skyscrapers, I wanted to try to get people to include lichen in the urban landscape. Besides being beautiful and creating oxygen, lichen can also bring down ground temperatures in cities and sequester water when it rains. So, we started culturing lichen on the outsides of buildings. At first, we attempted to get permission from building owners in the vicinity of 14th Street, which was where Art in Odd Places was held. I sent letters. I visited buildings. And, of course, nobody was interested in allowing us to smear lichen slurry on the sides of their buildings. So we staged walking tours of NYC where we showed attendees examples of city lichens. We also showed them how to make slurry. And, at the end of each tour, we gave out baggies of lichen slurry to anybody who lived or worked in a highrise and could oversee a planting. The great thing about lichen is that nobody actually has to give you permission to propagate it. My students started calling this process lichen graffiti or lichafittie because all you have to do is get a window open just enough to get your wrist out and smear lichen slurry on the outside of your highrise. If the planting takes to the surface, the lichen will slowly start growing. And if the planting doesn’t take, the lichen will dry up and float away to propagate itself in other spaces where conditions are more favorable. So, it’s a win-win situation.         

                                                     

Amazing.

 

So I’m interested in what we can do in the built environment. By the end of this century, 70 percent of us humans will be living in urban spaces. This is great news for the natural world. It is important to think about what our future is going to look like in urban environments. 

 

Well, we’ll also have to think outside the box about how we can collaborate as a community. It’s like having a superpower—the superpower to figure out how to continue as a species.       

                                                      

Yeah. It’s also a superpower to figure out how to live with our non-human companion species. Every single one of them does something extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary. Like turn the energy from a star into chemical energy while making oxygen. No human on earth is able to do this. Scientists say that we’ve only got three hundred more years of oxygen. However, we can potentially rectify this with the help of plants. Studies indicate that all we have to do to stop global warming is to have each person on earth plant six trees. So, every species has a “superpower” and it’s really important for us humans to remember this.

 

That’s amazing and you facilitate these projects so well. I think it’s great. As an educator and as an artist, I think it’s just the right combination.       

                                                     

Well, listen, regardless of whether or not you’re an artist or a steelworker or a kindergartener, we can all participate in trans-species giving. We can all support non-human life forms. Regardless of what you do, please understand that we all have an extraordinary opportunity, right now, to support the natural world.     

                                                   

That’s awesome. I’m going to end it on that note because that’s just perfect. Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for your generosity and for speaking with me.        

                                                     

It was such a pleasure! Listen, the next time we talk, we’re going to flip the script and it’s going to be my turn to ask you questions about your artwork. Okay?     

                                                      

Okay.

 

The Endangered Species Recipe Book:

 Elizabeth Pilliod

Elizabeth Demaray: I’m very excited to be talking to you in your professional capacity as an art historian. It seems to me that a key to our current moment is to look at the past, right?

 

Elizabeth Pilliod: I agree with you completely. One of my questions, as a historian, is that if this pandemic goes on for years, what are we going to lose from all of our universities?

 

That right there is a concern that comes from studying the medieval and Renaissance periods. One of the scariest aspects of the plagues in Europe is what we may have lost in terms of cultural production.

 

In terms of cultural history, this is one of the things that I find most challenging about our current moment.

 

I know. But I want to say something to you on a positive note. In this time of “great pause,” I am seeing a flourishing of creativity. People are responding to these novel conditions in creative ways. I am suddenly seeing all kinds of new models for cultural production. And I don’t just mean you and me having this conversation over Zoom, although this is part of it. I’m thinking about dancers on TikTok and isolated musicians playing together on streaming platforms. My students, who are sharing their sculpture projects online, are even considering their work from new vantage points. I feel like this moment is forcing us, or should I say allowing us, to create new systems.

 

It is, really.

 

We’re making art in real time for each other. And this unexpected flourishing is amazing. 

 

It is amazing. It could only happen at this moment, in this time period. That’s the one thing that you can’t go back in history and say, “Well, how did they Zoom in the 1330s?” Because you know, they didn’t. So, we have this one extra element that no other time has ever had. And so, I think it can be very creative. I believe that people like you and actors and actresses and dancers are really at the forefront of the creativity movement because…

 

… and art historians. This is a moment for anybody who pays attention to or values culture. That’s the truth. Also, there are so many decisions that we have to make right now and we have no basis on which to model our actions except for cultural history. That’s all we have. And we only have about six thousand years of history that’s actually been recorded to go on. We don’t have enough, right? So, people like you are valuable. We need to understand as much of our past as is possible. So, thank you for your service. 

 

 

My pleasure! So, what I was thinking is that I will ask you some questions about how you got to this project. I know a little bit about your background, but how is it that you began the Endangered Species Recipe Book

 

 

The Endangered Species Recipe Book: Animals That Have Gone Extinct or Are Going Extinct and the Recipes That We Have Used to Eat Them is the full title. The project is a collaboration with the painter, and my partner, Hugo Bastidas. It is a taxonomy dedicated to the naturalist E. O. Wilson. Wilson believes that by the end of this century—in our lifetimes—we will lose half of all plants, animals, and birds on our planet if our current rate of ecological destruction continues. So the recipe book is a series of oil paintings on individual, unbound sheets of paper. Each painting depicts an extinct or endangered animal, along with the earliest known recipe that we humans may have used to cook the unfortunate creature. I started the project in 2012, but it was probably kicking around in my head for much longer. I’m interested in books as art objects. And I mean actual objects. I make sculptures out of books. I scrape the titles off of the spines and write in titles that I like better with ink pens. The Smart One Died, A Mother’s Tale, and Winning through Understatement are examples of rewritten titles. I also love coming up with book names in the space of natural history. In this vein, I’ve generated speculative overviews like Hills: Nature’s Own Assertions and also titles for very specific kinds of considerations, such as Early Signs of Absenteeism in the Slow Dogfish. Once I change the name of a book, I then create sculpture with it. I pile my renamed tomes in tall stacks, so that my viewers have to walk around these vertical libraries while attempting to read my poorly rendered handwriting. I call the entire process Good Book Titles. So, I’m interested in the image of the book as an object as well as the idea of a book as a concept. The Endangered Species Recipe Book artwork first began as a title on one of the book stacks.

 

I’ve also got a collection of actual recipe-type books that are kind of scary. I’ve got one from the last century for home taxidermists; it tells you what you need to gather to make items like “antlers on a plaque,” for instance. If you read the recipe lines slowly, it sounds like gory haiku.

 

 

 

Nice! That’s something we have in common because I collect cookbooks also. Everywhere I travel, I buy cookbooks, sometimes in languages that I can’t comprehend, like Swedish. I try to use one every year for New Year’s Eve. I threw a complete Scandinavian party just using cookbooks from Sweden, Finland, and Norway. I also like historical cookbooks very much, as you know, which was one of the reasons why we thought we should have this conversation. 

 

 

Cookbooks are fascinating. They may exist in the space of folk art. They may preserve culture, but not necessarily be part of the mainstream. I mean, there are lots of different kinds of compendiums, but it is interesting that you can open up one of your Swedish cookbooks, for example, and there will be terms in each recipe that are really culturally specific or are specific to a time and place. The ingredients, the way that they’re measured, the way that they’re used—none of these factors may be clearly recorded in this context. Food is a living history. So even if we’re lucky enough to have an ingredients list, no one may have any idea how to make the intended food item. 

 

My hope is that the Endangered Species Recipe Book memorializes what happens when you read actual historic recipes and experience a state of recontextualization. This is, after all, one of the generative strategies that artists use to make art. We take something out of one context and then drop it into another context where it doesn’t belong. And when we juxtapose elements that don’t belong together, we can create something new, something potentially remarkable.

 

So, this artwork allows me to make a statement about the present versus the past. I think I may also be talking about how humans have not changed over time. These recontextualized recipes allow us to read the past into the present. I’m interested in how we can look at these texts and images in hindsight, from the vantage point of the Anthropocene. It’s an interesting way to consider how we humans have spent our time on the planet in the presence of our non-human companion species. 

 

 

Exactly! I’ve been toying with this idea. I noticed that you mentioned in a previous conversation that you used an ancient Roman cookbook and that one of the Recipe Book illustrations and recipes comes from that. 

 

 

ED: Yes. There are multiple Roman recipes in the Species collection. We staged an exhibition of the artwork at Zagreus Projekt in Berlin. Zagreus is an amazing place. It may be the only art center in the world that is dedicated to marrying fine and culinary art. We had an exhibition and the Zagreus food staff created a month-long dinner menu that featured animals that went extinct during the Roman period. Apparently, many species in that region were eaten to extinction during the Roman occupation of Gaul. Much to our benefit, Ulrich Krauss, the director at Zagreus, was trained as a performance artist and also as a butcher. With his help, Hugo and I enlarged the Recipe Book works on paper to feature German animals. These species are accompanied by their historic recipes from this region of Germany. We created newly painted pages for the aurochs, the hooting, the wild boar, and the dormouse over the course of the exhibition.

 

The hooting is now featured in the Endangered Recipe Series with an old German recipe via Ulrich from Das Brandenburgische Kochbuch, which was published in 1723. According to Ulrich, many of these recipes remained unchanged since the Middle Ages. The hooting is from the salmon family and was very popular. At first it was very cheap for poor people to eat. At the time of the 1723 cookbook, the fish had become expensive and was only affordable for the upper classes. There were only a few places left where people could still fish for it, especially in the Elbe (which is close to Berlin). In Old  German, the recipe reads: Schuppet ihn und leget ihnen einen Kessel, gebet ein wenig, Wasser und ein wenig Wein dazu, auch grob gestossenen Pfeffer und Muskaten-Blumen, gerieben Brodt und Salz / laß es zusammen sieden: wenn es gahr, so thut Butter darzu, und laßt es einmal, durchsieden.” This translates as: To cook a salmon, scale the salmon and put it in a bowl, add water and wine, pepper and nutmeg (mace), breadcrumbs and butter and let it cook for a little while.”

 

For our menu, the staff found a fish substitute that was as close as possible to hooting. They also sourced entire animals from local organic farmers. They also used historically accurate techniques to dress and prepare the meat. I used to be vegan, and being American, these techniques are far removed from how I’m used to interacting with meat. So, the actual food preparation at Zagreus was a new experience for me.

 

They re-created the Auk Egg in Brown Butter recipe from the Species Book auk painting. Auks used to be prized for producing giant eggs. The Zagreus staff constructed an egg the size of a cantaloupe by using a Roman technique of sewing fish bladders together. They basically created a giant fish-bladder mold. This allowed them to gang[CV3]  multiple egg whites around a collection of egg yolks in the center. Using this enlarged bladder, they created a perfectly round white ball. When Krauss cut into the ball at the beginning of each of the dinners, a beautiful egg yolk sauce would pour out from the center. The egg ball did smell a bit of uric acid, but overall, this course of the meal was just magical.

 

The grouped bladder technique came from the Romans. As you know, we have a fairly clear picture of their food. The great thing about Roman recipes is that you can find a variant of one recipe in Georgia and another variant of the same dish in Ireland, so you can compare them and identify the mother recipe. We also have a good idea of what was considered appropriate food items for the masses because the Roman army was rapacious. And any time you have an army, a big body of people that you have to feed, I suspect that one thinks about the landscape and resources in a different way.

 

That sounds like an engaging meal. What else did you serve? 

 

For the wild boar, we went with a recipe for a pig sausage with liver. That was actually used in “Accumulation,” Ulrich’s first course of the formal dinner. In German, the 1723 recipe reads: Leber Würste, Man muss die Leber, ehe sie gekocht, fein hacken, und alle Adern hears machen, darzu thun Pfeffer, Nägelchen, etwas gestossen Salz, in Milch geweichtes Weisbrodt, feine geschnittene Stücken Fett von den Flaumen, und es in die Därme thun, aber nur halb voll, und sie gahr kochen.” In English, it reads: “Liver sausages. The liver has to be chopped finely before cooking, add pepper, cloves, some salt, in milk, soaked white bread and finely chopped pork belly fat, fill it in the guts, but only half and cook them.”

 

For the aurochs and the dormouse, we went with the primary Roman recipes. The aurochs was memorialized in an old recipe for gelatin. Originally a savory dish, gelatin was used to preserve food such as fish. Variants of this can still be seen in recipes for things like gefilte fish. The Roman recipe goes: “2 1/4 pound beef shin with bone (have the butcher crack it), 1 pig’s foot, cut in small chunks, 1 veal knuckle, 1 onion stuck with 2 cloves, 2 carrots, 1 bay leaf, 1 teaspoon thyme, 1 stalk celery, 1 clove garlic, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 cup sherry or Madeira, 2 egg whites, lightly beaten (if necessary). Place all ingredients except the egg whites in a pan. Cover and cook over medium heat for about 4 minutes. Add 3 pints water. Bring to the boiling point, cover and simmer for about 3 1/2 to 4 hours at the lowest possible heat. The liquid should just ripple. Pour the stock into a bowl and cool. Chill overnight. Skim off all fat. If the jelly is not clear, bring it to a boil again and add the egg whites. Boil gently for 10 minutes and strain clarified liquid through a cloth.”

 

As you’re describing this dinner, I’ve also been thinking about the global aspect of the ancient Roman Empire, which stretched all across Europe, reaching into India. They were accessing new ingredients and new utensils and new modes of cooking, and then making new dishes which, in turn, would have an impact on the culture when they came back. That part of the story is extremely interesting as part of the first global wave. We tend to think of globalism as something that’s happening now, but it’s been happening from the beginning, right? It’s always been there. So I thought that this part of the Species recipes is very interesting. I’m also wondering if you have heard of the book Fabulous Feasts.

 

No. What is it?

 

The title is Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. It’s by Madeleine Pelner Cosman. It’s a superb source for historic recipes. In the text she makes a comment about the medieval feast in which she says, “The more sophisticated city food merchants easily will produce cow, pig, deer, rabbit, goose, chicken, lobster, and eel. Less eagerly will they find more exotic things like pheasants and shellfish, but they would be jailed”—and this is for you—“and rightly if they produced animals gracing your medieval cookbook, which are now endangered species. Their names and detailed recipes for the preparation attest to the incredible variety of animal foods that were available to the noble medieval palate.” I was immediately attracted to the sentence because she is pointing to maybe not extinct but lots of endangered species. 

 

It’s impressive that they had that conception of the natural world. They had that understanding of natural ecosystems. Later on, during the “Age of Reason,” that concept may have given way to the idea of specimen collection. 

 

 

And then she has a list that goes on and on, which might actually be a helpful addition because my work, of course, concentrates on the Renaissance and I’ve been working a long time on the diary of the artist Pontormo, where he talks about what he eats. So, I’ve investigated those foods and like you, that led me to sixteenth-century cookbooks and then issues like, “What implements are they using? What are the utensils here? How are they making this?” So I completely share that fascination and have a few bits of bibliography. But I want to hear more about how the project actually looks.

 

Well, we typically show the works ganged and hung vertically on a wall. I would, however, like to construct big flat files for the individual leaves. The work is also growing. Everywhere I travel, I ask people, “Hey, what did your oldest relatives eat that’s no longer around?” I’m really interested in that first level of history, when there are still people around who can remember these foods. I’m also interested in the earliest animals that died off in that specific area. In Australia, I was given a recipe for a type of wallaby that no longer exists, along with a recipe for wallaby stew. In China, I was given a recipe for the Yangtze river dolphin. When I did some research, I found out that this animal was venerated as a god, so it surprised me that they would eat it. So this is a living work. It continues to grow. It’s also inspiring me to complete other cookbook-type projects. 

 

Really? Like what?

 

There is an older project that I’ve been working on in my head for some time called Cookbook for When the Sun Goes Out. Climatologists think that if the earth gets warm enough, our major areas that sequester carbon, which are the rainforests, are going to dry up and burn. And if they burn, we’re going to go into the next Dark Ages. It’s going to blacken out the sky. As an artist, I’m interested in the way that humor can counter sadness. So I thought, “Okay, where is the humor in this? How can I get people to pay attention to this dark subject?” Well, the humor for me is that if there’s no sun, we’re going to have to figure out alternative food sources. So what might these food sources be? There are lots of things like fungi and lichen that don’t have to use the sun. These life forms can use radiation in the same way that plants use light to create chemical energy. Then, of course, you’ve got the vents at the bottom of the ocean that are making heat. So, there’s probably lots of things you can use besides sunlight, besides photosynthesis, to create chemical energy. 

 

This speculative work actually started me on the Species Book. I started thinking about all the things that we humans have depleted and I realized that charismatic species are animals that we have some record of. You can go back and look at early cave paintings. I mean, they weren’t painting teeny shrews. They were painting beautiful bison, big charismatic animals that we have really admired. It seemed appropriate to me that we should memorialize these animals.

 

How did you decide to make the work using oil paint on paper? The images are beautiful, but it’s an unusual choice of medium.

 

The very first image that I started with was an extraordinary woodcut of a dodo bird. The page even had a recipe on it for the animal. I think it was a Spanish recipe or maybe Latin, for dodo birds cooked in wine. One day, back in 2013, this historic image was propped up on my studio table. I was looking at it and contemplating how I was going to translate this image into my “book” project when Hugo, who’s an oil painter, walked through my studio and said, “Wow, that’s a great image. Would you mind if I painted it?” 

 

We had never collaborated on anything before this, but Hugo paints using a monochromatic palette, which seemed appropriate for the project. Also, he is an extraordinary artist. His oil painting is a bit like drawing because he pushes the paint around like it is charcoal. He painted the dodo bird on paper, and it was gorgeous. So, I invited him to work on the project with me. Suffice it to say, he’s been making me paint and it’s torturous. I took some calligraphy classes a long time ago—typography and calligraphy. It’s kind of like that, like you’re trying to paint with ink. 

 

 

I was going to say that the kinds of illustrations you’re making—large format, extremely detailed—typically, they would be engraved as a woodcut because that was the technology of the moment. So, they were monochrome and like your images, they contained great amounts of detail. They’d illustrate an animal, sometimes the various parts of the animal, to show the most specific characteristics. If, for example, the way its whiskers grew was something that distinguished it from another animal, you might see a head-on view and a profile view of the head on the same page that showed multiple views of the whiskers. The images would showcase the information that was necessary for cataloging it as accurately as possible. And then the text would tend to be sort of free-floating, but given the exigencies of printing, they had to keep it in a block at the bottom. That’s why there would be a certain blocky look to the text, because of the physical way the type was set. But when you were describing the project to me, it immediately made me think of these texts that were based on ancient manuscripts. These texts existed partially or did not exist at all but had been transcribed maybe only in pieces and typically without the imagery, but just as words. This happened throughout the Middle Ages in various scriptoria in Europe, but also in the East—the part of the world that we now consider to be the Middle East and the lands where Islam was essentially the driving force. 

 

It’s so interesting. I’ve been looking at the way wood-cut text is laid out. I love the way that they kern letters to fill the space as evenly as possible.

 

And these texts from the Middle East traveled. After the last big bout of the bubonic plague was, sort of, over, and Europe rebounded around 1400 in terms of population, transportation, and agriculture, they started trading again. Europeans started going up and down the rivers and they reopened access to the Silk Roads. Then people traded or got wind of some of these manuscripts and asked if they could make copies of them, purchase them, and so a body of material that had been lost for a thousand years came back. 

 

So, there’s a big explosion in the sixteenth century of publications on plants and animals of the sort that had existed in antiquity and that would be connected to the recipes you have been working with. And Renaissance people were fascinated by exotica. There are very famous images—I’ll just give you one as an example. This will make this process immediately clear. It’s the rhinoceros. There’s a hugely famous woodcut that everybody copied of a rhinoceros and it comes from one of these books. They don’t have any rhinoceri in France or Italy. And so painters would sometimes lift images out of these books and insert animals like rhinoceri into paintings in the background kind of skirt, and, of course, they can’t possibly be there, right? 

 

I would love to see these paintings. It’s sort of like an early version of Photoshop. The Species Book also has a rhinoceros. You bring up a great point though about illustration. Surprisingly enough, making aesthetic choices about images is actually something that we’ve been trying to avoid. So, I’ve been using a generative process. I try to find the earliest known photo of the animal. If one of our species went extinct before the advent of photography, I try to find the earliest print or drawing of the animal. Sometimes these images are quite general. Trying to track down drawings of extinct animals is a wondrous process, though. Sometimes I find images that appear to have been reconstructed from verbal descriptions and sometimes they look downright fantastical. I’m thinking of the illustrations of Steller’s sea cow here. The early drawings were too fanciful to include in the Species Book. I ended up using one of these illustrations at a performance to commemorate the Remembrance Day for Lost Species at the American Museum of Natural History this year. The story and image of the animal was just too compelling not to share in some way.

 

Well, I think that you would really enjoy reading medieval period texts. My own work is on the diary of Pontormo. The precise years he’s writing are 1554 to 1557. Pontormo is an artist who people in the modern period have said must be slightly crazy.

 

 

Slightly crazy? Why?

 

 

Well, it’s a combination—I can’t give you the exact items off the top of my head because I hadn’t thought that we would go down this path. But artists, of course, are all melancholics according to the wisdom of this period. The reason they are is because melancholia, which is a damp and cold humor, automatically predisposes you to be more open to divine inspiration. It’s like the communications channel is open and what you have to do is to control it a little bit or you’ll go nuts. Because if you go too far, you go off the deep end.

 

 

As an artist, I would completely agree with that assessment. Creativity exists in a sweet spot between sanity and craziness. 

 

 

There’s that place, that little place. All of this actually sounds so normal, the way you and I are talking about it. 

 

 

But what did he eat? I mean, two things occurred to me. One is he was probably an obsessive. As soon as you said melancholy, there’s an obsessive component to that. And two, what specifically was he eating for inspiration? I’m going to guess it was warm things. If you’re damp and you’re cold, you want to eat warm things.

 

 

Right, sort of. He actually ate quite a few cold, wet things, which means he’s trying to make himself more melancholic, right? Because he doesn’t want to lose that incredible sensitivity. And this is part of what being a melancholic provides. It’s a danger, as we can well imagine, that you’re too sensitive, but you’ve got to keep open. So, for instance, one might eat silly things like lettuce and cabbage because they’re cold and wet. 

 

 

So this is a cookbook for creativity from a medieval perspective. Right?

 

 

Yes. 

 

Wow. How was Pontormo selecting foods?

 

 

Well, to keep track, you know, you sort of keep a running tab and then you can go back and look at it by date and say, “So, that was a good weekend. I’ll do that again.”

 

 

“I ate a bunch of cabbage and I made this painting.” I should try that.

 

 

I’m also really interested in the business of extinction. Poking around a tiny bit and looking at these lists of foods that are in these medieval sources, the incredible range of fishes, for instance, at banquets apparently, there are records of these things being served. And definitely some of these are certainly endangered. And they ate surprising things. To my amazement, they ate porpoise. I did not know this. 

 

 

Well, yeah, we’re still eating porpoise.

 

 

We still are? Oh, dear. 

 

 

It’s because of tuna. One of the issues with tuna fishing is that porpoises get stuck in the tuna nets. I forget what the percentage is when you buy a can of tuna, but the amount of porpoise is significant.

 

 

That’s horrific. 

 

 

Yeah. It is surprising what we’re able to eat to extinction. Did you know that passenger pigeons used to block out the sunlight on the plains in the United States? I’ve read first-person accounts from people who couldn’t see the sun when a big flock of passenger pigeons crossed the sky. Now, there’s not a single one left. None. Gone. I mean, these are the animals that we have a recorded history of. Imagine all the animals that we don’t have records of. 

 

Right. We also don’t understand the larger impact of our actions. I was reading about scientists who have been tracking a shark that is now almost extinct. Part of the reason is that it’s only native to a body of water off the coast of California. This makes me realize that one of the advantages we have, and also one of the reasons we don’t have an excuse for eating anything else into extinction, is that we have the media and technology to tell us about animals and fishes and plants all over the world. 

 

As you know, I’m an advisor in the Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which is a platform for the creative use of machine learning and computer vision. This technology is having an effect on our conception of the natural world in really interesting ways. We now have the physical computing capabilities to make devices that can sense in the middle of remote jungles. We can, for example, record all the audio that’s going on and extrapolate how deep the ecosystem is in that place. Up until our current moment, a biologist would have had to carefully listen to every tape. They would have to listen to every bird call in real time. What we can learn about the world right now through these technologies is extraordinary. The pandemic is also interesting from this perspective because this kind of physical computing allows us to sense and “see” at a distance. 

 

In terms of media, I also think it’s a significant moment in trans-species understanding because wide audiences are able to learn about animal behavior from platforms like YouTube. If you want to see something extraordinary, check out a video of Koko, the gorilla at Stanford who has learned sign language. There is a segment available online where Koko watches a sad movie about friends who part at a train station. In the video, she turns away from the sad part where people are having to leave their loved ones. She looks like she is crying. She signs “Frown, sad, cry, bad….” The segment is stunning. And the ability to see this kind of behavior up close is changing the way we humans think about sentience in our companion species.

 

Yes. Thank goodness there aren’t any gorillas in the Species Book! So, we have these technologies now, but my poor research subjects in the sixteenth century, the best they could have was maybe a guidebook to Jerusalem. That’s all they had. Did they have a book that told them anything about the flora and fauna of the Americas? No, they had nothing. So they couldn’t realize that, “Oh my gosh, there is an animal that is only in this little place.”

 

 

Well, they also had a different conception of conception, right? They believed that God brought everything into being and that we, at least in the Western model, have “dominion over all things.” This creates the groundwork for our modern extraction economy. With this mindset, we continue to extract and believe that nature or what we sometimes refer to as our “natural resources” are here to be consumed. The other problem is that we actually know very little about the life forms that share our space.

 

 

This discussion of consumption and knowledge brings me to the Species Book page for the Galapagos Island tortoise. Could you tell me about the history of this animal?

 

 

I’m so glad that you asked. That tortoise did not get its own species name for three hundred years after it was discovered on the Galapagos Islands. Apparently, it was very tasty to eat. It was so delicious that the poor tortoise kept being eaten while onboard ships, before it made it back to Europe. Rumor has it that Charles Darwin helped eat the last specimen that was on board with him on his trip back to England.

 

This brings me back to your work on Pontormo. What else did he eat? 

 

 

Well, he eats very little meat, I have to say. I can tell you, though, that he ate eels. And they were eels from right there in the local river. And there are no eels in Florence today. So, that’s a good example of a food source that’s no longer available.

 

 

So, eels from Florence. And do you know the specific species? 

 

 

I don’t, but I could probably find out. It would take me some digging, but I think that it could be found out. Most people just ignore it, you know, and gloss over and go, “Eww, eel.”

 

 

In Europe, eels were one of the few things that common people could eat after the rivers got really polluted because eels can live in serious pollution. So, you see businesses like eel shops. It was a big business in London, right along the Thames. There used to be rows of eel shops that would serve things like eel pie. These establishments were for the common people. Once the populace has eaten all of the naturally occurring animals from around cities, eels are one of the few things that you would still find in urban rivers. So, this is interesting. What your artist eats tells us about the ecology of the place where he lives. 

 

 

And it also is the case that he is not eating like the rich and privileged. Mostly, he is not eating these feasts that have multiple fish courses and meat courses, but in fact, he’s eating mostly vegetables and eggs, because eggs were easy to get. They were relatively high in nutrients and so forth and they were considered to be a perfect food in medieval times.

 

 

It occurs to me that we don’t have an eel recipe in the Species Book. I think you may have actually inspired a couple of pages of this project. 

 

 

Well, in that case, it’s been my pleasure!