An Artist’s Role in Biodiversity Loss: A Case Study
Nr 04 . 15 février 2014
Table des matières
This article describes the work of the author as a means of exploring the ways by which artists deal with the concepts of biodiversity, sustainability and conservation. The author’s scientific background and experience working on environmental issues in the government before becoming an artist put her in a unique position to create work addressing environmental issues. Her work at the California Department of Food and Agriculture attempted to add the Tricolored Blackbird to the United States government’s endangered species list. Her artistic work seeks to combat the lack of public knowledge and empathy about endangered species.
Artists have traditionally been in a position to look objectionably at and critique the world around them. Though many landscape painters idealized the natural world, some, such as the landscape artists of the Antebellum Era (pre-American Civil War, 1861-1865) were concerned with showing changes in the landscape of America due to human activities. Building upon this previous work, contemporary artists now regularly champion environmental concerns. In this article I use my artistic work to argue that artists are increasingly becoming the mediator between the sciences and the public. One critical challenge facing our environment is the impending loss of biodiversity. Maintaining equilibrium and diversity among species is critically important for our environment, as changes in this equilibrium can lead to unexpected and unintended consequences. The examples of my work deal with the loss of biodiversity in California, specifically focusing on endangered species.
II. The Endangered Species List
At the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) I studied Ecology, Behavior and Evolution, with the original intent that I would go into environmental policy work. During my internship at the Department of Food and Agriculture, I participated in the process of attempting to get a species listed on the endangered species list. Specifically, I spent the summer helping to try to list the Tricolored Blackbird. The Tricolored Blackbird had become a candidate for the endangered species list due to the fact that it is a colonial species and they were losing habitat range. Unlike other species of blackbirds that nest in single pairs, the Tricolored Blackbirds traditionally nest in large colonies in marshlands. They have been adapting to the loss of marshlands by nesting in alfalfa fields outside of dairy farms. The alfalfa is often mowed down before the blackbird’s chicks leave the nests, therefore decimating entire colonies. Due to these phenomena, efforts were made to place the birds on the Endangered Species List so that they could be protected. The process of placing an animal on the list is convoluted and time-consuming due to the fact that there are many competing interests involved. For example, with the Tricolored Blackbirds there were the environmental groups who were trying to list the bird, the farmers who were at risk of losing money if the birds were listed, and the governmental groups, like the Department of Food and Agriculture, who had to try to work as a mediator between the others.
The experience of failing to get the Tricolored Blackbird listed was a learning experience that set the foundation for my early graduate career. My interest became not in investigating the tangled web of bureaucracy, but the concern that when most people think of endangered species they typically think of a handful of animals, such as the polar bear or wolf. We only knowingly see endangered species when they are in zoos; otherwise we are unaware of crossing paths with them. For example, anyone driving down Interstate 5 through the Central Valley of California has probably seen a Tricolored Blackbird and never realized that they are a potentially endangered species.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a list of endangered species on their website. They keep track of when the species are listed as endangered or threatened, maintains reports on the species’ status, indicates whether the species are threatened or endangered, and describes the ranges where the species are found. California has the most species listed for the United States, at approximately 300. The fact that California has the most endangered species is consistent with the fact that California has many endemic, or native, species only found in a specific area. California has the Sierras, which block the state from the plains of the Midwest, as well as having many microclimates. This has created many endemic species that have evolved to live in these specific areas. Furthermore, California has a large human population that is encroaching on many of these habitats. As a Californian, I have not seen most of these species myself, and may never actually see them. This drove the idea that the population needs to become aware that we will potentially lose many of these species, and may never be the wiser for it until it is much too late.
There are many other artists who are working with endangered species and are attempting to bring awareness to them. For example, in Xavier Cortada’s Endangered World, he hand draws an endangered species at different latitude coordinates. This provides a way for people to see the many species that are endangered.
I decided to explore a different method of bringing awareness to the endangered species list. In part, I decided to use text, rather than images. In this, the Chilean born artist, Alfredo Jaar, influenced me. Jaar is an unusual documentary photographer. In his series of works called Lament of the Images, completed in 2002, he creates text descriptions of what the images would be for the viewers. “Jaar’s art offers the public an alternative opportunity to reflect and meditate upon the lack of photographs in order to restore their ‘lost sight’.”1 He believes that people are blind to images due to the fact that we are inundated with them today, and therefore provides his audience with text versions of his photographs. This use of text to stand in for images provided a parallel for me to explore when dealing with the endangered species list.
Unlike Jaar, who was interested in creating blindness by providing his audience with only text describing his photographs in order to make them think about our image-saturated culture; I was interested in having the text stand in for the species that they represent. Most people, myself included, have little to no visual images of what many of these species look like. I wanted to make the connection between the species, where they are found, and how the viewer relates to them.
I recompiled the US Department of Fish and Wildlife’s comprehensive list of endangered species into scrolling end credits like those found at the end of a movie. The scrolling text becomes a memorial for the species. Due to the text being a projection as opposed to a physical object, it furthers the concept that the species have the potential to go extinct. Furthermore, the species we lose are not overly missed since we often knew very little about them to begin with.
In my show titled Listed, I paired this scrolling list with a second piece dealing with the loss of species. The US Department of Fish and Wildlife also maintains a list of “delisted” species. There are two ways for a species to be delisted. The first is for the species to recover in numbers, and therefore no longer be in danger of going extinct. This, of course, is the preferred method. The second is for the species to go extinct. With this in mind, I made a series of silkscreen prints of the delisted species on clear acrylic. The viewer is not made aware if the species has gone extinct or has recovered. When light is shone on them at the correct angle, it creates shadows on the wall. They were shown in a black gallery. This allowed the silkscreened ink to essentially disappear, bringing the shadows into focus. The ephemeral images metaphorically represented the species that are now extinct, never to be seen in physical form again.[Figure 1]
Beatriz da Costa was another artist who had worked to bring awareness to endangered species. Da Costa was an interdisciplinary artist whose work often dealt with our relationship to biotechnology and the relationships between technology and our environment. Da Costa did a project dealing with endangered species in the United Kingdom, called A Memorial for the Still Living :
A Memorial for the Still Living is an installation originally developed for “Dark Places,” an exhibition conceived and organized by the Office Experiment and the Arts Catalyst in London. A Memorial for the Still Living confronts visitors with the realities of species endangerment in the UK. On view are a number of regional taxidermed specimens currently being under threat of extinction. The specimens are temporary donations from the Natural History Museum in London and the Horniman Museum and represent the only form of encounter we will be able to [sic] have with those species once they have been eradicated from our planet.2
The installation takes on the tone of a natural history museum, where people go to see animals that are extinct, such as dinosaurs. In many ways, what da Costa does in this installation is more literal than what I did. It presents you with the authentic physical specimens, as if they were extinct. I, on the other hand, only show the name of the species, or their shadow. They are both ways of confronting the audience with the fact that these species will at some point no longer be with us if they continue on their current trajectory.
III. Hanging By a Thread
The concept of bringing awareness to the endangered species list led me to another project entitled Hanging by a Thread. This project entails the creation of a physical form of the Endangered Species List. The question became how to make the data from the scrolling list in Listed more physically imposing. What would it mean to walk through a room where one had to walk through 300 endangered species?
In Listed, the endangered species were arranged so that the list was simply ordered chronologically by when the species were first listed. In an experimental project using Adobe Flash, the list was rearranged so that certain trends became visible. The first trend was whether more species were listed on the endangered species list when a Republican or a Democrat president was in office. It turns out that the majority of the endangered species in California were placed on the list during the Clinton administration. It should be noted here that correlation does not necessarily equal causation; meaning that just because more species were listed during the Clinton administration does not completely support the idea that a Democrat in office equals more endangered species listed. The reasoning behind why and when species get listed is complex and there may be other factors at work that were not investigated. It is noteworthy that Republican Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973. The finding where it appeared that more species were listed during Democrat presidencies led me to ask the question of whether Congressional representation had any role on inclusion into the Endangered Species List. While not providing a correlation, it did lead to a visually interesting presentation of where the ranges or habitats of the endangered species for California are.
One of the reactions from spectators when viewing the scrolling end credits from Listed that was intriguing was “oh, I live there.” This observation helped fuel my intent to create a room filled with the three hundred species listed in California; which then evolved to a project borrowing from the metaphor “hanging by a thread.” The intention was to allude to the idea that the species on the list are hanging onto their habitats by a mere thread, and can go extinct at anytime, just like how a thread could break.
Therefore, in Hanging by a Thread, I created mobiles where each mobile is a county, and hanging from the mobiles were the endangered species found in each county. Counties are man-made constructs in which the range of a given species might be found due to the specific habitat requirements of that species. The counties that were chosen make up the “Bay Area” of California. This choice was based on the fact that the audience for the piece was going to be a Bay Area, or more specifically, a Silicon Valley audience. Therefore, the audience would be more likely to relate to these counties than the mobiles shaped like counties in, for example, Southern California.
Material choices were based on seeking a look of blatantly man-made material, rather than a “natural” look. This was to highlight the idea that many, if not all, of the reasons that most of these species are on the endangered species list in the first place are caused by human activities.
I allowed for the data to determine many of the aesthetic choices that I made. For example, colors of the acrylic for the counties were determined based on human population. The length of the wires was based on how long the species had been on the endangered species list. As a result, it became visible when most of the species were listed, since they would cluster together. Another observation that became obvious as the piece came together was that often size of the county did not always correlate to having more species on the endangered species list. Instead it became clear that in the Bay, Santa Cruz had the most endangered species. Santa Cruz literally became a jumble of hanging acrylic etchings. As mentioned earlier, it makes sense that an area like Santa Cruz would have more species on the endangered species list than other areas. This was primarily because many of the species found in Santa Cruz were only found in Santa Cruz. If one paid attention, one might also notice that certain species were found in multiple counties, suggesting that many of these areas all had suitable habitat for the species in question. As a result of embedding this data in visual choices, thereby allowing the audience to make these observations, the work became a physical piece of data visualization.
Stephen Cartwright is another artist who creates sculptures that are based on data. Cartwright’s data is obtained through personal experiences. Cartwright records his “exact latitude, longitude and elevation every hour of every day.”3 Cartwright, along with being an artist, is an avid bicyclist, which is how he obtains much of his data. Along with data dealing with positions, in his pieces, Mesh 1 and Mesh 2, he visualizes his average cycling mileage. This data is most often seen as simple line graphs on a two dimensional surface. However, Cartwright creates a piece that takes on a three dimensional form, creating what almost looks like mountain peaks where he was putting in a lot of miles. Cartwright also looks at topography, and how the landscape changes due to human intervention. The series, Lost Landscape, shows “pieces that reflect topographic formations that have been massively altered by human intervention.”4 This is accomplished by having acrylic pieces cut out showing the valley that the Missouri River has flooded. In another piece, 2030, Cartwright uses acrylic to create the glaciers and snowpack on the peak of Mt. Kenya. The title of the piece suggests that in twenty years from when the piece was made, 2009, that the permanent snowpack could potentially be gone. In Hanging by a Thread, I similarly sought to communicate data about man’s impact on the environment through sculpture.
I use my art to create awareness among people as to the tragedy of losing our valuable biodiversity. One might argue that I would have been more effective in helping to address environmental issues had I remained working on environmental policy. However, I believe that art allows a means to try to address the lack of appreciation for the services and wonders that the natural world provides. It would be tragic if we were to only experience biodiversity in the landscape paintings of the past.
Citer cet article
Sara Gevurtz, « An Artist’s Role in Biodiversity Loss: A Case Study », [Plastik] : Art et biodiversité : Un art durable ? #04 [en ligne], mis en ligne le 15 février 2014, consulté le 19 janvier 2021. URL : http://plastik.univ-paris1.fr/an-artists-role-in-biodiversity-loss/ ISSN 2101-0323