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One by One: Brandon Ballengée’s Malformed Amphibian Project

One by One: Brandon Ballengée’s Malformed Amphibian Project

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For decades, many conceptual artists have operated as pseudo scientists, either superficially imitating the utilitarian to make a point in the field of art and/or depending on professional collaboration for the stamp of scientific authenticity. These strategies usually suffice for an interested but ignorant audience. Brandon Ballengée, however, takes it one step further, his work overflowing its banks into other fields, over lines that others have been blurring for years. Above all an artist, but also a trained biologist, educator, and activist, he too collaborates with specialists, but he does so as an expert rather than as an aesthetic tourist.

When choosing between science and art as a career (and it is a choice that must still be made) Ballengée decided that art could create a “better understanding between people and nature.”1 It is often argued that art is “useless”, whereas science can achieve more definable goals, but there is no question that Ballengée has built a highly effective multi-pronged practice by merging the two. “There is a constant mental feedback loop for me between the art making and the scientific inquiry,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to do one without the other.”2 Given his choice of art, his early attraction to Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School, and his description of his early work as generated by a sense of loss and “the classical theme of man versus nature,”3 I suspect Ballengée is something of a romantic — not at all a bad thing in this cynical world.

At home in art, science, and what we call nature, did Ballengée gravitate toward amphibians because they too are adapted to three worlds — water, land, and the liminal wetlands? In 1996, at the age of twenty two, he embarked on the research that would become the long-term MALAMP (Malformed Amphibian Project). In the summer of 1997, he began conducting field investigations looking for the occurrence of deformed frogs in Ohio and Tennessee. The next year he initiated a long-term collaboration with Peter Warny of the New York State Museum and started to work as a volunteer reporter of amphibian deformities for the U.S. Geological Survey. In 1999 he and Warny visited Dr. Stanley Sessions at Hartwick College in New York State and began another ongoing collaboration. Sessions had already made extensive studies of the role played by trematode parasites in causing frogs with extra limbs. Since then, Ballengée has continued to examine populations of frogs in Asia, Australia, Europe and the Americas in an effort to understand the rates and mechanisms responsible for deformities in amphibians — “sentinel” species susceptible to both waterborne and airborne threats.

Of over 5000 known amphibious species, no less than one third are known to be extinct or on the decline. They are the “canaries” in their particular coal mines, indicating damage to their habitats — air and water, the mediums of their metamorphoses (and our own survival). Amphibian deformities were reported as far back as 250 years, but it was not around 1995 that mass occurrences alerted the scientific community. Its concerns were picked up by the mass media, since frogs resemble human victims. Initially it was feared that chemical pollution was causing the birth defects, but now it seems more likely that chemical fertilizers may create better habitats for the snail-borne parasites that cause extra legs; pollutants like DDT can increase the rate at which some predators can capture tadpoles. In the 2002 Ecoventions catalogue, Ballengée asked “The BIG Question”: “Why are there fewer amphibians?”4 Among the answers are habitat modification and loss, followed by emerging diseases (fungus, viruses, and perhaps those parasites), climate change, invasive species, pollution of all kinds, overcollection of amphibians for food and pets — “death by a thousand cuts,” as Ballengée puts it.

In 2006, the artist collaborated with Richard Sunter of the Yorkshire Naturalists Union on a pilot study of the large number of metamorphic toads found with missing limb deformities in Havercroft Village in Yorkshire, England and in regional wetlands. The next year studies were expanded to southern England In 2008, a temporary laboratory, open to the public, was set up at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park to study the role of parasites and predators. In 2009, Ballengée and Sessions published their findings in the Journal of Experimental Zoology,5 outlining their evidence that hind-leg deformities in certain British frogs were the result of selective predation (dragonfly nymphs with a taste for developing limbs on anuran tadpoles). While their research indicates “natural” causes rather than the human-made pollution thesis favoured by others, and also shows that a stalwart capacity for regeneration enables some amphibians to survive the nibbling, there is more work (and more art) to be done. Among the questions to be answered are whether the deformities have increased in the present, the roles of agricultural practices, climate change, and habitat loss and modification.

So Ballengée continues his studies, most recently in Southern Quebec, where he surveyed almost 5000 frogs and tadpoles in the summer of 2009 with a team of volunteer researchers. His partner in this project was Dr. David Green of McGill University. They set up another temporary laboratory at the Society for Art and Technology in Montreal, where nymphs were found to cause limb deformities in native Canadian species.

As a society, we have yet to internalize the truism that all things are related, even though the urgency of global warming is forcing recognition down our craws. The teeming, if diminishing, life that surrounds all of us, urban and rural, is even more of a mystery to most than high art itself. The miracle of the larva to butterfly or tadpole to frog is something we take for granted, but don’t take too seriously, although it is becoming clear that the woes and deformities of creatures lower on the food chain are potentially our own. At the same time, many of us, even in the arid southwest of the United States, where I live, have a river running through our lives. One of Ballengée’s missions is to get us to pay attention to these streams, so frequently used as literary metaphors for life itself. Someday we may even be wise enough to create bioregional provinces defined by watersheds, as John Wesley Powell suggested in the 1870s.

With his scientific training, Ballengée finds himself in a new vanguard. If artists are usually “hands-on”, he is knee-deep, or up to his neck. (I’m thinking of a photograph I’ve seen where he is collecting specimens, wading chest-deep in an algae-covered pond.) He shares a “fondness for mud” — that sensual substance of origins — with Josef Beuys, who swam in a peat bog to raise awareness about its ecological sensitivity.  Despite his meticulous scientific method, he can bypass the jargon and incomprehensible academic detail in his art, thanks to the participatory component of his practice. His “eco-actions” — in which he and volunteers of all ages pore over familiar sights together while monitoring sites and collecting data — are possibly “performative” but they are not self-conscious enough to be performance as such. In the open-ended process, he reveals aspects of place to those who live there, aspects hitherto unseen or unappreciated. In a sense he is framing local ecologies in order to draw attention to them, but doing so in real time rather than the frozen present of paintings or photographs. For example, a major 2004 collaborative project called Losing Ground: The Rapidly Changing Ecology of Jamaica Bay (2004); one of its elements was poetically titled « Water of Life/Water of Death: a Map of the Present and the Uncertain Future of Jamaica Bay », which says it all. Another project/exhibition — inspired by the environmental group Scenic Hudson, which led a seventeen-year battle against a Con Edison hydroelectric plant on the Hudson River, and won — was Breathing Space for the Hudson: Charting the Biodiversity and Pollutants of the Hudson River (2003), presented at New York’s Wave Hill in three tanks representing three ecosystems — salty water, fresh water, and the brackish combinations at their intersection. He has also worked with algae — including the notorious Red Tide (which, as I write from Maine, is devastating tidal sea life and coastal economies). In the process of these varied projects, Ballengée has serendipitously saved a barrel of endangered sea turtles, persuaded a local government to change street lights that killed insects, and facilitated the interface of hundreds or perhaps thousands of people with their amphibian relatives.

Ballengée is a “new genre” public artist (Suzanne Lacy’s term) who rarely produces monumental objects — sculptures, parks, murals. An exception was his 2004 Micro-habitat for Snakes at the Geumgang Nature Art Biennale in 2004 — a hut-or-pile-like shelter reminiscent of Lynne Hull’s “trans-species art,” providing refuges for creatures whose habitats are threatened — and visually reminiscent of the appealing twigs-and-branches school of art of the early 1970s. The idea in this case was to encourage people to leave “brush and fallen trees in our own backyards to provide animal habitat.” It was revised at the Abington Art Center in Pennsylvania in 2006, minus snakes, as Small Universe: A Micro-habitat for Plethodontid Salamanders.

Ballengée is, of course, not alone in his obsession with restoration of the natural worlds. He cites as early influences Betty Beaumont, Agnes Denes and Newton and Helen Harrison — pioneers in what is now called “eco-art” — a form that has been gaining ground since the late 1960s. Distinct from “Land Art” which tends to be (but does not have to be) more grandiose and less utilitarian, eco-artists work knowledgeably within their own eco-systems, often in the built environment, gauging art’s place in them, widening the ripples made by stones tossed into the pools of conventional wisdom. Much of this work is public and located outdoors. Sometimes it is mostly decorative; sometimes it has a clear environmental function; sometimes it is, like Ballengée’s, a genuine hybrid, attracting interest from different constituencies.

Eco-artists can ask unexpected questions, even when they don’t have the answers. Ballengée has been asking questions ever since he was a kid poking around in ponds in suburban Ohio. Since then he has wallowed in nature on several continents, “from being knee-deep in Louisiana swamps,” to “late-night amphibian surveys in the tropical forests of Central America,” to searching for monitor lizards in the dry Australian outback.6 Having long argued for an art that may be unrecognizable as art because it achieves a social function, I’m excited about what Ballengée and other eco-artists are doing. Finally, resistance to art that overlaps life is for the most part obsolete, demolished by the varied trajectories of public and conceptual art (which now seems to mean virtually everything that is not made in a traditional medium, and some that is). Yet such work can still befuddle a public raised on expectations of red carpets and marble pedestals. The artist’s job is to point out their parallels in the melée of real life.

One of the most populist of Ballengée’s projects – because it bridges our daily lives and those of the species — was The Ever Changing Tide, a year-long survey of fish markets in Flushing, Queens. Interestingly, it was modeled on a similar piece by a dissimilar artist – Mark Dion’s 1992 The Report of the Department of Marine Animal Inventory of the City of New York China Town Division, in which he studied the catch in Canal Street fish markets in the name of an imaginary bureaucracy. The difference between Dion’s and Ballengée’s art is the difference between fiction and non-fiction. I can imagine viewers entering a clean-lined Ballengée exhibition with its live specimens and maps, wondering if they’d stepped into a science museum; and entering a cabinet of curiosities Dion exhibition, wondering if they’d been transported to the Victorian era. Ballengée displays his scientific findings in an art format, where Dion often disguises his art as old-fashioned science.  Each, in his own way, cultivates ambiguity. Ballengée’s more exacting year-long survey, which turned up 400 species and made apparent the commercial extinction of several, was complete with phylogenic records, identification and preservation. The Hong Kong Supermarket in Flushing let him do a permanent “installation” (now “altered somewhat”) — photos of the fish, some in jars, with multilingual signs on the danger of species extinction. After being shown as “art” at the Queens Museum, the end results of the Ever Changing Tide went to several natural history museums.

We continue to expect a vast variety of seafood to be available forever. As a politically correct fish lover in a landlocked state, carrying my little card saying what we should and should not buy, I find my choices increasingly diminished — a result, as usual, of human greed and neglect of “all our relations” who come in other forms. For those who know enough to condemn the sale of “Chilean Sea Bass” (actually the ancient Patagonian Toothfish), be aware that Orange Roughy reach sexual maturity at the advanced age of twenty or thirty, so when we scoop them up in adolescence, we doom them. Investigations of overfishing has revealed that the giant cod of the history books are now much smaller because the large fish have been “selected out.” “We are reshaping the species!” exclaims Ballengée. “It is a whole other kind of genetic manipulation or unnatural selection.”7 Some fish that are now declining have been around for 250 million years or more. Surely that should give us pause?

As the hardworking, underacknowledged artists who work in communities know all too well, the “workshop” or “interaction,” or genuinely public component of such artworks is rarely highlighted. And without direct experience, it is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of much public art through the artists’ testimony alone. In Ballengée’s case, however, there seems to be indisputable evidence that the public participation element is crucial to his success. The “eco-actions” are not add-ons for the sake of funding or social correctness; they are fed by his enthusiasm, which is apparently contagious. The workshops and on-site research projects with children and adults teach hydrology and primary scientific techniques, while also providing the art’s aura. The field work generates the findings and the findings generate the art which in turn sends people back into the field where they may even be led to the studio.

Ballengée’s most recognisable (and saleable) artworks are his photographic portraits of individual deformed frogs with multiple appendages — graceful, fantastic creatures, dancing in blank space. The artist considers them one by one, producing a unique print of each rather than an edition, respectful of its specific and local individuality. Curiously, while amphibians chewed by dragonflies sometimes regenerate and survive, these multi-limbed specimens are doomed to stumble over extra feet. A Pacific Tree Frog is splayed and displayed, exposed to the art gaze in luminous, saturated colors, re-imagined as an image. There is a cruel intimacy about our viewing of these tiny corpses, with their disturbing, malfunctioning beauty we have helped to create. At the same time, the artist brings back to life a damaged creature’s unexpected originality and its mythical quality. Each of Ballengée’s unique frog prints is named for a character from Greek mythology, in a collaboration with the French poet KuyDelair.  A transformation occurs the moment we viewers are inserted into the equation. We become part of the art process¸ our own imaginations merging with the life force of the creature under the microscope, or the lens. And we understand… Or we do not.

The abstraction and aestheticisation of nature so popular during most of the twentieth century has given way in recent decades — with photographers like Subhankar Bannerjee and Chris Jordan, or Ballengée’s poignant creatures — to seering images that are dangerously beautiful, both alluring and alarming, testimony to dire changes happening beneath our radar. Ballengée offers us his fascination with our losses by placing selected specimens on a super high-resolution flatbed scanner where they are directly magnified to the size of a “human toddler, attempting to invoke empathy instead of fear”; if they are too small, they appear insignificant, and if they are too large they become monstrous. Despite the skeletal resemblance of frogs to humans, our distaste for deformity does not extend to the amphibian world. Ballengée’s images are graphic warnings in a language we don’t know quite well enough to read, thanks to our general illiteracy about science (allowing lunatic global warming deniers to confound the public from the same platforms as those trained to understand the signs).

The photographs are of actual (dead) specimens, while living animals often inhabit Ballengée’s installations, and the specimens themselves become “sculptures” floating in dark “embryonic” liquid in his Styx series, which is always site specific to the place it is exhibited. There is no Damien Hirst-like opportunistic spectacle involved here, but metaphor plays its part as life is reduced to essentials before our eyes. Each creature is treated in chemicals “that literally digest them to a semitransparent state.” Then they are “submersed in biological dyes that adhere to specific tissues like cartilage and bone,”8 heightening the visibility of all parts. The process is called “clearing and staining” — irresistibly evoking nature’s clarity stained by cultural murk. Any resemblance to “illustration” is avoided by the aesthetic choices made and the consequent power of these embodiments.

The life-affirming flip side of the depressing news on amphibian traumelia is reflected in the title of an unpublished theoretical article: “The Origins and Application of Artificial Selection.” Ballengée is experimenting with reproduction, as in a glowing piece called Love Motel for Insects — a large portable blue screen that functions as a kind of singles bar for bugs. A longterm project (since 1999) on “Species Reclamation” involves selective breeding and the resurrection of Hymenochirus frogs, which may already have disappeared from their home ground in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “For me,” says Ballengée, “one of the most exciting aspects of genetic research may some day be the ability to re-establish animal and plant species that we are now losing to extinction.”9 One can only hope that a similarly optimistic future awaits this gradually emerging breed of socially active, science-based artists.

Citer cet article

Lucy R. Lippard, « One by One: Brandon Ballengée’s Malformed Amphibian Project », [Plastik] : In vivo, L’artiste en l’œuvre ? #02 [en ligne], mis en ligne le 21 mars 2011, consulté le 16 décembre 2018. URL : ISSN 2101-0323

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