Bryndis Snaebjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson in conversation with Ron Broglio
Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson are a collaborative art-practice based in the UK, Iceland and Sweden. For fifteen years they have made work relating to uncertainty, or contradictory constructions in our cultural responses to the environment, often taking specific human-animal relationships as a key point of departure. Their work is socially engaged and site-responsive, using installation, photography, video and performance amongst other media. Interviewing and practical cooperation with specialists in other fields and disciplines are key to the development of their projects.
The conversation below between the artists Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson and Ron Broglio, Field Marshall of the Animal Revolution was recorded at ASU Combine Artist in Residency Studios in Phoenix Arizona in November 2013 after a site visit to the Grand Canyon and Vermilion Cliffs. The residency and site visit were part of a project commissioned by ASU Art Museum and the Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU as research for an exhibition due to open in ASMA in October 2014. The research focuses on issues to do with sustainability and conservation using as an example, two native and endangered species, namely the humpback chub and the Californian Condor. Both species are the focus of conservation programmes organized through the Grand Canyon Park Services.
The artists were invited to discuss their collaborative work in interview and to elucidate for instance the ways that increasingly, the absence of (real) animals is supplanted with cultural replicas or interpretations. What is conserved in the conservation process? Or, what kinds of absence become visible when something is conserved? Also the simple question of what will our nature be like ”after the animal” and how [the eventual awareness of the consequences of this,] will change our mindset.
Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir. Although the word conservation has been raised in respect of our work in relation to taxidermy, I take it to be something wider, certainly in the case of our work here in Arizona… something for example that addresses or attempts to alter the process of extinction, by keeping something eternally or for as long as you can, against the odds…
Mark Wilson. It’s an interesting two-way protraction of that term – the conservation where you are talking about conserving something which is already just an artefact and then the idea of conserving and preserving the presence of a species
BS Yes but we already know that the conserving of this so-called ‘afterlife’ in the form of taxidermy is such a loose interpretation of something.
MW … to manage it, certainly in physical terms, is a relatively simple challenge whereas the conservation we are talking about here is more complex, so much so, that its possible resonances are imponderable.
BS Yes it takes me into thinking about other things, for instance the context of institutions within which these situations arise – yesterday when we were with Brian Kesner [a native fish biologist working at Marsh laboratories in Phoenix] he had this preserved fish. He said it had been there in his office for ages and it was actually standing upright, wrapped in tissue and a plastic bag in a corner beside his desk. After encouraging him to do so, he unwrapped it – it was an incredible spectacle…
He had said that it was preserved in alcohol and that the powder covering it was the dried residue of that liquid. What was interesting was, here was this dead specimen, but not stuffed like taxidermy because it is preserved entire, so everything is intact. Then we watched him scan over the body with a yellow device – suddenly there was a digital signal – and in that moment, some access to the previous life of this animal was made, another register, of information we would normally have no access to in these, or any animals. Prior to that, he couldn’t be sure if the animal had been tagged, but there it was.
Again, it’s a little bit like what we did in nanoq:flat out and bluesome when we gathered provenances specific to each taxidermic polar bear specimen. But here there was just this man and the technology the team uses for monitoring the fish. I mean, these are ‘wild’ native animals, yet they can’t swim freely around the rivers here without passing through scanners and ticking up information, which is constantly being collected on computers back at the lab. It is all a bit absurd isn’t it? So what one needs to think about is, the difference between that fish and the scientist in the office – and the fish in the river.
MW Well, here the real fish is supplanted by the data held in the pit tag within its body. Obviously in this specific case, you are looking at very physical remains as well, which in itself talks about that difference.
BS Yes, but it was clear he was more interested in the data than the fish… this fish had been laying there for ages, for years I think – and then suddenly as we talked, he remembered it. I thought he was just going to throw it out afterwards and I was prepared to say look, we will take it but he then said, it will probably go to ASU (Arizona State University). So it is this kind of dichotomy, between the object and the being. Is there any interest in the being?
MW From whom?
BS From the people who are supposedly working with the ambition to conserve.
MW In other words, the pit tag and the information it contains is all that’s required by those folks. They don’t want to know about the actual life – they just want to know about its migration pattern, its spawning, or its various perambulations around the river system.
Ron Broglio So it is in this transformation – I see this in a number of projects of yours, the transformation of life into data, through collecting, gathering, sampling. It’s there in science, but you’ve found merit in extending the ways this information is used. Even with the Uncertainty in the City project, in a lot of ways there is a sense of the physical-but-absent animal, but then there are all these ways through people’s stories, that the human becomes a complex register for its being.
MW The stories make a counter-case to the idea of naked data – they are about an affective relationship that stands as a counterpoint to things measured in terms of time and space, and instead actually how different specific animals affected people – we can’t get that retrospectively with the fish we’re talking about here – what we can try to do is extrapolate a little bit from what he is able to offer us about how this animal came to be there in the laboratories, the donation process stemming from the discovery of the body. At present we don´t know who was involved, but he will tell us that in time, so that will be interesting. That’s the same with nanoq:flat out and bluesome where it was the human contact and the passage of the specimen or the dead animal through various human contexts involving whaling or expedition ships, zoos, museums… and so on. As Bryndis says, there’s a close parallel in that sense.
BS This is the way everything is going isn’t it? I mean, what we know of as life and ‘the real’ is not important anymore…
RB The real is lost – replaced by data right, so the scientist is excited that it’s pit tagged because then it means there is a story behind it.
MW The body still has a use…
RB The presence of data means it’s useful – but in fact it was the wrong information right?
BS Brian Kesner the fish biologist had put the wrong number from the paper ticket into the computer then he found out what the number was from the tag – as it turned out there was still no information on the fish that he could call up and he was saying well, it is possible that this data has still to be retrieved.
RB So that’s a whole other fishing story right there – getting the data into a form that can be read. It’s sitting somewhere in a file or even on the tag and as it’s not yet processed, it doesn’t yet count.
BS Exactly, this is what I mean – that it is these kinds of things that eclipse the real animal. It’s the data that appears as the real animal. Science doesn’t distinguish between the real individual animal swimming in the sea or the river or laid out on a table – it only matters that it should yield information. Conceptually, we enter into this fantasy, imagining whatever, from those representations and figures that have come to constitute the life of this fish.
MW It’s because for science and conservation, the concern is actually more for populations – this piece of data is only a tiny piece in a huge mosaic that builds up to constitute the population of a species of fish in this very specific area. Not only is the animal eclipsed, but so too, entire populations, by the data that represents them.
RB So we have these different sides going on in your current project – the data and science side and then unexpectedly, the scientists telling stories, as we have seen with the Condor whiteboard where the conservationist points to a number on the board, identifying an individual, dead bird and then he recounts its story indicating a clear sense of a personal relationship with that animal.
MW This capacity of Chris Parish, at the Condor Conservation programme to connect with and articulate those specific histories and encounters, made crystal clear the distinction between what science considers important and a whole other register of information for which science has no apparent use. But of course, we can use it.
RB So we have scientific data and modelling and then you have these stories of relational affect and yet in all this, there is still the problem of getting to the animal…. this is the problem with the real. I know you’ve been working on Zizek a little bit and Lacan … the real is never accessible to us, even with Baudrillard – it is always layered over with simulation. The real animal is never fully accessible to us… even if we are holding the fish in our hand like a living, squirming, slimy, scaly fish…
MW …the kind we saw down at Bright Angel Creek.
RB Yes right. You saw them handle them in the creek and you saw the transformation of the living thing into data but even in holding the real thing you know – this is Nagel’s question – what is it like to be a bat… or in this case, a fish?
RB So a really interesting part of your work, is that you are working on an impossible question, because this access to something … or… access is not a good word because it denotes mastery, but there’s a search for this exposure to another life and to strip away the layers or the veils that interrupt that exposure… does that make sense?
MW Up to a point but any kind of wish or desire we have to facilitate that exposure or approach will always be bound up with some sort of purpose…
BS So, isn’t the word ‘accessible’ key to this? Because accessibility is some sort of requirement?
MW Exactly and it will always be linked to a specificity of purpose. And maybe like any such investigative case, where you try to gain some sort of understanding from something by applying a certain lens – the framing of a question or the application of a purpose inevitably affects what it is that you are going to find and so therefore, the very act of looking, obscures. So there is this imperative purpose, which at the same time will preclude or reduce any sense of wonder or surprise, never mind ‘wholeness’.
RB This is what they say is like blindness and insight – every mode of insight has a blind spot right? But purpose has a sense of utility or use – like I am using the other, to gain understanding of its qualities, its ecology – for food or for some other applied pleasure or utility.
MW Yes, so perhaps it is tempting, or we are attempting to imagine some kind of benign non-acquisitional access – something whereby in a sense you aren’t after any knowledge in particular, you just want to ‘experience’ – to understand that there is something about the being of another. But it doesn’t matter how many ways you try and frame it – the application of our attention seems always to involve some sort of constraint upon the subject.
RB Sure, so in your work it’s the flexibility of those constraints or the mutual vulnerability that is in question. So if we talk about dwelling with another – if we look for instance at your work Vanishing Point, a piece which is an exercise in dwelling ‘differently’ with another species that we already in effect ‘live’ with, the gulls are there, eating things as indeed you eat the things you’re serving up – a situation that highlights this ‘dwelling-with’. That doesn’t seem to implicate the same sort of troublesome access to the animal. You’re not trying to gain ‘access’, but you are trying to understand what does it mean to be alongside or to be with.
BS Yes it is that, but it is also a knowing fantasy. At the same time as you learn something about the process of coming together, it happens or you become aware that the others involved also have some sort of shared experience, but on their own terms… and I think that we’re trying to find some equilibrium that’s suggested in that meeting – you’re never sure if it actually happens… but still you go out to seek it or expose its potentiality.
MW The equilibrium is important. It redresses the balance in some ideological sense doesn’t it, that we’re not talking about taking something or even kind of digging around in order to get something. We’re finding out what happens if we simply orchestrate a meeting between human and animal. We‘ve done this in other works – in between you and me for instance, where amongst other things, we sought to connect with seals through the making of sounds on the shore.
BS Yes, but the holistic approach and the way things are connected to each other is important. We’ve travelled for hundreds of miles into the farthest north to be in the environment of some animal. It is not the most important thing or a thing at all for us to see that animal in that environment. Because we are in the environment and we know this to be the environment in which it thrives, we don’t need to go after its picture and by so doing, possibly endanger that animal. As we all know, in relation to polar bears in Svalbard for example the presence of humans is problematic. So when I think about the fish in the river in the light say of a possible visit to Havasupai in the Grand Canyon, for us actually to see the humpback chub, is not so important. It is the utterly unique and to us the unfamiliar environment that matters, which allows a certain perceptual accessibility. We don´t need to see or take that fish out and cut it up or number or tag it.
MW Yes, it was an incredible confirmatory experience when we came across the polar bear tracks in Svalabard. It was more than we could have possibly expected and for us was a real and absolute epiphany – for us as artists, we didn´t need any more under those circumstances – we weren’t expecting even that.
RB Well in some sense, more would be less
MW That’s absolutely right and then as Bryndis said, coming back to this idea of accessibility to the real; we’re not making a National Geographic documentary. In relation to Havasupai Creek you know if we were to go up there and if we did see something, the encounter you’re most likely to have is the kind when you just see something momentarily out of the corner of your eye. In the context of this specific environment in which you find it, that’s absolutely more than enough. Because unless the animal is attuned to humans it is usually going to be wary. That fusion of the fleeting glimpse in an unfamiliar setting makes something live vividly in the imagination.
BS But then I guess the question for us as artists centres round the methods by which we go about revealing this relationship and how we privilege that.
RB Yes and I wondered in fact in what ways specifically you are engaging with the animal – if the scientist engages with it to collect data points or secure results in relation to funding – in your case, in order to reveal a sense of ecological interdependence and interspecific dwelling, in what ways do you negotiate the problem of using the animal for art? How do you get around this paradox – some artists don’t think this through but I am sure you have – that in representing the animal or bringing it into a gallery space it becomes a data point for the display of an artist’s proclivity, from which you make a modest living and reputation? How do you get around that problem?
MW Is it necessarily a problem? For us it’s more a consideration that provides focus.
RB How to redress this though? It means that you are pimping out the fish?
BS I think the difference in emphasis is that we don´t need the specimen on our table to be able to put this data forward. This difference is what we make our art with or what constitutes our art. We don’t need the fresh specimen for that and that is very different for a lot of science…
MW …and art
BS …but not for us… for science, there has to be that specimen in the end. A specie is not identified as a specie until you have the real dead animal in front of you.
RB It’s the seal of authenticity.
BS Yes and I think we are not in that position and in some ways that is what I was talking about in relation to accessibility.
RB So in some ways your ‘seal of authenticity’ is to not have the dead thing.
MW It’s a good way to look at it. Maybe we can go further and say that the dead thing just confuses the issue. Because if you are talking about something, which is absolutely bound up, as all beings are, with specific environments and ecologies and so on – to have the dead thing alone is not to have the thing at all.
BS but then even as we are talking, it occurs that we have to acknowledge that we sometimes do work with people, with scientists or museologists etc, who possess this dead specimen and so in some ways we are complicit in the representational act. What we are more reliant on though is what is already there, you know, in the collective memory – a bank of traces, echoes and signs that culturally are all around us.
RB I think of your work as not simply enquiring about the animal through the eyes of scientists for instance, but you’re enquiring about the scientist – how does the scientist think about the animal or in Uncertainty in the City how does the pest control person think about the animal?
MW …and more generally even, you could say, how does the specialist think about these things within the context of how everybody else might think about them? All kinds of people might have a stakeholder interest or specialist access to the subject but that includes those who might just love or fixate on it or people who fear, hate or are irritated by it. For us, in our keenness to capture a breadth of experience with all the apparent contradictions that might involve, those people’s opinions or reflections are just as necessary I think – those kinds of experience are part of a complex overall image or constituency of something, which is absolutely human. In a sense these kinds of accumulations of perspective might be said to constitute the ‘after effect’ of the animal or its cumulative register. But clearly and satisfyingly it’s an effect that isn’t addressing or reflective of a single purpose. It registers multiple purposes and resonances.
RB So it’s the ways in which the animal shows up in culture?
MW That’s really important in our work
RB And you move between the ways it shows up in culture and then this other sort of glimpsing from the corner of the eye as you said – this glimpsing of a situated life
MW …getting to this might involve the setting up of a situation as in the work Vanishing Point or in Three Attempts, the performative video work that seeks to connect with seals. These artworks are bound up with each other but they are specifically different. It might also involve the filming of a space for hours on end, on the off chance something passes by. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t…
RB In each of those situations though there is a cultural element – for Three Attempts, in Iceland – in that particular place there is a highly culturalised, oft-cited incidence of the seal, or for Vanishing Point, the seagull on the River Gota is really a cultural phenomenon, particularly with the restaurant life going on, on the riverfront below the rooftop performance.
MW …and so too, with restaurants all over the City.
RB Yeah in those works and even in the works where the animal is never actually present, there are these glimpses of something like the paw print of the polar bear – glimpses of a life that is never fully graspable
MW And I think that gives weight to your comment – actually, any more would be less because it has to sit in the context of those other considerations for it to really work… Whilst the image of the animal completely eclipses the animal itself, some kind of trace or hint of its presence, past, future or otherwise, sitting in the context of this other cultural conglomeration, makes that presence seem much more significant.
RB So the image is intrusive by fooling you into believing you have access to and mastery of the animal – by this exposure we have a sense of control and framing and it’s just not the case.
MW Sometimes it seems that this idea is reinforced by the fact that something in the imagination is alive and something which is material becomes finite and therefore in some senses redundant. It may only be a component of what we do but probably it’s a very important dynamic.
BS And that open-endedness is sustained and developed through the social engagement of this practice – that’s how it is social – that is what calls up the issue, the subject…
MW …and its multiple manifestations…
BS …through different human understandings and interpretations – you are never going to be able to ask the animal or the eco system anyway. This is the only way you can start if you are interested in the others that are in the world with us – you cannot go away and ask them. And you can’t work with animals to get to this and we know people have tried to in so many different ways – it is always an act of domestication or control or of changing the animal because you can never fully be with it in its own space and environment. And regarding these traces, I think to a certain degree in our respective upbringings, both Mark and me have an interest in landscape and the ability to read the environment – meaning to read what is there in front of you and read what else is there without necessarily seeing it. This is not to do with something supernatural – it is seeing how the ground lies how the grass bends, different kinds of snow and the different tracks that come through that. All these things add to a certain conjuring of something outside of yourself and simultaneously the notion of sharing and being with it.
MW …and I think the complexity that we want to evoke and perhaps set off in the work is very much bound up in those relationships – that this is not only a physical landscape but a landscape constituted by references and associations that each of us brings to the subject. So in that sense by encompassing the social dimension one acknowledges and is able to recognize, accommodate or prompt an infinite number of associations according to audience.
BS That’s also why it is important for us to go on these trips. We can’t just sit here and give you a work – we have to be in the environment to have conviction in our own interpretations – to go into the Canyon, go to Svalbard, travel to Greenland – we deliberately went to Greenland on a residency in the beginning of the polar bear project (nanoq: flat out and bluesome) just because we wanted to have had the experience of communicating and in a good sense, have discussions with people, including native people who have long experience of that animal in its own landscape. We weren’t necessarily after accounts of those who’d hunted it. It’s more that to be able to produce a project like that, having had exposure to first hand knowledge is important in generating some sort of confidence and validation. In the end I am sure it contributed to the way we placed the polar bear specimens for instance within the exhibition – those decisions had to be made decisively and absolutely, because once the cases and specimens were in place they couldn’t be moved again.
MW It is about all that and about sharing the air. Similarly, going down into the Canyon has absolutely consolidated our focus and purpose in this project and that’s to do with things much more complex than just the meetings we had there…
BS I even think that my nightmares of scorpions, snakes and all, were probably important…
MW … it’s not the first time we’ve recognised such things as being of importance and that the way we sort through stuff including for instance fears about the unknown or uncertainty regarding unfamiliar circumstances – effects and affect of the work because those responses are local – locally and site-specifically produced.
RB …site-specific work, site-specific dreams. There is a sense of exposure when you go into another place, an exposure that is disorientating to more familiar ways of dwelling and I am wondering if you can develop something of how that sense of exposure and disorientation might play into the work a bit?
MW It’s an important factor in many previous projects – this idea of generating circumstances whereby you are in an unfamiliar and ‘uninhabited’ landscape, as we were in the Vestfjord in Iceland and in Greenland, sometimes for many days on end and everything flips on its head. Suddenly the weather changes and you can’t see anymore – there is this disorientation that really attunes the mind because you have to think on your feet, sometimes more with your ears and your nose, than your eyes. This sense of unfamiliarity is important to lot of artists I’m sure, but certainly very much so to us, in both conceiving and structuring work and actually in structuring, in whatever ways are possible, the way the audience receives it. This is the process of constructively wrong-footing audiences in such a way that a reappraisal of circumstances and referents becomes necessary. We have talked and written about this a lot.
RB It is often through this discomfort or lack of mastery, this sort of disorientation, this being outside of one’s normal way of dwelling, that something is opened in the imagination so it circles back to this – because it finds fissures in our regular, daily habits – and that discovery opens up another mode of thinking and engaging…
MW …which is absolutely necessary and pertinent to the project in hand. One of the things that day by day is becoming more significant here in Arizona, is that there has been and always will be a limit to what we can take or be in control of. All the effort and activities that we are seeing undertaken by scientists are to manage and control specific circumstances, each of which has to do with particular aspects of particular environments. All the time we are reminded, not least by the scientists themselves, that there are always rogue factors which creep in, not only because of human initiatives but also of course in respect of all manner of other agencies and initiatives to do with the weather, species migration, gravity and so on. I think what is important in this project is this sense of exposing how messy things are, how plurally constituted they are and how as a species, no matter how much you want to retain or exercise control, that control will always elude us.
RB So you know, it is interesting we were talking about landscape and landscape art and being able to read signs and to read inflections in the landscape in grass, leaves, smell in the air, changes in light – these are physical and perhaps non-human manifestations. But it also strikes me, particularly for example in the Canyon or in Vermilion Cliffs, or many of these places you have been, that we’ve been made aware of the invisible cultural and political weightings in that space. For example, we see the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon but you know that up above that river is a dam and you know there are all these different sorts of political initiatives that control the amount of water and the flow of that river from the dam and there are considerations that have to do with the quality of water downstream – who (or what) gets that water and access. Those decisions go on palpably to affect the landscape in front of us. These are the unseen forces right, along with the landscape we objectify visibly and the invisible animal agencies themselves…
BS I think all these things are important, but I am not so sure that we will necessarily end up exposing or addressing them all. It may be that they are there to be found for those who are connected and can read between the lines.
RB Do you see a relationship between the way someone in the gallery moves through that space and the sense of your own movement through the space when you go to these sites and engage with the landscape and the animals and so on?
BS I don’t think it is as literal as that. I think it is more that when you are getting all the different types of information from all the people we’ve been meeting concerning all the different entities and factors involved in the ‘management’ of this space, we make a kind of mental journey through them and it is that journey that will be set in motion in the exhibition.
MW It’s a much more complex landscape – a constellation of very disparate references.
RB So in the show it’s not a one-to-one correspondence – the exhibition is more about creating the opportunities for finding and connecting these elements. So there are a couple of different questions here, which are still related. What are the futures of animals and what is the future of animals in art?
BS This is in direct relation to the question concerning ‘what will our nature be like, after the animal’? I thought about this but I wonder how and what do we define as animal? I don´t see it that animals will all go and we humans will somehow be here on our own. We are all connected, so if the animals are going to go, so will we…
RB There will always be animals; it is a question of which animals and how they are manifest and in what places and so forth.
MW As field marshal of the Animal Revolution, don’t you have something to say about this Ron?
RB Well Nietzsche says that animals live a-historically. In some ways we think they are outside of time, that they don´t have a history and they don´t have a culture. But the more interesting way to think about that is to say they have a life, a future and a culture outside of human history and that it runs parallel to our worlds and occasionally intersects and interleaves. Ultimately ‘the animals’ are going to win the revolution. We talk about the beginning of the anthropocene and marking man’s footprint or the human footprint on the earth, but every era has its end; there is an end to the anthropocene and the animals will continue on. Which animals are sacrificed in the revolution, and which will continue on, that’s yet to be seen, but ultimately what is comforting for revolutionaries is to know that they will win. We have glimpses of that resistance and rebellion in non-human worlding all the time, as it interrupts and disrupts our idea of cultural progress.
BS Parallel to this is that we are also learning of animals and behaviours we didn’t previously know of, animals that can do these most amazing things – I am thinking about the water bear for instance. In the face of such animal resilience we must be increasingly aware of human fragility and you feel with the acquisition of more knowledge the more visible will be the way of our own destruction.
RB So if we think about the role of art in relation to all of this, I think of art traditionally as a product for culture, to tell us about ourselves and to push our boundaries. In the spirit of actual hospitality, when art introduces the animal not as a subject of human ‘mastery’ but as a means for dialogue or dwelling-with, it challenges art itself to extend its own boundaries and for culture to extend some boundaries outside of itself. This is why I am very interested in your ideas of the future of art with(out) animals.
MW Yes absolutely – new ways of looking at how we coexist is a very pertinent challenge for art to take on. It has to do with the imagination and as you said yesterday, with imagined futures. And that I think must necessarily involve flights of fancy, which may on the face of it, seem utterly absurd. We have to be thinking about things in a way that is very different and to recognize at last that in environmental terms ‘we’ means everything and not just the human – a simple point, but one not yet widely embraced. Art can help accomplish this.
BS I think the future of art lies in us being able to appreciate, understand, acknowledge the importance of the thinking processes that take place in artistic approaches. I think for me, it is not ridiculous that an artist would lead a team of conservation specialists into the bottom of the Canyon, or anywhere else in the world. I think this kind of thinking is going to be the only way that can save us really, because the endless linear search for knowledge towards some kind of endgame is what is killing us. There are also many ways of being an artist and there are so many ways of making art and we feel very strongly that art has an important role to play. That is why we are continually placing our art in the context of other disciplines that share an interest in the same fields as ourselves – but we think our voice there as artists, is important.
RB So often it’s noticeable that we’re living in a technological culture creating technological problems in relation to ecologies and which looks only for technological solutions to those problems. So we bootstrap ourselves into this idea of progress and ‘future’ through a series of technologies. Art seems to offer us the opportunity to think otherwise, to get outside the mode of technological layering that simply adds to technological complexity with all its unforeseeable consequences. You’re thinking of other modes of dwelling because you are engaging with the landscape differently.
BS Exactly – I completely agree. At this stage it is difficult to see how those kinds of investigation would be conducted but as I said when speaking to Clay Nelson the fish biologist at Park Services Grand Canyon, I think artists should be on all these excursions.
RB What it takes, in many of these cases, is a certain degree of trust. We have come across this time and again in your work as you introduce yourselves to various scientists, park rangers and other players in constituencies that have very formalized scientific or legalistic methods of engagement. It takes a certain amount of trust on their behalf to say, ‘I believe that as artists you have a track record and I believe, although I cannot quite understand your methods, that you can produce other interesting results – not every investigation will lead to great breakthroughs but it will lead in new directions…’
MW …and lay the ground for thinking things differently. You know in the Canyon they told us a beetle was introduced in the 1990s in order to attack the Tamarisk tree, itself a species introduced in the early 1800s to consolidate the banks of the River. But now and for a long time it’s been out of control. Now the beetle is making headway in destroying the tree, but where will it stop? And there’s another thing; during the ensuing century an endangered species of native bird, the southwest willow flycatcher, has built up a dependence on that tree, which is now disappearing possibly too fast for the bird to adapt.
BS Right – it seemed incredible in the discussions we had with the scientists, concerning the blackfly for example … it’s the staple food of the trout and they were everywhere and all over us down there at the bottom of the Canyon…
MW …so as a consequence of electro-fishing, if the trout are extirpated from that environment, we asked wouldn’t there be a proliferation of the blackfly and what might that mean?
BS Yes. So he paused a bit at that and said ‘that’s interesting – I don´t think anyone has thought about that…’
Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson are Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson a collaborative artist partnership based in the UK. Bryndís is also a Professor of Fine Art at Akademin Valand in Gothenburg, Sweden and Mark is a Reader in Fine Art at University of Cumbria in England.
Ron Broglio is an associate Professor of English and Senior Sustainability Scholar, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University, US.