October 29, 2013
Adam Cohen and Ben Labay are surrounded by thousands of fish specimens, all preserved in jars of alcohol and formalin. At the Texas Natural Science Center at the University of Texas in Austin, the two fish biologists are charged with documenting the occurrences of different freshwater fish species in their home state and those neighboring it.
That is their day job, at least.
Outside of work, Cohen and Labay have teamed up on an artistic venture they call the Inked Animal Project. Since 2008, the colleagues have made surprisingly tasteful prints of actual animal carcasses—scales, fur, feathers and all.
Both scientists have dabbled in art—drawing, painting and sculpting—for as long as they can remember. As a kid, Cohen even used an octopus and flying fish that he bought at an Asian market as huge stamps to make ink patterns on paper. Fish, of course, were a natural subject for two ichthyologists, but Cohen and Labay were also familiar with a Japanese art form called Gyotaku (meaning “fish rubbing”), where artists slather ink on fresh fish and press them onto paper as a means of recording the size and other details of the catch.
Their first collaboration was a poster with prints of all ten sunfish species that live in Texas, and the Inked Animal Project was born. They inked trout, bass and catfish. But why stop with fish? The duo quickly expanded its repertoire, applying the same printmaking technique to mice, squirrels, rabbits, geese, gulls, hummingbirds and a smattering of deer, pig and cow skulls. No specimen seems to fluster the artists.
I interviewed Inked Animal’s creators by email to learn more about where they obtain their portrait subjects, how they produce the prints and what exactly possesses them to do this.
As you know, Gyotaku is both an art form and a method of scientific documentation. Are there certain anatomical traits you try to accentuate in your Inked Animal prints for scientific purposes?
Ben: I don’t think we print for any tangible scientific goal, though we do print in a spirit of documentation, similar to goals of the original Gyotaku printings I guess. As we’ve expanded our medium beyond fish, we’ve been interested in trying to document life processes through the animals, such as internal or unique anatomy and “road-kill” or animated postures.
Adam: Not long ago I ran across some field notes belonging to a fish collector from the late 1800s, Edgar Mearns, who, rather than preserving a particularly large fish, decided to trace the animal on paper and insert it in his fieldbook. We were well into the Inked Animal Project at that point and that‘s when I realized what we were really doing was a form of documentation as well as art. But, in reality, these days with cameras so ubiquitous, there is little need to print or trace the animal on paper for documentation purposes. I think our prints have relatively little scientific value, but substantial artistic value. I often think about the physical characteristics that someone who knows the species well would need to see to verify the identity of the specimen, but I try not to let that get in the way of creating interesting art. I’d much rather have interesting art of an unknown and unverifiable species.
How do you collect the animals you print?
Adam and Ben: We get the animals in all sorts of ways. In the beginning we went fishing in our spare time. Recently, as word of our project got out, we’ve had people donate specimens. A lot of our friends are biologists, hunters, exterminators and people who work in animal rehabilitation; they have access to animals and are excited to donate to the cause. Additionally, there are a lot of great animals to print that can be purchased through exotic Asian grocery stores. We’re getting serious about printing larger animals, like farm livestock. We would love to get an ostrich or emu too.
On your website, you say, “Our tolerance for gross is very high.” Can you give an example of a specimen that pushed this tolerance to its limits?
Ben: My personal worst was the armadillo. We’ve had worse-smelling animals like a gray fox that was sitting in a bucket for a full day before we printed. But something about working with the armadillo really grossed me out, almost to the point of vomiting. Most mammals are squishy with decay, but the armadillo was a stiff football of dense rotten meat. It’s also a bizarre animal that we don’t ever expect to get so intimate with. This is just a crazy theory, but animals like the Eastern cottontail or gray fox are more familiar, and maybe more approachable or acceptable when rotten. When it comes to larger, strictly wild animals, things get more interesting and intense.
Adam: Ben mentioned a gray fox that we printed in the early days of Inked Animal. I remember picking it up and the juices ran down my arm. But I was so excited by the print we were getting, which I think was the first time we realized that we were on to something really unique, that I hardly even thought about it. We recently printed a very rotten deer whose skin peeled away as we lifted the cloth to reveal a writhing mass of maggots—that was pretty gross too.
You are almost more interested in prints of dismembered, rotting or partially dissected specimens, right? Why is this?
Ben: When we started to expand from fish to other types of animals, Adam and I felt excited about not just doing something unique, but doing art that was deeper than just a pretty picture. I think we both feel that there is something indescribable about the animal prints, which allows people to view them from different vantage points. You see it as an animal print, and also as a process. I like the idea of documenting rotting or dissected animals because it emphasizes the process part of the experience. People see it and can immediately imagine what must have happened to produce the image. Most people love what they see even though it’s something, which if seen in real life, would disgust and repulse them.
Adam: At first I think most people think working with animal innards to be a little gross, but really there’s lots to offer aesthetically in the inside. Ribs, lungs and guts provide very interesting patterns and textures. Blood stains and feces add color. These are the parts of the animal that are not usually seen so they catch the viewer’s attention and cause reason for pause. If, for example, the animal is a road kill specimen, whose guts are spilling out—well that’s an interesting story that we can capture on paper.
Do you try to position the specimens in a certain way on the paper?
Adam and Ben: Absolutely. We think about position quite a bit. Mainly we want to capture natural poses, either making the animal seem alive or dead. Often if the animal has rigor mortis or could fall apart, due to rot, we are limited to how we can pose them. Sometimes animals come to us very disfigured, depending on the cause of death, and we’ve been surprised by the beautiful prints that can be obtained from them.
Can you take me through the process of making a print? What materials do you use, and what is your method?
Adam and Ben: We are always experimenting with different papers, fabric, inks, clays and paints as well as different application methods, but it really all boils down to applying a wet media to the animal and then applying it to paper or fabric. The trick is finding the right kinds of materials and transfer technique for each kind of specimen. The process for bones is very different than fleshed out animals; and birds are different than fish. Having two of us is often essential for large floppy animals where we want to apply the animal to the table-bound paper. Fish can be the most difficult; their outer skin is essentially slime, which repels some inks and creates smudgy prints on paper. You have to remove this outer slime layer before you print a fish. Salt seems to work well for this. We often do varying degrees of post-processing of the raw print with paint or pencils.
What do you add by hand to the actual print?
Ben: For each animal we’ll likely do half a dozen to a couple dozen prints searching for the perfect one. With all these replicates, we’ll play around with different techniques of post processing. The traditional Gyotaku method restricts touch-ups to accenting the eye of the fish. I think we’ve at minimum done this. But we’ve employed a lot of post-processing techniques, including pencil, watercolor, acrylic, clay, enamel and even extensive digital touch ups.
Adam: There is a balance that we are trying to achieve regarding preserving the rawness of the print and creating a highly refined piece. We like both and find ourselves wavering. Recently, we’ve started to assemble prints together digitally and sometimes alter colors and contrast for interesting effects.
What are the most challenging specimens to print?
Adam: I think small arthropods (animals with exoskeletons) are particularly difficult and time consuming. We’ve come up with the best method, to completely disassemble the animal and print it in pieces. The other trick with them is to apply the ink very thinly and evenly. Anything with depth is also difficult and sometime impossible since the way paper and fabric drapes across the animal can result in very distorted looking prints.
Ben: Small fish or insects. Fish because they are just so small, and the details like scales and fin rays don’t come out well. And, insects because they can be so inflexible, and their exoskeletons are, for the most part, pretty darn water repellent, restricting what kinds of paints we can use.
What animal would you like to print that you haven’t yet?
Ben: Generally, I’d love to print any animal that we haven’t already printed. That said, I have a gopher in my freezer that I’m not too excited about because it will likely turn out as a hairy blob. And once you’ve done one snake, another the same size is hard to distinguish. Large animals are, of course, charismatic and impressive, but I also really enjoy the challenge of trying to capture details on smaller animals. There are some animals that do, in theory, lend themselves to printing. For example, we have a porcupine in our freezer that I’m really excited about.
Adam: I get excited about anything new really. To date, we’ve been primarily interested in working with Texas fauna, but we are excited about other possibilities as well. I especially like animals with interesting textures juxtaposed. For example, I think the more-or-less naked head and legs of an ostrich with the feathery body would be interesting and very challenging. But, beyond specific animal species, we’re now experimenting with the process of rot, a commonality of all dead animals. One project involves placing a fresh animal on paper and spray painting it at various intervals with different colors as it rots and expands. The result is an image of the animal surrounded by concentric rings that document the extent of rot through time.
What do you hope viewers take away from seeing the prints?
Ben and Adam: We like to think there is something in the animal prints that captures both the spirit and the raw corporeal feel of the animal. It’s amazing to us that the art was created by using an animal as a brush so-to-speak, and that there’s even DNA left on the art itself. We hope people have a similar thought process and feeling about the work. We also hope that the project and print collection as a whole serves as a way people can better approach and appreciate the biodiversity around us.
Ben Labay will be showing works from the Inked Animal Project at his home in Austin on November 16-17 and 23-24, as part of the 12th annual East Austin Studio Tour (EAST), a free self-guided tour of the city’s creative community. Inked Animal works are represented by Art.Science.Gallery in Austin, Texas—one of the first galleries in the country to focus on science-related art.
October 7, 2013
There have been some interesting creatures popping up in the Arctic. Canadian hunters have found white bears with brown tints—a cross between Ursus maritimus, the polar bear, and Ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly. A couple of decades ago, off the coast of Greenland, something that appeared to be half-narwhal, half-beluga surfaced, and much more recently, Dall’s porpoise and harbor porpoise mixes have been swimming near British Columbia.
In “The Arctic Melting Pot,” a study published in the journal Nature in December 2010, Brendan Kelly, Andrew Whiteley and David Tallmon claim, ”These are just the first of many hybridizations that will threaten polar diversity.” The biologists speculated a total of 34 possible hybridizations (pdf).
Arctic sea ice is melting, and fast—at a rate of 30,000 square miles per year, according to NASA. And, some scientists predict that the region will be ice-free within about 40 years. “Polar bears are spending more time in the same areas as grizzlies; seals and whales currently isolated by sea ice will soon be likely to share the same waters,” says Kelly and his colleagues in the study. Naturally, there will be some interbreeding.
Such mixed offspring are hard to find. But, thanks to technology and the creative mind of artist Nickolay Lamm, they’re not hard to envision.
Say a harp seal (Phoca groenandica) mates with a hooded seal (Cystophora crostata), or a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) breeds with a right whale (Eubalaena spp.). What would the offspring look like? Dina Spector, an editor at Business Insider, was curious and posed the question to Lamm.
This past spring, Lamm, who creates forward-looking illustrations from scientific research, produced scenes depicting the effect of sea level rise on coastal U.S. cities over the next few centuries, based on data reported by Climate Central, for the news outlet. Now, building off Spector’s question, he has created a series of digitally manipulated photographs—his visions of several supposed Arctic hybrids.
“In that Nature report, it was just a huge list of species which could cross breed with one another. I feel that images speak a lot more,” says Lamm. “With these, we can actually see the consequences of climate change.”
Lamm first selected several of the hybridizations listed in the study for visual examination. He then picked a stock photo of one of the two parent species (shown on the left in each pairing), then digitally manipulated it to reflect the shape, features and coloring of the other species (on the right). Blending these, he derived a third photograph of their potential young.
To inform his edits in Photoshop, the artist looked at any existing photographs of the crossbred species. “There are very, very few of them,” he notes. He also referred to any written descriptions of the hybrids and, enlisting the help of wildlife biologist Elin Pierce, took into account the dominant features of each original species. In some cases, Lamm took some artistic merit. He chose to illustrate the narwhal-beluga mix, for example, with no tusk, when Pierce suggested that the animal may or may not have a very short tooth protruding from its mouth.
Biologists are concerned about the increasing likelihood of this crossbreeding. “As more isolated populations and species come into contact, they will mate, hybrids will form and rare species are likely to go extinct,” reports Nature.
Many critics of Lamm’s series have argued that these hybrids may just be a product of evolution. But, to that, Lamm says,”Climate change is a result of us humans and [this is] not just some natural evolution that would happen without us.”
About the project itself, he adds, “I am personally concerned about the environment, and this is just my way of expressing my worry about climate change.”
July 12, 2013
Perhaps you have heard of topiary, the decorative pruning of shrubs into animals and other shapes. But, what about mosaïculture?
The term was new to me when I read the definition that organizers prescribe to at Mosaïcultures Internationales, a competition staged every three years at a park or municipal garden somewhere in the world. “Mosaïculture,” says the competition’s website, “is a refined horticultural art that involves creating and mounting living artworks made primarily from plants with colourful foliage (generally annuals, and occasionally perennials).”
The process works a bit like this. To start, horticultural artists build metal frames for their sculptures. They cover the frames with soil netting and then plant seeds of different flora in that soil, much like a ceramicist lays tiles in a mosaic. The task draws on an artist’s skills in a variety of different areas, notes Mosaïcultures Internationales—”on sculpture for its structure and volume, on painting for its palette, and on horticulture in its use of plants in a living, constantly changing environment.” Grown in greenhouses during the spring months, the artworks, when fully grown, are installed outdoors, in parks and gardens.
This summer, about 50 sculptures and reliefs, consisting of some 22,000 species, dot a 1.3-mile path through the Montréal Botanical Garden, site of Mosaïcultures Internationales de Montréal 2013. More than 200 horticultural artists from 20 countries submitted work that represents their cultures and fits with the “Land of Hope” theme, meant to showcase Earth’s biodiversity; they are vying for a jury-selected Grand Honorary Award and a People’s Choice Award. Here are a few for you to enjoy:
Mosaïcultures Internationales Montréal 2013 – Land of Hope is on display at the Montréal Botanical Garden through September 29, 2013.
May 30, 2013
Those who have a neurological condition called chromesthesia associate certain colors with certain sounds. It’s these people that I think of when I see Mark Fischer’s Aguasonic Acoustics project. Fischer systematically transforms the songs of whales, dolphins and birds into brightly colored, psychedelic art.
The software developer from San Jose, California, gathers the sounds of marine mammals in nearby Monterey Bay using a hydrophone and the chirps of birds in his neighborhood with a digital recorder; he also collects audio of other hard-to-reach species from scientists. Fischer scans the clips for calls that demonstrate a high degree of symmetry. Once he identifies a sound that interests him, he transforms it into a mathematical construct called a wavelet where the frequency of the sound is plotted over time. Fischer adds color to the wavelet—a graph with an x and y axis—using a hue saturation value map—a standard way for computer graphic designers to translate numbers into colors. Then, he uses software he personally wrote to spin the graph into a vibrant mandala.
“The data is still there, but it’s been made into something more compelling to look at,” wrote Wired.
The first animal sound that Fischer turned into visual art was that of a blue whale. “I was spending some time down in Baja California. Someone had posted a note on MARMAM [the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation email list] looking for volunteers for a blue whale population survey out of the University of La Paz, and I volunteered. We spent the next three days in the Sea of Cortez looking for blue whales,” says Fischer. “We never did find a blue whale, but I was able to make recordings. I just got fascinated with the sounds of whales and dolphins.”
Fischer concentrates on whales, dolphins and birds mostly, having found that their calls have the most structure. Humpback whales, in particular, are known to have incredible range. “They make very well defined sounds that have extraordinary shapes in wavelet space,” says the artist. The chirps of insects and frogs, however, make for less engaging visuals. When it comes to a cricket versus a humpback, Fischer adds, it is like comparing “someone who has never played a guitar in their life and a violin virtuoso.”
Animal sounds have long been studied using spectrograms—sheets of data on the frequency of noises—but the software designer finds it curious that researchers only look at sounds this one way. Fischer finds wavelets much more compelling. He prints his images in large-scale format, measuring four feet by eight feet, to call attention to this other means of analyzing sound data.
Some researchers argue that little progress has been made in understanding humpback whale songs. But, Fischer says, ”I am concluding that we are looking the wrong way.” The artist hopes that his mandalas will inspire scientists to look at bioacoustics anew. “Maybe something beneficial will happen as a result,” he says.
The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, will include a selection of Fischer’s images in “Beyond Human,” an exhibition on artist-animal collaborations on view from October 19, 2013 to June 29, 2014.
May 21, 2013
Sometimes the connection between art and science is clear. When Barry Jacobs, a psychology professor at Princeton University, and Casimir Fornal, a research scholar, took a micrograph of a mouse’s hippocampus (shown above), they felt compelled to call it Starry, Starry Night, after the 1970s song by Don McLean about Vincent van Gogh. The dark, star-like bursts in the golden image are glial cells in the brain called astrocytes (“astro” meaning star in Greek).
A jury of photographers and scientists recently selected Starry, Starry Night and 42 other images for the 8th annual Art of Science exhibition at Princeton University. Each spring, the competition calls for Princeton students, faculty, staff and alumni to submit “images produced during the course of scientific research that have aesthetic merit.” This year, three winners selected by the jury, three people’s choice winners and 37 other works highlighted in the exhibition, currently on view at the Friend Center on Princeton’s campus, were chosen from an impressive lot of 170 entries hailing from 24 different university departments.
Worms and proteins, crystals and flames, even a compelling view of a fruit fly ovary are the subjects of the recent Art of Science images, which all in some way tie into this year’s theme: connections. “Some areas of research involve obvious ‘connections.’ Neural networks, for example, or the Internet. In other areas of research connections are more nuanced but just as valid. Fractal patterns in nature, the deterioration of architectural monuments due to the effects of acid rain, bridges, the wake that a jet of cool air generates as it passes through a hot flame, a qubit, the chemical signals than induce embryonic development,” according to the contest’s Web site.
In a statement released by the university, Adam Finkelstein, a computer science professor and one of the show’s organizers, expressed what he considers the strength of the Art of Science exhibition—its ability to create a new way of seeing for both artists and scientists. “At the same time,” said Finkelstein, “this striking imagery serves as a democratic window through which non-experts can appreciate the thrill of scientific discovery.”
Here is a selection from the exhibition: