Remarkable features, remarkable facts


I have not as yet noticed by far the most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago; it is, that the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beingsā€¦ It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is most interesting in any locality, than they are hurried from it; but I ought, perhaps, to be thankful that I obtained sufficient materials to establish this most remarkable fact in the distribution of organic beings. 'Voyage of the Beagle' (1839), Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

 

The Gulbenkian Galápagos Artists' Residency Programme is the consequence of a kind of evolution, an adaptive response to particular circumstances with curious results. It grew out of ten years of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation's pioneering programme to encourage encounters between the arts and science. One of our most successful collaborations was with the Natural History Museum, which was to become a significant partner in this venture. And our commissioning of science-inspired poetry anthologies led to the poet Ruth Padel, Charles Darwin's great-great-granddaughter, introducing me to the Director of the London-based Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT). What could they do, I was asked, to draw attention to the importance of the scientific research and conservation activities being undertaken on these distant islands? I had recently been impressed by a day with the British Antarctic Survey, learning about their 25 years of hosting artists in that forbidding territory, so I suggested that an artists' residency programme might be a good idea. As more and more artists were taking a serious interest in the politics of environmentalism, we might offer them a chance to explore the complexities somewhere right out of the ordinary.

 

At Gulbenkian we have had a long history of placing artists in unusual places from as early as the 1970s, to the measurable benefit of the artist, host and the wider public (one of our reports on such initiatives is skittishly entitled 'What the hell do we want an artist here for?'). Scientists, in particular, can be sceptical about the idea of artists rushing in for a quick engagement with knowledge accumulated over years. But artists, too, develop their work over years, nurturing abiding passions, accruing intellectual ideas and honing unique aesthetic practices. In productive art/science encounters the two trajectories intersect, subtly affecting each other's sensibilities, rather as in quantum theory, when two particles once entangled become forever connected, able to affect each other's behaviour even if they travel to opposite ends of the universe. 

 

The very name 'Galápagos' evokes a tenuous sense of romance - in Spanish the Islands are known as Las Islas Encantadas (the Enchanted Isles) - though many people are not actually sure where this volcanic archipelago can be found. The Galápagos are located around the Equator off the Pacific coast of Ecuador within whose territory they lie. They have historic associations with Britain because it was during a visit on The Beagle in 1835 that Darwin noticed that there were variant species of mockingbirds on different islands. It was this pivotal discovery that led to the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published in 1859. In 1959, the centenary year, the Ecuadorian Government declared 97% of the archipelago's land area a national park and the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) was founded as a scientific and conservation organisation. CDF's research facility, the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS), was established in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in 1964 and in 1978 UNESCO recognised the Islands as a World Heritage Site.

 

Today the Islands present a microcosm of a situation that exists at all heritage sites, one where there are huge conflicts of interest - between the animals and plants whose natural home this is, the scientists who are urgently researching them, and a host of invasive creatures which include plants, animals and people, challenging attempts to preserve a pristine biodiversity. The Islands have attracted many Ecuadorian people seeking some kind of a living in this inhospitable territory and the Ecuadorian Government must find a balance between supporting its people and respecting the integrity of the park. And among the temporary inhabitants of the Islands are tourists, well-meaning ones on the whole, who are beguiled by the thought of close encounters with unabashed wild creatures, but whose visits must be (and for the main part are) carefully managed by the conservationists. 

 

Why then, one might ask, should Gulbenkian support GCT by sending 12 artists to this already crowded place, especially at a time when many artists everywhere have been questioning the need to undertake unnecessary long-distance travel? All the GCT-sponsored artists' journeys were carbon-offset, but we thought that if we sent artists to record in inventive ways the conflicting interests of the place, it may make us think twice about actually going ourselves. But essentially we hoped their record would help us make connections between Galápagos' challenges and those nearer home - a synergy between the local and the global. 

 

In selecting the artists we had to be convinced of a compelling reason for each visit, an existing reputation, perhaps related to a love of the natural world, of history ancient and recent, and particularly a fascination with the ways in which human culture interacts with nature. At the same time, they had to be open to the possibility of surprise, to be able to learn and think freshly, to mingle with people and listen to their views, whether scientists, locals, children or tourists. They were to be offered the privilege of a week's boat tour of the Galápagos, carefully guided by a naturalist, alongside a small party of other tourists. After that they would stay for up to two weeks on the Islands, often in the basic accommodation normally used by scientists visiting CDRS from where they could pursue their own interests, the variety of which is evident in this book. They were well supported by Felipe Cruz, Director of Technical Assistance at CDF, and on a day-to-day basis by the resourcefulness of a range of artist facilitators - including Cristina Georgii, Elke Hartmann, Rodrigo Jacome, Graciela Monsalve, Veronica Toral and the Native Gardens Project - who arranged meetings, were able to locate the oddest of materials and equipment, and enthusiastically helped them work with local schools and other residents. The artists' visits took place between 2007 and 2011. The individual residencies were brief - as Darwin said of his own visit, 'It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is most interesting in any locality, than they are hurried from it' - buttheypresented the artists with a wealth of ideas, 'Enough material for a lifetime!' as Marcus Coates exclaimed.

 

Few of us visit new places nowadays without carrying a camera. Every site, every occasion, everywhere in the world is snapped voraciously, not simply because we want to capture the perfect image but perhaps because we want to get some sense that this is a personal reminder of a lived experience - I was here. Artists' images are much more than records, much more even than passively beautiful works of art. There already exist wonderful photographic records of the Galápagos so how many more pictures of quirky iguanas can one take in? How many 'iconic' blue-footed boobies? We expected our artists to see the Islands unconventionally and to record their responses unconventionally, to find things that few others would notice, to convey a surprising and even startling sense of the place as they found it. Some use photography as part of their normal practice while others avoid photographs almost altogether. Their impressions were therefore recorded through drawings, paintings, film, digitised media, installation, sculpture, sound work and even an interactive TV programme, from which they later constructed new artworks. Their images, whether photographic or otherwise, don't attempt to be 'naturalistic': they are hyper-natural or abstract, informed by a mesh of intellectual ideas and personal feelings. The results are beautiful or ugly, strange or comedic, rhapsodic or worrying. All present a vigorous sense of the place as they found it at the time - its creatures, vegetation, seas, its people, buildings and scientific research, but, above all, its latent stories. What they convey is evidence of a strange world but one which also resonates with experiences we can relate to our own worlds.

 

The residency programme was originally sufficient in itself. Indeed, some of the artworks produced by artists who were early visitors were acquired by galleries in Britain and internationally for exhibition in solo or group shows; some have been bought for public and private collections, some have won prizes. However, we formed a wish to show together all the artworks that had resulted from the experience, in order to bring to Europe a uniquely fresh sense of the diversity of the Galápagos and its relationship with the wider world. We were pleased when three major galleries, the Bluecoat, Liverpool, The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, and the Centro de Arte Moderna, Lisbon, expressed enthusiasm to host a travelling exhibition in 2012 and 2013, curated by Bergit Arends of the Natural History Museum and Greg Hilty of Plus Equals, both of whom have helped guide the project from its inception. We also hope to take a display of the work back to the Galápagos and hopefully also to other South American countries.

 

This book is more than an exhibition catalogue or a record of the visits. It should offer a wider perspective on the challenges of conservation on an overcrowded planet, relating the problems of a distant archipelago to concerns for our own localities. Geologist, palaeontologist and author Richard Fortey has written the principal essay in the book, raising some of these huge questions. Everyone in the team has committed to the project faith and energy. They include the artists Jyll Bradley, Paulo Catrica, Filipa César, Marcus Coates, Dorothy Cross (with actor Fiona Shaw), Alexis Deacon, Jeremy Deller, Tania Kovats, Kaffe Matthews, Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt) and Alison Turnbull; co-curators Bergit Arends and Greg Hilty; producer Angela McSherry; project assistant Alice Carey; adviser Randal Keynes; Bob Bloomfield of the Natural History Museum; Sara-Jayne Parsons and the team at Bluecoat, Liverpool; Fiona Bradley and the team at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh; Isabel Carlos and the team at Centro de Arte Moderna, Lisbon; and exhibition designers Carmody Groarke. For the production of this book we are indebted to managing editor Sam Phillips and designer Anne Odling-Smee of O-SB Design. The organising partners have put in great commitment and there has been impeccable organisational help and enthusiasm from GCT - especially former Chief Executive Toni Darton, Chief Executive Robert Silbermann and Events and Fundraising Manager Abigail Rowley - and, essentially, Felipe Cruz and his team at CDF, as well as many people on the Islands. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has led and funded the project from its original inception - at the UK Branch my own thanks go to Director Andrew Barnett, Head of Communications Felicity Luard and Project Officer Louisa Hooper. 

 

We are proud of what we have achieved in initiating the residencies, facilitating the exhibitions and producing this book, and hope readers will be awed, amused and informed. But more than anything we hope they will be stimulated to make wider connections with their own experience of the endangered world we all inhabit.

 

Siân Ede is Deputy Director (Arts) for the UK Branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation where she initiated the first arts-funded arts and science programme to encourage artists and arts organisations from across the art forms to engage with new thinking and practice in science and technology. She frequently advises, writes, speaks and chairs debates on art and science in Britain and internationally and gave the Royal Society's annual Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar prize lecture on science and art in 2008. Siân Ede is editor and co-author of Strange and Charmed: Science and the Contemporary Visual Arts (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2000) and Art and Science (I.B. Tauris, second edition 2008).