DAY 6 | Biophilia Residency 2019 | Canada

Day 6:

The last day of a fun, diverting, and very informative residency has come, so what could possibly be better than kicking off that day with a picnic in the park. After a short drive we arrived at Fletcher Wildlife Garden, which indeed was buzzing (and humming - and nibbling) with a marvelous selection of urban wildlife, spanning from your usual Squirrel to curious Woodpeckers, and wobbling Bumblebees to Chipmunks (I also spotted an Earwig enjoying a well deserved nap inside a flower, but it’s up to you if this guy ends up on your cute-list). It’s best to let the images speak for themselves, but make sure to visit the garden on your next trip to Ottawa, because this beautiful retreat is truly a green oasis in the city. The visit of a big Hummingbird Hawk-Moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) was my personal highlight…what a magnificent insect.

Hummingbird Hawk-Moth at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden in Ottawa, Canada (press button to play video)

After enjoying the serenity of the garden we went on to visit the sleep lab at The Royal Mental Health Centre. What a daunting, institution name … I’ve got to say that I’ve never been a fan of hospitals and it’s still a place I would rather avoid then being in any way enthused about. Well, the sleep lab seems to be the rather tranquil version of a clinical research institution – unless, of course, you suffer from severe sleep apnea or crippling nightmares of some sort. Since research was in full swing we had to whisper our way through an interesting conversation with PhD student and researcher Ashley, who also handed us some gear that looked like it was either made for space travel, or invented and 3D printed at the makerspace we visited the day before. I couldn’t resist and happily modeled the gear for some documentation.

Our last activity of the Biophilia residency took us out into the field to look for night active birds, and also to finally test our DIY bat detectors. Led by master birder Bernie Ladouceur, we ventured out to multiple locations with the hope to spot some of the birds that hunt their pray at night. While Bernie tried to attract the winged hunters with his repertoire of carefully rehearsed bird calls, I couldn’t help but marvel at the incredibly clear and dense night sky before moonrise. It has been the first time for me that I was able to see the Milky Way, despite some minor light pollution. And boy, what a crazy amount of satellites are zipping around up there; we have literally littered the sky with all kind of space junk. As an extra treat we were able to observe Jupiter and three of his moons through a telescope. This impression paired with the the clicking and popping noise of hunting bats I was listening to (the proof that my detector actually works) was worth the wait for the nighthawks to show a sign of their presence. On our last stop Bernie was able to attract a Barred Owl (Strix varia), also known as Northern Barred Owl or Hoot Owl, with his signature bird call, a very unique noise that the bird, hidden in a tree, eagerly responded to. This Owl is native to eastern North America. Adults are large birds with a brown to grey coat and barring on the chest. This was a truly perfect way to end the night, and our residency experience in Canada.

An action packed week with many marvelous and interesting activities has come to an end. I am still a bit overwhelmed with the many impressions from field trips and activities. All I can say is that everything we learned over the past days has immensely contributed to my appreciation for the wonders of our complex and beautiful ecosystem. It’s time for me now to head back to Lowell, MA and pick up the most important things that are eagerly waiting on the East Coast. We will be back in Iowa soon to embark on new adventures at the CRI MediaLab.


DAY 5 | Biophilia Residency 2019 | Canada

Day 5: Fuzzy, Fragile Superheroes … and How to Find Them in the Dark

It’s bat day, and today I was made aware that bats are indeed the only flying mammals we know of! Wannabe pilots like the Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) don’t qualify, because heir flying attempts are not self-powered and therefore merely gliding maneuvers. Bats, however, are very energy sufficient flyers with a wing structure that can be - other than in birds - compared to fingers. This particular anatomical structure allows the bat to fly their skillful signature zigzag moves due to superior articulation of their wings. These furry, little aviators also make up for a total of 20% of the global mammal population and are therefore one of the most diverse groups of animals next to insects, with more than 1200 different species known to date. As a major pollinator and pest controller, bats contribute an average of $74 per acre per year in savings for farmers and, in addition, are integral for the ecological stability in the area they live. Bats can easily live up to 10+ years if they survive their first year.

In Ontario, Canada eight different types of bats can be found, and all of them are insect hunters:

  • The Hoary Bat (Aeorestes cinereus) is the biggest of the North American bats. Fun fact: these critters use their furry wing membrane as “slippers” to keep their feet warm when hanging around.

  • The Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis) is the only local bat that regularly has more than one - and up to five - little bat babies. Males and females are colored differently.

  • The Silver Haired Bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans) is the slowest flyer of all bats in North America.

  • The Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus) is a very common species that loves to roost and hibernate in attics.

All of these three bats migrate for the winter to spend some quality time in the warmer areas of the South, while the following five like it cold and hibernate in the North:

  • The Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus) used to be the most common of the Northern American bats but unfortunately large parts fell victim to the so called White Nose Syndrom, a fungal infection that is rapidly affecting and devastating bat populations, resulting in declines of up to 98%. [X]

  • The Northern Long-eared Bat (Myotis septentrionalis) is a sleepyhead and hibernates up to nine (!) months. As the name suggest, this particular bat sports some nice, big ears. [X]

  • The Eastern Small-footed Bat (Myotis leibii) can be identified by their - wait for it - tiny feet. Who knew ...

  • Last but not least there the Tricolored Bat (Perimyotis subflavus), the earliest forager of all eight bats in the Northern realm. [X]

You probably noticed those bats marked with an [X]. Well, unfortunately these species are listed as endangered due to habitat decline, human intervention, and the contamination of caves and hibernation environments by the mentioned fungus. 

Hunting while flying is of course a very specialized skillset. Bats use echolocation by means of ultrasound to  spot their prey. These sounds are not on the spectrum for humans to hear as they range on a scale from 20 to 70kHz, while our own capability of hearing sounds is located somewhere around 16 kHz. Acting like a radar system, the echolocating technique creates a 3D image in the bat’s brain composed by receiving reflected sounds. If we could hear the same sound range bats create it would be way over 100 dB loud, which equals the noise of an annoying lawnmower. Now, this brings me right to our activity of today: we went on a trip to Makerspace North in Ottawa, run by Michael Grant of Krazatchu Design Systems, who mainly works with businesses and individuals to provide his services as an incubator space for innovation. Think about a creative studio environment that houses a wide range of enterprises from a gaming company to a robotics corporation and a solar energy business, CNC and laser cutting services but also a pretty cool, and well stocked, tool rental library. We gathered here to build a bat detector, a device that makes the otherwise inaudible bat sounds hearable, allowing the user to detect bats in the dark. Here are some process pictures of the built (device test report to follow) ...


DAY 4 | Biophilia Residency 2019 | Canada

Day 4: The Good, the Bad, and the Moldy

There is something magical about mushrooms; the way they look, the way they grow, and ... let’s be honest here, the way they taste. Anyway, we went to the woods today to explore the many mushrooms that can be found around the premises of our residency at this time of the year. I have to admit that I don’t know a lot about these weird organisms, and to understand the whole complex universe of these seemingly simple creatures one would probably have to study some serious mycology (the study and science of mushrooms, which, as a nice side effect, might also help to prevent poisonings). Time for some fun facts: mushrooms are made up of around 90% water and are used in almost every cuisine around the world, often as replacement for meat products. Many exhibit beneficial properties and are an integral part of ethnobotanical, medicinal practices. There are also over 30 species found in the wild that actually glow in the dark! Bioluminescence is what causes an eerie glow, often referred to as “foxfire”. The coolest thing is that a specific mushroom colony of the species Amillaria solidipes, located in the Blue Mountains of Oregon, is believed to be the largest organism known to be currently living on planet Earth. This fungus is about 2500 years old (take that, whale ear wax) and covers an area larger than 2000 acres. The fruiting body, which is the part of the fungus that sends out spores for reproduction, is just as short lived as many others of its kind. However, the branch-like vegetation known as mycelium lives a hidden underground life as a rhizome. Some mushrooms contain hallucinogenic compounds and are therefore often consumed as a drug. Whatever you do, please know your shrooms or go on a foraging hike with someone who knows what they are actually collecting. There are many edible mushrooms out there that have toxic lookalikes. Here are some photos from today’s mushroom walk in Gatineau Park...

In the afternoon we visited Canadian artist Marie-Jeanne Musiol at her beautiful cottage located at a peaceful lake in Wakefield, Quebec. Marie-Jeanne presented a body of work in which she uses a special (scientific) device that allows her to capture the energy field of objects, resulting in incredibly radiant duotone images of plants, branches, and other botanical matter that she collects from her property. This kind of electromagnetic photography records the pulsating light fields, aiding her to uncover the unseen in the form of mirror images of the local flora that look nothing like your standard plant photography. Her images rather appear to be both microscopically enlarged and at the same time expanded and infinite, resembling an interesting parallelism to NASA’s deep space image capture of galaxies and the birth of stars. Marie-Jean, informed by art and science together, references and makes visible the intrinsic dynamism of interconnections of all things on a smaller or larger scale. While drafting a relationship to the wonders of creation, her images also show the interaction of light and matter, the diverse states of being and consciousness (from a philosophical point of view - think about object oriented ontology), the cycle of life and death, and the relationship between humans and our devastating impact on the fragile system of the ecosphere. In order to question and reframe our orthodox assumptions about the visible world and the disparity of art and science, Marie-Jeanne creates work that askes deeper questions of being and becoming, trying to debunk the apparent false yet commonly accepted assumption of autonomous entities within a system of rhizomatic expansion. That said, listening to her elaborate talk felt exceptionally Deleuzian. It was a great experience to meet yet another artist who recognizes the dire need to rethink our position and a new Age of Enlightenment in order to save the planet, ourselves, and everything connected, from the atrocious disaster of a nearing, human-made 6th mass extinction resulting from the anthropocentric mindset of our times. Welcome to the Anthropocene once again.


DAY 3 | Biophilia Residency 2019 | Canada

Day 3: Bees and Brains

Curious chickens at Ferme et Forêt in Wakefield, Quebec.

Curious chickens at Ferme et Forêt in Wakefield, Quebec.

What’s more exciting than a bunch of chickens curiously observing my amateur approach of trying to capture them in a photo? Well, I guess ecologically responsible beekeeping is, and mentioned chickens actually share their home with the beehives we visited this morning at Ferme er Forêt in Wakefield, Quebec. Here, the bees are not workhorses to provide the farmer with honey, wax, propolis or royal jelly, but are actually a colony that’s been tended to in order to maintain their natural behaviors to be, well, bees. Swarming for example is encouraged and not prevented so that the insects can maintain their natural instincts of expansion and control their health as a complex organism. Geneviève LeGal-Leblanc, operator and beekeeper on location, introduced us to basic bee and beekeeping knowledge. And who knew that these little critters create the wax needed for cell building from the same gland in the abdomen that’s used in their larva state to encase themselves in silk before entering their next phase of metamorphosis? Sounds weird, yes, but even weirder is the fact that royal jelly, the very substance that turns a regular worker bee into a queen, is a product of a gland located on their heads... Speaking about the queen: while all other bees in the hive hatch from clustered cells (female worker bee cells are smaller, male drone cells slightly bigger), her royal highness hatches from an extra large one that resembles the shape of a peanut.

We proceeded to take a look at the beehives, where many of the busy insects are currently in the midst of foraging pollen from nearby fields. Smoke is used as a “doorbell” prior to opening up a hive, meaning the bees know that the beekeeper is present and remain calm. As you can see in the images, spiked pieces of wood and an electric fence protect the beehives from naughty skunks who have an affinity for the protein rich bees. While skunks like to snack on bees whenever they get a chance, the real threat to these important pollinators are changes of the environment due to climate instability, and the use of pesticides. Discussions amongst beekeepers have thus shifted from “how much honey did you made” to “what’s the survival rate of your hives”. The mission of this farm is, however,  to support bees as an important part of our ecosystem and finding a remedy for this miserable development of a declining bee population by creating a sanctuary, asking questions of how we can serve the bees to help them, rather than having the bees serve us with products for consumption such as honey, pollen, wax, propolis, or royal jelly. 

In the afternoon we drove to the University of Ottawa’s STEM Complex to visit the Pelling Lab for Augmented Biology, an award-winning, exploratory space where bio scientists, engineers and artists work in collaboration to explore speculative augmented biological systems of the future (think: lab-grown meat) by physically manipulating and re-purposing living systems.

First stop: cell counting room. In this part of the laboratory freshly assembled Petri dishes are under constant scrutiny for cell counting in order to study the developmental stages of said cells. While the source material here was derived from mice, the more serious projects involve actual human cell material. The experiments (and results) span from growing human cells on objects, for example manipulated fluorescent cells on LEGO figurines, to plant-based scaffolding in the shape of body parts such as ears that are slowly transformed into human cell versions. The more complex projects, Dr. Andrew Pelling explained to us, are attempts to create lab-grown tissue that, at some point in the future, might become a food source as in vitro meat, located outside their normal - or natural - biological context. Hypernature at its finest so to speak. Anyway, a complex and expensive problem is the proper “feeding” of these isolated cells to make them grow. A constant supply of serum albumin, found only in blood plasma, is the crucial component needed to grow tiny cells into proper New York sirloin steaks. Research right now tries to synthesize this very special cell food, which is not that easy to reproduce as more than 30,000 complex components are involved and interconnected. The Pelling Lab is a truly magnificent open exploration lab without a mandate, where scientist are able to explore and experiment at the edge of creative sciences. It’s an incubator for ideas rather than a conservative research lab, driven by a philosophy of open source access.  


DAY 2 | Biophilia Residency 2019 | Canada

Day 2: Birds, Bones and Burdock

This morning we went on a field trip to the research collection of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Dr. Gregory Rand was kind enough to give us a tour of the museum’s extensive storage of bird specimen. This place is a true “Wunderkammer” for everyone who is interested in birds. On a side note: this place is not accessible to the public, so don’t show up there expecting to be able to browse through the seemingly endless cabinets and drawers full of birds, nests, and eggs all by yourself. Of course, the cabinet with pigeons was definitely one of my favorites.

Following the bird experience we proceeded to the museum‘s large bone collection, a big storage facility with an overwhelming amount of objects spanning from Blue Whale jaw bones to an almost fully assembled Giraffe skeleton, neatly placed amongst many other either assembled, or meticulously boxed specimen. This area also featured some magnificent taxidermy of Mufflons, a version of each a Brown and a Kodiak Bear, as well as a Musk Ox. A wall of antlers added it’s very own flair to the visual experience of the space. We learned that the Canadian Museum of Nature holds the largest collection of Polar Bear bones, as well as - wait for it - whale wax ear plugs ... go figure. Apparently, these wax balls are a great way to measure long term contamination levels in sea water because a whale’s lifespan can easily exceed 150 years. The wax thus keeps accumulating and “layering” contaminants like tree rings. Unfortunately these wax specimen were locked away due to safety concerns as they contain formaldehyde. 

The second activity of the day took us on a foraging trip for edible and medicinal wildflowers and plants with herbalist Amber Westfall, the owner of The Wild Garden in Ottawa. I can proudly report that I tasted the fruit of the Black Nightshade and survived. As a matter of fact Solanum nigrum is not extensively toxic and its fruit tastes  like a mixture of gooseberry and tomato, with an interesting yet hard to place, violet aroma and sweet aftertaste. Anyway, please refrain from eating any relatives of the nightshade family for your own health and security (except tomatoes and potatoes provided by your grocer, or farm stand). Another interesting taste was the seed package of Milkweed (Asclepius syriaca), referred to by our guide as the taste of “cucumber cotton candy”. I would say that description pretty much nails it - it is weird yet pleasant. More highlights: Wild Carrot (Daucus carota aka. Queen Anne’s Lace), Pineapple Weed (Matricaria discoidea - a common Midwestern permaculture), the somewhat bittersweet and tart Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), and the more than weird Paracress (Acmella orelacea), whose leafs will make you salivate in abnormal amounts for a very short time. We rounded the day up with a refreshing tasting of Amber’s homemade Stinging Nettle cordial.


DAY 1 | Biophilia Residency 2019 | Canada

Day 1: Spiders, Readymades, and a Beautiful Retreat in the Woods

Today I started day 1 of the Biophilia Residency organized by the Ayatana Artist Research Program with a visit to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa prior to meeting the group of artists with whom I will spend the next week exploring. I take it as a good sign that a version of Louise Bourgeois’ “Maman” was the first piece of the collection to greet me at the entrance (after all we are here to study nature and wildlife ...  and giant spiders, cast in bronze or not, count as well).

Louise Bourgeois’ magnificent spider sculpture “Maman” at the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Louise Bourgeois’ magnificent spider sculpture “Maman” at the National Gallery in Ottawa.

I was positively surprised to encounter a considerably large collection of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades, including the 5th version of the infamous “Fountain” from 1917, re-made in 1964, and some other gems like “In Advance of the Broken Arm”  (1915, 4th Version, 1964) and “Trap” (1917, 2nd version, 1964). As we all know, Duchamp radically changed assumptions about the nature of art when he repurposed industrially created objects and declared them works of art. He is a favorite and still a major influence for my own research. Needless to say it made me very happy that I had the chance to experience a good number of this important work.

Marcel Duchamp’s finest Readymades. A great surprise!

Marcel Duchamp’s finest Readymades. A great surprise!

Another wonderful work that caught my attention was Myfanwy Macleod’s “Albert Walker” from 2014. Apparently a strain of cannabis of uncertain origins, the name of this installation is inspired by this particular variety named after a notorious Canadian conman and convicted killer, who was well known for changing his identity many times to evict prosecution by law. Here, enlarged replicas of the plant’s flower buds are displayed as psychedelic, color-shifting clusters covered in chameleon paint, stored inside a reproduction of a traditional cabinet for souvenirs. As minimal as Macleod’s installation presents itself at first glance, it is notable that the enlarged flower buds of the plant are 3D printed objects.

Myfanwy Macleod’s beautifully weird “Albert Walker” from 2014.

Myfanwy Macleod’s beautifully weird “Albert Walker” from 2014.

Closeup of the chameleon paint covered 3D prints of psychedelic flower buds.

Closeup of the chameleon paint covered 3D prints of psychedelic flower buds.

After a first informal meeting and introduction to the program activities at the Gallery’s cafeteria, our group made its way over to Gatineau Park’s Visitor Center to take a look at the (taxidermy versions) of wildlife we might encounter during our planned trips. The afternoon was filled with very informative talks by all participating artists’ presenting their work, background, and research interests. Tomorrow we will start with the first field trips, including a highly anticipated visit to the bird and large skeleton specimen at the National Museum of Nature’s Research Collection, as well as trip to forage for edible and medicinal wildflowers at the Wild Garden. Photos to follow - stay tuned!


Biophilia Residency 2019 | Canada

This is a first blog post prior to the start of the Biophilia artist residency in Canada. I just arrived in Ottawa and I am looking forward to a visit to the National Gallery tomorrow morning as well as meeting the other participants and organizers of this residency.

Travel from Iowa via Detroit to Ottawa was easy and uncomplicated. I will spend the next 7 days in Gatineau, exploring wildlife, visiting biology labs, and participating in some exciting expeditions - including tracking bats with self-made bat detectors 🦇 and foraging for mushrooms 🍄 (and to make my wonderful colleagues and team members from the CRI at William Penn University happy, I might as well throw in some 3D scanning of various things)

From tomorrow on I will post a daily summary of our activities and some photos to share my experience.

if you are interested in learning more about the residency program check out