Kate Foster

BioGeoGraphies

Kate Foster

This is a series of interventions in the ‘after-lives’ of zoological specimens, exploring human-animal relationships in an unsteady world.

I am based at Glasgow Sculpture Studios and am associated to the Department of Geographical and Earth Sciences and the Hunterian Zoological Museum (Glasgow University, UK).

Artwork / BioGeoGraphies (draft)

I am an environmental artist with a central interest in the entwined relationships between animal and human lives in an age of species loss.

The project ‘Disposition’ looked at the unique history of a museum specimen - the skin of a hen harrier that was killed in 1921 in North West Sutherland. It involved the return of the specimen to its place of death and making contact with staff and residents of Westminster Estates. The presentation consisted of two alternative dioramas on its replacement in the Zoology Museum. (Supported by the Scottish Arts Council).

Since graduating from environmental art (Glasgow School of Art, 2001), the ongoing task is to find personal pathways outwith the gallery and with different audiences.  Putting the current ecological crisis in the foreground makes me ask what contribution I personally can make, while referring to a wide range of other work. Each decision brings its own consequences and raises issues. As one example, deciding to investigate issues in-depth, that encompass complexity and ambiguity, has taken me along academic pathways. To gain experience in cross-disciplinary work that is flexible and independent, I have had to put in a lot of voluntary time. Working at local level with existing resources is an ideological position – but is not widely visible.  As with other process-based artists, my work cannot easily be reduced to visual.  Working with people with different perspectives and expertise takes a long time – it is a slow kind of politics in an era with urgent need for action. I see some parallels in my work with the Artist’s Placement Group and the idea of an ‘incidental person’ – with its potential critique and pitfalls.

Through joint-work with geographers and zoologists, I am making a series of tangential environmental histories, entitled ‘BioGeoGraphies’.  Different zoological specimens have provided various routes to investigate lives lived, things being done, and what is left behind. The working process is to seek different perspectives and ways of knowing.  BioGeoGraphies reflect on how natural history presents its subjects and on the contemporary value of zoological collections.

Hen Harrier on Westminster Tweed

My role in this is flexible – as an artist I contribute experimental re-presentation of zoological specimens and a push to involve others. I aim for sustained cross-disciplinary work with supportive networks in order to develop shared interests. My job seems to be to follow leads for investigation, make links, look for ways of making and showing new work, try to make the process enjoyable, and to be persistent. Much work has been informal, but being Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residence in the University (2005-2006) greatly helped.

Individual and collaborative BioGeoGraphies to date include work on birds endangered by the Victorian plumage trade (The Biography of a Lie); a persecuted bird of prey (Disposition); a butterfly endangered by climate change (Scotch Argus); a Scottish bird – again endangered by climate change (Cross-bills); and an extinct South African mammal (Blue Antelope).

The museum curator explained an ongoing DNA procedure to interested visitors as a geographer polished the glass plinth of a temporary display. Looking in, you saw a zoological specimen. On the walls of the box, you saw reflections – of yourself, of the museum, and of the skull. “BioGeoGraphy” means scrutinizing, in combination, each kind of reflected image (the skull, the museum, your own vantage point). This makes the skull much more interesting - like all zoological specimens, it has a cultural presence and can spark imagination. (Blue Antelope was supported by the Leverhulme Trust)

Recent work with Hayden Lorimer, Merle Patchett (geographers) and Maggie Reilly (zoological curator) generated wider interest in an overlooked, but very rare, skull of an extinct animal – the Blue Antelope. The next step planned is to make a kind of  “portable museum” about the extinct blue antelope to take to South Africa in September 2007, as a device to create dialogue. The extremely scarce remnants of this animal are in Northern European museums, brought from the Cape of South Africa by colonial trade and pioneers of western science. Killed out by 1800, this animal is seemingly little known in South Africa. Its ‘afterlife’ is very much concentrated in western scientific annals: our project is to enliven and broaden such a narrow perspective of its ‘value’. To quote from work with Hayden Lorimer: “By which world should the Blue Antelope be known? By what territorial arrangement should we place it? And according to whose voice, language and values?”  

‘Placing’ this skull is particularly complicated given colonial and environmental histories and present realities. Blue antelope can propel us from the comfort zones of museum and ivory tower. I have a sense of urgency about relocating it in the complexity of current Southern Africa, for integrity’s sake. Extending the scope of the work requires new skills and partnerships.

Each individual project has had its own personal compulsion and shared outcomes, but I am excited because BioGeoGraphies are now attracting wider interest and provide a flexible platform for artistic and academic work. This work offers routes into looking at the enormity and complexity of our global environmental crisis. Working creatively with other people helps us to find ways to engage.

Artist’s website: www.meansealevel.net
Project website: www.blueantelope.info

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