Imagining the Galápagos: the artist in nature's system


the whole world + the work = the whole world
Martin Creed, Work No. 232 (2000)

The Galápagos Islands are renowned as a laboratory of the natural world: a showcase for how animal and plant species become established, adapt to their environment and coexist in an integrated system. The iconic status of the Galápagos is due in part to its inspiration for Darwin's thinking about evolution. This reputation is secured by the largely unspoiled biodiversity of the Islands and the transparency of how they have become what they are: to travel through the Galápagos is literally to see how the natural world works - the interdependence of geology, botany, land and marine life, and, more recently, the complex impact of the most significant invasive species, humans.

The Gulbenkian Galápagos Artists' Residency Programme was initiated on two essential premises: first, that humans are not just privileged consumers of the natural world but active and therefore responsible participants in it; second, that art is a central human and therefore natural behaviour. This essay explores these two assertions, drawing on the engagement with the Galápagos by the artists in the programme.

The archipelago is famous as a physical construct - its islands rose out of volcanoes in the sea and move slowly over the millennia via a tectonic 'conveyor belt' across the ocean floor. The newest islands are about half a million years old but include large tracts of cooled lava that appear to have just stopped flowing (the last major eruption was on Fernandina Island in 2009), while the oldest have areas of equally startling maturity of form and vegetation. Plant and animal life forms have found their way to the Galápagos over the past four or five million years from mainland South America or further afield. They needed to be ready to travel, lucky enough to be carried by the right winds or currents, and somehow able to find a niche within the harsh environment to adapt and survive.

But the Galápagos are also a mental construct. People bring their partial knowledge and more or less intense imaginings to the Islands, physically or virtually. The transfer begins with naming: the islands have both English and Spanish names - commemorating pirates, explorers, noblemen, royalty and saints - resonant to both colonial cultures and modern Ecuador. The Galápagos are highly unusual in not having an indigenous culture. The Islands were visited from the 16th century by explorers, pirates and whalers, saw some failed attempts at settlement and cultivation in the 19th century, and increasingly over the past hundred years have supported fishing, tourism and scientific research. These industries are carried out by people who bring their own cultural assumptions and habits with them, pursuing the more or less conscious human need to articulate their presence within a society and an environment. The appearance of culture is like an accelerated version of the appearance of plant and animal species: new forms are washed up or blown in; some take, some don't; all mutate into something specially adapted to the place. Jeremy Deller's video of cock-fighting on the Galápagos is touchingly ironic, showing its participants clinging to a version of 'survival of the fittest' with which they are already familiar from their mainland home.

Iconic as the Galápagos is in the world's imagination, its cultural identity is still sparse and shallow. In the eyes of the mainland Ecuadorian I met on a flight from Miami to Guayaquil, it is Paradise pure and simple, a golden destination of economic aspiration and national pride. Kurt Vonnegut, in his satirical novel Galapagos (1985), also described it as a kind of paradise that by chance becomes final home to a shipwrecked group of tourists escaping the end of the world, mankind's last progenitors. Herman Melville, who travelled there with the whalers, depicted The Encantadas (The Enchanted Isles, 1854), by contrast, as a cruel and desolate place, its jagged black volcanic landscape populated by black lizards and black crabs, the only human engagement conveyed through tales of desertion and betrayal, loss and disappointment. Darwin, too, though profoundly influenced by what he saw there, wrote of the Galápagos with no trace of sentiment or affection. One of the Galápagos residency programme artists, Filipa César, has employed the framework of a fictional world for her meditation on images of the Galápagos past and present, recognising from the start that the 'Enchanted Isles' are a signifier, a receptacle waiting to be filled with dreams and beliefs. The Islands' character is simultaneously a space of magic and a place of rawest truth. Their magic is precisely that of revealing truths unobscured by mythology or convention. It is a magic of wondrous fitness for purpose: encompassing ten-metre tall trees that are in fact a form of daisy, or sunflower, endemic to the Galápagos under the name Scalesia. It is a magic of seemingly absurd relationships, where I can observe a Galápagos hawk, the main land predator, picking at the carcass of dead baby sea-lion while other sea-lions and birds went about their business unconcerned by its presence. On another occasion it is the surreality of a group of people in a late night bar on the fringes of the main town of Puerto Ayora, drinking beer and singing romantic South American ballads to a karaoke video, whose backdrop is a BBC documentary showing a hawk ripping an iguana apart. Dorothy Cross recalled from her first visit to the Galápagos nearly 20 years ago a place where animals coexisted virtually without fear. This added to the unreality of the place, yet was central to its reality. On her return in 2007 she perceived the fearlessness altered in response to human depredations. The quotations that Cross and her travel companion Fiona Shaw took from The Tempest in their conversations on the Galápagos seem particularly apt in this context - an island populated by animals and spirits forming a coherent if fantastic ecology, into which stumble a bunch of shipwrecked humans who have no business there, yet who try to impose their imported power structures. Shakespeare's island is a place of magic and harsh reality, which by virtue of being observed by humans becomes also a place of artifice.

The 'objective' physical construct and the 'subjective' mental construct of the Galápagos are, if not one and the same, at least interdependent, insofar as our status as subjective observers and interpreters is a key characteristic of our biological and social nature as a species. Our understanding of the physical depends on the conscious and unconscious frameworks we put around it. There is no such thing as a non-cultural view of the Galápagos - only views that are more or less informed and nuanced culturally. Paulo Catrica's photographic records of buildings in the Galápagos provide eloquent testimony to this: poignant portraits of half-built structures that struggle to establish themselves and yet betray lovingly imported architectural references and cultural aspirations.

Humans have always used this magical laboratory for their own immediate purposes: harvesting its natural resources, whether whales, tortoises or sea cucumbers, until there were hardly any left to harvest; strategically siting a US airbase to keep an eye on the Pacific and guard the Panama Canal; even providing a Robinson Crusoe-like hideaway from Nazi Germany, as in the case of the Angermeyer family in the late 1930s. Yet the functional and fictional overlap and feed each other. Dreams have a function in sorting the mass of data and emotions in our minds; visual art, literature, music, other forms of representation and interpretation similarly help shape understanding (and therefore behaviour) around complex social relationships. Marcus Coates' video Human Report, originally made during his stay in Santa Cruz in 2008 and broadcast on Galápagos television, made this clear by turning the tables, with the artist dressing up crudely as a blue-footed booby, visiting the human population in an attempt to comprehend their strange habits.

Social relationships are intrinsically tense and the paradise of the Galápagos has seen sharp tensions, largely between local people trying to make a living by meeting international commercial demand - for fish, or tourism - and people dedicated to preserving the Islands' biodiversity. In fact these distinct groups depend wholly on each other: local business is dependent for even mid-term survival on the preservation of the Islands' ecological integrity and reputation; the work of scientists and park rangers depends reciprocally on tourism to bring attention and revenue to the Galápagos. The five years of the artist residency programme expresses a conscious shift in the policy of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), from an exclusive focus on scientific research to a push for complementary communications and education programmes, including highly innovative initiatives to build local people's skills and capacity to help create a sustainable economy. A 2007 independent review of CDF concluded that 'Ecosystem management requires an integrated understanding of the economic, social, cultural and ecological sciences. It recognises the interconnectivity of social and ecological systems, and the fact that decisions must be founded on integrated information from these spheres.'

Art and artists often lose out in such company because they seldom claim success in advance. The artistic process - which, remember, our programme proposes as being intrinsic to nature rather than external to it - is inveterately undetermined. Yet it is still remarkably effective at honing in on subjects of deep and often neglected interest, engaging participation and creating products that, while their character could not have been imagined in advance, appear to have always existed once they see the light of day.

The cultural forms imported to the Islands by their recent inhabitants and regular visitors to date remain somewhat alien and unadapted - from 'indigenous' crafts shipped from other South American countries, to mural paintings glorifying Darwin and marine iguanas, to trendy t-shirt designs, to pervasive stylish documentary photography. Yet the range and sophistication of these forms grows daily. There is clearly room to pursue CDF's skills initiatives into the creative arts, and grow local creativity as both communicative tool and renewable source of revenue.

The 12 artists who took part in the residency programme were selected on the basis of what each would bring to the situation in terms of their previous work and their interest in the Galápagos, rather than the promise of a particular output. Artists are notorious for their independence, usually rightly wary of being used as 'instruments' for other people's agendas. Artists can indeed be most 'useful' when being most themselves: operating at the interface between individual and collective consciousness, able to make interventions within an open and acknowledged space of human enquiry - art - that could be either ignored or rejected if performed in other contexts. Yet all these artists are acutely aware how their individual actions are influenced by their context, culture, psychology, and economic and political circumstances.

Many of the visiting artists were quite happy to work on levels that crossed the realms of imagination and specific function. Alexis Deacon, for example, thought it perfectly natural to offer his consummate skills as a draughtsman to help with marketing material CDF produced during his stay there. Jyll Bradley, in exchange for the botanical scientists' openness to her line of artistic enquiry around the encouragement of endemic plant species, offered to make her photographic work available for the scientists' publications and communications programme. Marcus Coates' short film, improvised soon after his arrival in Puerto Ayora and broadcast during his stay, was both a powerful community engagement and a self-contained work of art. Kaffe Matthews, after diving with hammerhead sharks to explore her ideas around shark tracking and sonification, conducted educational workshops with young people on Isabela Island that helped demystify a subject of local fear and lack of knowledge.

Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt of Semiconductor regularly work alongside scientists and fluently reference different scientific disciplines (in their Galápagos work, mainly geophysics). Their range of enquiry offers a clue to the cross-disciplinary parallels this essay has proposed. The behaviour of protons and neutrons is generally explained through physics; that of cells and animals through biology; that of humans through social sciences like psychology, sociology or economics. Surely at some level there is a connection and a common bond that neither trivialises the integrity of human action nor anthropomorphises other forms of consequential behaviour. The Galápagos, the laboratory of nature, shows us how human behaviour is an intrinsic part of the nature it impacts so forcefully. Artistic practice can exist on a spectrum from, let's say, private intuition to overt propaganda - either way it's a tool for understanding, useful only insofar as it is skilfully and thoughtfully employed. The survival or destruction of the Galápagos, and the wider world of which it is such an emblematic microcosm, will depend on how the cumulative thoughts and actions of humans - as individuals, communities, nations and interest groups - can combine to make our species' place in it ultimately sustainable.

Greg Hilty is a curator, working now as Director of Lisson Gallery. He began working at London's Riverside Studios and was Senior Curator at the Hayward Gallery through the 1990s, co-curating a series of major group exhibitions and initiating projects linking visual art with other disciplines including film, sound and fashion. After a period in arts funding and strategy he founded Plus Equals, an interdisciplinary development agency, in partnership with University of the Arts London. He has been closely involved in the Galápagos project from its inception, first leading the selection of artists and subsequently co-curating the exhibition.