Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson: Radio Animal Unit

Radio Animal was a component of the project Uncertainty In The City – a speculative, artists’ exploration into the relationship between humans and the animals that nudge at and breach the borders of our homes.

The content from Radio Animal was instrumental in feeding the Uncertainty… project as whole. During 2009 and 2010 took our modified webcasting van out to field events, and to individuals and communities in the Lancaster and Morecambe area to get the opinions of those with stories to tell regarding encounters between humans and other species

The project Uncertainty in the City concluded in November 2010 with the closing of the exhibition (opened September 18th) at the Storey Gallery in Lancaster, UK. The installation can still be viewed by going to the EXHIBITION page and clicking on the 360º radio animal link

for more on their projects see:

back to the garden:

Storey Gallery The Henry Moore Foundation University of Cumbria Arts Council England

thanks to Daniel Matthews and Phil Maddock and Graham Barke from the House group and Max Robertson at UoC for website development.

nanoq: flat out and bluesome

Between 2001 and 2006, artists Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson undertook a survey of taxidermic polar bears in the UK. They photographed each specimen – in storage, on display or undergoing restoration. They researched the histories of each and wherever possible identified the date, place and individuals associated with its death or capture.

The project was first shown as an installation at Spike Island, Bristol, UK in which ten polar bear specimens were shown, together with a wall drawing and a video of the preparation and transit of the polar bear specimens from their respective collections to the exhibition space.

As part of this project, the artists have an archive of photographs, each of which incorporates its provenance. The archive is available in editions of 5, at size 600 x 610 mm and of 3 (of selected images) at size 1100 x 1200 mm.  This collection of photographs has toured to over twenty zoological, polar and art museums in the UK and in Scandinavia. Two editions now belong respectively to Reykjavik Art Museum, Iceland and Nevada Museum of Art, U.S.A.

A publication entitled nanoq: flat out and bluesome, A Cultural Life of Polar Bears was published by Black Dog Publishing, London in 2006. The book  discloses the process of the survey and the subsequent installation of ten of the bears in Spike Island Gallery, a converted tea-packing factory. It includes essays by Michelle Henning, Dr Garry Marvin and Dr Steve Baker, who write about taxidermy and photography, trophy-hunting and the depiction of animals in contemporary art, alongside previously unpublished archival photographs of 19th Century bear hunting in the Arctic.

Research background

20140429115313-river_picIn our often belated attempts to steward, care for or ‘repair’ environments – when individual animals and animal populationas are transformed from beings and societies into data, what of consequence is really captured – and importantly, what is lost?

20140429115403-IMG_5099-smThe project investigates tensions and cooperation among scientific, public, and corporate stakeholders in how we have managed the wilds and the public lands. As the artists capture the complexity of human groups each vying for their ideas about the future of endangered species, the art work becomes a figure for the larger difficulty of realizing any sustainable future. Who is included in the future and at what cost?

The exhibition due to  open in Arizona State University Museum of Art in Phoenix on 3rd of October 2014 explores how we perceive and communicate ideas of sustainability and how effectively we can engender collective responsibility regarding the environment.

20140429115729-IMG_6401-smBryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson have undertaken their research for this project in and around the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Vermillion Cliffs, Mohave Lake, and Phoenix, tracing the ‘wild’ water system from the Glen Canyon dam on the Colorado River to the urban homes of the desert. Working with Dr. Ron Broglio at ASU, they met with, interviewed and laboured alongside research scientists running conservation programs for endangered species. The artists immersed themselves in the respective environments and landscapes of these species and the associated conservation programs.

20140429115836-IMG_6711-smSince 2001 Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson have been working closely on projects which hinge on  specific relationships between non-human and human animals. Their inquiries have touched on extinction, colonialism, the naming of things, pet habitats, urban pest control and hunting, amongst other phenomena. The common thread is the relationships between humans and animals, and the insights brought by an examination of the margins where culture and nature collide. Previous projects have taken them to other kinds of ‘desert’, in the Arctic in Spitzbergen and Greenland and to Australia’s red center. This is their first major exhibition in the United States


Íslenskir Fuglar

For Íslenskir Fuglar we look at human ambivalence regarding ideas of change.  On the one hand we are conservative and suspicious of the disruption that change inevitably means. On the other we are drawn both to spice and novelty and to the practical benefits that some new introductions to our lives can bring. The judgment we make here between what we consider to be manageable and controllable and what we deem to be too disruptive and problematic is one that is fraught with potential miscalculations and unseen ramifications.

Long-term ramifications, touch at least obliquely, on the ecological and environmental consequences of human taste, fashion and favouritism – see for instance Mark Dion’s Survival of the Cutest –and this albeit wider interpretation is another reasonable reading of Islenskir Fuglar.

Commissioned for the exhibition Bæ Bæ Iceland (2007) the artists considered issues of nationality and nationhood, particularly in relation to changing populations. Iceland has traditionally fostered notions of cultural purity and defiance in relation to language, the economy, customs and identity. Despite this, in the most unexpected quarters small, incremental allowances, unnoticed over the years, have created new sub-cultures that when considered together cannot help but be seen as constituting an assault on ideas of cultural permanence or immutability.

Something as apparently beneficial and reliable as a map or a guide, if it is to remain of any use must take into account these small changes and therefore over time will come to be a barometer of larger cultural shifts – it must be a document of how we present ourselves, practically and symbolically both to ourselves and to the visitor. Any map or guide designed to reflect the state of things must in these circumstances be subject to a programme of regular updates. It is by these means that we present ourselves, practically and symbolically both to ourselves and to the visitor, but increasingly this will be a snapshot rather than a lasting document.

In attempting to identify what has changed in us but what still may help to define the new ‘us’ it’s possible that paradoxically, we may usefully examine our taste for the exotic. By comparing the old with new representations it should be possible to gauge the larger cultural shifts and trends that have occurred and anticipate those that may yet come to pass. In this we can measure our tastes and desires. Fashions come and go but some desires will stand the test of time – are assimilated by us and come to permanently shape the way we see ourselves and the way we are seen by others. Definitions are meant to be definitive. What is definitive today however, may no longer be definitive tomorrow and in this work, Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson are particularly interested in speculatively re-configuring the parameters upon which such definitions might be drawn. It is an innocuous game but one with the potential to nibble at, erode and disturb the borders of past, present and future, of local and global, natural and cultural, of acceptability and taboo.

Exhibited at; Bæ, Bæ Iceland, Listasafn Akureyrar, Iceland (2007) Inbetween: Cabinet of Curiousities, Hafnarborg, Iceland (2011)

Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson: Radio Animal Unit

The mechanism of the mobile unit itself was extremely successful. People entered the caravan, sat down and were put at their ease, very often remarking how comfortable it was. This sense of comfort and intimacy was constructively disarming and such a commitment would always yield at least one if not several stories.

By these two means – our excursions with Pest Control operatives and the Radio Animal interviews we fielded and recorded hundreds of accounts of animal/human encounters, and by so doing, a picture began to emerge of local human behaviour towards animals and the environment—of tolerance and intolerance, of fear and loathing, affection, conflict, pathos, admiration, longing and so on.

Big Mouth

This installation by artists Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson used the example of the thought-to-be extinct thylacine to examine human behavioural response to the unfamiliar and to fear and how acts of identification by means of comparison with what is familiar can be culturally expediential and environmentally fateful and irredeemable.

In 1936 the last officially recorded thylacine died in captivity in Hobart Zoo in Tasmania, the country where they last lived wild and where over a sustained period they were systematically hunted to extinction by British colonial settlers.

It was recorded that this last animal was known by the keepers as ‘Benjamin’. However this has been proven to be something of a myth. This was actually the name of the last person officially to photograph it. On its death she was identified as female.

It is understood that the thylacine as a species was used as a scapegoat for poor returns on sheep farms in the colony of Tasmania in the 19C and as a consequence, a bounty was offered in return for dead specimens. It was by this means that the extinction of the animal was rapidly accelerated.

Importantly, the thylacine has taken on further significance for humans since its apparent extinction. It is currently used in all manner of ways as a focus for longing, for possible redemption, for a reacquaintance with the wild and what may remain there, tantalisingly and mysteriously still beyond our reach.

In addition to the above factors, the sheep’s ‘clothing’ here exoticises this most ubiquitous of ‘domestic’ animals, establishing it firmly as a target of human expedience at the same time as making us consider again its animal-hood. The signs (badmouth) are an embodiment of the kind of naming and commodification that announces and celebrates the existence of a thing and simultaneously divorces us from its reality. The zoomorphic seating platform offers the opportunity to view the installation in a way relating to other circumstances where the human gaze falls upon the animal.

Big Mouth ultimately, is not about a particular animal or animals. With this installation, as indeed in other projects, Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson have spotlighted particularly charged human/animal relationships in order to help unpack some of the myriad instinctive and cultured responses and projections prompted by our experience and understanding of habitat.