Issue 27 07.15.2011

Issue 27
The Art of Beatriz da Costa

Beatriz da Costa is an interdisciplinary artist whose work is inspired by contemporary art, science, politics, and engineering. After studying at the Ecole d’Art d’Aix en Provence in France, she is currently an associate professor at University of California, Irvine in the school of engineering. She bases her work on public involvement, region-targeted media, conceptual tool building, and critical writing. Through these mediums, she focuses attention on promoting the intelligent use of resources, environmental stability, the investigation of context specific cases of social injustices through new technological advances, and the social implications and repercussions of surveillance equipment that is becoming omnipresent in society.

I met Beatriz da Costa over the summer of 2010 while she was an artist in residence at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, CA.  At the time, da Costa was working on finishing up a project creating an iPhone application that would allow users to look at information about the endangered species found in the United Kingdom. She was looking for an assistant to help her track down the immense amount of information required for the application.

The project was to go in conjunction with an installation project she had done at the John Hansard Gallery.  This installation included a number of specimens that were on loan from the Natural History Museum in London and the Horniman Museum that were “regional taxidermed specimens currently being under threat of extinction.” [i]

SG – How would you describe your work?

BdC – I am not tied to any specific medium and the topics I address vary. Over the past five years, I have been very interested in interspecies relations though, and all of my projects have somehow circled around that subject.

SG – One of your latest works deals with making an iPhone application for endangered species. Could you explain how this idea came to be? What do you hope it will accomplish? Do you think it was has been successful?

Endangerd Species Finder - iPhone App

Endangerd Species Finder - iPhone App

BdC – I was working on an installation project, called “A Memorial for the Still Living,” commissioned by The Arts Catalyst in the United Kingdom (UK). As part of that project, I worked with the collection curators at the Natural History Museum and the Horniman Museum in London to display specimens of endangered species endemic to the UK. I was particularly interested in confronting visitors with the sole remaining mode of relating to these species once they have become extinct–a formal, museological research display that’s no longer an encounter between one living entity with another. However, I wasn’t quite satisfied with just leaving it there. I also wanted to find a way to encourage visitors to go outside and engage the still living counterparts of these specimens. That is were The Endangered Species Finder came in.

The Endangered Species Finder is a smartphone application that, in its initial version, allows users to geo-locate themselves in relation to known habitats of UK-based species under threat. It provides both images and textual information about breeding habits, migratory patterns, and the currently understood reasons for why and how a particular species has become endangered. [Furthermore,] it directs users to known habitats and provides identifying information, since many species are quite widespread and simply navigating a person to an approximate region would not be enough. With The Endangered Species Finder, I am interested in getting users to see for themselves, outside of the context of a museum or gallery, the places where various species struggle to survive.

The application is designed so that it can easily be read while in transport–on a plane, train, bus, car, or subway–and then tested once users arrive at a given location. It can be used in a variety of settings, [whether] people are interested in learning more about the species under threat within their own neighborhood or while on nature trips and family vacations. Whatever the chosen setting, the goal of the project is to help assist in creating encounters between endangered species and humans in the effort to help produce awareness and potential for public action.

At this point, I cannot say that the project has been entirely successful. The main reason being that simply not enough people are using the application yet. However, I received a lot of interest from people in the United States to build a version for the American context (the current one was specifically designed for the UK). In fact, it is a group of researchers from Stanford University who would like to collaborate and develop this next version together. I feel confident that we will get there. The Endangered Species Finder UK was the first release. There are more to come.

SG – Much of your work is interested with environmental and biological issues. Where did this interest originate?

BdC – I was interested in political issues surrounding “new biology.” I worked on a number of projects addressing transgenic organisms and things just developed from there.

da Costa’s work on transgenic organisms led to her exhibit, Invisible Earthlings in 2009, and was a study on the link between humans and microbes­, members of the lived non-human worlds that are not recognized as social actors within their urban environments. The project sought to show the interactions we have, consciously and unconsciously, with the lived world.

Her work is evocative in the way that it addresses environmental issues through art and make the repercussions of human influence more accessible to people. It is at once shocking and inspirational.

[i] “Beatriz da Costa,” A Memorial for the Still Living, (accessed February 21, 2011).

By Sara Gevurtz