Arizona ArtBeat: Endangered Species Art Exhibit

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“Trout Fishing in America and Other Stories” is an exhibition of photographs and videos at the ASU Art Museum based on research with scientists, faculty, students and representatives from different government and community agencies regarding two endangered species from Arizona, the Humpback Chub and the California Condor. The exhibition examines how ecologies can change radically as a result of tiny individual initiatives by humans or other agents. Ron Broglio, an associate professor in the ASU Department of English, will discuss the exhibit and its implications.

Ted Simons: Tonight's edition of Arizona art-beat looks at an exhibit titled "trout fishing in America and other stories." the installation at ASU's art museum is based on scientific research focused on two endangered species found in Arizona. The humpback chub and the California condor. ASU professor Ron Broglio is the exhibit's cocurator. He joins us now. Good to have you here.

Ron Broglio: Thank you. Good to be here.

Ted Simons: Trout fishing in America and other stories. What exactly is going on here?

Ron Broglio: It is a research-based type of art where we invited some artists. I got a grant through the global institute of sustainability at ASU and the idea was to look at rhetorics of sustainability, how do scientists talk about sustainability and how does the public think about it and we invited artists in to visualize the contrasts in the way that scientists and the public think about sustainable -- sustainable environments. And, so, these artists chose the humpback chub and the California Condor as exemplars for rhetorics and problems within sustainability.

Ted Simons: What is a humpback chub?

A good start question. The humpback chub is a native fish in Arizona and it has a distinctly humped back because of -- during the monsoons when the water comes through the Colorado river, native to the Colorado river, it's able to navigate the rush of water that comes through.

Ted Simons: Okay. Humpback chub found mostly in western Arizona. No where else?

Ron Broglio: Right in the Grand Canyon area and that's it.

Ted Simons: Part of the Colorado. As far as the California Condor I think we know what they are but give us a definition.

Ron Broglio: In the 1970s -- first of all, they're the bird with the largest wing span in north America. So 9 1/2 foot wing span. Really large animal. And they're a scavenger bird. Interestingly, in the 1970s, there were only 22 left. And they were captured and through a captive breeding program brought back from almost extinction, and now there are about 250 in captivity, and 246, approximately, in the wild.

Ted Simons: And where are they found in Arizona?

Ron Broglio: In Arizona, they're at the Vermillion cliffs. We have some wonderful shots and video of the cliffs and them soaring along the cliffs and gliding.

Ted Simons: Vermillion cliffs are in --

Ron Broglio: Northern Arizona.

Ted Simons: These are basically a couple of northern Arizona endangered species and they seem to be doing better these days?

Ron Broglio: The California Condor is doing quite well. They have a comeback. The humpback chub, slowly working on it, but it is bringing back from serious endangerment.

Ted Simons: This art exhibit seems to blend art with research on these endangered species. Talk about that and the dynamic involved.

Ron Broglio: Bringing in, mark Wilson from England and Brenda from Iceland. An outsider's perspective coming in and looking at the terrain. International artists, very well known. And they partnered with field biologists. So, there was a trust level there. The scientists had to trust the artist. The artist had to trust the scientist. And they weren't -- the artists went into the field and worked side-by-side with the scientist and saw how the scientists were collecting data. The goal here was to move from data-based research that the scientists are doing, to something that tells a story. Affective. The public feels a relationship to the work.

Ted Simons: So, these researchers -- I'm sure there is an artist in there one way or another watching what they're doing. The artist goes back and then from the experience of that research, a photograph, lithograph, painting, sculpture, something along those lines?

Ron Broglio: Right. What happens is -- this took two years to develop. And so a week or two in the Grand Canyon, a week or two in the Vermillion cliffs, a lot of dialogue, a lot of rumination and then mainly it's a video pieces and photography and a wall mount of different species from the Grand Canyon. for example, with the photographs, we have California condor who whenever -- because they're endangered, whenever they die, they're autopsied.

Ted Simons: Yes.

Ron Broglio: Those autopsy bodies are frozen and kept at U of A in Tucson. Went down there with a field biologist who pulled out these animals and just -- we were photographing them and he began telling stories about each one. He had this real engaged affective relationship. They weren't just data. They were actual animals with stories. We include the animal and its story and you begin to develop a relationship with this animal that otherwise is hundreds of miles away.

Ted Simons: Sometimes artists can get, I don't know in trouble - but it becomes problematic when an artist tries to tell you something or tries to teach you something instead of just being an artist and expressing themselves and kind of letting the art land where it may. Are we being taught something here or how does this work?

Ron Broglio: So, this is really carefully done in a way that is not too heavy handed. They try to be really neutral on any issues involving each of these animals. So, instead what you are getting is a really careful descriptive commentary. There is video of a scientist describing his project and a philosopher talking about his understanding of the same project. And so you see these sort of conversations in different languages develop.

Ted Simons: Interesting, interesting. Cultural perceptions of nature. How does that play into all of this?

Ron Broglio: You know, it's interesting. We think of the Grand Canyon as wild. But it is a park. And it is a managed park. So, what we begin to understand is that in -- the -- I should say game and fish, Arizona game and fish also contributed to this exhibition. And in talking with them, one of the things you find out is the most important thing to manage in the wilderness is the human beings. We begin to understand what we see as wild landscape is actually a managed landscape. The humpback chub, where it lives, where it dwells in the Colorado river, is managed by the field researchers, by the biologists. Where the trout is allowed to go within the Colorado is also managed -- we think of the Colorado as a wild river but it is a managed space.

Ted Simons: Interesting. What kind of reaction have you had from the researchers, from the artists, from the public?

Ron Broglio: So far, the researchers are really intrigued. It's always a gamble. What are these artists going to do with our work? But they, again, going back to it not being pedantic or heavy handed, they feel it is well documented and tells stories of what they're doing without leaning one way or the other so that it is open to public interpretation. For the public, it has been moments of curiosity, let's say, as they begin to investigate and try to figure out what's going on here? What's happening with this animal? And I have to say that two pieces that made the most impact have been the condors. You hear these incredible stories of their lives and deaths and also the wall that lists all of the species in the Grand Canyon. This massive wall that looks like this vertical slice of the canyon itself.

Ted Simons: It sounds extremely interesting and provocative and in a different kind of a way. Congratulations on this and thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

Ron Broglio: Thank you.

Ron Broglio:Associate Professor, Department of English at Arizona State University;

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