The Art, Science, and Environmentalism of Deformed Amphibian Research

7.2 / Art, Science, and Wonder

The Art, Science, and Environmentalism of Deformed Amphibian Research

By Brandon Ballengée October 29, 2015

In my long-running project Malamp: The Occurrence of Deformities in Amphibians (1996–present), I have found myself in a hybrid role, one that combines fine-arts practitioner, biologist, and environmentalist. This has required developing a new methodology that reconfigures my art practice within citizen science to conduct primary scientific research (what I refer to as Eco-Actions).1 The underlying intention of Malamp has been to better understand etiologies for amphibian abnormalities, along with the resulting impact on populations and how the public may become inspired to aid in amphibian conservation efforts at a local and larger scale. Additionally, I had to develop new ways of expressing my concerns for amphibians through art objects, adding experimental approaches to image making, installation, and video—a factor that not only has channeled my creative expression but also has allowed for dissemination of amphibian research findings to a larger public.

Brandon Ballengée. Malamp Reliquaries, Styx: Variation X, and Un Requiem pour Flocons de Neige Blessés, 2012; installation view, Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York. Courtesy of the Artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. 

The impetus for Malamp was a 1995 account, when a group of Minnesota school children during a class field trip found numerous severely malformed frogs. The story reached international media outlets within days; the images of these frogs as well as their meaning for the environment horrified me and motivated my investigation.2 Frogs, toads, caecilians, newts, and salamanders compose an ancient group of animals that have survived several mass-extinction events. However, today they are disappearing at alarming rates. Of the known amphibian species, more than 40 percent are in decline or have become extinct since 1979.3 Considered an important bio-indicator group, they often are called the environmental canary in our global coalmine.4 The loss and modification of habitats, emerging diseases, pollutants, and climate change are all considered causes for mass amphibian declines.5 Deformations have been found in some already declining amphibian populations, and malformations appear to be increasing internationally among some populations.6 Likewise, our recent findings suggest that higher than normal levels of deformities may indicate the ecological compromise of wetland habitats.7 Expressing these objective scientific facts through the subjective means of art is central to my practice.

Within a few months of the Minnesota finding, I began as a volunteer and later became a coordinator of amphibian field surveys for the U.S. Geological Survey’s North American Reporting Center for Amphibian Malformations (NARCAM). While conducting these field studies, I made artworks about the deformed frogs that were witnessed at these ponds. These initial works were individually painted portraits of the malformed frogs, on repurposed paper. This body of research, and the corresponding artworks, continued until 2000 and consisted of more than three hundred portraits, most of which were washed away in a studio flood some years later.

Brandon Ballengée. Malamp drawings, 1996–2000; polluted pond water, ash, and leftover coffee on reconstituted paper; dimensions vary. Courtesy of the Artist. 

Through these research experiences, and in a further attempt to engage nonscientists with a message of amphibian conservation, the methodologies for the Malamp artworks grew from paintings to a variety of other media, including the performing of citizen science. Within these programs, the Eco-Actions, the public participates and contributes to actual scientific amphibian surveys. For the creation of more object-based art in 2001, I began using high-resolution scans to record the deformed amphibians, which would later become my photographic series, Malamp Reliquaries (2001–present). In 2007, I began exhibiting the actual deformed individual specimens in the sculptural series entitled Styx (2007–present). More recently, video has become a means for me to express the complex emotions that arose from finding malformed animals in nature. The resulting work is titled Un Requiem pour Flocons de Neige Blessés (2009–11). The goals of these works are to engage, as well as to increase, a viewer’s awareness of the fragility of organisms that share our planet. In this sense, the Eco-Actions and artworks are meant as bridges between individual viewers and the specific organisms portrayed. They also offer a way for me to expand the findings of my research and the experience of investigation outside the realm of professional science.

Eco-Actions

Studying deformed amphibians involves extensive field and laboratory research. Instead of only conducting this work with other scientific specialists, I developed a methodology to involve the public. In the Eco-Actions, nonscientists are directly involved in actual amphibian surveys. By working hands-on, in aquatic and terrestrial field sampling, members of the community participate in scientific investigations. Likewise, participants are encouraged to reflect upon their experiences through making art (such as drawing, painting, poetry, sound, and video), utilizing encountered species as subjects and field-collected material as media. In this way, the Eco-Actions become a link between transdisciplinary art practices and scientific research. Fundamentally, such actions are attempts to bridge communities to local ecosystems and to educate participants with an increased understanding of the biodiversity—and often the lack of biodiversity—at these sites.

For us to save the frogs, a broad effort beyond science will be required.

These Eco-Actions empower students, volunteers, and members of the general public to be directly involved in varied aspects of the scientific research process: problem identification, testing hypotheses through preliminary and primary field and laboratory studies, reflective art activities, analysis and understanding of results, and dissemination of these results to a larger audience through exhibitions. In 2007 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published the “Amphibian Conservation Action Plan” (ACAP), which put forward a set of priorities, including public-awareness raising, that are paramount to the success for long-term amphibian conservation.8 The implementation of such efforts includes outreach in the form of exhibitions and the international participation of citizens in research. As the authors state: “The road to success must include a broad set of stakeholders.”9 The Eco-Actions answer this call to bring the message of amphibian issues to a larger audience. For us to save the frogs—and many other species—a broad effort beyond science will be required: an effort in which the public will need to play a significant role.

Malamp: Reliquaries

In addition to the public programs, I also create visual art intended to communicate a message of amphibian conservation. In my ongoing body of Malamp works, I create unique digital prints, collectively titled Reliquaries, of terminally deformed amphibian specimens found in nature. Over time, I developed a pragmatic method for creating the Reliquaries. Following field surveys, the metamorphic frogs and toads found already dead or dying are cleared and stained: during this chemical process, bone and cartilage are stained with brightly colored dyes while enzymes are used to reduce surrounding tissues to a state of transparency.10 From a scientific standpoint, this process affords a way to see subtle abnormalities in morphology that could be easily missed. These cleared and stained specimens are also aesthetically fascinating, and they often are the source material for the individual prints in the Reliquaries

Brandon Ballengée. DFA 186: Hadēs, 2012; unique digital C-print on watercolor paper; 46 x 34 in. Cleared and stained Pacific tree frog collected in Aptos, California; in scientific collaboration with Stanley K. Sessions; title by the poet KuyDelair. Courtesy of the Artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

From an artistic standpoint, the clearing and staining process obscures a direct representation of the individual specimen, for I do not want to exhibit large images of what might look like monsters, which would be frightening and also exploitative of the organism. Chemically altered specimens, however, look almost like X-ray images; this appearance simultaneously enables a degree of abstraction and reveals the complex configuration of malformed development. Aesthetically, the colors of the dyed tissues are vibrant and are in direct contrast to the skin, which is semi-transparent and meant to appear ephemeral.

The final work is meant to recall the individual animal and become a reliquary to a brief, nonhuman life.

The clearing and staining process is followed by high-resolution scanning of individual specimens. Digital files are then edited so that each individual frog is centered on laboratory-grade cotton, appearing to float in what seem to be clouds. The images are scaled such that the frogs appear approximately the size of a human toddler, to invoke empathy in the viewer instead of detachment or fear. If the frogs are too small, they are easily dismissed, but if they are too large, they could seem monstrous. To the best of my abilities, I treat these malformed animals with respect to avoid shocking viewers with connotations of a freak show. Again, my intention is to move the viewer toward wanting to help amphibians rather than casually walking away or becoming frightened.

The finished images are printed with watercolor ink on cold-press watercolor paper, 46.5-by-34.5 inches (118-by-88 cm). This method and scale is meant to recall the bird portraits of one of my inspirations, John James Audubon, whose works still captivate audiences after more than a century. Also like Audubon’s original paintings, each print is unique. To make multiple prints of the same individual animal, I believe, would be exploitive to these malformed amphibians. As the art historian Lucy Lippard has stated, this lack of an edition is “respectful of its specific and local individuality.”11 By being unique, the final work is meant to recall the individual animal and become a reliquary to a brief, nonhuman life.

Although the Reliquaries are inspired by scientific study, the works are not meant to be taken as science visualizations nor illustrations. The works are not meant to lecture to a viewer but to be experienced by her. The possible readings and interpretations are intended to be open-ended. There is also an aspect of self-expression in the Reliquaries. In my scientific studies, I must be as objective as possible and let the results speak for themselves. When making art, I am able to explore the emotional and psychological complexity of working directly in degraded landscapes with affected organisms.

Brandon Ballengée. DFA 83, Karkinos, 2001–07; unique digital C-print on watercolor paper; 46.5 x 34.5 in. Cleared and stained Pacific tree frog collected in Aptos, California; in scientific collaboration with Stanley K. Sessions; title by the poet KuyDelair. Courtesy of the Artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Each of the Reliquaries is meant to be experienced by a viewer individually, at a personal level. This viewer-to-animal, one-to-one relationship has been informed by the ideas of environmental ethics set forth by such thinkers as Aldo Leopold. Leopold was an academically trained forestry scientist who expertly understood ecosystems and the importance of all the organisms that they consist of. In his writings, he extended the concept of community and communal values to include humans, nonhuman animals, and the landscape. Leopold was aware that humans are part of a greater biological system; he suggested that humans should develop an ecological conscience that would encourage behaviors that allow living communities to function naturally and toward self-renewal. With this conscience, according to Leopold, the populace could learn to conserve other species out of appreciation and respect.

Malamp: Styx

The one-to-one dialogue between specimen and viewer in the Reliquaries is also emphasized through my sculptural series Styx (1996–present). Here, viewers look into small glass dishes containing a single cleared-and-stained deformed anuran (an amphibian commonly called a frog or toad, which mostly lack tails as adults).12 Each specimen dish is precisely illuminated from below to appear as the light source and become the focal point. Since the specimens are often tiny, outside of a usual scale for bodily association, viewers must deliberately approach the glass dishes to peer into them, which forces an intimate encounter.

In Styx, the tiny specimen dishes are carefully displayed on large, dark structures meant to resemble fallen obelisks. For viewers, there is something familiar about the specimens: something enchanting but terrible and otherworldly. The series was titled after the Greek mythological river Styx, which formed a border between the worlds of the living and the dead. In Styx, each specimen is unique, valued, and revered, posing a larger ethical question about the value of life. Intimacy and reverence underlie Styx rather than spectacle and the exploitation of these malformed beings.

They are beautiful yet horrible.

In our daily lives, we are seldom confronted by the impact of environmental degradation upon another organism. Through Styx, a viewer experiences a one-on-one confrontation between himself and an example of human impact.13 Viewed up close, these specimens resemble gems or stained-glass windows. They are beautiful yet horrible, telling the forlorn story of ecosystems on the verge of collapse.

My decision to display actual specimens deformed by the ecosystems they develop in is further grounded in the ethical frameworks of ideas presented by Leopold in what he called land ethic. As mentioned above, Leopold proposed value to all organisms—even to soil, water, and air—that allow life to exist.14 Leopold believed that actions that allow life to self-renew were just or moral, and those that prevented life from renewing itself were unjust or immoral. Under such a paradigm, even tiny, metamorphic frogs have great ecological importance and value to the greater whole of life.

Un Requiem pour Flocons de Neige Blessés (Requiem for Injured Snowflakes)

More recently I have explored video as a format for presenting the complex emotions associated with the amphibian malformation phenomenon. In 2009, in association with Quebec studies of amphibian deformities, my research team and I began documenting young anurans found at one malformation hotspot. At this heavily polluted agricultural location, hundreds of severely abnormal metamorphic toadlets were discovered. Dozens were found dead, and many lay dying as we attempted to gather data on deformation rates.

In response to this tragic finding, I created a video work that consisted of a series of twenty-one individual portraits of these tiny, short-lived beings. Each was born into a hostile universe of predators, parasites, and ecological degradation. Like all beings, these young creatures represented a particular moment in history and carried the environmental marks of their birthplace. In the case of these tiny toads, trauma during development resulted in terminal abnormalities: as they emerged to begin life on land, severe developmental deformations led them to an early death. The medium of video reflected the ephemeral nature of these lives.

Brandon Ballengée. Un Requiem pour Flocons de Neige Blessés (A Requiem for Injured Snowflakes), 2009–12 (video still). Courtesy of the Artist. 

To make Un Requiem pour Flocons de Neige Blessés (Requiem for Injured Snowflakes), the specimens were photographed and digitally placed against backgrounds of laboratory-grade cotton that visually recalled the storm clouds often depicted in paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner. The sound artists Ariel Benjamin and Andrew Diluvian responded to these images, creating an original musical score to accompany the video.

The piece is available as a free download under one condition: the video is projected such that the toadlet is approximately the size of a human toddler. Also, once begun, the video is to play continuously until someone chooses to turn it off—or until the extinction of the human species—at which point the file is to be deleted. The piece is not to be collected or kept, like life itself. This finite artwork is meant to be a memorial to these small creatures and the other countless beings that come into this world and pass without our notice.

Conclusion

Within the Malamp project, an underlying cycle of inquiry has caused a kind of feedback loop. The process of scientific research and the direct experiences with deformed animals became the inspiration and subjects of visual artworks, and the creation and production of the artworks gave rise to further scientific questions. For example, while conducting high-resolution imaging of deformed toads for the creation of fine-art prints, I noticed a lack of scar tissue in English specimens, which inspired laboratory studies of healing in developing anurans.15 Likewise, during the process of creating art, I reflected on field and lab studies and asked questions in a less results-oriented and non-quantifiable way, which led to new thoughts about what the scientific data might suggest. Art creation was an instigator for future studies and offered a form of reflective insight into prior scientific research experiences, all of which might offer a resolution for the problem of malformed frogs.

Brandon Ballengée. DFA 23: Khárôn, 2001–07; unique digital C-print on watercolor paper; 46.5 x 34.5 in. Cleared and stained Pacific tree frog collected in Aptos, California; in scientific collaboration with Stanley K. Sessions; title by the poet KuyDelair. Courtesy of the Artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Additionally, the Eco-Actions and the object-based aspects of Malamp utilize novel visual displays, which generate audience interest and emotional responses to the amphibians, organisms that are not usually viewed with sympathy. As Leopold once stated, “What conservation education must build is an ethical underpinning for land economics and a universal curiosity to understand the land mechanism.16 It is precisely through the aesthetic impact of the Malamp works that this curiosity, as well as sympathy, is invoked in viewers. As such, visual artworks like Malamp may offer an innovative form of environmental outreach and a means to engage audiences about the global amphibian crisis. The Eco-Actions offer a democratic way in which local citizens may better understand and even begin to remediate their backyard landscapes.

Malamp: The Occurrence of Deformities in Amphibians is an ongoing and open-ended project. Beyond merely provoking public knowledge or interest, I hope that the results of my scientific research can be utilized to develop tools for amphibian conservation and be met by a populace that cares about these amazing, ancient creatures. On a personal level, the afflictions currently facing amphibians and other wildlife are strong motivations behind this work. We are living amid the Anthropocene, or sixth extinction, with organisms disappearing at upward of a thousand times above the natural rate. 17 Through art, science, and environmental education programs, I hope to inspire as many minds as possible to seek change, even if many species face seemingly insurmountable environmental problems. As Leopold once wrote in a letter to a fellow ecologist, Bill Vogt, “That the situation is hopeless should not prevent us from doing our best. 18 In this way, Malamp treats the frog as an omen. Their decline heralds a grave danger that threatens not just them but also the longevity of our own species.

Notes

  1. The term citizen science is generally described as scientific research conducted entirely or at least in part with collaborating members of the public (nonprofessional scientists). Citizen scientists may perform data collection, make observations, and document findings. Open Scientist described it as “the systematic collection and analysis of data; development of technology; testing of natural phenomena; and the dissemination of these activities by researchers on a primarily avocational basis.” “Finalizing a Definition of ‘Citizen Science’ and ‘Citizen Scientists,’” Open Scientist, September 3, 2011, accessed October 1, 2015, http://www.openscientist.org/2011/09/finalizing-definition-of-citizen.html.
  2. For more about this event, see: W. Souder, A Plague of Frogs: The Horrifying True Story (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2002); J.C. Helgen, Peril in the Ponds: Deformed Frogs, Politics, and a Biologist's Quest (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2012).
  3. For more info, see: M. Hoffmann, et al., “The impact of conservation on the status of the world’s vertebrates,” Science 330, no. 6010 (December 10, 2010): 1503–09; K. Kriger, “ 10er, 10tes conservation ,” Brandon Ballengérandon Ballengonservation on teformities in Amphibians (Arts Catalyst, London; Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, UK; 2010), 40–44.
  4. J.P. Collins and M.L. Crump, Extinction in Our Times: Global Amphibian Decline (New York: Oxford University, 2009).
  5. For more info, see: J.P. Collins and A. Storfer, “Global Amphibian Declines: Sorting the Hypotheses,” Diversity and Distributions 9, no. 2 (March 2003): 89–98; S.N. Stuart, et al., “Status and Trends of Amphibian Declines and Extinctions Worldwide,” Science 306, no. 5702 (2004): 1783–86; D.B. Wake and V.T. Vredenburg, “Are We in the Midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction? A View from the World of Amphibians,” Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences 105, suppl. 1 (August 12, 2008): 11466–73.
  6. S.K. Sessions and B. Ballengée, “Explanations for Deformed Frogs: Plenty of Research Left to Do (A Response to Skelly and Benard),” Journal of Experimental Zoology 314, no. 5 (2010): 341–46a.
  7. B. Ballengée and D.M. Green, Temporal and Spatial Analysis of Deformed Amphibians at Selected Localities in Southern Quebec: What Role do Odonate Predators Play in Inducing Anuran Limb Abnormalities? Year Two (Gatineau: Canadian Wildlife Service, 2011).
  8. C. Gascon, et al., “Amphibian Conservation Action Plan” (Gland, Switzerland; Cambridge, UK: IUCN/SSC Amphibian Specialist Group, 2007), 64.
  9. C. Gascon, et al., 5.
  10. For a more detailed description of this process, see Ballengée and Green, Temporal and Spatial Analysis.
  11. Lucy Lippard, “One By One: Brandon Ballengée’s Malamp Project,” Brandon Ballengée: Malamp, The Occurrence of Deformities in Amphibians (Arts Catalyst, London; Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, UK; 2010), 16.
  12. Anurans (order Anura) generally have large central bodies with long hind limbs for jumping, hopping, or swimming. Anurans live in arboreal, terrestrial, semi-aquatic, or completely aquatic habitats as adults, and the majority of known species develop (as tadpoles) in aquatic or semi-aquatic environments. Anurans are widely dispersed and have been found on all continents except Antarctica since the last ice age. Anuran species are declining more rapidly than any other group of vertebrates, with numerous extinctions reported in the past century. See: R.C. Stebbins and N.W. Cohen, A Natural History of Amphibians (Princeton University, 1997); W.E. Duellman and L .Trueb, Biology of Amphibians (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1994); R.W. McDiarmid and R. Altig, eds., Tadpoles: The Biology of Anuran Larvae (University of Chicago, 1999); J.L. Vial, ed., Evolutionary Biology of the Anurans: Contemporary Research on Major Problems (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1973); K. Kriger, “Why We Must Save the Frogs”, Brandon Ballengée: Malamp, The Occurrence of Deformities in Amphibians (Arts Catalyst, London; Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, UK; 2010), 40–44.
  13. As the art historian Suzaan Boettger has posited of these specimens, “Accentuated by the removal of flesh and the addition of crimson and turquoise stain to the bones and cartilage, the amphibians’ grotesquely malformed anatomy visually recalls the whimsical linearity in Paul Klee’s watercolors but, even more, the twisted forms of crucified martyrs.” Suzaan Boettger, “Brandon Ballengée, Ronald Feldman,” Art in America, no. 9 (October 2012): 175–76, http://www.feldmangallery.com/media/ballangee/balexh_12/press/2012_ballengee_art%20in%20america_boettger.pdf.
  14. Of his environmental values, Leopold simply stated: “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There (New York: Oxford University, 1949).
  15. B. Ballengée and S.K. Sessions, “An Explanation for Missing Limbs in Deformed Amphibians,” Journal of Experimental Zoology 312B, no. 7 (2009): 770–79; Sessions and Ballengée “Explanations for Deformed Frogs: Plenty of Research Left to Do (A response to Skelly and Benard), ” Experimental Zoology 314, no. 5 (2010): 341–346a
  16. Leopold, 187.
  17. N. Eldredge, “The Sixth Extinction,” ActionBioscience, American Institute of Biological Sciences, June 2001, http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/eldredge2.html.
  18. Quoted in C. Meine, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (University of Wisconsin, 1991), 478.

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