Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale Essay

10/27/2006 - 12/20/2006

Download PDF

Introduction: Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale
Mark Bessire

Cryptozoology is the quest for unknown, rumored, or hidden animals. Within scientific arenas especially, it is often considered a marginalized practice or a farcical adventure. However, as this exhibition and catalog reveal, it has become a rich yet under-explored theater for artistic investigation. While cryptozoology’s most highly recognizable pursuits, known as cryptids, include the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, Yeti, and the Abominable Snowman, there are also less notorious pursuits, such as the believed-to-be-extinct Tasmanian tiger and the rediscovered coelacanth, as well as numerous new discoveries of animals that, once documented, depart from the highly speculative arena of cryptozoology and enter into the classified natural world. The very definition of cryptozoology implies a quest, an adventurous search for something not yet realized or hidden. The preeminent cryptozoologist Loren Coleman has suggested that cryptozoology is the interest in animals out of time, place, or scale, and from this notion we derived the title of the exhibition.

Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale was first inspired by a studio visit between curator Mark Bessire and artist Sean Foley, soon after Foley’s realization that Loren Coleman, the most celebrated figure associated with contemporary cryptozoology, lived literally around the block from his studio in Portland, Maine. The enthusiasm for this topic spread, something like a growing social contagion, and further conversations with artists Alexis Rockman and Mark Dion and curator Raechell Smith ensued. Over a period of five years, a very diverse group of artists making forays into the seemingly obscure world of cryptozoology was identified, documented, and sought out. With an awareness of the popular and mythical allure of cryptozoology, the artists’ fascination with cryptids and the human search for them long preceded the current explosive interest of the mainstream media.

The wondrous assemblage of international artists Rachel Berwick, Sarina Brewer, Walmor Corrêa, Mark Dion, Sean Foley, Joan Fontcuberta, Ellen Lesperance, Robert Marbury, Jill Miller, Vik Muniz, Jeanine Oleson, Rosamond Purcell, Alexis Rockman, Marc Swanson, Jeffrey Vallance, and Jamie Wyeth in a provocative exhibition provides us with a fascinating cross section of multi-dimensional artists whose musings reveal the boundless nature of contemporary art at the beginning of the 21st century.

An exhibition environment such as this offers alternative authorities, complex layers, and multiple stories—all serving to smudge the borders and neat delineations of natural history, art, and mythology—and demands a book with range. In this series of essays, we are guided through or led into controversial subject matter by an anthropologist, a cryptozoologist, an art historian, two curators, and an artist to explore and consider a range of issues (presented, represented, or re-presented by the artists) that challenge, among other things, facets of the history of science while, at times, vigilantly defending the theory of evolution. Rivaling the passions and convictions of the artists included in the exhibition, the authors are equally fascinated by the social framing of science, myth, and natural history and the possibility of rethinking the relationships between time, place, and scale through art and science.

Reigning in cryptozoology’s tendency to blur the boundaries between science and pseudoscience, anthropologist Loring Danforth provides, through a discussion of Bigfoot, a critical analysis of the ramifications of undermining science, while acknowledging the importance of a healthy critique of authority. As popular culture continues to erode the distinction between fact and fiction, Danforth worries that the degradation of science provides ideologues with ammunition to question evolutionary theory while propagandizing for Intelligent Design. Like many of the artists in the exhibition, he is interested in why myths such as Bigfoot exist and why we persist in exploring the irrational.

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman lends a privileged insider’s view of key events and figures, providing an excellent history of cryptozoology. Moving from Charles Fort, Bernard Heuvelmans, and Ivan T. Sanderson to Coleman himself, and on to Fortean philosophy and definitions of cryptozoology, we learn about the fascinating characters who pioneered interests otherwise neglected, marginalized, and dismissed by mainstream science and natural history. Coleman also reveals to us a defining moment for cryptozoology when, in 1812, the “father of paleontology” Baron George Cuvier stated that “there is little hope of discovering new species of large animals.” Not surprisingly, Coleman rises, as generations of cryptozoologists before him, to the ongoing challenge posed by Cuvier’s statement. He proceeds to outline a lineage of cryptid discoveries made in the ensuing years and sets forth his own vision for the field.

Art historian Chris Thompson delves into the legacy of Charles Fort and his influence on contemporary art and philosophy. In discussing Fort’s 1919 book The Damned, Thompson pinpoints the relationship between artistic research and cryptozoology.

The great researcher Charles Fort of anomalous phenomena writes of the curious and sometimes acrobatic ends to which early modern science was prepared to go in order to explain the existence of meteorites. During an era in which it was generally inconceivable that material found on earth could have its origin elsewhere, the fact of the meteorite—seemingly proof positive of extraterrestrial input—had to be laboriously reframed by responsible scientists as a freakish accident: lightning striking a particular earthly metal under precisely the right conditions, that sort of thing.

Of course evidence only exists in relation to the paradigm that makes it visible; over time enough maverick voices, combining empirical evidence with the theoretical frameworks in which to make it intelligible, produce a shift in scientific convention that lets the fact of the meteorite come to count as reality instead of speculation, outright invention, heresy, or, worse, nonsense.

This Fortean space at the margins of mainstream inquiry is where the fields of artistic research and cryptozoology encounter one another.

Thompson’s essay continues the discussion with Coleman and some of the artists in the exhibition. For example we learn that Fort’s significance for artist Alexis Rockman is undermined by an oscillation between science and pseudoscience, creating doubt over the scientific method. In the current era, the reality of global warming could very well lead to ecological disaster, and this matter is at the heart of Rockman’s artistic practice and key to Loring Danforth’s argument.

Film/video curator Dave Filipi offers a wonderful description of the power of film to encourage responses to the irrational and impossible (a relative term as we move further into the biological millennium). In The Lost World dinosaurs are found to still exist in an outpost isolated from “civilization,” and the premise of Jurassic Park is “what if we could bring dinosaurs back.” If The Lost World was the first film to encourage a mass audience to wonder about the possibility of dinosaurs still existing, then the reality of cloning came alive in Jurassic Park. As a genre, dinosaur films have spawned a host of other films—of cryptids and of natural disasters—and the question “what if” is consistently posed. This “what if” is at the heart of cryptozoology and a common currency among all the works of art in the exhibition.

Maverick curator Nato Thompson points out in his essay The Call of the Wild that “with modernism’s increasing focus on the human condition and the image itself, the metaphoric potential of the animal disappeared.” Thompson makes us wonder if the prevalence of animal imagery in contemporary art is a reaction to modernism and/or a symptom of a new period of thought at the new millennium that is interested in metaphor, symbolism, and the apocalypse. Or, is it because a new breed of artists like Mark Dion see their work as not so much about nature but rather about “the manner in which we represent nature”? Clearly the focus is turning toward a concern for the treatment of nature/environment and, even more so, the question of what “nature” is and how “nature” is represented. Thompson cites many exhibitions and numerous contemporary artists who are at the forefront of this philosophical (and artistic) discourse. There is a belief that this area of questioning, rethinking, and presentation has major implications for our planet and the evolving (or devolving) relationship between humankind and nature. Thompson also introduces us to an important recurrent theme ever present throughout this project when he comments on current trends, saying that the “emergence of the animal has paralleled the renewed interest in the Wunderkammer [curiosity cabinet].”

As a leading co-conspirator in the project’s development, a participating artist, and essayist, Sean Foley inserts a unique perspective on visual analysis through his practice and interest in cryptozoology. Venturing into literary terrain that encapsulates all the essays, these philosophical writings reveal the project’s fascination with the relationship between the “subjective” and the “visual” and discusses art, myth, science, and the Wunderkammer in light of Francis Bacon and Bruno Latour. In terms of the “subjective” we learn:

Art, myth, and, in this case, cryptozoology exist as a hub for emotional, sensual, and provocatively idiosyncratic “what ifs” and experiential open-ended symbolic images. This is the value of the arts: total immersion in subjectivity and a collective safe harbor for experimental, thoroughly considered intellectual constructions.
In terms of the “visual,” he states:

The dependence on visual similarities and “typing” that cryptozoology uses to qualify its ideas runs dangerously close to problematic 19th-century practices. Under the pretense of science, stereotyped judgments of a person’s race, class, mental health, or aptitude are based on facial features or unusual physical, visual, behaviors. Cryptozoology introduces ideas relating to representation, but avoids using the tools of representation and that often results in fetishizing their subject. In the interest of being considered zoologically legitimate, many cryptozoologists tolerate slightly anomalous data, problematic eyewitness narratives, and ambiguous specimens. Rather than targeting or acknowledging the unscientific methods used to imagine an explanation—symbol, simile, metaphor—they fold everything into their narrative and it becomes a fetish. At best, this tendency can only yield analogies that are generative within the arts and, ironically, not in the scientific community they are trying to convince.

It is clearly a tightrope of meaning where one can easily slip between realms of myth and science and fall into the dangerous and fantastical. This situation is made most evident in the Wunderkammer, which terrified Francis Bacon, who desperately wanted science to move away from the subjective. It is interesting that the Wunderkammer is the spine of the visual and philosophical presentation of the exhibition because it also provides a critique of the museum’s tendency toward linear explanations and authority of classification and taxonomical systems.

So it should be no surprise when Foley explains:

The cultural and scientific production of cryptozoology is most analogous to the Wunderkammer. The culture and prevailing intellectual climate during the 17th-century heyday of the curiosity cabinet was enthralling, stimulating, and logical in a visual sense. Although this often precluded scientific method, it did allow a more intuitive, subjective, and humanistic means of understanding without sacrificing the sense of wonder that propels the curiosityto make or collect.

“Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale” has since its inception. At the heart of the project is a desire to revisit and recreate aspects of the visceral and intellectual experience of wonder, recalling the sense of discovery and awe elicited by an encounter with a Wunderkammer, a curiosity cabinets of a bygone era.

There is also a strategy of exploring (with equal parts nostalgia, respect, and critique) the shifting strategies and methodologies of the museum institution and its evolving mission(s)—with their varying collection and interpretive strategies focused on natural and cultural history, science, art, or specific bodies of knowledge. The museological practices of agenda, process, and goals examined by the Institutional Critique art movement of the past twenty years serve to acknowledge the shortcomings of certain past and present practices, for example the problematic relationship between the Wunderkammer and standard scientific methods, or the paradigm shifts of exhibition design revealed by the rapid replacement of taxidermy and diorama environments with new technologies and multimedia presentations. The focus on these issues and their impact on their respective disciplines, and on the experience and perceptions of the museum visitor (the consumer of information), has inspired this project to be a productive environment for debate and further inquiry.

Perhaps the most complex challenge embedded in the project was the attempt to foster a dialogue and, ultimately, collaboration between multiple divergent elements. An exercise that began with considering, on one level, the collusion of art and science and pseudoscience, for example, was transformed into a dynamic convergence of paths representing many perspectives, many disciplines, and wildly different experiences, qualifications, and expertise. Arguably, something valuable was gained through the sharing of each unique and individual viewpoint and the results have been acknowledged, embraced, and integrated wherever and however possible.
We convened to explore cryptozoology because of its rich plethora of parallel themes, ideas, and a wide-ranging cross-section of inspirational sources, much of which is further explored and contextualized in Mark Bessire’s essay Alternative Authorities and the Museum of Wonder. Herein, we find a taxonomical approach of sorts that considers the similarities and differences of the artists and gathers them into three loose groupings—Artists, Adventurers, and Environmentalists; History of Science, Taxonomy, Dioramas, and Museum Display; and Pop Culture, Myth, Spectacle, and Fraud for more focused topical consideration.

As Bessire’s essay begins, he states that “cryptozoology is a fascinating zone of inquiry for contemporary artists interested in the fertile margins of the history of science and museums, taxonomy, myth, spectacle, and fraud.” And so, rather than engaging in efforts to prove or disprove anything, we follow the lead of the artists in “Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale,” urged by their plea to make an imaginative leap of faith, consciously choosing to explore new or different realms of possibility.

In 1812, Cuvier’s statement “there is little hope of discovering new species” suggested an imperative toward the suspension of belief and wonder, urging a move away from contemplating the unknown, the unfeasible, the impossible. In 2006, we are facing a vastly different milieu, somewhat plagued by a weariness of absolute certainties, fatigue from information overload, and concerns over the impact of rapid advances in technology, development, and progress. Perhaps there is a possible, albeit temporary, antidote suggested by the artists in this exhibition and throughout the pages of this catalog: to consider the suspension of disbelief and to favor more engagement with wonder, speculation, and wishful thinking.

How can the mysteries and process of the museum exhibition be revealed while searching for a return to the sources of wonder? The curators hope this project will begin to make new discoveries and pose questions that will help foster an agenda for museums in the
21st century.