Exploring the science & mystery of a whale fall

Whales may be the largest animals on earth, but what happens after they die still remains something of a mystery: even the name given to their deaths — “whale fall” — evokes a sense of the unknowable. But the latest Fine Arts graduate student to be named Artist-in-Residence with Ocean Networks Canada is seeking to both explore and de-mystify the unique relationship between a descending whale carcass and the countless species that will spend decades feeding on the biomass.

“Imagine you build a new apartment building and various people live there as it ages and eventually falls apart,” notes current Department of Writing MFA candidate Neil Griffin. “That’s what happens with a whale carcass: various scavengers and decomposers move in and out . . . there are even worms that take hundreds of years to burrow single-mindedly through a thick whale vertebrae to get to the marrow inside.”

ONC’s latest artist-in-residence 

As the fourth Artist-in-Residence (AIR) with Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) — a continuing partnership with Faculty of Fine Arts graduate students that has engaged previous AIRs Colin Malloy (School of Music), Dennis Gupa (Theatre) and Colton Hash (Visual Arts) — Griffin will be fusing the creative with the scientific in a series of lyric essays titled Whale Fall, which will explore the ecological stages of whale decomposition from its last breath to its incorporation into the deep-sea ecoscape.

Fortuitously, Griffin’s proposal also lines up with ONC’s own multi-year project, Life After Death: Whale-fall Succession and Bone Decomposition Under Varying Oceanographic Conditions. Led by staff scientist Fabio De Leo, one part of this project will see a whale carcass deployed in 2025 at 890 metres off Vancouver Island under low-oxygen conditions, where it will be continuously monitored for three years with high resolution video and sensors.

“It’s a fairly new field, but some of the best minds thinking about it are right here,” notes Griffin.

Talking about science

Griffin — a trained biologist who spent a decade with the University of Calgary studying wildlife in the likes of Belize, Honduras and East Africa — sees a direct connection between his previous fieldwork and his current graduate work. His MFA thesis, for example, is The Museum of Ruin, a SSHRC-funded book-length essay exploring the biological and human history of extinction. The Tyee also recently published his essay, The Riddle of the Monkey Puzzle Tree, a fascinating conjunction of history, colonialism and natural science.

“All of my writing comes out of the tenants of wildlife biology: being the observer, trying to synthesize what you see together with what you think afterwards,” he explains. “These two fields of knowledge that we keep so far apart have at their shared core the same interest in raising up the depths and exploring the unknown—be that the psyche for the arts or the natural world for the sciences. When I saw there was a residency looking for that, it seemed right up my alley.”

Indeed, Griffin sees his ONC Whale Fall project as a natural extension of his thesis. “There’s enough connection for it to be relevant: the deep sea is also threatened by our incessant extractive activities, so there’s a lot of overlap in thought and material.”

New project, old interest

Griffin has been fascinated with the idea of whale falls since he first ran across mention of the phenomenon at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre during his biological studies.

“I was looking through some journals and found these grainy, almost horror-footage photos of whale falls,” he recalls. “There were pictures of a decomposing whale carcass on the ocean floor and the weird, weird animals that were eating it: hagfish, lampreys . . . these bizarre denizens of the depths that have adapted to this incomprehensibly difficult ecosystem to live in. They’re just waiting for this bounty . . . every time a whale fall comes down to them, this desert-like environment becomes a major hotspot of activity by a massive community of animals.”

While human history is inextricably connected to the oceans, Griffin notes that all we traditionally know of the deep sea is what got “spat up” on the shores. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that we started to literally look deeper into the oceans, an exploration ONC continues to this day.

Knowing the unknown

“I’ve always been interested in our relationship with the unknowable,” he notes. “What’s going on down there? It’s deep and dark and cold and mysterious and frightening . . . but also exciting. It’s such a rich vein of human imagination, and the lyric essay is a useful form for exploring all that. As a hybrid form of essay and poem, it allows me to combine a whole bunch of voices, which will give me a way to include not only science and interviews but also weave in ideas about the history and representation of the deep sea.”

Ultimately, Griffin feels his Whale Fall project is an ideal opportunity for him. “It’s a different skill set to talk about science than it is to do science. How do I make this into something people can latch onto, that makes them both excited and interested?”

He pauses and offers something of a mysterious smile. “I don’t know exactly what that would look like, but I’m excited by the possibilities of finding out.”

Follow Neil Griffin on Twitter: @prairielorax

The Artist-in-Residence program is a partnership between UVic’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Ocean Networks Canada, with additional financial support provided by the Faculty of Science and the University of VIctoria’s Office of Research Services. This continuing program strengthens connections between art and science that broaden and cross-fertilize perspectives and critical discourse on today’s major issues, such as environment, technology, oceans, cultural and biodiversity, and healthy communities. This program is open to all current University of Victoria graduate students who have completed most of their course requirements in the Faculty of Fine Arts with practice in any visual, written, musical or performance media. The next call for artists will be in Fall 2023.

Sound Genres explore sound as foundational practice

Paul Walde’s Glacial 

The School of Music will be exploring sound as a foundational practice with Sound Genres, a special multimedia symposium running May 26-28 and funded in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

More than just an academic symposium, however, the event —which is free and open to the public — will also feature an opening sound installation by Visual Arts professor Paul Walde on Friday night, a public performance featuring nine musicians on Saturday night, and a special commissioned Sound Walk on Sunday afternoon featuring artist-in-residence Tiess McKenzie and Kristy Farkas, the School of Music’s concert manager.

“If you go to a music department at a university, most often it’s classical music,” says organizer and Music professor Anthony Tan in this interview with the Nexus newspaper. “You have to know musical notation, you’re often playing orchestral instruments, and so what we’re looking at is how this study of sound from these perspectives can actually inform how we teach music in university, and how we can become more inclusive about these practices as well.”

Expect discussions to focus on the complicated relationship between “sound” and “music” on the one hand, and the tension between increasing globalized sound genres and the culturally-specific meanings felt by listeners and practitioners on the other.

“I think a lot of people have very diverse definitions of what music is,” says Tan. “If you listen to the sounds of the environment, it’s also music in a way, and our conference is about questioning that notion about what is music versus what is sound.”

About the symposium

Conceived and organized by Tan and fellow Music professor Joe Salem plus Postdoctoral Fellow Taylor Brook and PhD candidate Sean Kiley, Sounds Genres will explore electronically mediated sound and music genres in both academic settings (sound art, soundscape, electroacoustic etc.) and popular contexts (EDM, ambient, techno etc.).

Artists, musicologists, anthropologists, and other participants from across Canada will convene to share their artistic and scholarly work with a focus on how these diverse sound genres intersect and how they may be critically engaged to revise curriculums in higher education both inside and outside of music departments.

Special guests

All of the events at Sound Genres stress social connections between real people, but as artists, scholars, and practitioners, we also embrace the irony that some of our most intimate, personal, and physiological experiences are those mediated by creative artistic practices. For this reason, the symposium also includes sound installations, a sound walk, an evening practicum performance, a curated, ears-on library exhibit, and practical demonstrations of sonic applications in the classroom — all of which you can read more about here.

Friday night’s Sound Installation and reception in the Visual Arts building will feature work by Paul Walde (Glacial), Jan Swinburne (Internet Songlines), Michael Trommer (Ancient Thoughts & Electric Buildings) and Annie Dunning (House on Fire).

Saturday’s “Sound as Witness, Sound as Truth” session will feature UVic Associate Librarian Ry Moranexploring the long histories of Indigenous music as a source of resistance, resurgence and political power, alongside a live performance and dialogue with Nehithaw (Cree)-Dené and Michif (Métis) storyteller Zoey Roy.

Saturday evening’s concert will feature the likes of Hildegard Westerkamp, Rachel Iwaasa, Matthew Haussman, Sean Kiley, Zosha Di Castri, Jane Chan, Paula Matthusen, Terri Hron and Tina Pearson.

Sunday’s keynote will feature University of Toronto speaker Eliot Britton on “Supporting Creative Hybrids: Bridging Diverse Practices Through Music Technology”.

Throughout the Symposium, you’ll also be able to enjoy the “Musical Mutant Machines” on display in the School of Music, which were created by Monkey C Interactive’s David Parfit and Department of Writing MFA alum Scott Amos.

The final event will be the commissioned Sound Walk featuring Tiess McKenzie’s participatory multimediaexperience across the UVic campus, followed by Kristy Farkas’ live performance of selections from her work “Songs For Tree”, which takes you outside in nearby Finnerty Gardens.

Please bring your own mobile devices and (wired) headphones to experience this element of the piece.

Find full details and speaker biographies here

Visual Arts professor’s work in new Metallica video

Kelly Richardson’s original pieces and how they appear in the Metallica video

What happens when “suitably apocalyptic” art by an internationally acclaimed, environmentally focused digital artist appears in the official video for the new Metallica album title track, “72 Seasons”?

If you’re UVic visual arts professor Kelly Richardson, you hope it’s an opportunity to use this format as another way to spread your environmental message.

“I love it when contemporary art breaches popular culture in this way: it’s really important to get my work out to as many people as possible . . . not that Metallica is taking to the stage and talking about my concepts,” Richardson laughs.

But with over 3 million views on the official video in the 7 days since it dropped on March 30, Richardson says she’s been watching some of the “72 Seasons” reaction videos online and has noted that people seem to be remarking on what she describes as her “suitably apocalyptic” visuals.

“For me, it’s about engaging the public in bigger conversations about where we’re all heading,” she says. “There is potential for people to look up the work, see what it’s really about and possibly influence the wider public that way.”

Visual Arts professor Kelly Richardson

Art that reflects our impact on the landscape

One of the world’s leading digital artists specializing in creating video installations of rich and complex landscapes using manipulated CGI, animation and sound, Richardson takes her cues from 19th century painting, 20th century cinema and 21st century scientific inquiries. Her practice offers imaginative views and constructions of the future that are plausible enough to prompt careful consideration of the present.

A passionate environmental artist whose work often reflects the human impact on the natural landscape, Richardson firmly believes that artists are equally equipped as scientists to motivate the need for change in our thinking of — and relationship with — the environment.

The use of cutting-edge imaging and video technologies is an appropriate means to do this, bridging fiction/real and present/future. Underpinning her research is a critical and often collaborative engagement with scientists (including NASA), philosophers and writers whose work engages with issues related to climate change.

Metallica is a good match for Richardson’s “suitably apocalyptic” imagery

“A sense of awe that mirrored the sonically heavy sound of Metallica”

Explaining that her work wasn’t actually made for specifically Metallica, Richardson says the piece “Halo”  would normally be seen in large-scale gallery installations but in this case was projected behind the band during filming. “There’s an eclipse In ‘Halo’ and at one point you actually see [guitarist] James Hetfield inside the eclipse,” Richardson says in this April 7 interview with CBC Radio’s As It Happens.“That’s my favourite moment in the video.”

As noted in the CBC story, “72 Seasons” director Tim Saccenti and visual art curator Dina Chang thought Richardson’s art resonated with what they were trying to accomplish. “Aside from being longtime fans of her work, we both felt Kelly’s pieces had a particular kind of monumental grandeur, a sense of awe, that mirrored the sonically heavy sound of Metallica,” Saccenti said in an email to CBC. “There’s a primal unease to her pieces that cuts to your core.”

See the As It Happens story to read more about the filming of the Metallica video and how the video’s 100-person creative and technical team went “silent in respect” when Richardson’s work was projected. “It was a perfect mix of spectacle and emotion, creating a near mythological environment to capture the band in,” says Saccenti.

Following the As It Happens piece, Richardson’s story was subsequently reported on both CBC News and CBC Music sites, as well as individual interviews with the Times Colonist, CTV (local and national) and iHeart Radio; it was also picked up by The Zone radio station, Capital DailyGalleries WestUVic’s Campus Checklist, Canadian Art Junkie and it appeared on a number of reposting sites like FlipboardIG NewsNewstralSpoutiblePiPa NewsNews-24.frCanadianNewsMedia.caOneNewsPageHer-News.comTOPNews.media and the West Observer, among others.           

A worldwide platform

With current exhibits on now in the UK & Montreal, and shows just recently closed in Belgium & LA, Richardson’s work is designed to be digitally exhibited at galleries on screens — but when the April 13 72 Seasons worldwide listening party hits theatres for one night only, it will be the first time her imagery will appear simultaneously across the globe.

Richardson happily admits she was “a huge Metallica fan” in her early 20s, and says she’s pretty blown away by the whole thing. “The young version of me can’t quite get my head around my work being in their music video!”

Both Metallica video director Tim Saccenti and visual art curator Dina Chang had used digital versions of work by other artists in previous videos and have been following (and collecting) Richardson’s work for some time, so they approached her about exclusively using three of her pieces — “Halo” (2021) + “Origin Stories” & “Origin Stories (AR) (2023)” — in this particular video.

Not that it’s the first time her work has meshed with rock music: she appeared on stage at 2022’s Rifflandia music festival in Victoria as part of the team behind Visual Arts MFA Rande Cook’s Awinakola: Tree of Life research group.

Richardson’s work projected onto the Metallica set (Image: Setta Studio)

Inspired by Awi’nakola

As seen here on the set of the Metallica video, each floating “diamond” in Richardson’s “Origin Stories” represents an extinct species. “These are complex life forms which took 4 billion years to evolve & which we are losing at a terrifying rate,” she says.

As well being beautiful to look at, Richardson’s art is intended to foster conversations about the continuing loss of complex life. “In my practice, I’ve explored many ideas which illustrate anxieties about where we’re heading as a species in relation to climate change,” she says. 

This piece in particular is inspired by her work with Awi’nakola Foundation, a collective of artists, scientists and Indigenous knowledge keepers who are working towards the preservation and restoration of BC’s old-growth forests, which are some of the last primary forests on the planet. 

Together with Visual Arts professor Paul Walde, Audain professor Lindsay Delaronde, MFA alum Rande Cook and more than 35 others, Richardson is working collectively to build a better future for generations to come. Through galleries, museums and unexpected projects like the Metallica video, the Awi’nakola Project is making a difference by securing exhibitions in locations where the government is known to purchase by-products of old growth trees.

Christopher Butterfield marks retirement with new album

Forget the gold watch: noted composer and longtime School of Music professor Christopher Butterfield is marking his UVic retirement with the March 31 release of his latest album, Souvenir. Performed by longtime musical collaborators Aventa Ensemble, the 70-minute Souvenir (Redshift Records) features four never-before-recorded large chamber pieces.

“Each piece was originally commissioned by a different ensemble in the country over a 20-year span—it’s like I’m doing my own musicology here,” chuckles Butterfield. “These have only ever been played live, and there’s a very singular reason why we could record them at all: Bill Linwood’s Aventa Ensemble. They have the capability of playing what is some fairly gnarly music, because they’re extraordinary players and they can do anything . . . in terms of musicianship and virtuosity, I’ll put this record up against anything, anywhere.”

Indeed, as this review of Souvenir notes, “[Butterfield’s] melodic material appears at first to be innocuous, or casually beguiling, but as his instrumental lines merge into each other they refuse to coalesce into a unified statement and as they continue to politely bicker amongst themselves the listener is kept constantly on edge, hoping for a resolution that may or may not arrive.”

Butterfield is particularly proud of the fact that the four epic tracks on Souvenir—1995’s “Souvenir” (21 minutes), 2001’s “Port Bou” (19 minutes) plus 2012’s “Frame” and 2013’s “Parc” (both 14 minutes)—are entirely BC-made, from the producing, recording and engineering right down to the CD’s design and manufacturing. Even the performers are all BC-based, with the sole exception of vibraphone player Rick Sacks, who guests on “Parc”—and was also part of Butterfield’s early-’80s Toronto-based new wave band Klo.

Wonderous & peculiar?

Souvenir’s promotional material notes that Butterfield “has long centred the wondrous and peculiar” in his diverse catalogue of work that “spans the accessible to the absurd”. Does he feel that’s an apt description?

 “I don’t think I go out of my way to be ‘wonderous and peculiar’, but if that’s the way the music sounds, that’s fine, I’m glad there’s a story there,” he says. “I am very interested in harmony: I like to set things up and see what happens. Quite often it’ll appear to be a bunch of noise and then you’ll hear something that sounds very familiar, like a little coincidence. All music is heard in context of itself, so if a harmonic line jumps out, you hear it in terms of what you just heard and that will colour what you’re about to hear next.”

While Butterfield has been teaching composition at UVic since 1992, he first circled the Ring Road to study under renowned composer Rudolf Komorous and earn his Bachelor of Music in 1975, and has since helped launch the careers of a new generation of acclaimed composers like Anna Höstman, Cassandra Miller and Daniel Brandes.

“We’ve had a remarkable 40-plus years of building a reputation for composers who are looked at as rather remarkable . . . and nobody’s quite sure why,” he says. “Is it something in the water? Is it island life? Victoria has an extremely rich musical and cultural environment, but we’re also sort of disconnected and have to make everything up ourselves.”

Beauty in simplicity

Despite now having “at least” six albums behind him, Butterfield still has a back-catalogue of work—including a chamber ensemble, opera and “maritime ballet”—that has been performed live to great acclaim but never recorded. But he’s particularly pleased to see these four complex pieces released as a Souvenir set. “In terms of all these pieces, I don’t think I would ever write anything like them again,” he muses. “I’m afraid this is what happens as you get older: there’s a tendency towards simplicity—you realize you can do quite a lot with not very much.”

Ironically, that’s one thing he’s learned from his students. “Because I’ve taught the first-year composition course for years, I can see myself doing more with less. I had one student last year who wrote a piece that seemed to have absolutely nothing there . . . but when I played it back to myself, I remember thinking, ‘Gee, I wish I could write something like that.’ It was absolutely simple—but no less expressive because of that.”

Click here to listen to the track “Parc” from Christopher Butterfield’s Souvenir. You can purchase the album in both digital & CD here via Bandcamp. 

Symposium explores Gendered Threads of Globalization

Who makes our clothing? How has the shift from artisanal production to “fast fashion” over the last 150 years devalued women’s textile labor in Asia? How are heritage textile/garment traditions across Asia being preserved and revived by laborers and the organizations that support them?

Hosted by Art History & Visual Studies professor Melia Belli Bose, Gendered Threads of Globalization: 20th century Textile Crossings in Asia Pacific (GToG) united scholars, activists and artists from across North America, Asia and Europe for a three-day symposium dedicated to these issues in March 2023 . . . after twice being delayed due to the pandemic.  

The free GToG events included discussion panels, a screening of Cathy Stevulak’s award-winning documentary THREADS and a textile-based performance by visual artist Monica Jahan Bose.

Organizer Belli-Bose was interviewed ahead of the event by CBC Radio’s All Points West (sadly, the interview was only live and not archived online) and was featured in this article which ran in India’s Telegraph newspaper.

“We hosted approximately 30 scholars, artists and textile experts from various countries in Asia, Europe and North America,” Belli-Bose told the Telegraph. “I conceived this conference to unite those working with heritage textile study, revival, and preservation in different Asian cultures. We focused on women’s roles as textile makers, cultural stewards, activists working for recognition and safe working conditions, and designers. The gendered angle is rooted in the fact that women have always had an integral role in textile production, from sericulture in East Asia to making nakshi kanthas in Bengal and phulkaris in Punjab to indigo in Southeast Asia.”

A scene from Cathy Stevulak’s documentary THREADS

About GToG

Gendered Threads of Globalization: 20th c. Textile Crossings in Asia gathered specialists from a range of academic disciplines and artistic/artisanal practices to discuss intersections of gender, textiles/garments/fashion, labour and heritage across Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Japan, and the diaspora) during the long 20th century (ie: late 19th century to present).

GToG participants investigated topics like

  • heritage textiles/garments—their demise and revival
  • gendered labor in the fashion industry
  • confluences of identity (regional, communal, ethnic, religious), domesticity and agency
  • activist art that critiques the global garment industry
  • the evolution, consumption, appropriation and display of heritage textiles/garments.

Keynote address

Friday’s keynote speech featured Ashoka Fellow Judy Frater on “Threads of Identity in Kutch 2022: Gender, Value, Creativity and the Marketplace” (4:20pm in Fine Arts 103). Judy Frater is steeped in the world of contemporary textiles of Kutch, India. Residing in Kutch for 30 years, she co-founded and operated Kala Raksha, a cooperative for women embroiderers, established the Kala Raksha Textile Museum, founded Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya. the first design school for traditional artisans, and reinvented the school as Somaiya Kala Vidya.

A scene from Monica Jahan Bose’s WRAPture

Live performance

Sunday’s live performance featured the work of Orion Visiting Artist Monica Jahan Bose, a Bangladeshi-American artist and activist whose work spans painting, film, photography, printmaking, performance, and interdisciplinary projects.

Her short film, WRAPture: A Public Art Project was also screened at the event, and was followed by a live textile-based performance in the lobby of UVic’s David Lam Auditorium.

WRAPture follows a climate justice art project from Washington DC’s low-income Anacostia neighborhood to Barobaishdia—a remote Bangladeshi island on the frontlines of climate change—as Jahan Bose leads a dozen women farmers and over 200 Washingtonians to co-create 65 climate-themed saris, which wrap five Washington buildings. While they work on the saris, the participants recite poetry, sing, and dance, creating a trans-border community. The film includes rare footage and testimony of the impacts of climate change on coastal women farmers and the power of art to bring about change.

Orion Series presents Josh Tengan

The Orion
Lecture Series in Fine Arts

Through the generous support of the Orion Fund in Fine Arts, the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Victoria, is pleased to present:

Josh Tengan

Visiting curator 

7:30pm (PST) Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Room A162, Visual Arts building + streaming online

Free & open to the public

Click here for the Zoom session 


Presented by UVic’s Department of Visual Arts  & Open Space Gallery

For more information on this lecture please email: visualarts@uvic.ca

Josh Tengan is a Honolulu-based contemporary art curator. He was the assistant curator of the second Honolulu Biennial 2019, To Make Wrong / Right / Now.

Join us for this free talk at 7:30pm Wed Jan 11 in the Visual Arts building room A162. You can also watch the talk live via Zoom.

About Josh Tengan

Josh Tengan is a curator and cultural producer from Pauoa, Kona, O’ahu, Hawai’i. He is a generational islander of Kānaka ‘Ōiwi, Ryu-kyuan, and Madeiran descent. His curatorial practice centers on art of Hawai’i
and Moananuiākea. Tengan currently serves as associate director for both Hawai’i Contemporary, the non-profit arts organization that presents the Hawai’i Triennial, as well as Pu’uhonua Society, one of Hawai’i’s oldest arts organizations.

Wayfinders, the ones we breathe with | January to October 2023

Throughout 2023, Open Space will present a series of exhibitions, residencies and events under the title Wayfinders, the ones we breathe with. Breathing together across the shared ocean in cultural, environmental and molecular exchange. Through the work of artists from coastal neighbours and nations across the Pacific Ocean, Wayfinders recalls ancient way finding practices utilizing the stars, wind, water and land markers to find paths across the sea and into the intertwined histories, practices, migrations and contemporary lives of adjacent homelands.

To begin the series, we are excited to welcome Honolulu-based curator Josh Tengan in residence at Open Space from January 26 to February 4, 2023. Josh will connect with folks involved in Tide Lines: Coastal Resistance of the 60s and 70s and the Indigenous Emerging Artist Program

Image to the right: Ihumātao, Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa. A growing occupation by Māori, especially the iwi of Māngere, and their allies to protect and conserve the whenua from a high‐cost housing development planned by Fletcher Building.


About the Orion Fund

Established through the generous gift of an anonymous donor, the Orion Fund in Fine Arts is designed to bring distinguished visitors from other parts of Canada—and the world—to the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Fine Arts, and to make their talents and achievements available to faculty, students, staff and the wider Greater Victoria community who might otherwise not be able to experience their work.

The Orion Fund also exists to encourage institutions outside Canada to invite regular faculty members from our Faculty of Fine Arts to be visiting  artists/scholars at their institutions; and to make it possible for Fine Arts faculty members to travel outside Canada to participate in the academic life of foreign institutions and establish connections and relationships with them in order to encourage and foster future exchanges.

Free and open to the public  |  Seating is limited (500 Zoom connections) |  Visit our online events calendar at www.events.uvic.ca