Geek Beat: Confessions of a Non-Artist

Weird things happen when you introduce artists to a natural history museum and ask them to create works to interact with the established exhibits within. Case in point: the Harvard Museum of Natural History’s recent “Bizarre Animals 2.0” event.

Consider it a warm-up of geekery to the Cambridge Science Festival, but with one big difference: “Bizarre Animals 2.0” catered as much (if not more) to artists as it did to the science buffs. In fact, this was just about the only night of the year in which the museum — with all of its taxidermied anteaters, beetle collections and a 42-foot long Kronosaurus — drew an art crowd.

I went for the science: the program description promised experiments and demonstrations, among other things, and I’d been looking for a good excuse to stop by for some time. But it wasn’t what I expected — in fact, though it took me the full two and a half hours to fully understand the installations — it was better.

A still from Maher and Langan's Animus project. Image courtesy of Michael Langan

Fifteen artists, designers, filmmakers and architects presented their works that night. Projects ranged from interactive scavenger hunts to fish tank mazes, and at least one camouflaged artist, whom I actually never found. Harvard student Mac McAnulty camped out among the frozen ungulates of the African Mammals exhibit with a mixed-media animation of 19th century photographer-scientist Eadweard Muybridge’s horse in gallop sequence — both re-affirming the question of the ‘flying horse’, and exploring the difference between what our eyes assume to be true and what technology proves otherwise.

Animator Terah Maher paired up with filmmaker Michael Langan to create what was easily my favorite exhibit of the evening: an entrancing, two-minute film made with shots of human motion inside the museum, each layered and condensed frame upon frame upon frame until the humanoid became alien — more insect or sea creature than man. It was truly unearthly, but it captured perfectly what every presentation strove to do that night — exploiting the pregnant energy inherent to a museum filled with the lovely dead.

“Bizarre Animals 2.0” hosted hundreds of visitors that and was a true success for the museum. But it was also, very sadly, a one-night-only affair. It’s likely the event may roll around again this time next year. And when it does: go.

After all, as I said: I went for the science — but I stayed for the art.