13 Ruth Marsh – Repairing Bees with Art


Speaker 1: From the Oregon State University Extension Service, this is Pollination, a podcast that tells the stories of researchers, land managers, and concerned citizens making bold strides to improve the health of pollinators. I'm your host, Dr. Adoni Melopoulos, assistant professor in pollinator health in the Department of Horticulture.

I'm so excited for this week's episode. It features Ruth Marsh, who's a multidisciplinary artist based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now, her work in general uses absurd and often comically deadpan narratives to address loss, absence, and longing in the context of living creatures and the natural world. And in today's episode, we talk about her work where she repairs bees. Bees that people from around Canada send to her studio and she does these very labor-intensive repairs using found objects like transistors and pieces of metal. One of the things that I really appreciated about this interview is an idea that Ruth brought up about how pollinator health, to be successful, would have to engage the public on many different levels.

And it really brought to my mind how artists, conservationists, scientists might be able to work together to broaden the scope of pollinator health and really engage in a more meaningful and deeper way with the public. I hope you really enjoy this episode. I certainly enjoyed talking with Ruth. And here we go with another episode of Pollination. I'm so excited to have Ruth Marsh on Pollination this week. Welcome, Ruth.

Speaker 2: Thanks for having me. I'm really excited to speak with you.

Speaker 1: Well, we're so thrilled. You're the first artist we've actually had on the show. And you're a real perfect fit for the show as listeners are going to hear a show about pollinator health. A significant part of your work focuses on the idea of repairing damaged bees or maybe better put breathing life back into these dead bees.

Just to begin with, to set it up for our listeners, keep trying to describe what your repaired bees look like and give us a little bit of insight as to how you make them. Sure.

Speaker 2: Yep. So, so I guess if you if you imagine what a cyborg bee might look like. So, so you just imagine a bee that has added on parts or where parts are missing. They've been replaced with pieces of discarded technology or jewelry. I use pretty much exclusively reclaimed and discarded materials. So, yeah, so it's so pieces of jewelry and technology for the most part. They have a little bit maybe of a cyberpunk kind of look to them. Yeah, does that answer your question?

Speaker 1: Yes, cyberpunk bees. This is great. And I'm getting an image. The listeners will have pictures, of course, on the show notes. But I'm what I'm picturing from the description is we have regular bee and then some additions put on. And these additions are these discarded pieces. What kind of pieces are you are you putting on the bees? Is it a sort of deliberate? You talked about a kind of steampunk aesthetic, but is there a deliberate selection of those materials? And what are you putting on the bees?

Speaker 2: Yeah, yeah. So often the pieces that I'm using are from found or donated materials. I tend to select things based on basically what what works best in terms of size and aesthetic. Often I like to use obsolete sound or audio equipment because they have a lot of small kind of jewel like beautiful resistors and copper wires and parts like that.

Speaker 1: That's really interesting. Is there and you know, when you look at the pieces, when you look at your pieces, your the bees, they look jewel like they look like they really have been adorned. But some of some of these materials are not jewelry like they are resistors and transistors or whatever these electronic components are. Why why those materials?

Speaker 2: So I guess maybe to back up a little bit, how I have an ongoing call for people to send me bees in the mail. So I receive them on an ongoing basis and and and it's it's a project that is based around the idea of repairing, basically offering a solution to the bee problem by repairing the bees one at a time and what better way to do that than to than to use, you know, discarded technology. So they they tend to look the way they do just based on the materials that I have on hand and I have at this point a nice bank of just technology that I that I have around that that have parts that have the right kind of size and aesthetic for the bees.

Speaker 1: And I was viewing some of your more recent work where you've used stop motion animation to literally make these bees come to life. And I found it really remarkable. You get a really distinct feeling that these bees are kind of mysterious or maybe even a lost group of creatures from a past time. They've got very peculiar lives. What was the what did you have in mind when you were making the stop motion animation? What did you kind of imagine the backstory behind these strange beings was?

Speaker 2: Yeah, well, stop motion is is a very painstaking process where you're moving actual objects, might needly many thousands of times to get just a few minutes of footage. And and when you're doing something like that, it's it's a pretty solitary pursuit and I definitely have had a lot about possible narratives, for sure. But what what was emerging in the last project that I was doing in terms of the narrative was this idea of my my character in my practice is is is an almost sort of Frankenstein kind of cyber naturalist to collect these bees one at a time and repairs them. But the repairs that are made are perhaps too large or maybe unsuitable for a bee to continue to go about its bee business in a in a kind of natural way.

So what what would happen while I was animating? I use actual honeycomb as as a set. And then there's added technology and the the bees move around in this environment. And what I was finding was as I was moving the bees and manipulating their limbs and having them walk around in this environment, the added technology was actually destroying the honeycomb as they were moving along and it kind of developed this this this narrative, at least in my own mind of the bees kind of after being repaired and brought back to life. Similarly to to Frankenstein, just trying to to to go about their regular business, but actually because of the enhancements where we're destroying their environment.

Speaker 1: So in a sense, the way when you look at the when you look at the stop motion animation, one thing that could you know, is that we're looking at Frankenstein's creations. And I guess in some ways that makes you a kind of Franken, Dr. Frankenstein of some sorts.

And that you're you're not what I expected. But so we're looking back. Remember reading in one of the catalog essays that it's in some sense looking back at something that happened in the past. There is this attempt to repair the bees and you get this feeling of something that has gone wrong retrospectively.

Speaker 2: Yeah, definitely. There are a number of different readings that I think folks can have looking at my work and certainly parts of it are perhaps dark and in the context of of a Frankenstein, a little bit ghoulish. But but I'm definitely coming at it from the point of view of a character that is well intentioned and genuinely trying to repair and preserve the bees. And part of that is that as I collect the bees, I'm thinking of it as as a museum for a future where there may or may not be any more bees. So these these cyborg bees will become a new reference for people in the future who may not have had an opportunity to see actual bees. So they're they're kind of they become sort of unfaithful coffee of what bees actually are.

Speaker 1: And I have to say for, you know, listeners who might think, oh, this work is really dark, it's very playful. The there is a way in which the bees destroy the comb, but they're just stunningly beautiful at on many levels. They had come in so many shapes and sizes and forms. And it does remind me. I think we had a episode a while back with Dr. Joseph Wilson, where he asked people, you know, how many different species of bees do you think there are in North America?

And they would underestimate by a large number. And the other kind of response that I I personally had to your work is that there is this great diversity of bees. You capture it. There's a wonderful kind of assortment of bees out there that you just need to take a look at. And I wonder if in some ways it's the kind of meticulous, careful work that you're paying attention to these bees that evokes that sense of diversity, that sense of a richness at the same time as it's reflecting back on bee decline itself.

Speaker 2: I hope so. I hope people take that away from from the work. And I certainly think about labor in my practice as as a as a kind of applied caring, as a as a kind of a loving practice, where where I'm spending many, many hours very carefully repairing the bees and very carefully replacing minute missing parts and trying trying to create that sort of memorial of them.

Making a sort of monumental memorial has has been a theme in my practice since the beginning. And yeah, I'm definitely hoping that that sort of care comes across in work.

Speaker 1: Well, I suppose in this kind of work, there's a lot of solitary sitting at a bench working on bees. But the other aspect of your work that you touched on earlier is this very social aspect where you're soliciting bees from the public and people who come across bees. Tell us a little bit more about that and some of the interesting conversations that have come out with people, because I understand that you have them submit a little story as well or have some response when they submit the bees. So tell us a little bit about the submission process and some of the experiences you've had.

Speaker 2: Oh, absolutely. OK. So when so it is a public interactive project. And over the last few years, I've received through the mail about 600 individual bees from different.

Speaker 1: 600 bees.

Speaker 2: I'm doing people in Canada. So so how people can and and I and I still collect bees and and continue and will continue to for my museum. But so what folks can do is connect with me via my Facebook community page, which is called May I Have Your Bees Please.

So people connect with me through the page and then they give me their mailing address. And then in the mail, I send them a bee kit, which includes a small box to put the bee in. And a set of instructions. There's a self-addressed stamped envelope.

I do include a small gift for people's time and trouble. And then there's a questionnaire that people can fill out. And so in in getting all of these bees in the mail, you definitely get a variety of responses. So, for example, I do occasionally receive bees from from beekeepers and it'll be a very technical, specific and almost certainly correct that the bee may have died. One of the questions on the questionnaire is how do you think the bee died? So so it'll be, you know, something like mold or mites that that I'll receive from from those ones. But quite often the bees will come from children. And one of my favorite responses of all time was that a child wrote that the bee had fallen on its back and was unable to get up and that's out died. So there's a variety of responses.

Speaker 1: All right, well, welcome back. We're here with Ruth Marsh and we're talking about artwork that she has been making for a number of years now around repairing bees. And I just want to come back and reflect on some past shows. You know, we've had a number of shows that have been focused on citizen science where non specialists are engaged in doing experiments or sensing for bee populations, really enriching experience for people. Now, you get people to find dead bees and send them to you for repair. I guess what comes to mind is that there are these overlapping, but maybe even distinct roles that scientists and artists and other people can take in engaging people around issues such as pollinator health. I want to hear you talk a little bit about what you think artists bring to issues of pollinator health that are distinct and, you know, ways that you know, what makes what makes it a particularly effective way of of a gauge of people

Speaker 2: Yeah, well, the things that what I try to do with my practice, specifically as it applies to this ongoing project is I try to create as many points of engagement for people to connect with the work and then also hopefully connect with the idea of pollinator health by extension.

Although I think art in itself is intrinsically valuable. I'm hoping to also with the way that I make my pieces and show my work, I try to have an aspect of connecting with with the non profits and universities and beekeepers and community organizations. But yeah, so so a part of the parts of my practice that are intentional that try to be engaging is to have a narrative built in and a sense of humor and and to try to do as high a tribute as possible to each individual be by making them as intricate and carefully constructed and hopefully as beautiful as possible. I hope that comes across in the work, but also by by having many by showing the work and having many multiples of of bees to hopefully try to impress upon visitors to an exhibition this sort of labor and time that goes into into the work. So if you are visiting an exhibition, you'll see there'll be several hundred of these individual bees and they'll be presented in glass betrines and and they're labeled. And then you can take a closer look and see that each of the bees are numbered and and you can take a look at a reference booklet and look up information that's come in with each of the bees. So so that kind of connects the idea of it being kind of a citizen science.

I definitely come at it from the point of an amateur scientist or naturalist. And and I also when I'm having an exhibition in lieu of an artist talk, I like to connect with people involved with bees in the community and have a panel discussion so that folks coming out to an artist talk can have tangible ways to react to the work that contribute to pollinator health. So, for example, when I showed the work in Calgary, I connected with Amber Yano, who's an artist and beekeeper. She has Maple Greenview Honey in Calgary, and she was able to talk about specific issues with pollinator health. And then in that same talk, Dr. Ralph Carter was there who works out of the University of Calgary and he was able to talk about specific ways that his specialty, I think, is Bumblebee Wing Ware. So it was interesting to see how his work can be defined and how we could have a conversation in public that hopefully people could take away an applied approach as well as, you know, connecting with the work on a poetic level.

Speaker 1: Well, I really love the idea of many points of contact. And I did I was really sad to miss that talk in Calgary because you all in some ways you all are talking about very similar things, Ralph, with regards to Wing Ware, the beekeeper with how to keep bees healthy and you having this other reflection on. on bees and sort of their damage. And I just wanted to ask, you know, the way that you were describing the show, it has a kind of Victorian science feel about it, like the age of when you had amateurs that were involved in botany, that were involved in collections. It's a really interesting motif because the, you know, the way that you approach this is both this aesthetic, almost jewelry making way of doing the repair, but also this looking back on very old science that, you know, when we think about science today, it's all blue and liquids and it doesn't look like the way that you, even the way that the descriptions are there, that this used to be a really important way that amateurs would communicate in terms of like details about natural history, which, you know, in some ways is in the past, I'm really interested in that whole dimension if you could talk a little bit about how you kind of came to that presentation style.

Speaker 2: Yeah, I think it definitely connects back to the idea of a museum and when I was initially making this work, I felt inspired by the idea of preserving, of imagining taxidermy specimens and then taking that to a micro scale and kind of pushing it to an absurd level. So part of the work is also the taxidermy process of each of the individual bees and if people are interested and I have an instructional video on how to have a bee so that we can definitely make that available with the show links.

Speaker 1: We definitely want to have one on the show notes.

Speaker 2: Excellent. So connecting the idea of museums as an institution reflecting truth, basically the truth of science and approaching that in a kind of absurdist and subtly critical way and then presenting the bees as meticulously and as carefully as you, I try to go into it imagining the exhibits that I see in my local museum of natural history. So, you know, often you see elaborate dioramas or just beautifully preserved, you know, large animals and I tried to take that approach and bring it down to a very, very small scale.

Speaker 1: There's so many layers to your work is, you know, you approach it and, you know, one thing that I really struck me about your work is that in some ways, there is a way of trying to repair the bees that is, seems like a task that's too big for the tools. And, you know, that the way that these bees are put together is both stunning and beautiful, but it also seems tragic. You know, the description you had earlier in the interview of how when in the stop motion animation, the bees end up destroying the comb.

So there's, you know, coming back to the 19th century and, you know, Frankenstein and the idea of, you know, things are just, you know, despite our best efforts, things will not turn out well. And I, it reminds me that we had an interview, I think it was an episode four with David Lohnstein, who was talking about creating, you know, habitat for bees in the city. And he sort of pointed out that that was good, but there really was this overwhelming effect of large scale land use change that would have to be addressed. And do you see your work in light of these kind of social issues of, you know, being able to confront these complex problems and having the kind of coming up against the wall? Does that, is that something that sort of motivates the work?

Speaker 2: Definitely, I think most people can agree that repairing dead bees one at a time is an impossible approach.

Speaker 1: I mean, and that's explicit. I mean, it's not as though anybody would be confused. You would see that and get that impression. Yeah, yeah.

Speaker 2: No, I don't expect. And so, so yeah, there's an aspect of humor in approaching things that way, but also in a tragedy of sort of maybe thinking about the futility of individual action. Although when I, when I heard episode four, I listened to it the other day and was really excited and encouraged by the idea of urban environments, perhaps being a positive space for bees in the diversity of the kinds of plants that they might encounter in an urban environment. So, but I think the narrative of my work has shifted a bit from the beginning of and making this work since 2011. And since then, there seems to be a really strong growing grassroots movement.

So many different organizations are spreading awareness and more and more people are available, are aware of issues faced by by pollinators. And so there's definitely a more hopeful aspect to my work. And I see the stop motion as perhaps a more hopeful narrative to insert, but at the same time, I definitely think that the issue probably, it may be uncermountable without large sort of policy approaches to the problem rather than it being individual efforts. So yeah, that is definitely an aspect of my work, sort of thinking about futility, but also hopefully hope.

Speaker 1: Well, and you know, the thing I really loved about that episode with David Lohenstein was the interactions, the kind of conversation, the unexpectedness that he, you know, when he actually took the trouble to venture into inner city Chicago, he found a whole lot of things there that he didn't expect to find. And there is a real quality in your work of that unexpectedness. Like there is a kind of way that one could just be tragic, but actually the bees are stunning. They're beautiful. The care and attention really makes the work dynamic in a way that, you know, when I think about David's conversation with homeowners, really we're unexpected.

Speaker 2: Yes, I loved his description of basically, yeah, doing surveys of what plants were in what on what properties and he encountered that older gentleman who was not maybe interested in taking part and reacted in a really, yeah, threatening but hilarious way. Yeah, had passion about it anyway.

Speaker 1: So just coming back to this, I think you've talked about it a little bit, but I can imagine that there's, in your response right now, you sort of pointed out that there's a lot, one of the reasons for hope is that there's a lot of different activity happening across a broad scale. And I just wanna maybe end this section by having you talk a little bit about how artists might be involved, especially with work like this where people are actually going out and they're paying attention to the environment when they see a dead bee and taking the trouble to write some notes and send them to, and then you taking the immense trouble of doing the repair, you know, how artists might play a role with conservation organizations, organizations around, that are working around pollinator health, what kind of, what do you sort of, how do you see your work developing, your own work or other people's work developing in that regards?

Speaker 2: Oh, absolutely. I think that what I can offer is creating one-on-one relationships with people who are engaged with my project and hopefully in doing so, kind of like create a little bit of a web of care and awareness around pollinator health. And when I'm presenting my work, since I can only really express to be an expert on my very particular practice, I like to bring in people who are experts on applied approach and scientific knowledge. So for example, in North Bay, I had an exhibition and Jillian Leach, who works with Be City Canada, came in and she runs an organization that basically has people approach their municipal counselors and ask and push for a specific change that can be helpful to urban pollinator populations. So there are folks everywhere working in those kinds of ways. And what I can offer hopefully is, I'm hoping that when someone looks at an individual that has been prepared with so much care that they can perhaps build an empathetic relationship with a creature that maybe is not necessarily seen as an individual and is not necessarily relatable to the human way. But at the same time, when you talk to people about bees, there's definitely a cultural affection that people have for bees that they might not have for other creatures. So there are definitely relationships that already exist there that can be amplified by a practice like mine, I hope.

Speaker 1: All right, welcome back. And so Ruth, we won't let you get away. As our first artists, we still have these three questions, but I'm hoping your answers will maybe not look like some of the answers that some of the scientists have, or maybe they will be.

We'll see. We have these three questions we ask all our guests. And the first one is, if there's a bee book that's important to you that you think other people should know about or is influential.

Speaker 2: Oh, absolutely. Hands down, I would say that my favorite book relating to bees is Rudolph Steiner's lectures on bees and the edition that I have has a wonderful essay in the back about Joseph Boyce, and it's quite a beautiful book.

Speaker 1: Tell us also a little bit about Joseph Boyce. I mean, he is an artist who does, works with a lot of natural materials, including stuff that comes from the hive.

Speaker 2: Yeah, I think thinking about Joseph Boyce and Rudolph Steiner helped me to connect the idea of sort of thinking about materials as a kind of poetic alchemy, not too deeply into more specifically art terms, but there's a kind of, I think, quite spectacular poetic beauty in Boyce's work, although there are some aspects of cultural appropriation that are problematic, but there's also many aspects of the work that are very beautiful. And I think about materials a lot in my practice, and definitely connect on many different levels with the bees themselves and the beeswax and the ways that natural and technological materials are combined to create a kind of almost abject effect. And I think that Boyce played with that in his work as well a bit.

Speaker 1: And we talked, I remember when we talked previously, there's another Canadian artist who works primarily with honeybees who uses these materials, uses like beeswax to kind of make things look strange and weird, Agonita Dick, who also really, I remember reading one of her catalog essays, she also feels a debt to Boyce as well.

Speaker 2: Yeah, she's my favorite artist, and I really admire her work, and I'm very interested to hear that she feels that connection as well.

Speaker 1: Okay, so tell us, oftentimes the other question we ask people are tools that they use, and oftentimes people talk about like a net, an aspirator, very kind of like bee collection type tools, but I imagine your tools are gonna be a little bit different. Is there a tool that you really couldn't do without for the art practice that you do?

Speaker 2: Well, because I'm working on a very small scale with very, very tiny objects, I find that a dental pick is a very useful tool to have. So maybe that thing ought to come up in some episodes, but it's a great tool.

Speaker 1: Okay, so dental pick and great. I was thinking back to like the Frankenstein, I haven't read Mary Shelley's original, I've only seen the campy spin-offs, but there's always a bunch of electricity. You don't have like a lightning rod on top of your museum.

Speaker 2: And no, unfortunately, although that might be a welcome addition, it's funny, the book, the Mary Shelley book is very, is almost unrecognizable from the film adaptations, but I definitely feel inspired by the aesthetic of, yeah, of many of the films, for sure.

Speaker 1: Okay, and we were talking about this on one of the breaks. The one thing that's striking is like the campy Frankenstein books, the creation is always green and yours are really colorful.

There's a real difference. Okay, so coming back to the Bs, what is your favorite B or if you can stretch it out if it's B art, what tell us a little bit about your favorite B is?

Speaker 2: Oh, well, I like a classic, so bombas and patience, I would say is my favorite and is definitely a B that I counter the most. I think because it's the most recognizable B for most people, I definitely receive a large number of them and there's something about the way that they move and how fuzzy they are. And yeah, there's a high or a nest next to the entrance of my house that I like. Oh, great. Yeah.

Speaker 1: Well, and I've lived where you lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia at one point and it is a great B because it's really common in urban spaces, something that's available to a large number of people to look at. It's a great B. Oh, absolutely, I think so.

Speaker 2: Yeah, and they're very creative in terms of where they choose to leave their nest and they're quite well adapted to an urban.

Speaker 1: So let me get her straight. There's a colony underneath the steps in your neighborhood.

Speaker 2: Yes, on the next house, I see them. I think they've made a nest in a window frame, so I've been keeping an eye on them.

Speaker 1: Okay, well, and they're looking out probably through the window and it's like, hey, look at the, look at our cousins here. They've got this great get up. Okay, well, great. Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today and just to remind you that there's gonna be a lot of information in the show notes. And I guess one last thing just to mention that you talked about previously is that you're still accepting bees for this project, but if you're in the United States, you can't send the bees across the border.

Speaker 2: No, unfortunately, I do receive them from all across Canada, but they're not allowed for very good reason to be sent across borders. However, if anyone wants to stay connected with the project, they can connect with me via the Facebook community page. I do like to receive bee stories as well as actual physical bees. So if anyone wants to get in touch and tell me a bee story, I'd be quite delighted.

Speaker 1: Great, well, thank you so much for your time. Oh, thank you for having me. Thanks so much for listening. Show notes with information discussed in each episode can be found at pollinationpodcast.oregonstate.edu. We'd also love to hear from you and there are several ways to connect. For one, you can visit our website to post an episode-specific comment, suggest a future guest or topic, or ask a question that could be featured in a future episode. You can also email us at [email protected]. Finally, you can tweet questions or comments or join our Facebook or Instagram communities. Just look us up at OSU Pollinator Health. If you like the show, consider letting iTunes know by leaving us a review or rating.

It makes us more visible, which helps others discover pollination. See you next week.

Ruth Marsh is a multidisciplinary artist based out of Halifax, NS. Her work uses absurd and often comically deadpan narratives to address loss, absence and longing in the context of living creatures and the natural world. She is interested in investigating themes of environmental loss through labour intensive meditations on transformation: life to death, experience to memory and the surrealistic degradation of information that occurs with each successive change of state.

In this episode, we talk about her work repairing bees. She creates these labor-intensive repairs using found objects, and uses exhibitions of the work to bring together people from the scientific and art community.

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“I am hoping that when someone sees an individual bee that has been repaired with so much care that they can build an empathetic relationship with a creature that might not necessarily be seen as an individual and not necessarily relatable to in a human way.” – Ruth Marsh

Show Notes:

  • How Ruth creates her work and why
  • Why people send her bees in the mail
  • About her stop-motion video with the bees she repairs
  • How her work showcases the diversity of bees
  • The distinct rolls that scientists and artists can take in engaging people around issues in pollinator health
  • What it’s like to see one of Ruth’s exhibitions
  • The importance of amateur scientists
  • How to taxidermy a bee
  • How artists can be activist for change

“There seems to be a really strong grassroots movement making people aware of issues faced by pollinators, so there’s a more hopeful aspect to my work.” – Ruth Marsh

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