Sex toys for plants and GPS for birds -- art for a fragile planet at Bucknell

LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Artist, writer, intellectual provocateur, fabulist, and all-around bizarre-idea guy Jonathon Keats stood before a baker’s dozen of Bucknell University students the other evening and told them they were about to embark on “a travesty.”

But if all went well -- or not -- it would be an illuminating travesty.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Keats told the students. “I’m here on campus because I’ve been working on this project for a while -- reciprocal biomimicry. It grows out of my interest in biomimicry, our appropriation of ideas from other species for our own technological ends. This ranges from, for instance, Velcro, which derives from the way thistles will attach to animal fur, and, more recently, the surgical glues inspired by the way coral attaches to the sea floor.”

The students, majoring in everything from biology to philosophy to art, didn’t bat an eye. They signed up for this, a workshop with the diffidently charismatic Keats, to build prototypes that would, as it were, give back to nature -- while there is still nature around to accept the offering.

“Could we make our technology accessible to other species in the same sort of tech-transfer ways that we take their ideas?” Keats wondered. “Not build a greenhouse so plants could grow efficiently so we could eat them, but rather could we have technologies for their benefit that they could use to solve problems created by us?”

Keats was at Bucknell ostensibly because an exhibition of his work has just been mounted at the school’s downtown Samek Art Museum. “The Reciprocal Biomimicry Initiative,” which runs through June 4, is conceptual art at its most direct and ludicrous.

For instance, one project involves the use of GPS-guided drones to escort flocks of migrating birds around areas decimated by development and climate change. The drones, equipped with magnetic devices, cancel out the magnetic field of the earth and “fool” the birds into ignoring their normal flight paths.

Another project provides a tubular breathing apparatus for mollusks that allows sea snails to migrate to land when acid levels become deadly in the water. “Sex Toys for Flowers” utilizes exactly what its title says to titillate flowering plants that now must be artificially pollinated as the honeybee population collapses.

Keats, 46, in his bow tie, tweed jacket, and cords, described some of this to the students who are about to embark on constructing what he genially called “scrappy prototypes” -- models that conceivably could be used to save severely endangered pikas (small, furry rodentlike mountain dwellers), sea turtles, and polar bears.

“It doesn’t need to be pretty and it doesn’t need to work,” Keats told them. “But engaging in the idea and taking it seriously and recognizing, at the same time, that it’s absolutely absurd -- that may be a way of getting somewhere deeper into these ideas.”

Richard Rinehart, director of the Samek Museum, who knows Keats, considers him the real deal.

“He does a lot of work at the intersection of art and science,” Rinehart said. That broad range made it possible to bring Keats, of San Francisco,  to Bucknell recently with the support of the Center for Sustainability and the Environment, the environmental studies department, and the art department for several days of workshops, classes, talks, and scrappy prototype building.

“He has such a command of the history of art and the forms of art and the science,” said Rinehart. “What ties it all together is the sense of humor.”

Back at the workshop, Jahi Omari, a biology and philosophy major; Jackson Pierce, a major in creative writing and psychology; and biology major Emily Campbell were wrestling with the Problem of the Pika.

Global warming is the source of the pika's travails and slow dying. 

At the suggestion of Donna Ebenstein, associate professor of biomedical engineering, the group checked out giant African anthills as possible models for imperiled pikas.

“They’re ventilated by tubes and tunnels,” Omari said after some down and dirty internet research.

Anthills, in the form of a large cardboard box, quickly became the basis for a pika habitat. The group then considered food sources and predators.

Keats wandered over.

“How are we doing?” he asked.

“We’re going to pick up the pika and move them to a colder place,” Omari joked.

“That’s great,” said Keats. “But what would be the implication in the colder place?”

“We’re going to kill them all,” Campbell said (another joke).

“Genocide has been considered a solution in many cases throughout history,”  Keats said before heading off to another group.

In the end, the students created an elaborate anthill for the pika.

“We tried to make it aesthetically pleasing to the pika,” Omari told other workshop participants. He was only half kidding.

The “pika fortress,” as they called it, was powered by a solar panel, emitted a pika-friendly signal to attract the critters, and included a garden for food.

“I love it,” said Keats. “Look at how big it is!”

He was particularly pleased by a pumpkin Halloween decoration stuck at the top to ward off flying predators.

Students working on polar bears built a floating habitat that featured toxin-eating bacteria and fish-attracting plankton, which, in turn, attracted seals that would serve as dinner for the bears living above. The bacteria would begin to detox the oil-saturated ocean water. 

Those working on sea turtles, whose overly warm eggs were producing males at an alarming rate, conceived of a “turtle cabana” that would cool the sand.

Keats was thrilled with the outcome of two hours of riffing.

He immediately noted that for each problem, the students did not approach a solution by focusing on one aspect of the problem. They created total habitats.

“What appeals to you about a total solution?” he asked. “Why is it important to think about total habitat?”

“There are a couple of problems going on that couldn’t be solved with one solution,” said one student.

Elyza Agosta, an electrical engineering major working on the polar bear problem, said, “Nature is really complicated. It’s really hard to anticipate what’s going to happen. If you change one thing here, what’s going to happen over here? It’s easier to create a contained system than to insert one element that can spiral out of control.”

She stopped for a moment.

“The best construction would be a time machine,” Agosta said. “You could go back and undo all that has been done. These ecosystems we’ve built should already exist, and they did at one time. If people stopped drilling for oil, if people stopped hunting, we wouldn’t need these.”

For Keats, the workshop exploring his “absurd” ideas had struck the gold of larger thought and conversation.

"The Reciprocal Biomimicry Initiative” runs through June 4 at the Samek Art Museum Downtown Gallery, 416 Market St., Lewisburg. Hours: noon-5 p.m. Tues.-Fri. and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends. Information: 570-577-3792 or museum.bucknell.edu.