Combining creative work with research, Estraven Lupino-Smith collaborates with HAT to monitor and celebrate bats.
A FEW YEARS AGO, when Estraven Lupino-Smith was living in Philadelphia, they threw their back out. (Lupino-Smith is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.) Miserable, between contracts and home-bound in winter, instead of succumbing to depression, they fell back on their long history as an artist. “I’m going to make something,” they decided, “I’m going to do a series of prints on nocturnal animals.” Many are vilified, they explained, considered dangerous, part of the underworld. Lupino-Smith wanted to change the way we view wolves, bats, barn owls, raccoons. In particular, I learned during our conversation at a local cafe, they love bats. A lot.
Lupino-Smith, a creative researcher with a degree in political science and equity studies, is currently completing an MSc in geography at Concordia, but art has always been a part of their research. “That’s how my brain works,” says Lupino-Smith. Focusing on bats and other vilified animals seemed an ideal way of combining creative work with research. “I think we don’t realize how much social context there is to issues of science and politics. This is a key reason people undervalue creative work.” Lupino-Smith’s Etsy website offers the artwork as pins, t-shirts and prints, but it was when they moved to Victoria (via Montreal) that things really came together.
When Lupino-Smith arrived here, they emailed Habitat Acquisition Trust (HAT) and offered to volunteer, sending a copy of the linocut bat print they’d made. The HAT staff member who answered the email just happened to be wearing Lupino-Smith’s bat design t-shirt that day. A collaboration was born. With funding from a CRD arts development grant, Lupino-Smith gathered sound files on the bats using a heterodyne detector, which allows humans to hear the echolocation bats use to find food and move through space. “We can’t normally hear it, but they’re actually screaming; they’re quite loud!”
BC is home to 16 of the 19 bat species in Canada—the greatest diversity of any province. Bats are the only mammal that can truly fly, and half of BC’s bat species (all insectivores) are listed as vulnerable or threatened. Coming from the east, where bat populations have been decimated by White Nose Syndrome fungus (recorded deaths total over six million), Lupino-Smith was eager to see a population that is, relatively speaking, still intact. “It will take 10,000 years, they told me, “to recover the population numbers on the East Coast.”
Lupino-Smith counted bats with HAT over the summer, watching over 1,200 bats emerge from the attic of the Metchosin Community Hall, which the bats had chosen as their female maternity colony. That means there are both adults and pups in the groups volunteers count in summer. Some volunteers are retired, Lupino-Smith says, but many just like the work, which is communal and provides a chance to view the world in all its complexity. “You get your blanket out. You bring your dog.” Watching the pups learn to fly can also be hilarious. “They’re not great fliers yet. They hit things, they do loops to get higher,” laughs Lupino-Smith.
White Nose Syndrome wasn’t initially found on the west coast of the continent. But in 2016, a sick brown bat was found by hikers near Seattle. The syndrome was confirmed a few days after the bat died. This means the disease has travelled over 1,300 kilometres past its last known western-most appearance. Bats keep mosquito and other insect populations in check, protecting crops from infestation and protecting us from vector-borne diseases. Many also pollinate plants and help with seed dispersal. A fall in bat numbers means diseases like West Nile virus could become a serious problem. If the disease becomes as wide-spread as it has on the east coast, the west coast of North America could lose 90 percent or more of its bat population.
The culmination of Lupino-Smith’s summer work with HAT occurred at the Big Bat Bash in October 2018. Combining video files, footage from a slow-motion camera, and a sculptural piece, Lupino-Smith created a multi-media presentation meant to inspire and educate. The event drew more than 300 people and included workshops, dinner and a dance, with donations supporting the Metchosin Community Hall bats. Lupino-Smith’s plan, working with CFUV, the University of Victoria’s community radio station, is to create a podcast called “Mediated Natures” from the project, integrating science research with art creation.
Lupino-Smith also works in sound, film, and text, providing workshops on the natural world to children, and nature walks with a political ecology component. Their plan is to eventually do a research-creation-based PhD. “Art is in the ideas. That’s where you start.” The HAT work was great, they explain, “because it was a rural project, not in a gallery. There was a bat cave, a bunch of kids.”
The work made them realize the importance of outreach. Many landowners in the region don’t know that it’s illegal to remove bats from private property—even if they nest in the eaves of buildings. HAT provided training to Lupino-Smith that included a 14-hour session with other volunteers in Stanley Park, learning about bats, echolocation and data from scientists. “It made me realize that it’s all the work of these individual [volunteers] that makes the difference.” Lack of resources, social or political will, they argue, means that much of the data gathered by scientists is effectively lost if it’s not translated to the public. Lupino-Smith also admires the way HAT liaises with First Nations (with their restoration work on Senanus Island, for example). “I’d like to see more work on the part of settlers to follow Indigenous leadership.”
One of the key changes Lupino-Smith would like to see in the non-profit world is a greater openness to art-science collaborations, which they stress are key to developing greater connection to place, and acknowledging humans as just one species in a large, complex ecology. Before HAT said yes to their proposal, Lupino-Smith approached another non-profit in the region. It turned Lupino-Smith down, worried they might compete with the NGO for funding. “There’s a funny thing in Victoria. Every organization looks fun, but then there’s a board of directors full of ancient white people who [work] to maintain the conservative frameworks that exist.” Part of being a queer, non-binary person, they argue, is an inclination to question the dominant power dynamic, which can see art and science as disparate fields. For Lupino-Smith, collaboration between the two is an integral step in dismantling colonialism and finding alternatives to institutionalized power.
“Art is in creatively and critically thinking about things you don’t normally get to think about,” argues Lupino-Smith. “What excites you? What are your ideas? We’ll go from there.” This past year, they dreamed up the Artemisia Institute ( see estraven.ca/research), a name that gives authority to the work they’re already doing in various guises around the continent. So far, the Institute can only point to a research vehicle (the Research Creation Vessel Putt-Putt) and a business card. But if their track record is any indication, it won’t stay that way for long. “If a thing doesn’t exist, I do it. I’ve always had a DIY mentality.”
If you have bats in your house or on your property, email HAT: email@example.com! They study and monitor bats, and need to know where they live. Bats are shy (and cute) and don’t want to harm you.
Maleea Acker recently submitted the first draft of her geography doctoral dissertation on the intersections of art and science. One chapter of the dissertation is a manuscript of poetry.