Clint Wilson’s Chromaplay:
An Experiment to Make Dead Butterflies Fly

Edmonton-based artist Clint Wilson often gets told that his multidisciplinary work does “not look much like art”. Although familiar, statements like this ignore a growing trend in contemporary art. Artists inevitably make use of new technology as it develops. As new technology becomes more pervasive in our lives, it is increasingly explored as subject matter in art. Wilson’s artistic practice provides an eloquent commentary on our often ambivalent relationship with technology and its prerequisite scientific research.

With high-tech electronic components, armatures, butterfly specimens and wall mounted phylogenic charts, Wilson’s complex installation Chromaplay looks like a bioengineering lab gone awry. Small pager motors, circuitry, switches and wiring are presented unadorned with a precision and economy that is more akin to scientific research than conventional art forms. Chromaplay contains only the components required to perform a specific mechanical task -- to make the dead butterflies “fly”.

Wilson’s choice of common butterflies, beautiful and delicate creatures of romantic imagination, is well considered. Chromaplay suggests not just the habitual human destruction of fragile natural habitats (of butterflies and larger species), but the equally bizarre attempt to technologically recreate these same habitats in malls and theme parks and (any day now) virtual reality. Like a cross between some iconic mad scientist’s experiments, 18th Century tableux mecaniques (mechanical pictures) and the automatons in European nobility’s pleasure gardens, Wilson tries to create life but falls short and delivers only movement, the appearance of nature but not life itself.

In addition to his “reanimated” butterflies, Wilson also displays prepared butterfly specimens under circular glass lenses. Under this “microscope”, they might reveal anatomical details that identify phylum or class; but like the common back-yard butterfly, Wilson’s insects are most easily distinguished from one another by colour. Wilson has “enhanced” nature (a common rationalization for controversial scientific research) by superimposing translucent national flags (or images abstracted from flags) over the plainest white butterflies. Another component of Chromaplay employs a similar overlay technique. Manipulated images of German biologist Ernst Haeckel’s (1834-1919) branching phylogenic charts are superimposed over images of human hands and fingers.

It is difficult to examine Wilson’s butterflies without focusing on the added colour. Similarly, viewers cannot observe the hand images without some consideration of Haeckel’s vein-like system of classification that stretches across the skin. Wilson’s intervention suggests that there is no objective, impassioned or apolitical observer. Principles of scientific experimentation acknowledge the impact of the observer on phenomenon being observed. Double blind testing and similar procedural standards are intended to remove bias and provide impartial data but they accomplish this only in the most limited way. Chromaplay reminds the viewer that science is not free of political, nationalistic or economic bias. Wilson’s artistic practice further reveals the inherently problematic nature of scientific observation and experimentation. It presupposes a natural world that can be understood, quantified and (with sufficient resources) duplicated, modified or improved.

Chromaplay is reminiscent of scientific research described in Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver visits the “grand Academy of Lagado” and reports on an extraordinary series of experiments. One project involves the extraction of sunbeams from cucumbers for use on inclement days. Additional research at this prestigious institution attempts to transform ice into gunpowder, turn human excrement back into food and numerous other visionary projects. Swift satirized established scientific research of his time. The Academy is intended to correspond to the Royal Society and the absurd experiments were based on actual experiments carried out or suggested by scientists of Swift’s era.

Wilson does not satirize as explicitly as Swift (Although it is plausible that Gulliver might enter another wing of the Academy to find Wilson trying to make dead butterflies flap their wings). Rather than blatantly portraying technology run amok, Wilson subtly critiques the role of science in society. Chromaplay invites the viewer to examine the profound impact of scientific research and technological change on natural and, more importantly, social environments. Wilson’s work maintains that self identity is increasingly defined by reliance on new technology and faith in science as a system of knowledge.

By Blair Brennan

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York: 1970