Sam Easterson
Animal, Vegetable, Video: Where the Buffalo Roam

Monarch of the Prairie
Sam Easterson's Animal, Vegetable, Video project represents a lifetime commitment of increasingly ambitious and ever-widening scope. Predicated on an innovative investigation of the natural environment through custom-built video technology, informed by Easterson's training in both fine arts and landscape architecture, the project's ultimate goal is "to build the world's largest and most comprehensive 'library' of video footage that has been captured from the point of view of animals and plants."

In 1998, already recognized for his unusual and witty camera-based explorations of vision, Easterson was commissioned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to produce A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing . For this project, which the artist says, "changed my life and the direction of my career," Easterson outfitted an entire flock of sheep with helmet-mounted video cameras and then showcased the footage for gallery presentation. Thus inspired, he has continued to design and construct video cameras - innovative apparatus hand-built to suit a variety of forms and scales - for mounting on wild animals and plants, and in habitats of all kinds, and embarked on the intensive fieldwork required to develop a comprehensive Animal, Vegetable, Video archive.

Since that first flock of sheep, subsequent stages of Easterson's endeavor - including Animal, Vegetable, Video: Desert Oasis and Animal, Vegetable, Video: Swamp Sanctuary - have found him outfitting an armadillo, an alligator, a bat, a box turtle, a coyote, floating grasses, a fly caught in a spider's web, several frogs, a lily pad, a log, a lobster, mice, a pitcher plant, a rabbit, a scorpion, a slug, a tarantula, a tortoise, a tumbleweed and a white-tailed deer. In every case, Easterson's camera acts like a virtual prosthesis, a techno-eye that captures the perspective of a given plant or animal - or as close to it as human viewers will likely ever come. Startling and seductive, the "POV" footage transforms the naturalist tradition: presenting an insider's view on the pastoral paradigm, as it were, is now Easterson's trademark.

Each segment of the growing archive functions as a chapter in a naturalist narrative - a field journal rendered through video - and the entirety will coalesce as a uniquely encyclopedic view of the natural world. The two most recent chapters, Animal, Vegetable, Video: Pack of Wolves and Animal, Vegetable, Video: Where the Buffalo Roam focus on herds, offering not only new perspectives on how such animals negotiate their environments but capturing pack interaction and the response of the other species indigenous to each ecosystem (forest and prairie, respectively).

Commissioned by Creative Capitol and Grand Arts, Where the Buffalo Roam is perhaps Easterson's most ambitious and culturally resonant piece to date, not only for the massive size and potential ferocity of its subjects (an adult bull weighs as much as 2000 lbs and can charge at 35 miles per hour; this added considerable technical and physical challenge to the project) but also given the rich iconographic resonance of the bison - the wooly humped creature we call buffalo- in the American imagination.

Working on a private ranch in Minnesota, with the help of a small team of handlers, Easterson affixed custom-built video recorders - the ingenious nose-cam, neck-cam and head-cam mounts he designed to suit the species' massive head, heavy humped shoulders and long sloping nose - onto the buffalo. Out there on the prairie, riding an ATV like some kind of auto-motorized wrangler, Easterson himself "directed" the shoot to capture footage of animal behavior from entirely new perspectives.

"Shot" from the POV of single sources, we see the herd gallop across the hard scrabble brush of the late autumn landscape, amble along and pause to munch on dry grasses. Framed by the animals' physical encounters with the environment, the images are startling in their formal elegance. One bison stops to drink at a pond, the sun casting his horned shadow onto the water until his serpentine blue-black tongue fractures the reflection. Super close-up shots of the land produce crazy planes of patterning, variegations of color and form reminiscent of the hallucinatory abstraction of Stan Brakhage's experimental films of the 1950s and 1960s. An audio track adds remarkable nuance and humor to the footage: the wet gurgle of bison slurping from a mud puddle, the satisfied burp at the end of a long drink, assorted strange growls and snorts. We hear the steady harrumphing rhythm of beastly respiration and the ever-present northern wind, rushing at a static roar across the prairie.

Easterson's work involves a masterful layering of perspectives and references, mixing the popular and esoteric, historical and contemporary with subtly and ease. It both mines and transforms the eco-tainment genre, first introduced by Walt Disney's "True Life Adventure" series on television in the 1950s. The Disney productions, The Living Desert (1954) and The Vanishing Prairie (1955) among them, launched the "nature show" into American popular culture and turned naturalists with cameras into heroes. Nature/ adventure programming has since maintained rapt audience devotion; witness, for example, the popularity of Animal Planet, the cable television station devoted solely to animal-themed shows.

Where the Buffalo Roam sparks particularly apt comparison to The Vanishing Prairie, the wildly popular installment in the Disney series that won an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1954. Educationally oriented, at turns elegiac and conservationist in tone, it delivered the natural world as a stunning spectacle to a new generation of tele-visual adventurers. Exceeding imagination, superceding the logic of scale and bypassing the limitations of human physiology, it offered up the gigantic, the microscopic, and the never-before-seen through new visual technologies. Moreover, Disney's representation of Nature invoked primordial history, national pride and a spirit of independence thought to be particularly American. And at the center of this triangulation was the buffalo, the "monarch of the prairie."

Decimated from the tens of millions by hunters and unscrupulous gamesmen, the buffalo neared extinction by 1900. An intimate part of Native American life (used for food, shelter and clothing, as well as revered in religious ceremonies), its disappearance coincided with and contributed to the decimation of Native populations across the Great Plains. Yet it remains an integral element of the American iconography, an inhabitant of the western prairie of the imagination, taken up by countless artists - Titian Peale, George Catlin, Alfred Jacob Miller, Charles M. Russel among them - throughout the 19th century. The buffalo is perhaps the most enduring symbol of both a formidable natural grandeur - pure and wild - and the environmental and social tolls of Anglo-European "progress" Westward across the continent.

The buffalo, then, is a symbol of nature and culture, powerful, yet imbued by nostalgia and the stain of irrevocable loss. Although bred to renewed numbers over the last decades, few buffalo today roam free. Contemporary experience with the creature is indirect, iconographical and limited by zoo enclosures. Easterson's Where the Buffalo Roam, with its reference to old cowboy camp songs, evokes this conflicted history and then transcends it. By arming his subjects with cameras, he hands the primary perspective on nature back to its source, so to speak. Methodologically, the work critiques the mediation of our access to the natural world and refutes the "innocent eye" that characterized Disney nature films (and all of the familiar footage that follows ideological suit). Metaphorically, it suggests the potential for reframing the interests that shape our relationship to nature. It also opens up possibilities of understanding the environment in different - empathetic - terms.

For gallery and museum presentation, Easterson develops conceptually sophisticated installations that deconstruct and play with our understanding of nature and the technological apparatus through which we engage and represent it. At Grand Arts, a stunning herd of taxidermied buffalo is the central focus, accompanied by other taxidermied inhabitants of the prairie (an anthill, a tortoise, a mouse, a flower and a beetle along with a deer and a wolf). The installation includes his homemade cameras as sculptural elements, modeled onto the petrified doppelgangers of his living "sources." They are posed within large topographic floor maps, rendered like witty free-hand drawings in multi-colored extension cords to represent the specific sites of the artist's fieldwork; color by color they link the cartographic imagination to video loops screened on monitors overhead.

Complex, smart and witty, Sam Easterson's work is rife with Romantic 19th century undertones, buoyed by 20th century optimism, and armed with 21st century technology. As an imaginative investigation into the life of the environment, it encourages us to see the world again and to understand seeing as a complicated and variable way of knowing. Ultimately, Easterson's project, this mammoth life's work, enriches history and expands science through art.

Lisa Fischman
Atlanta, GA
December 2002

A writer and curator, Dr. Lisa Fischman is Director of the Atlanta College of Art Gallery, which hosted Sam Easterson's Animal, Vegetable, Video: Swamp Sanctuary in 2001. She is a native of Buffalo, New York.

General Sources
Discovered Lands, Invented Past: Transforming Visions of the American West (Yale University Press, 1992)
Christopher Finch, The Art of Walt Disney (Harry N. Abrams, 1973)
William H. Goetzmann and William N. Goetzmann, The West of the Imagination (WW Norton & Co., 1986)
Jane and Michael Stern, Way Out West (HarperCollins, 1993)
Jane Warner, Walt Disney's Vanishing Prairie: A True-Life Adventure (Simon and Schuster, 1955)
William H. Truettner, ed. The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920 (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991)



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