In Christy Gast’s video Castora Magellanica, the figure of a beaver in the form of a rakish, life-size puppet cruises through the canals of Venice in an impeccably crafted wooden motorboat. Biologists know the beaver as an ecosystem engineer, able to transform forests into meadows, the faintest rivulet into a placid pond. In the film, the beaver is captured surveying one of humankind’s grandest feats of marine engineering, the aquapolis of Venice, a center of trade and exploration as Europe expanded its reach throughout the world during the Age of Discovery. Throughout the video the image of the beaver fills the center of the frame. It propels itself with ease and impassivity through an urban waterscape in which it is apparently very comfortable, although not native. But why are we being asked to look at this beaver?
Since 2010, Gast has been working with Ensayos, a research collective focusing on ecological and cultural issues in Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago beyond the southern tip of South America, where the Canadian beaver is considered an invasive species—a plague. Originally imported by the Peron administration of Argentina in 1948 in order to spur economic development based on trapping and selling fur, the animal was largely forgotten after the value of its pelt crashed. The beavers thrived, even crossing the Strait of Magellan to colonize the South American continent. By the 1980’s, Chile and Argentina had signed their first bi-national accord calling for its eradication.
Observing that the beavers themselves were absent from all discussions about their future in the archipelago, collaborators from Ensayos began devising ways to include them. These relied on observation, empathic re-enactment, and the development of a series of perfumes to facilitate interspecies communication. Gast made the beaver costumes seen in this video so that artists, scientists and locals in Tierra del Fuego could practice representing the animal in various discursive formats. In Venice, it was worn by a local activist whose group is advocating for the protection of a quarantine island for goods and people infected with the bubonic plague during the middle ages. He navigated the canals with the ease of a local, but in the guise of a colonizer.