Dear Enemy in Atlas Obscura


In 1946, a group of Canadian beavers got a free one-way ticket to Argentina. Specifically, they were headed for the archipelago Tierra del Fuego, a swath of islands on the southernmost tip of South America. The Argentine government thought the beavers would be the lynchpin of a new fur industry—but they were wrong.

Now, nearly 70 years later, one artist is trying to communicate with these beaver transplants—and she’s doing it entirely through smell.

Split between Argentina and Chile, Tierra del Fuego boasts cool summers and wet winters, and is marked by forests, mountains, and glaciers. There are foxes, hummingbirds, and king penguins, and a variety of whales and seals swim off its shores. And, thanks to the Argentine government, after 1946 there were beavers—beavers imported directly from Canada.

At the time the beavers arrived, beaver pelts were at a premium, which is why officials hoped to create a home-grown fur industry. (The original number of beavers imported has been reported at various numbers, from 20 to 50.)  The plan to establish a fur trade failed, but the beavers, sans natural enemies, flourished. Scientists have estimated that the modern beaver population has swelled to over 100,000 or more.
A beaver dam in Tierra Del Fuego. (Photo: Ilya Haykinson/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 1.0)
And, as beavers are wont to do, the critters are cutting down trees and building dams. That’s no big deal in their Canadian homeland, but it’s a problem when you’re talking about an invasive species whose chomping grounds include the protected lands inside the Karukinka Natural Park. In 2006 Argentina and Chile teamed up to explore solutions to the beaver problem—a moment of cooperation for the countries, who have a historically acrimonious relationship. Since then, they have launched eradication efforts including trapping and rewarding beaver hunters.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound like the setup for a partnership between artists, scientists, and a Los Angeles-based art center focused on smell—but it is. 

Multimedia artist Christy Gast has danced, made videos, sculptures and cyanotypes. Her work is strongly place-based; she has created projects around the Everglades, a roadtrip, and the Herbet Hoover Dike among other locales. She is also part of Ensayos, a Tierra del Fuego-based consortium of artists, scientists, and other interested parties. Founded in 2010 by curator Camila Marambio, the group creates work exploring regional issues, particularly invasive species. The group’s members are spread around the globe, but  travel to Tierra del Fuego for projects. It was through this partnership that Gast got the idea that she should try to talk to beavers.

While traveling in Tierra del Fuego, Gast got to know biologist Giorgia Graells and ecologist Derek Corcoron, who conduct field research on beavers. They wondered: What if you could communicate with beavers? Maybe you could tell them something useful, such as “You have no natural predators in Tierra del Feugo, so you don’t need to chop down trees and build dams for protection.” Smell seemed like a good place to start.

Beavers don’t see or hear well, so they lean more heavily on their sense of smell. But for a beaver, the most important smell organ isn’t the nose. It’s a gland in the nether regions called the castor sac.

“The way the beaver uses it is to mark a mound that it builds,” says Gast. ”It squirts the glandular secretion on it and it also pees on it and creates a muddy, musty smell that tells other beavers that this is one beaver’s territory. And it can regulate the intensity of the smell by eating certain things.” 

Trapper measuring a beaver’s tail. (Photo: Still from ‘Castor Chef’/Christy Gast, 2014)

The castor sac’s secretion is called castoreum, and it’s great at mixing smells, which is why it why perfume makers have harvested it for centuries  to use  when concocting new scents. Natural castoreum is not commonly used today, thanks in part to the invention of a synthetic version is which is much more easily attained.

This is the background of Gast’s work, “Dear Enemy.” For the project,Gast and her collaborators will make fragrances using both natural and synthetic castoreum and other scents. These will be distributed during fieldwork experiments in North and South America next year, and ecologists will study the beavers’ responses.Such work is not without precedent; scientists have used beaver scent to both repel beavers (by placing another beaver’s scent in their territory) and to encourage beavers to expand their own territory (by spreading their own scent beyond their current home).

Gast has never made a scent before, but her work will join a growing body of smell-based artwork around the world. She will begin the project with a two-week residency at the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles.

This non-profit is the brainchild of Saskia Wilson-Brown, a refugee of the television industry. Wilson-Brown was growing increasingly tired of the “churn and burn of media” when a friend gave her a book on perfume. She became fascinated, and wanted to learn more about the production process—which turned out not to be so easy. It was a “closed industry,” she said, and information was hard to come by. This difficulty inspired her to start the IAO, an art center that educates the public about scent and supports scent-based art.

“I’m not particularly interested in perfume as a product to consume, but more as a method for communication that’s been underutilized,” says Wilson-Brown. “Especially in the art context.”

A beaver in Tierra Del Fuego. (Photo: Brian Gratwicke/flickr)

Underutilized, yes, but using scent in art has precedence. Marcel Duchamp explored scent and gender in his 1921 piece “Eau de Voilette”, and in 1902 a man named Sadakichi Hartmann created a “scent concert” called “A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes.” The concert was composed of a series of scent-soaked cloth held in front of electric fans. The IAO undertook a re-staging of this production in 2014, but in a far more high-tech fashion, they used specially-made scent distribution machines.

There has been a steady uptick in scent-based art in the last three or four years, according to Wilson-Brown. She says it is a medium that appeals to artists because it is both visceral and ephemeral, and because it requires a certain level of technical skill to pull off. And, of course, artists like to push boundaries. Saskia-Wilson says “conceptually, bad smells are interesting for people.” A 2014 exhibit at The Museum of the Image in the Netherlands called “Famous Death” featured the imagined scentscapes of celebrity deaths and included smells that mimicked cocaine and a sewer pipe.

Castoreum isn’t nearly so unpleasant, says Gast, although it’s not exactly enticing. It’s “sort of musky but it doesn’t smell like rose petals.” It is dusty, fruity and not very strong, she adds.

A blending station and student organ at The Institute for Art and Olfaction. (Photo: The Institute for Art and Olfaction)

Gast’s residency at IAO begins September 28. Gast will kick off the public portion of her project with a talk at IAO in October, followed by a gallery show in New York in November. She plans to incorporate the scents she creates into sculptures, as well as perfumed inserts that will be distributed in a periodical that gallery-goers can take home. Next year, the scents will be distributed in North and South America. 

Gast says she is not hoping for any specific response from her beaver subjects, although she did raise one intriguing possibility. In one smell experiment, she says, a scientist built an artificial scent mound in a beaver’s territory, and the beaver “tore it down and made four really big scent mounds of their own around it.” Those mounds would not have existed if the scientist hadn’t intervened. 

“Something that could happen as a result of the experiment,” says Gast, “is that we could influence them to build sculptures.” Maybe Tierra del Fuego will feel better about its invasive beavers if they all turn out to be artists at heart.