Artists Pay Tribute To The Endangered Gray Wolf, With Robot Arms And Hacked Blueberries

In a wonderfully bizarre installation, hacked plants deliver vaccine-packed blueberries to the threatened gray wolf.

The wolf might be the rockingest animal, at least if you consider the number of bands whose names pay it tribute: There’s Wolf Parade, AIDS Wolf, Wolfmother, Wolf Eyes, We Are Wolves, Steppenwolf, Howlin’ Wolf, Guitar Wolf, and just Wolf (a Swedish heavy metal band). But as a threatened species, the gray wolf may not always be as “in” as it is now.


In a new installation titled And Nowhere A Shadow, London-based studio Cohen Van Balen showcases both the supreme coolness and the endangerment of the gray wolf. The concept sounds too bizarre to be true: In an effort to protect the species from extinction, light-up metal prongs reach out and massage live wolves to encourage them to eat genetically modified blueberries filled with rabies vaccines. Wolf movements also generate electricity to power the contraptions and an infrared camera. The whole process is filmed and broadcast on a live-stream over the Internet, turning conservation into entertainment.

But it is true–this is exactly what happens in And Nowhere A Shadow, featured at the Lisbon Architecture Trienalle. And apparently wolves actually like massages by metal robot arms so much that they stick around for more and snack on the vaccine-delivering fruits.

Cohen Van Balen is a partnership between designers Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen, whose work often focuses on the intersection of conservation, biology, and technology. They’re the futuristic pair of minds behind 75 Watt, a mass-produced object that has no other purpose than to choreograph its own assembly. Cohen tells Co.Design, “We wondered whether conservation was in fact a form of entertainment, since its motives are still largely anthropocentric. Therefore, maybe a form of performance could become a viable survival strategy for endangered animals.”

Indeed, conservation-as-performance is a tried and true tactic for many nature centers that broadcast live-streams of their animals, the San Diego Zoo’s PandaCam a particularly celebrated example (much missed and revived after a brief hiatus during the government shutdown). Those pandas are adorable, but they aren’t surrounded by starry light-up robot arms or hacked plants.

Cohen says he and Van Balen chose to focus on the gray wolf “because it carries so many cultural and historical meanings, and its vital part in a healthy ecosystem.” In Native American culture, wolves and men were seen as near brothers, whereas European mythology casts them as Big and Bad. “The wolf can be seen as the embodiment of our fear of uncontrollable nature,” adds Cohen. Although the technology to distribute anti-rabies vaccines via plants is not yet developed, the designers predict it could be completed after five years of research.


So what are Cohen Van Balen’s plans for the future? Their big idea sounds like a zoo on LSD: “We would love to extend this work to other bioregions, building a theme park of endangered species, hacked plants, hyper-mythologies, and infrared spectacles.”

The Future Perfect exhibition at the Lisbon Architecture Trienalle continues until December 15.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.