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Shore Beasts of Yore

Wendy Farina

One day when I was eleven years old, I stood in the bathroom of my parents’ house, about to wash my face in the sink. As I turned the faucet on and off, I thought for the first time about my understanding of how the sink plumbing worked. At some much earlier point, I had pondered the mysteries of the sink, and instead of asking someone to explain them, I had come up with my own answers. My solution, which extended to include traffic signals, consisted of a vast network of very small gnome-like people who lived underground and who, through an elaborate system of hidden spyglasses, could see what I was doing and respond accordingly. They would make the water flow when I turned on the faucet or change the traffic light when I was waiting to cross the street. If something wasn’t working or was slow, it was usually because one of them was asleep on the job. I never actually saw them, but that was because they were very, very sneaky and skilled at avoiding human detection. I had held this belief for years and totally accepted it as known fact, and it was both shocking and disappointing to think that that might not be true. I find myself still somewhat hoping that this is the real secret behind plumbing and traffic lights, that the technical aspects are just a ruse.

As an adult, I now more or less know how faucets and traffic lights work, but I have come to realize that I am still fascinated by creating and examining other realities and by alternative explanations of worldly phenomena, and that this has been a consistent area of inquiry in my artistic practice. I’m interested in blurring the lines between scientific and fictional constructs, and in exploring what might lie behind our everyday experience of the mundane. In short, I want things — especially those normally explained by science — to be as weird and fantastical as possible, and I want them to be funny, so I do my best to bring out their inner freakiness.

Keeping with this theme, I loosely based “The Beasts of Santa Barbara” on medieval bestiaries, which catalog creatures (and sometimes objects) made from fact and fancy, but unlike its medieval counterparts, my bestiary has much less (actually no) moral allegory in it. And thanks to modern technology, my compendium includes sound. My idea was to base the beasts on new amalgamations of native Santa Barbara fauna that existed during medieval times, so I researched a number of aspects of the Santa Barbara area and shoreline: native flora and fauna; native peoples of the area (the Chumash) and their cave drawings; California geography; and the impact of Spanish missionaries and colonization.

Studying the area’s history prompted me to think about what factors influence the permutations of species. The Chumash, who were local to the region for the past 10,000 years and made their own kind of bestiaries in the form of cave paintings, seemed to have only a moderate impact on their surroundings, whereas the Spanish missionaries and western colonizers drastically changed the area and its inhabitants. Recent residents further modified the Santa Barbara shoreline by creating a harbor through the installation of an artificial breakwater. So the beasts that existed during the Middle Ages had a very different set of variables affecting their habitat and survival. The No-Necked Urchin-Stilt, which thrived from the 9th to the 17th century, was well suited to the area and subsisted mostly on the plentiful Pompadour Sea Worms. But the Urchin-Stilt had a deadly fear of yachts and thus may not have been able to adapt to its new 20th-century surroundings.

I also researched animal physiology and sounds. I mixed this in with my base of random scientific knowledge of shore creatures (I work at a science museum on the San Francisco Bay) and then imagined the animals I would most likely (want to) find on the Santa Barbara shore in that era, such as grizzly bears and barnacles. While the majestic grizzlies, which were once abundant in California, were hunted to extinction after western colonization, the small and unassuming barnacles, with their extremely large penis-to-body ratio and hermaphroditic ways, survived just fine. This led me to questions such as ‘What would happen if a bear and a barnacle became very friendly?’ The answer was clearly that Grizzly Bearnacle might happen, that’s what: a little tiny bear creature with barnacle tentacles (and penis, of course) that emerge out of its crown-like head shell. Other beasts followed suit accordingly.

The sound portion of the project was a bit more free-form. I chose to focus on one creature, the Sea Starman Gull (who is a combination of coho salmon, California seagull, and sea star) and create a number of sounds from which the viewer/listener could choose the most appropriate. I thought about how salmon and sea stars (to my knowledge) don’t make a whole lot of noise (unless it is very quiet noise...), but gulls do, so what if the salmon and sea star parts were given the vocal chords of a gull and the opportunity to be heard? What would that sound like? I tried to imagine myself as a Sea Starman Gull and recorded the resulting sounds, keeping in mind its given anatomy, needs, moods and habitat. But as each person’s experience of the Sea Starman Gull may be different, so too could be their opinions of its voice. Thus there is a choice at the end: you can find whichever voice fits best for you, or agree with none and make your own.

I hope to someday expand the Santa Barbara Bestiary as there are still so many uncatalogued species to be documented whose habitats may need to be preserved. There’s a high probability that at least one or two of them have been hiding from humans for all these years and still exist.

Wendy Farina
Musician and Artist