Giant owls descend on Grand Rapids, Michigan in “Animal Land”

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By Marie Orttenburger

Walking through a Midwest city at night, you might expect to run into a few urban-dwelling animals. Raccoons, possums, the occasional skunk—these mammals have adapted to thrive in the city.

To run into an owl, let alone one larger than life, is a bit rarer.

But those walking around downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan between dusk and dawn recently could experience just that, thanks to artists Lauren Strohacker and Kendra Sollars. If you missed their exhibition at the city’s ArtPrize 10 competition, you can get a good look in the video that accompanies this story.

Their entry, “Animal Land,” was a large format mobile projection project. Strohacker and Sollars were invited to enter it into the biennial art competition by curators of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Inverted black and white footage of eight different owls, representing six species native to the region, was projected on the northeast facade of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Throughout the festival, one could encounter a building-sized barred owl crouching and gazing skyward, a pair of barn owls seeming to watch pedestrians on the sidewalks below them or a great horned owl standing proudly.

“The concept behind it is really about placing animal images into human-centric spaces where a lot of people might not even give a second thought to the wildlife that’s in their region,” Strohacker said.

The piece’s intent was to respond to the loss of biodiversity as a result of human expansion.

“We think of it on two ends of a spectrum,” Strohacker said. On the hopeful side, these projections act as placeholders for those species that have been pushed out of human-centric spaces—to remain until constructive conversation about cohabitating with them once more occurs.

“The worse end of the spectrum is that these digital encounters in public spaces are all that will be left once certain species continue to be moved further and further out, and we lose them,” Strohacker said.

Animal Land is an ongoing project that has appeared in Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff, San Diego, Los Angeles, Grand Rapids and Detroit. In each city, Strohacker and Sollars strive to work with a local conservation groups to film the animals featured in their projections.

“We not only wanted to make sure we did native species, but the goal was to work with a local group,” Sollars said.

For ArtPrize 10, Strohacker and Sollars collaborated with Blandford Nature Center, a Grand Rapids nonprofit that’s home to a variety of wildlife with injuries too severe to survive in the wild. Among them are the eight ambassador owls that Strohacker and Sollars filmed for the entry.

“It’s always one of our favorite experiences to work with these groups and to be that close to the animals,” Strohacker said. “[Working with Blandford] was very smooth, very accomodating. And the owls did an incredible job.”

The piece was a finalist for the public vote in the Time-Based category.

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