Live Art: Bats in Space with Jeremy Deller, Pudding Mill Lane Railway Station, London, until July 13 2012
© Emilie Harris
“These are the lazy bats, the ones that just hang around the cave,” Jeremy Deller tells us, firing off the calls of some of the Brazilian and Mexican free-tail bats he recorded leaving Frio Caves in Texas last year.
Previously spotted in a video-installation at his inspired exhibition, Joy in People, at the Hayward Gallery earlier this year, Bats in Space, as the name suggests, sees these tiny creatures of the night winging in to an entirely central role.
“Most of the bats go about a mile up into the atmosphere,” he adds, apologising for briefly interrupting the interlude between early evening beers and a series of after-dark bat walks across Olympic east London. “But these are the ones that just stay around the cave.”
We can hear what sounds like bird tweets punctuated by heavy rain hitting a window. “If you’re a bug or some sort of mosquito, these are the sounds you really don’t want to hear. Because it means you’re going to be dead very, very soon.”
Even in the face of death (albeit among farmer-scorning pests), it’s hard not to raise a smile, not least because a lady from the Sussex Wildlife Trust is gingerly bringing bats the size of small prunes out of boxes at the back of the room, parading their miniature features under people’s noses as they doze on her soft white gloves.
Kate Jones, of project partners the Bat Conservation Trust, summarises different types of her chosen mammal as both the ugliest and loveliest creates she’s ever seen, and admits to being “completely in love with bats, although professionally I’m a statistician.”
But as with most things Deller gets involved with, there’s a serious side to the cutesy aesthetic which strikes resonance with any of the artists or explorers whose ranks he could be part of.
“One of the really cool things about bats is that they leak information about themselves into the environment,” explains Jones, calling their cries “a heartbeat for the environment.”
“The higher the frequency of the sound, the more detail you can hear and visualise. A high frequency sound has a short wavelength, so you can find out lots of detail about the environment.”
She worries momentarily about being over-scientific. But it’s simple enough, as those who venture on these echo-interpreting walks might discover.
“Low frequency waves don’t bounce back. It’s like the difference between seeing the leaves on a tree and seeing the tree itself. If you can see the calls you can tell loads about bats – you can use this information to trace them.”
Is this art or science? Organisers Invisible Dust have strong credentials in both, winning a Sustainable City Award from the London Mayor last year and currently overseeing Turner Prize nominee Elizabeth Price’s spell as the first ever artist-in-residence with Space Scientists at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.
Founder Alice Sharp, a former organiser of the Fourth Plinth programme, curates the project alongside Professor Peter Brimblecombe.
“He’s an atmospheric chemist who researches air pollution,” she recalls of their first meeting. “He told me that he measures dust through time. And I thought, ‘that sounds like an artist’s project, not a scientist’s.’
“If a scientist is doing that, there might be lots of artists who are interested in his and other scientist’s ideas and research.”
Sharp enlisted the imagination of Deller, whose Turner-winning 2004 film, Memory Bucket, was made in the same Texas caves where he followed the bats, and the knowledge of Jones, a University College London Professor with 20 years of bat studies under her wing.
“There are lots of things which bats provide to humans,” says Jones, defining their “ecosystem services”, dispersing pollen among “things like mangoes, bananas and crops like tequila.”
Almost three-quarters of the UK bat population disappeared during the last century. If no action is taken, one in five species face extinction in the next 50 years.
“This is about new ways of monitoring wildlife,” she adds.
“As a scientist, I try to look at these trends in wildlife patterns and predict what will happen in the future – and what effect it will have on us.”
- Visit Bats in Space for sounds and videos. Walks take place 9pm daily from Pudding Mill Dockland Light Railway Station. Tickets £5/£3, book online.
- Scientists have found a trade off between brain size and testicle size in bats – “smarter bats have smaller balls”, according to Bats in Space. Relative to body size, bat testicles are around eight times the size of human testicles.
- The 30 million Mexican free-tailed bats from Bracken Cave in Texas (near where Jeremy Deller’s film Memory Bucket is set) eat 250 tons of insects every summer night.
- Most bat mothers give birth to only a single pup each year, making them very vulnerable to extinction. Bats are the slowest reproducing mammals on earth for their size.
- The world's smallest mammal is the bumblebee bat of Thailand, which weighs about as much as a five pence piece and is critically endangered due to habitat loss.
- The pallid bat of western North America is totally immune to the stings of the scorpions and centipedes upon which it feeds.
- The first example of fellatio in animals has been found in bats.
- There are more than 1,200 known species of bats – about 20 percent of all mammal species. Most of these bats are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
- Many important agricultural plants, such as bananas, peaches, breadfruit, mangoes, cashews, almonds, dates and figs rely on bats for pollination and seed dispersal.
- All bats can see, but they have developed the use of echolocation for navigating and hunting at night. The echoes of their high-frequency sounds bounce back from even the smallest objects, giving them an exact location, size and even texture.
- Vampire bats adopt orphans, and are one of the few mammals known to risk their own lives to share food with less fortunate roost-mates.