‘Beast-Footed Feathered Serpents’

In 'Beast-Footed Feathered Serpents,' artist Jules Buck Jones and writer Caitlin Haskell playfully call into question the facts we use as human beings to make sense of the world.

Arts Review

"Beast-Footed Feathered Serpents"

testsite, through Aug. 27

Would you recognize 34-million-year-old dinosaur droppings if you saw them? What about a pterodactyl scream? In fact, how do we know that dinosaurs really look anything like the way we draw, construct, and imagine them? It's possible, isn't it, that what paleontologists are calling a thigh bone on a tyrannosaurus was actually a stomach appendage known only to the prehistoric ages? And the fact is, well ... the facts are ... um, what were the facts again?

In "Beast-Footed Feathered Serpents," Jules Buck Jones and Caitlin Haskell, at the invitation of Austin's innovative artistic think tank known as Fluent Collaborative, have put together a provocative project that questions the facts – not just the facts about dinosaurs but all the facts we use as human beings to make sense of the world around us. The result is an epistemological treasure hunt without maps – or, more precisely, a playful scrutiny of the collection of facts and markers we call maps, laden with heavy doubt about the possibility of treasures in general and riddled with self-directed laughter. The map-markers for knowledge brought up for examination include a collection of POWERfacts. The smalls stack of cards that contain these short, pithy clues-to-remember about any beast in question go beyond imaginative description, yet come from sources which purport to hold scientific validity. For example, did you know, "Some species of weasel have been reported to perform a 'hypnotic dance' in front of prey, which appears to mesmerize it"? (With some stretch, the same stack of POWERfacts might have easily included the same intelligence that Colin Powell presented the United Nations prior to our invasion of Iraq.) Yet facts or no facts, the question that remains throughout "Beast-Footed Feathered Serpents" is this: How do we know that what we are seeing, or reading about, is anything close to "true" in regard to the thing we think we are observing? A series of drawings by Jones, depicting reconfigured dinosaur bones, leads one to wonder about all the other possible options for bone-connections from the fossils we've been left to make sense of. And while the cleanly drawn works – which include a visual pen-and-ink index of all the birds listed in the Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Birds and the sharp, jovial drawings of Peterson's field guides on Atlantic and Pacific aquatic life – are beautiful, humorous, and fascinating in their exhaustive detail, it is the dinosaur drawings by Jones, washed with tones of aqua and yellow, that sum up the project.

I admit that what I have outlined here are just map-markers no different from those on display in the exhibit. "Beast-Footed Feathered Serpents" is a collaboration between an artist (Jones) and a writer (Haskell). You may draw your own conclusions from the facts they set forth for your consideration, but if they had chosen their facts differently from the same pile of nearly infinite options, would you have drawn the same conclusion? This stellar testsite is a timely reminder that facts, be they Paleolithic, artistic, or political, can often look a lot more like faith, and even subtle coercion, than many of us "rationalists" would like to admit.

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Beast-Footed Feathered Serpents, testsite, Jules Buck Jones, Caitlin Haskell, Fluent Collaborative

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