Cthuluscene – by David Blandy & Claire Barrett

Cthuluscene from David Blandy on Vimeo.

Cthuluscene, David Blandy & Claire Barrett, 2020

Film transcript:

Can I ask you a question?
Smooth ancient bone, dry fur encased for a century, gelatinous bodies suspended, glowing in the darkness, a legacy of enquiry.

Naming is a way of containing something, of putting it in its box, as a known entity. A clean line to separate it from the messiness of existence. There are myths of true names, essential words that when spoken can bind the owner of the name. Without clear lines of control, how are we to navigate the world? All life is bound together, intertwined, united in the earth, the coal, the oil, layers of sediment in time.
I am not of faith. And in my life I have felt like an ant finding my way about in the mud. I had no feeling of fate. But everything seems to be building. We are all so different, but I can’t shake the feeling that we have been brought together, and that is a very foreign thought to me. Are we building something?
I have started to forget what it’s like to be without you people.
But do you choose not to act, knowing what you know? Or do you act, knowing that you may fail entirely? What’s our next move?

Viewing the natural world as separated from humans is not only ethically problematic but empirically false. Microorganisms in our gut aid digestion, while others compose part of our skin. Pollinators such as bees and wasps help produce the food we eat, while photosynthetic organisms such as trees and phytoplankton provide the oxygen that we need in order to live, in
turn taking up the carbon dioxide we expel.

In biology, taxonomy (from the Ancient Greek (taxis), meaning ‘arrangement’, and (-nomia), meaning ‘method’) is the science of naming, defining and classifying groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics. The urge to collect is overwhelming, to catch
them all. Each specimen is a step closer to omniscience. A small step away from oblivion. I saw one with alternate colours, and now I understand. “A dagger symbol placed next to the name of a species or other taxon normally indicates its status as extinct.”

Mass extinctions—when at least half of all species die out in a relatively short time—have happened a handful of times over the course of our planet’s history. The largest mass extinction event occurred around 250 million years ago, when perhaps 95 percent of all species went extinct. We’re in the midst of a great extinction now. And it is what we do now
that will define if we humans join that list.

They’ve been talking about change for decades but that’s all they do – talk.
We hang suspended, looking through eons, at who we were, who we could have become. Life, just a brief moment in the transformation of matter. Entropy gets you in the end.

Nature doesn’t go backwards. We have to embrace this new world of hybrids, form kinship from the common cause of survival.

This is your inheritance. A wealth of knowledge build on misconceptions and bias, a thousand thoughts about better worlds. But it’s your time now. We’ve been holding this gift for you, clumsily, packaged with useless baggage from history. These constructions, these clean lines cutting through geography, separating bodies, ignoring the physical and digital reality of flow. Gene flow. Data flow. All sunk beneath the rising tides. You laugh now, but we used to have to prove ourselves to be human- with papers, numbers and words.

This repository of flawed knowledge. The last specimen of an extinct species. That fur will never again glow with breath. But we know it lived. Once. But from these bones, from all this life and sacrifice, you will forge a new world. A world without lines.

Artist statement by Blandy & Barrett:

“Cthuluscene” (7 minutes, 4K Video) addresses the climate crisis and our collective future, through a close examination of our relationship to the concept of “nature”. Blandy & Barrett’s finely crafted film uses essayist voiceover, folk tales and poetry to create a meditation on the history of scientific inquiry and the parallel evolution of ideas, and what we do now that the paradigms of the post-industrial world are breaking down. Filmed at University College London’s Grant Museum of Zoology, the film “Cthuluscene” gazes at a history of enquiry, of classification and dissection made while some of the subjects of the investigation were falling extinct from colonial activity and the acceleration of climate change.

Through this process, “Cthuluscene” thinks about humanity’s place in the universe, the desire to order the chaos around us, and the myth of objectivity. The word Cthuluscene is a neologism combining a number of concepts; Encompassing Donna Haraway’s concept of the Chthulucene, where the philosopher proposed an epoch where refugees from environmental disaster (both human and non-human) will come together; fandoms that emerge around myths, such as H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, a terrible racist who created a persistent collective mythos; and the idea of the “scene” where people find common space from a shared situation, as sung about by Dinosaur Jr in “Freak Scene”.

Made with the generous support of Arts Council England. With thanks to University College London’s Grant Museum of Zoology
Hanna Drummond: Voiceover

“Cthuluscene” was shown at The Big Screen, Focal Point Gallery, Southend-On-Sea until Jan 26th as part of the associate programme for ‘The World After’ by David Blandy. It was also shown in an installation at ONCA Gallery, Brighton: 23rd January to 15th February 2020.

Lost Species Day: Black Lives Matter statement & event guidance

Industrial capitalism is driving a collapse in biodiversity and in numbers of wild animals. Many scientists agree that Earth is in the early stages of a sixth mass extinction. Lost Species Day (or Remembrance Day for Lost Species, or RDLS) was set up in 2011 in response to the speed with which extinct species disappear from collective memory. It is a chance to learn and think about extinctions, as well to do restoration work. 

Over the past decade, participants have held events on Lost Species Day, November 30th, to learn about and remember extinct species, and collectively acknowledge emotions such as grief and anxiety around ecological destruction. It is now vital that Lost Species Day be an actively anti-racist project, grounded in awareness that harms due to colonialism and resource extraction have been happening for centuries, and that communities around the world continue to endure conditions that many in the global north have tended to assume are in the future. Wretched of the Earth explain: 

‘[F]or many, the bleakness is not something of “the future”. For those of us who are indigenous, working class, black, brown, queer, trans or disabled, the experience of structural violence became part of our birthright. Greta Thunberg calls world leaders to act by reminding them that “Our house is on fire”. For many of us, the house has been on fire for a long time: whenever the tide of ecological violence rises, our communities, especially in the Global South are always first hit. We are the first to face poor air quality, hunger, public health crises, drought, floods and displacement.’

As some of the co-founders and long-term supporters of Lost Species Day, we are writing this statement to build on last year’s essay which asserted that Lost Species Day must be an anti-racist project. Here, we add that to be anti-racist, Lost Species Day must also be anti-capitalist. Modern species extinctions are driven by capitalism with its racist foundations. Wherever possible, environmental projects must address the uneven, unfair human impacts of environmental change. The original aims of Lost Species Day were politically inadequate in this regard.

The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 is an opportunity for transformation and justice. As people of colour and Black people across the globe have been saying for decades, environmental damage and climate change harm Black, Indigenous, POC and working class communities disproportionately. Any environmental initiative that fails to centre justice makes this problem worse. As Johnathan S Perkins puts it, 

“It’s long been time to reframe ‘racism’ more broadly. Knowingly or unknowingly accepting the ‘benefits’ of white supremacy, which are fueled exclusively by harm to non-white people = racism.” 

The white-dominated environmental movement in the global north, from which RDLS emerged, has a bad record of harm to Black, Indigenous and POC-led and economically marginalised communities and movements. The misanthropy and racism close to the surface for many interested in environmental and animal rights issues readily leads to ecofascist sentiments. As long term supporters of Lost Species Day, we acknowledge this history, and strive to move beyond it. In response to the deepening consciousness of the role of white supremacy and colonialism in human relations with the more-than-human, Lost Species Day commits to supporting the work and amplifying the leadership of environmental defenders of colour and to being active in the anti-racist, anti-capitalist environmental movement that works for a world beyond white supremacy. 

Grief for the Earth versus white tears

People everywhere, consciously or otherwise, are suffering psychic pain in varying degrees arising from the widespread fracturing of relations between the human and the more-than-human. Over and above this, Black, Indigenous and people of colour suffer additional trauma and injustice from historical and systemic abuses, inequities and erasures. 

Part of Lost Species Day’s value lies in its ability to interrupt the routines of consumerism and capitalism. By acknowledging emotions around ecological loss, and making collective spaces for them to be explored and grounded, the project can help strengthen resistance to capitalism and support the development of alternatives. The storytelling and remembering at Lost Species Day events and projects must therefore challenge the white (and class, and body, and gender) supremacy driving consumer capitalist culture. Capitalism, which is destroying the Earth, emerged from colonialism and slavery. Slavery has evolved into a global system based on inequality, where some lives are considered valuable and some are not. Projects that do not make the links between capitalism, ecological harms and social injustice are inadequate and uphold white supremacy. 

Environmental racism and pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic – driven by the ecological harms such as deforestation – has led to some emissions reductions because privileged behaviours like flying have been reduced. Overall, however, social and environmental harms continue to escalate, entrenching capitalism’s unfairness even as the system fails. 

Across the board, Black, Indigenous and people of colour are much more likely to be on the receiving end of structural violence than white people. A chaotic emergency economic slow-down has come at a heavy cost to millions of vulnerable people who have been forced (further) into poverty. Poor housing, bad air quality and inadequate sanitation worsen exposure to COVID-19 and other diseases. Combined with malnutrition, a lack of healthcare, environmental pollution and front-line jobs falling on people of colour, these unfair conditions have led to elevated COVID-related death rates in communities of colour. Environmental racism leads to, for example, increased asthma rates in Black and POC communities in cities. Heart and lung health are key factors in COVID-19 survival. 

Black Lives Matter

We are not suggesting a specific species/ ecological story for Lost Species Day events in 2020. Instead, we invite organisers, if they wish, to use this year’s RDLS as an opportunity to explore the ways in which white supremacy has shaped their organising spaces and thinking, and to consider how their work can or does contribute to and strengthen the growth of the intersectional environmental movement. We will host an online event in November on this topic with the specific intention of spending time learning together and moving forward in clear and energised ways that help embed anti-racism in all Lost Species Day activities going forward.

Lost Species Day is an artist-led project, with many events held by artists telling stories, and making space for stories to be heard, in ways that affect people deeply. As co-founders and advocates of Lost Species Day, we recognise the need for these cultural tools and practices, and we aim to support event organisers to tell fuller stories around extinction. So here is a brief guide to the kinds of activities and processes we encourage for Lost Species Day. We offer these suggestions in a spirit of collaboration and learning, reflecting on mistakes and moving beyond fragility and defensiveness, in service of a fundamental shift away from white supremacy in people’s bodies and minds. 

We encourage Lost Species Day event organisers to do the following:

  • Talk about species in their relevant cultural, ecological, historical and political contexts. E.g. if discussing extinction/ endangerment due to deforestation, think also about forest communities facing increased danger due to COVID-19 and persecution. Or, if your event marks the disappearance of a local bird, research the processes that drove this. Recognise and discuss how they harm some people and benefit others. Isolating animals from their context risks de-politicising extinctions and obscuring the webs of relationships that underpin biodiversity. 
  • Consider accessibility and inclusion. Work actively to amplify the perspectives of people affected by the drivers of extinction. Simplistic storytelling that reinforces frames that ‘other’ and exclude can be a kind of violence. Can you make the event feel safe and accessible for all prospective participants? Think about:
    • Who is organising the event? 
    • Who is invited? 
    • How is the event being promoted? 
    • Whose voices and stories will be heard? 
    • Whose memories will be shared? 
  • Think carefully if you are planning to use practices from cultures other than your own. If you are interested in a specific cultural practice, consider inviting someone grounded in that culture to lead or explore it with you. We recognise that this is a complex area, and that cultures emerge from many influences. 
  • Acknowledge and learn about colonial atrocities, past and ongoing, that underpin white supremacy. Structural racism is a foundational part of people’s contemporary lived experience in the UK and the global north, often unrecognised by white people. Events where white people grieve ecological loss may not feel like safe places for Black people and people of colour, who often face microaggressions and other harms when issues of racial violence are being addressed (or not) in mixed spaces. The attendance of non-white participants is not necessarily a marker of the success or inclusivity of an event. 
  • Build solidarity: listen to and amplify the voices of people on the front lines of ecological harm. Indigenous and place-based communities are the stewards of 80% of Earth’s intact biodiversity. Celebrate peoples who have been caring for biodiversity and resisting climate change and colonialism for centuries. 
  • Support, amplify and donate to Black and indigenous environmental activists and environmental organisations. Read, follow – and where relevant offer platforms to – Black and indigenous scientists, scholars, artists and thinkers (see resource list below for further inspiration). 

Whilst recognising and feeling the brokenness of the system that centres whiteness, we encourage organisers to avoid simplistic storytelling by celebrating resilience, resistance and emergence. In the face of grievous harms, incorporate care into your practices. The work of Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing offers inspiration here, along with elements of queer and disability studies.  Confronting and working to dismantle white supremacy is a messy and difficult process with no end in sight. We hope that Lost Species Day offers opportunities to explore ways of working creatively with grief in the service of equity and justice. We offer these thoughts and suggestions on Lost Species Day as ideas rather than answers, in a spirit of shared learning. Please share your experiences and feedback with us – we value your efforts, and we invite dialogue, critique and compassion.

In solidarity,

Persephone Pearl
Bridget McKenzie
Emily Laurens
Rebecca Leach McDonald
Rachel Porter
Laura Coleman
Camilla Schofield
Nigel Rayment
Azul Thome
Ben Mali Macfadyen

Resources and further reading

Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures collective

Suzanne Dhaliwal climate justice creative

Intersectional Environmentalist 

Queer Nature Climate Reframe 

Wretched of the Earth 

Voices That Shake

Principles of Environmental Justice

Hot Take podcast

Global Witness: Defending Tomorrow