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.
I said I would not forget, and I want to write to you, disembodied totem spirit of an ex-thing that I probably don’t believe in, because I want to bear witness, to envision the end of an existence.
It was, of course, absurd. My friend reminded me of this as we waded out to a bench on the edge of a flooded pond carrying a paper replica island towards a herd of confused and curious swans. How could it be otherwise?
Firstly death just is. At an individual level – not in a jolly Halloween cartoon Grim Reaper way, but in a deep epistemological way. We humans can’t comprehend the absence of existence. And we don’t like it. It unsettles us.
It is a further step to imagine the death of something that you didn’t know existed in the first place. That is a loss of opportunity. But also a leap into a gap which the imagination or unconsciousness might fill with projections. My own are of failing to protect something innocent and precious. Was that really you, Bramble Cay Melomys?
I also spend time thinking about rats. Attentive readers will have noticed in the sister post how quickly I conflated the unknown extinct rodent with the common rat. The analogy becomes more problematic when we consider that the survival of the melomys, until climate change finally did for it, occurred mainly because occasional human visitors to Bramble Cay had failed to bring with them the opportunistic and competing rodents which had caused the extinction of other ground-living island dwellers in the area. Real things are always fucking up our best metaphors. But still, as a familiar example of undervalued beings in our midst, rats work pretty well. We are to be observed by several as we launch our craft.
Around the time of the commemoration I saw an artwork by Marcus Coates. Entitled Extinct Animals it is composed of plaster castes of the artist’s arms, hands or even fingers as he makes shadow figures of various extinct animals. Some of these are frankly very schematic, but that doesn’t really affect the impact much. These creatures no longer cast a shadow, so…
I’ve been drawn to Marcus’ work for several years and soon afterwards I was able to see him talk about it. He described his fascination in embodying a message of communication of some kind – and I’ve noticed that this is often across a barrier of some sort, of time, kind, language or even, and often, species. I’ve watched him being interviewed as a Blue Footed Booby on Galapagos TV, attend a community meeting in a condemned council block wearing a deer skull on his head before going into a shamanistic trance, choreograph a number of volunteers sitting in their cars, living rooms and waiting rooms into a replica of the dawn chorus, and take a question from a man dying in a hospice on a journey to and from an ageing woman in a hut in the Peruvian Amazon. Here he is, encouraging a Canadian island community to apologise to the extinct great auks which used to live there.
None of these admirable projects look anything other than absurd. But they do encourage a way of connecting which is uncanny, disorientating and affecting. I think they tug around our felt senses.
Within the growing field of climate anxiety is a recognition that our response to the evidence of climate change is also necessarily un-canny, and will feel at least some part absurd.
We have the notion that Tim Morton draws from object-orientated ontology of the ‘strange stranger’, the thing that we can only encounter in a phenomenological way without prejudice or preconception, and the hyperobjects he develops from that way of thinking ( I’d suggest that extinction is another hyperobject that is spreading through us at the moment, like a lump of indissoluble plastic). In the more cautious and classical philosophical position laid out by Jonathan Lear in Radical Hope,
We do not have to agree with Plato that there is a transcendent source of goodness – that is a source of goodness that transcends the world – to think that the goodness of the world transcends our finite powers to grasp it. The emphasis here is not on some mysterious source of goodness, but on the limited nature of our finite conceptual resources. This, I think most readers will agree, is an appropriate response for finite creatures like ourselves. Indeed, it seems oddly inappropriate – lacking in understanding of oneself as a finite creature – to think that what is good about the world is exhausted by our current understanding of it. Even the most strenuously secular readers ought to be willing to accept this form of transcendence. (pp.121-2, 2006)
Lear’s ‘hero’ ( I think that is fair), the Crow chief Plenty Coups, uses a dream he has interpreted to suggest that his tribe should give up their traditional virtues, and find an accommodation with the crushing forces of American colonisation, which would (and indeed did) allow them to retain their identity and integrity. His message, however, is that in a situation when our known virtues clearly no longer protect us we must search beyond.
We must find new ways of thinking – whether these come to us from overlooked Indigenous traditions, cyber-identities, art practice, experimental philosophies or paradigm shifts in science. All of these are fruitful responses to the crisis of the Anthropocene.
As, I think, psychogeography might be. Psychogeography is a child of situationism, but has been dallying with shamanism for a while too. Being inhabited, haunted, dealing with the margins, and the supplements are the business of our trade – using the tricksterish slogan of ‘Seeing Things As They Really Are’ (@Tim Smith) which suggests we live in an illusion of some sort, and that our imaginations might find a reality that is somehow missing (although of course what is missing might in fact be our imagination).
So digging into this methodology I decided I wanted to create a funeral representation of the absent and unknown creatures.
I don’t actually have these kinds of craft skills – which is, of course, entirely the point. We end up with a green paper tray covered in straw and leaves I gathered from the edges of a new semi-permanent floodpond near my home, some sugar mice purchased hurriedly in something that felt like a drug deal from an olde sweetie shop, and used to mould others out of moss and used kitchen towels, purslane seeds (which apparently grew on Bramble Cay), and some Australian incense (which wouldn’t light in the stormwinds of Edinburgh in February). The frustrations, dead ends, ineptness and questing for meaning is what I know to be grief work. It is a process to enter that only gives partial outcomes, and usually leaves you somewhere (else).
Despite the perceived increase in eutrophication (and sugar content) of the already heavily polluted pond, the freezing conditions, and the herd of swans, we launched the tray, which floated out on the strong westerly into the mid distance and sank gradually beneath the water. My friend said it was like watching a feeling happen.
As I struggled with the process of representation I faced the futility, cost and projections in my task, I was able to ignore or avoid my own decay, overfeed my domestic guest rodents, and engage with what go missing with extinction. The answer as the ecologist, Daniel Jansen* says in terms of biology, and the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose echoes in human terms, is an opportunity to connect, potentially or actually.
As my work sank under the water, unnoticed by the rest of the world, I felt something of that loss. I may have murmured melomys rubicola under my breath without needing to know exactly what it meant.
As we looked for a site for extinction day commemorations I checked out the National Museum of Scotland (NMS). I had only a mild hope that I might find a melomys amongst the stuffed animal collection. What I did find was a display board listing some animals which had become extinct – which did not include the melomys or indeed any other animals which had disappeared since 2010. Which gave the commemoration another more practical focus.
The list of extinct animals I was then to send to the NMS ( including only mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and freshwater fish) covering only the years 2017-19, and based only on two reputed websites and a cursory check of the IUCN Red List data base, contained 25 names. It excludes those creatures which live on only in human captivity, which we are best able to watch die out (like the Northern Rhinoceros or the Spixx Macaw). Some of the species have been declared extinct more than once, as a specimen occasionally blunders out of the undergrowth in some unlooked-for place (usually at around the time it is being levelled to make way for human activity). Others were only ‘created’ as species after they were gone. So its not really an exact science, but really neither is speciation, which is looking increasingly like an Anthropocene construction.
But what is not in doubt is that many, many types of animals are disappearing and that everywhere in the world the trend is for a reduction in variety and overall number of non-domestic animals. We are living in an age of mass extinction, which human activity is ultimately responsible for. For most of our existence as humans we acknowledged our kinship with other creatures, and it is only in the transformations to capitalism that philosophy and science have created these divisions (and which belatedly both are now striving to close).
To see extinction as a hyperobject is to see it extending, largely unnoticed, into numerous dimensions of existence. Some of these are exemplified in the specific losses noticed by Jansen and Bird Rose – the destabilisation of ecosystems (one wonders what is happening to Bramble Cay without its main herbivore, for example) and the loss of cultural resources (for example the oft-quoted Lost Words which have vanished from the everyday vocabulary of our children), and others are there buried in our psyche. We watch wildlife documentaries, are shamed or activated by images of turtles with plastic around their necks , and maybe are beginning to perceive morality in terms of reducing our environmental impact (or reacting against those perceptions in aggressive, nationalistic justifications of our privilege).
Around us a shadow army of pets, parasites and animal crops provide us with a distorted connection to that legacy. We are becoming used to finding our friends grieving their pets, upset by the truth of food production, or shocked by the running over of roadkill. Grief is, after all, grief, and I suspect that the central part of it is the shock of how fragile life is. Our life.
After some correspondence and a brief protest action the NMS offered me a dialogue about how they commemorate extinction as part of climate change. Can I ask them to do it absurdly? I’d like there to be a way in which connections disappear, and the visitor is left increasingly in a void. Ideally this might be subtle, but colour and noise or smell would disappear. Or there is a game where it becomes a choice of what to save, but the choice has unintended consequences. Or they could suddenly find that all the exhibits in the lower level are under three feet of water.
I realise now that I am going to have to end the article. And in doing so I will feel the loss of the Bramble Cay Melomys, and the rich connections I’ve had from virtually knowing them. And I will also remember the list of the other known, unknown animals which I’ve learnt about after their end. And think about the unknown, unknown animals I haven’t learnt about. Yet, or more probably, at all. And now I see the image of Sadness from the film Inside Out, who I think should be there to meet us at the exit of the new exhibit. I’m with her now.
* What escapes the eye when species go extinct is a much more insidious extinction – that of ecological interactions.
The subject of extinction also touches on culture, environmental justice, and race. Even within the same ethnicity or country, there are huge differences between the culture where a person comes from and the culture where they live. This doesn’t only affect human beings – it is mirrored in the lives of animals in the wild and in cities. In my own country, Taiwan, this can be seen in the story of Orchid Island.
Orchid Island, or Ponso No Tao – ‘a place for living’ – is off the southeastern coast of Taiwan. The islanders are mostly aboriginal Taiwanese: Tao people, who work as farmers and fishermen living closely with nature. Tragically, Orchid Island is best known in relation to the issue of nuclear waste. A nuclear waste storage facility was built at the southern tip of the island in 1982. It continues to receive waste from Taiwan’s three nuclear power plants. Islanders did not have a say in the decision to locate the facility on the island. This happens in lots of communities in the world: often people don’t even have a chance to speak out. I am grateful to have a chance to bring it up here, whether it arouses grief, rebellion or simply awareness.
By conveying the messages of Lost Species Day through images and a story close to my life, I intend to create conversations with people of all ages. Trying to see things with a more childlike sensibility gives space for imagination. Choosing a flying fish as a narrator not only symbolises the aboriginal people but also gives a voice to this beautiful animal who cannot vocalise its suffering. My goal is to raise awareness of environmental injustices and create a conversation about the impacts of capitalism.
Sonia Boyce, MBE is a British artist, activist, curator and academic whose work features decolonial, participatory and ecological themes. She began working in the 1980s and quickly became a central figure in the black British art scene at the time – in 1987 she was the first black female artist to be exhibited at the Tate.
Her work began as an exploration of self and her position and visibility as a black British woman in contemporary British society. From observations of her race and gender, Boyce’s work has opened up to become more collaborative, encouraging discussions of similar themes.
One piece of work that chimes with Remembrance Day for Lost Species is Boyce’s recent commission to work on the Crossrail Elizabeth line near the docks in the east London borough of Newham, the area where the artist grew up. It will be the longest artwork in the UK, a mural that stretches 1.8km through Custom House, Silvertown and Woolwich. The theme of the mural is a kind of local ecology. Earlier this year, she worked with local residents as part of the research process, through oral histories and knowledge evolving from pub quizzes. This cooperative process is a defining feature of Boyce’s work and feeds into a decolonial theme of art being created by the people it is for; grassroots rather than top-down.
Boyce has said that she is interested in place and “site specific” work. In her proposal video for the Crossrail mural which Boyce of course won, she cites the London docklands as “the gateway to Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world” in terms of empire and trade. She is particularly interested in the people that live in and have passed through the docks and their relationship with British culture.
Boyce has woven local species into the mural. In her conversation with Frieze Magazine, she talks about a species of bombadier beetle which is found exclusively in the docks and its connection with the history of the place. In 2006 a colony of 61 Streaked bombadier beetles was rediscovered in the docklands after having been presumed extinct since 1928. This has led to concerns about protecting the areas of brownfield land in East London – prime land for developers and the “upscaling” and inevitable extinction of local communities, human or otherwise.
Since the 1990s, Boyce’s work has evolved with participation as a defining feature. Boyce herself considers this important and central to her method; visible in the way that she worked with Newham residents and community groups to create the Crossrail mural. Looking through a geopolitical lens, the timing of the Elizabeth line is problematic. Boroughs like Newham, previously a working-class, disenfranchised area, are now witnessing an unprecedented period of gentrification. Crossrail, which prides itself on connecting London and the South East, seems opportune and provokes questions about why it is only now that South East London is being connected to central London with a “state-of-the-art” railway.
With this in mind, Boyce’s process, working with local people and communities, relates directly to one of the issues that Remembrance Day for Lost Species seeks to consider: exploring stories of cultures driven to extinction by unjust power structures. The mural not only remembers but celebrates the history of the area in all its forms, of people, of local flora and fauna, and of the diverse cultures which have created what it has been and will be.
Another example of Boyce’s work as starting a dialogue is her “takeover” of Manchester Art Gallery in January of this year. It involved collaboration to discuss two controversial paintings, one of which, Hylas and the Nymphs (by John William Waterhouse, 1896), features unsettling portrayals of women. Boyce started a dialogue about this piece and gender binary representations with a local drag group and museum staff, which culminated in on-site performances, an art piece in itself. During Boyce’s takeover, the painting was temporarily removed, which caused a furore about censorship, criticisms which Boyce has addressed in her conversation with the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins.
Boyce’s work promotes conversation and thoughts about local communities’ role in creating art and questioning structures of power. Remembrance Day for Lost Species goes far beyond the animals and plants themselves, and seeks to bring the themes that Boyce discusses in her work – of race, class, gender and how the identities within these classifications are being threatened – to the fore.
Cloe Ofori is a writer and researcher based in Brighton, England.
For the last 5 years I have been in the habit of producing a collection of work each year according to my own brief. Usually this is an idea that forms within the completion of the previous year and then I have to fight with myself to abandon that one and get on with the new.
And so it was as last year’s Remembrance Day for Lost Species exhibition was being hung that I had begun my Hallowed Ground project. This idea hadn’t come to me fully formed and I’d had to do a lot of casting around for the inspiration to sort of glue together. Part of my process was to research ways that other cultures mark their grief, their death customs. This had led me to discover the practice of Sky Burial and Air Sacrifice.
Both practices are types of excarnation, whereby the corpse is placed outside to be exposed to the elements and scavenging animals. In the Mongolian practice of air sacrifice, I discovered the specific ritual of outlining the body with stones, and when the body has completely degenerated back into the natural world, the space within the stones has become a sacred space.
I found this very moving. Considering this concept and applying it to the world’s most critically endangered species made me think about how their habitats have become so rarefied and equally as threatened as to require reverence. The idea of a negative space as an artistic device representing an extremely special, precious and rare place.
I began to research animals on the IUCN Red List that are classified as Critically Endangered but that also have severely threatened habitats. My intention was to create a representation of their home that was both faithful and fantastical. A grave and an afterlife. A place that draws the viewer in to explore, hopefully to delight, and then to ask questions to discover the story of this rare and absent friend.
Rio Pescado Stubfoot Toad
The Rio Pescado Stubfoot toad is so critically endangered that it may already be extinct. It lives in a tiny scrap of Ecuadorian lowland forest that is dwindling away, and lives nowhere else. Indeed, it’s loss of habitat due to agriculture, logging and pollution is the main threat to its existence. One third of all frogs and toads are on the verge of extinction, suffering an 80% loss in the last 3 decades.
The large tooth sawfish is one of the rarest fish in the world, and a living dinosaur, existing for 60 million years at least. Degradation of their preferred habitat of shallow coastal estuaries has removed them from 95% of their historical range. The sawfish has suffered a population decline of 80% since the ‘60s.
Pygmy Three-Toed Sloth
The Pygmy three-toed sloth is found only in a tiny area of red mangrove forest on Isla Escudo de Veraguas, Panama. Despite being an uninhabited island and designated a protected landscape, a number of domestic and international efforts have been mounted to develop tourism on the island. In addition, their mangrove habitat is also threatened, with one in six species facing extinction.
Seychelles Sheath-Tailed Bat
One of the world’s rarest mammals, only found on the Seychelles islands of Silhouette and Mahe, there are estimated only 30-100 individuals remaining. Roosting in granite boulder caves, an introduced invasive species of vine block the cave entrances and reduce insect availability, already in decline due to pesticide use.
A very small and beautiful tortoise only found in the Cape Floral Kingdom of South Africa. In fact, this is the only species in this series classed as Endangered (not Critically), however destruction of more than 90% of its habitat, an extraordinarily botanically diverse area, itself classed critically endangered as well as ‘100% irreplaceable’, earned its place.
This otherworldly electric blue arachnid only exists in the dry deciduous forest of Andhra Pradesh, India. Its habitat is rapidly degrading due to logging and firewood harvesting. Population size is unknown but the combination of a tiny natural range and pressure from illegal pet trade paints a sad picture.
Kate Tume is an embroidery artist from Brighton, East Sussex who first learned her craft at her mother’s knee. She attended the Surrey Institute of Art and Design as a Fashion and Illustration student, but is largely self-taught in hand-embroidery techniques. Kate’s work is influenced by folklore, mythology, burial customs and the old Gods. She is currently working on projects around our disappearing natural world, and lost species.
During the summer of 2017, British artist Marcus Coates travelled to Fogo Island, Newfoundland, to ask for an official apology to be given the Great Auk, a flightless bird once numerous around the island, but extinct since 1844 due to excessive hunting. The resulting film, Apology to the Great Auk documents a sincere attempt by the community of Fogo Island, through the specially appointed apology committee, to respond and learn from the loss of what can only now be imagined.
You can read the full text of the Apology on Marcus’ website here.
Marcus’ work uses a wide range of means to delve into the more-than-human world. It’s often participatory and often uses ritual. Well-known projects include The Trip and Arrivals/Departures, Rituals. Ask The Wild is an ongoing series of panel events that ask what can be learned from other species to inform the problems and questions about human society. This year, Marcus made Extinct Animals, a collection of cast hands depicting different animal species whose extinctions were caused by humans.
Extinction Witness and Giant Puppets Save the World connected at Bioneers in 2016 and again this year. Our gratitude goes to Bioneers for the annual conference and year-round communications, which serve as a hub for inspired networking and creative, healing collaborations.
The Xerces blue (Glaucopsyche xerces) is an extinct species of butterfly in the gossamer-winged butterfly family. The species lived in coastal sand dunes of the Sunset District of San Francisco peninsula. The Xerces blue is believed to be the first American butterfly species to become extinct as a result of loss of habitat caused by urban development. The last Xerces blue was seen in 1941 or 1943.
Silent Spring is the title of Rachel Carson’s book published in 1962 warning of the impending environmental disaster of unbridled industrial pesticide manufacture and use. This sound piece refers both directly and indirectly to Carson, related or inspired work such as Massive Attack’s track Silent Spring, Steven Stucky’s symphonic poem of the same title, as well as crop spraying and extracts from David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Maggie Gee’s The Ice People. The work is a lament and dreaming of reversal knowing what otherwise lies ahead.