The Role of Art in Ecological Transformation – by Rosamond Portus

Extinction is not a formulaic process that abides to a singular set of rules and experiences. Rather, ‘extinction is experienced, resisted, measured, enunciated, performed, and narrated in a variety of ways to which we must attend’ (De Vos, 2007; van Doreen, 2014 cited in Rose, van Doreen and Chrulew, 2017). Explorations of loss manifest themselves differently across varying disciplines, sites and individuals. Therefore, to approach the study of extinction we must be prepared to engage with the varying range of disciplines, sites and narratives that are actively participating in dialogues of loss and extinction. One such way I am seeking to do this in my own research is by looking beyond the boundaries of academia, and asking how both art as a discipline and artists as individuals are responding to matters of extinction. This focus point led me to the gallery ONCA , based in Brighton. ONCA is bringing together a diverse and global range of artists to engage with the ‘Remembrance Day  for Lost Species 2017’ (RDLS). ONCA has been observing Remembrance Day for Lost Species for around six years now, and this year’s theme is specifically upon lost pollinators. ONCA’s aim is to offer a space or site in which people can begin to, or further, engage with the feelings of loss and grief that are so closely intertwined with experiences of extinction. The reach of RDLS has been global, with artists from all walks of life observing the day, and creating art in response to it. It is written on their website that:  

Remembrance Day for Lost Species, November 30th, is a chance each year to explore the stories of species, cultures, lifeways and habitats driven extinct by unjust power structures and exploitation, past and ongoing.

 It emphasises that these losses are rooted in violent, racist and discriminatory economic and political practices. It provides an opportunity for people to renew commitments to all that remains, and supports the development of creative and practical tools of resistance.

I joined ONCA for a workshop meeting to discuss the upcoming RDLS, as well as to visit the artists that are using their creative skills to open up a space in which to think about and explore feelings of environmental grief. Specifically, the grief we feel for many of the species that are being lost in the modern world. What became evident to me was that the topic of extinction has reached far beyond the realms of natural sciences, to which it was traditionally confined, and has begun to trigger responses from individuals from an extensive range of backgrounds, interests and cultures.

But what is the role of art in helping us question the current ecological state, and shaping the future of ecology? As Robert Macfarlane (2016) recently asked: ‘How might a novel or a poem possibly account for our authorship of global-scale environmental change across millennia – let alone shape the nature of that change?’. Yet, artistic interest in ecological matters is a core way in which individuals outside of the environmental or academic spheres have begun to question the assumptions about humans’ place on Earth, and grapple with the uncertainties of our impacts upon ecosystems, environments and non-human others. From speaking to those involved in RDLS it is clear that artistic expression, whether it be fine art, performance art or sculptural art, has the ability to reach out to a diverse range of audiences and evoke powerful questions regarding the state of the world around us.

In answer to Macfarlane, I would contend that art has a powerful role in both representing and influencing the perceptions and assumptions of the society within which it is being created and practiced. Art performs, but it also challenges, questions, engages and creates new forms of knowledge. As the global involvement in RDLS has shown, it can reach out across the world and capture the attention of people of many different cultures and backgrounds, engaging us in the key questions that need to be addressed about the future of all living creatures on Earth. 

 

References: 

De Vos, R. (2007). “Extinction Stories: Performing Abscence(s).” In: Knowing Animals. Edited by: Laurence Simmons and Philip Armstrong. Leiden: Brill. pp. 183-195. 

MacFarlane, R. (2016). Generation Anthropocene: How Humans Have Altered the Plant Forever. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/01/generation-anthropocene-altered-planet-for-ever. Last Accessed 14th November, 2017. 

Rose, D.B., Van Doreen, T. and Chrulew, M. (2017). Introduction: Telling Extinction Stories. In: Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death and Generation. Edited by: Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Doreen, and Matthew Chrulew. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 1-17.

Van Doreen, T. (2014). Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. New York: Coumbia University Press. 

Article shared with the permission of the author. See more at https://www.extinction-network.com

Decolonizing against extinction part I: extinction is violence – by Audra Mitchell

This essay is reproduced with permission from the author Audra Mitchell from her blog: 

Western scientists* are proclaiming the start of a ‘sixth mass extinction event’ that may involve the destruction of more than three quarters of earth’s currently-existing life forms. In their attempts to explain this phenomenon, most scientists have converged around four major, interlinked drivers: climate change, habitat destruction, species exchange, and the direct killing of plants and animals. In most cases, these drivers are understood as the unintended consequences of generic ‘human’ activity, and as a result of desirable trends such as development or urbanization (Wilson 2002; Barnosky 2014Ceballos 2016).

A crucial driver is missing from this list: transversal structural violence against Indigenous peoples and their relations, and colonial violence in particular.

Structural violence’  involves systemic forms of harm, exclusion and discrimination that disproportionately affect particular groups, and which can take many forms (physical, psychological, economic, gendered and others). They are embedded in and expressed through political, cultural, economic and social structures (Farmer 2009) that can persist across large spans of time and space. I use the term ‘transversal’ to refer to forms of structural violence that extend across multiple boundaries – not only those of nation-states, but also other kinds of nations (human and otherwise), communities or kinship groups, and temporalities. Prime examples of transversal structural violence include: settler colonialism, colonial genocides (Woolford et al 2014); environmental racism  or ‘slow violence’, including toxification and pollution;  and complexes of sexual, physical, communal, spiritual and land-based violence associated with the extractive industries.

Each of these forms of violence is ecologically devastating, and their convergence in European projects of colonisation is even more so. Many formations of transversal structural violence are significant causes of the so-called ‘four horsemen’ of extinction mentioned above. For instance, ‘direct killing’ is carried out to clear land for settlement, and it occurs as a result of ecological damage caused by resource extraction. Settler colonialism, carbon-based economies and regimes of environmental racism also support forms of socio-economic organization (for instance, carbon and energy-intensive urbanized societies) that intensify climate change and increase habitat destruction. Meanwhile, colonization has played a significant role in the ongoing transfer of life forms across the planet – whether unintentionally (e.g. the transfer of fish in the bilge water of ships); as an instrument of agricultural settlement (e.g. cattle ranching), or as a deliberate strategy of violence (e.g. smallpox).

However, transversal structural violence is a driver of extinction in itself, with its own distinct manifestations. First, it involves the disruption or severance of relations and kinship structures between humancommunities and other life forms, and the dissolution of Indigenous systems of governance, laws and protocols that have co-created and sustained plural worlds over millennia (Borrows 2010Atleo 2012Kimmerer 2013). Second, the destruction of Indigenous knowledges through policies of assimilation, expropriation, cultural appropriation and other strategies undermines these forms of order and the relationships they nurture. Third, the displacement of and/or restricted access to land by Indigenous peoples interferes with practices of caring for land or Country that are necessary for the survival of humans and other life forms (Bawaka Country 2015). Colonial genocides embody all of these forms of destruction by killing or displacing Indigenous communities, undermining Indigenous modes of governance and kinship systems, systematically destroying relationships between life forms and erasing knowledge. All of these modes of violence weaken co-constitutive relationships between Indigenous communities, other life forms and ecosystems that have enabled their collaborative survival. This results in disruptions to ecosystems – and climate – that  Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte (2016) has recently argued would have been considered a dystopia by his Ancestors.

In other words, transversal structural violence, and colonial violence in particular, are fundamental drivers of global patterns of extinction. It stands to reason, then, that responses to extinction that focus on managing endangered species or populations, or ‘backing up’ genetic material, are insufficient: they leave the structures of violence intact and may add to their power. Instead, efforts to address extinction need to focus on identifying, confronting and dismantling these formations of violence, and on restoring or strengthening the relations they sever.

Yet responses to global patterns of extinction are overwhelmingly rooted in Western scientific concepts of conservation – a paradigm that emerged within 20th century European colonial government structures (Adams 2004). Contemporary conservation approaches – from the creation of land and marine parks to the archiving of genetic materials – may exacerbate the destruction of relations between Indigenous peoples and their relations. For instance, conservation strategies often involve displacing Indigenous peoples from the land that they care for (Jago 2017Brockington and Igoe 2006), or curtailing of processes such as subsistence hunting, fishing or burning that have enabled the co-survival of Indigenous groups, plants, animals and land for millennia. Meanwhile, ex situ and genetic forms of conservation (including zoos and gene banks) may violate these relationships by instrumentalizing or commodifying kinship relations. Increasingly popular conservation approaches based on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) approaches claim to center Indigenous communities and knowledges. However, they ultimately instrumentalize fragments of Indigenous knowledge systems (for instance, data on climatic change) to test or support Western approaches. As such, they leave the structures of colonization and other forms of transversal structural violence untouched, and may even exacerbate them.

All of this suggests that confronting global patterns of extinction calls for decolonization and other ethos that work to eliminate transversal structural violence – and I don’t mean this metaphorically. Enabling the restoration of relations that can enable the ongoing flourishing of life on earth will require the transfer of land and power back into plural Indigenous peoples and their distinct modes of sovereignty, law and governance (Tuck and Yang 2012). These relationships and forms of order have enabled plural Indigenous peoples and their multitude of relations to co-flourish for millennia, including through periods of rapid climate change, and they are needed to ensure the continuation of this co-flourishing. This means that decolonization is not simply related to global patterns of extinction: it is necessary to ensuring the ongoingness of plural life forms on earth.

* see: (Barnosky et al 2011Ceballos et al 2015Régnier et al 2015; McCauley et al 2015WWF 2016; Brook and Alroy 2017)

Featured photo credit: Tar Sands, Alberta (cc) Dru Oja Jay, Dominion. http://bit.ly/2v3I4f7 

Bugonia – by Nessa Darcy

Admiranda tibi levium spectacula rerum.
I’ll tell of tiny things that make a show well worth your admiration. 

– Virgil

Bugonia is an exhibition of prints, paintings and sound art by creative entomologist Nessa Darcy. Nessa aims to reintroduce humans to their natural habitat through colourful encounters with insects. Much of the work was created during the Bee Time artists’ residency, where a hive of diverse artists engaged with the themes of natural beekeeping and the bee’s relationship with its environment, through discussion, meditation, movement, skill sharing, storytelling, art making, shamanic practices, farm visits and simply “asking the bees”.

Bugonia is an ancient ritual based on the belief that bees could be spontaneously generated from the carcass of an ox, as described in Virgil’s Georgics. To the artist, it represents our tangled relationship with nature. Humans feel, simultaneously:

  • a detachment from factual ecological knowledge;
  • wonder and fear at the forces of nature;
  • and a longing to restore that which we need but have destroyed.

The word also sounds like an appropriate name for an insects’ utopia, which we have the power to preserve and create. Both wonder and knowledge are key to rescuing insects from the rapid decline they are currently suffering “because we don’t love them enough” (Roger Druitt). To love insects requires understanding who they are and what they need.

Nessa’s work draws people in to familiarise themselves intimately with insects. For more information on Nessa’s work, visit her website.