How can one represent extinction, or the possibility of mass extinction? It’s always difficult to find ways of (re)presenting abstract ideas, but extinction seems to pose an additional challenge. Rather than an event or an object, it’s an unhappening, an unbecoming, an accumulation of absences, whether acknowledged or ignored. And how can one represent a phenomenon that’s unfolding at a planetary level (even a cosmic one, if we consider that the only known life is on Earth), and at the level of genes? It may be difficult and not entirely possible to do so. However, I think it’s crucial to multiply the modes of engagement with extinction if humans are to engage responsively with it. So I’ve been grappling with these questions in my latest art project, as my own small contribution to the project of multiplying responsiveness.
I started by exploring how extinction is depicted in various popular sources. I looked at the photos that accompany statistics on rates of extinction in newspapers and policy reports, as well as the covers of popular books on extinction. What most of these sources had in common was that they used organisms – and almost always animals – to represent extinction In other words, they focused on the positive presence of the creatures whose (impending) absence they are intended to draw attention to. What’s more, they tend to provide figural depictions of these organisms, reflecting them as whole, integral bodies.
The most (literally) monumental example of this is the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory (MEMO) project currently being built on the island of Portland off the south coast of Dorset. The structure is ostensibly inspired by the fossils of extinct arthropods found on the island, and will be hewn out of the granite in which these fossils are embedded. It is intended to function as a ‘cathedral of biodiversity’, a ‘place of mourning and warning’ (and a fee-charging tourist destination). The building comprises an inner atrium housing a bell that will be rung each time a species is declared extinct. Visitors will ascend to the top of the building on a spiral walkway, whose walls will be inscribed with stone carvings of extinct beings. As the photos of some of the plaques suggest, these organisms are presented as stylized, figural, whole individuals, each meant to represent an entire species. This representation of extinction creates an impression that species go extinction ‘one-by-one’, that they disappear fully-formed. It does not reflect profound processes of fracturing, partial survival and inter-mingling that result in the fragmentation of life through extinction.
Riffing off the idea of a memorial-type response to (mass) extinction, but rejecting the idea of figural, monumental, representations, my project focuses precisely on fragmentation. It consists of a series of images produced through the projection of light through layered, painted glass fragments. To create the images, I started with pieces of broken glass (donated by my friends at Bon Papillon in Edinburgh). Each piece was painted not with the image of a whole, organism, but rather with a shard – a series of cells, a colony of bacteria, a swatch of feathers or skin. This produced around 35 fragments, which can be layered together to produce unique images – indeed, no two projections are exactly the same. Using slide projectors or mini-projectors, the images can be superimposed onto any surface in a darkened room. They work especially well on statues and the sides of buildings. In fact, one of the advantages of using projections is that they can be used as temporary graffiti, literally flashing images of extinction onto everyday urban structures and subverting the permanence they seek to embody. Indeed, in contrast to the MEMO carvings, these projections are deliberately not made to last. Like the forms of life they represent, they are ephemeral and constantly transforming; this is the source of their ability to subvert.
This project is one modest attempt to contribute to the burgeoning of artistic representations of (mass) extinction. Although it engages critically with some existing projects, its aim is not to undercut their value, but rather to provide a different interpretation and mode of response. Indeed, my goal is not to provide a definitive image of mass extinction. Rather, it expresses a desire to multiply and pluralize the ways in which people engage with this world-altering phenomenon.
Some examples of the eco-fragments projections: