Gone Missing

In The Sixth Extinction Elizabeth Kolbert describes the shock of Georges Cuvier's theories of extinction in revolutionary era France: "On the basis of a few scattered bones, Cuvier had conceived of a whole new way of looking at life."  We are indeed far removed from the shock of extinction in the 21st century.  We know biodiversity loss is occurring at truly alarming rates; the short and long term effects seem to be simultaneously manifold and difficult to calculate.  

We learn about extinction very early.  My almost three year old adores dinosaurs but he knows they are gone (or, he at least has some sense that they no longer exist).  He'll learn about the extinction of dinosaurs before he can read.  Species loss is one of our first lessons in planetary history; we become fascinated by and habituated to it.  What would make us understand both the scale of species loss in our own moment and value the individual ones that have gone missing in our own backyards?  What attachments exist for vanishing species?  

I'll write more about the Antenna::Signals event I attended at A Studio in the Woods in the near future.  For now, I'll note that I heard a set of extraordinarily moving talks, testimonies really, about personal and regional histories and deep attachments to swiftly eroding lands and disappearing animals.  Brandon Ballengée set up his traveling museum, which includes these "Wanted" posters above.  The museum itself is enchanting and full of dyed, intricately beautiful specimens.  The museum instigates conversations and engagements with species loss and the grip of petroleum on life in Louisiana.  It's a daring and inspiring public facing art event.  

We spent part of the day on a boat discussing land loss, protection efforts, and the partial recovery from the spill in Barataria.  We also hauled in some crabs and shrimp.  Most of the footage is on Drew's camera and I'll make that available sometime after we return home.  

To Louisiana: Art, Ecology, and Attachments


This blog will track the expeditions, research, documenting, and thinking around my current book project, The Cultural Lives of Climate Change. I spent time in the Bakken region of North Dakota with a team of scholars in 2015 and some work from that venture is forthcoming; Louisiana, Antarctica, and several museums are on deck for the remainder of 2017.  I'll post here most frequently when I'm on site somewhere.

I leave tomorrow for a five day research trip to Louisiana.  I'll be joined by the highly talented documentary photographer and videographer Drew Katchen; you can see his GLAAD nominated digital documentary work here.  Our first stop will be "Antenna: Signals Lost and Found" and the Wetlands Art Tour at A Studio in the Woods. We'll spend time with bioartist Brandon Ballengéein New Orleans, Shell Beach, Arnaudville, and the Atchafalaya Basin.  I've been fascinated by Brandon's work since I stumbled upon it a year or so ago.   His projects--Ghosts of the Gulf, Frameworks of Absence, Love Motels for Insects--all stage encounters between humans and nonhuman natures.  These are artworks that toggle between aesthetic experiment and scientific analysis, laboratory work and public intervention, large scale phenomena like extinction and site specific encounters with biodiversity.  They are also hauntingly beautiful.  Mostly, though, they've made me think through some of the questions that underwrite The Cultural Lives of Climate Change:  

How might artists and writers model the relationship between the unfathomably large scale of global climate change and the multiple ways it is lived and differentially experienced? How do we imagine the effects of climate change near and far, now and in the future? By what means do we as individual agents and as a collective species perceive our role in altering the climatic stability of the planet? How do we conceive our relationship to nonhuman nature? And, finally, how do the more protected populations imagine their responsibility to those already adapting to and perishing under climate stress?

As I've turned these questions around and thought about them alongside individual artworks like Brandon's Ghosts of the Gulf, I keep coming back to the idea of attachment (something I've been thinking through with collaborators Jennifer Suchland and Norah Zuniga-Shaw at Ohio State). Can artworks create and expand the attachments we have, or want to have, to damaged environments, unruly natures, and nonhuman species?  And are there different forms or genres of attachment?  I'm hoping five days in Louisiana will help me think more patiently and clearly.