Only Human? Thom Van Dooren on Vultures and on Snails

November 19, 2014 by

Last Sunday Thom Van Dooren spoke about extinction at the first Only Human? Festival in Glasgow, part of the nationwide Arts & Humanities Research Council Being Human Festival.  Previous posts have highlighted key quotes from his book Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction.  Thom very kindly agreed to us sharing recordings of his narratives of Vultures (which features in Flight Ways) and of Snails, which is as yet unpublished.

Thom Van Dooren on Vultures and Snails (link to SoundCloud playlist)


A few other links that might be useful:

International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List

Scottish Natural Heritage Advisory Note 48, Priority Species in Scotland: plants

Scottish Natural Heritage Advisory Note 49, Priority Species in Scotland: animals

Bird Life campaign to ban vetinary Diclofenac

Scientific American blog Extinction Countdown

Tim Morton – I’ve been kicked in the biosphere (more on extinction)

November 15, 2014 by


More rock and roll, less evocative of the specifics of individual as well as species loss (slow violence, human exceptionalism, nature of hope), you should read Tim Morton’s contribution to the EXTINCT.LY site which is also the home for documentation of the Serpentine’s Extinction Marathon.

Only Human? and what of autonomy?

November 14, 2014 by

Thom Van Dooren quotes (p. 141) Val Plumwood saying,

When we hyperseparate ourselves from nature and reduce it conceptually, we not only lose the ability to empathise and to see the non-human sphere in ethical terms, but also get a false sense of our own character and location that includes an illusory sense of agency and autonomy. (Plumwood 2009:117)

Van Dooren is seeking to challenge the idea of human exceptionalism – that we stand above nature. He highlights aspects of the philosophical tradition particularly referencing Heidegger, though the trajectory is at least 400 years (Descartes would be another figure, but wouldn’t we need to go back to the Greeks) – Western philosophy has insistently sought the distinction between man and animal.

But for a moment I want to focus on the artistic tradition, and in particular Val Plumwood’s word ‘autonomy.’

In the modern tradition, artists’ autonomy has been linked with criticality and has authorised the artist (across artforms but for the purposes of this argument thinking through visual art) to reflect on society, whether that is Manet, Picasso, Kaprow or Jeremy Deller. In the practice of art this autonomy, this ability to reflect, comment and critique society through art is important, but in broader cultural terms we might want to question whether the artist becomes the poster child or flag bearer that has contributed to a wider idea of human autonomy?

Thinking of Van Dooren’s long history of human exceptionalism, Giorgio Vasari‘s construction of Michelangelo’s life might be a key point, in parallel with the philosophical tradition. Vasari asserts Michelangelo’s genius as being so great that he can break any rule,

So Michelangelo produced a design of incomparable richness, variety, and originality, for in everything he did he was in no need of architectural rules, either ancient or modern, being an artist with the power to invent varied and original things as beautiful as those of the past. (p.397)

That this genius could surpass nature,

To be sure, if the enmity that exists between fortune and genius, between the envy of the one and the skill of the other, had allowed this work to be completed, then art would have demonstrated that it surpassed nature in every way. (p.369)

That Michelangelo releases artists from limitations,

In this all artists are under a great and permanent obligation to Michelangelo, seeing that he broke the bonds and chains that had previously confined them to the creation of traditional forms. (p.366)

And finally that the artist is categorically exceptional,

Moreover, he [God] determined to give this artist the knowledge of true moral philosophy and the gift of poetic expression, so that everyone might admire and follow him as their perfect exemplar in life, work, and behaviour and in every endeavour, and he would be acclaimed as divine. (p.325)

Perhaps in questioning human exceptionalism, artists need to question the way their autonomy reads as part of wider dominant Western cultural assumptions? Perhaps criticality needs to be turned on autonomy and exceptionalism? There is a long history to our culture which now finds itself extinguishing so much with so little thought.

Van Dooren reframes the situation through mourning (p.144),

In this context, mourning with crows is about more than any single species, or any number of individual species, but must instead be a process of relearning our place in a shared world: the evolutionary continuities and the ecological connectivities that make our lives possible at all.

Join us on Sunday 16 November for Thom Van Dooren‘s session 12.30-14.00 James Arnott Theatre, Gilmorehill Halls, part of the Only Human Glasgow programme.

Van Dooren, Thom, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, Columbia University Press, 2014

Vasari, Giorgio, Lives of the Artists, Penguin 1982/1965

November 9, 2014 by


Hyperallergic recently covered the Copenhagen 2014 Land Art Generator Initiative competition saying,
“There is no shortage of art critiquing humankind’s abuse of the earth today. While these works help illuminate the problem, they don’t actually solve it. But what if artists could use their know-how to engage in a practice that actually brings about real change?
That’s the theoretical question behind the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), a group that hopes to crack 21st-century energy challenges by encouraging collaboration between artists and architects, scientists and engineers. On its website, LAGI states one of the simplest problems facing renewable energy today is the fact most residents don’t want an ugly (albeit sustainable) power plant within view of their homes…” (continue reading on Hyperallergic)

Only Human discussion with Thom Van Dooren, 16 November, Glasgow

November 7, 2014 by

The chapter on albatrosses ends with the following challenge,

As nesting birds quietly ignored my close presence, I reflected that perhaps what is most tragic about the current situation is not the “failure” of albatrosses to adjust or adapt to new threats and an altered environment: intensive long-line fishing or brightly colored plastics that look like food.  Rather, what is most tragic is another failure to adapt.  Our own failure – in which some societies and some people are far more complicit than others – to come to terms with our own relatively new capacity to systematically alter environments in a way that undermines possibilities of life for other living beings and, ultimately, for ourselves.  Perhaps it is we who have not yet “evolved” into the kinds of beings worthy of our own inheritances. (p.43)

Van Dooren’s Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction constantly questions human exceptionalism.  One of the tropes of modern urbanisms and contextual or social arts practices is ‘place-making,’ perhaps something we might assume to be uniquely human until we read of the Little Penguins inhabiting New South Wales, Australia.  Van Dooren challenges the way we use the word ‘habitat’ when talking about other species’ places where we use the word ‘home’ for our own (p.80),

It is precisely this inability or unwillingness to recognize penguins’ relationships with local places as significant – as meaningful and vital – that enables us to so blithely evict them from a shoreline.  In this context, what has been usurped is not a home, not a meaningful and important place, but a piece of interchangeable “habitat.”  And so the inability or refusal to recognize how penguins relate to particular places undermines the significance of their relationships to these places and, in so doing undermines the importance of the claim that they make on them.  But penguins do not occupy “habitats.” Rather, they inhabit experiential worlds in which a burrow might meaningfully be understood as a “home.”

Please come and talk about extinction and human exceptionalism on Sunday 16 November at 12.30 in the James Arnott Theatre, Gilmorehill, University of Glasgow – part of the Only Human? Glasgow programme.

Center for Genomic Gastronomy: A great food system should be…

October 31, 2014 by


Only Human? 14-16 November

October 29, 2014 by

Only Human? 14-16 November Poster

Picture after picture [by photographer Chris Jordan] depicts the decomposed bodies of albatross chicks – just bones, feathers, and a beak remaining, and in the middle of each, a multicolored pile of plastic and other debris: cigarette lighters, bottle tops, toy soldiers, and so many other little items.”

“Millions of years of albatross evolution – woven together by the lives and reproductive labours of countless individual birds – comes into contact with less than 100 years of human “ingenuity” in the form of plastics and organochlorines discovered or commercialized in the early decades of the twentieth century.”

Reading Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction by Thom Van Dooren in preparation for chairing a discussion on Sunday 16th November at the Only Human? Festival in Glasgow.  [note: the discussion on Sunday 16th is with the author Thom Van Dooren]

The humanities and creative practices have a role in comprehending the meaning of the anthropocene, where all of the world is affected by one/our species. We have a role in addressing extinction, the end point of millions of years of the evolution of, for example, the albatross becoming itself as a species, and its-selves as individuals. We have a role in challenging human exceptionalism.  Face it, we need to talk about it.

Maintenance and Care Signage: Ukeles and Beckett – Creative Carbon Scotland

October 29, 2014 by

Artists Jonathan Baxter and Sarah Gittins have designed Maintenance and Care signage inspired by Samuel Beckett and Mierle Ukeles, to be displayed at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop and downloaded via the Creative Carbon Scotland website.

A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene

October 23, 2014 by

Originally posted on Discard Studies:

The Anthropocene is a term of art for the geologic epoch that began when human activities had a global, lasting impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. While it’s exact origin date is under debate, we know that hundreds and thousands of years into the future the geological strata will be full of plastic, signs of nuclear fall out, increased quantities of carbon dioxide and other permanent signs of planetary alteration. “The Great Acceleration” refers to the past century where many of these planet-altering practices are increasing in frequency, magnitude and intensity.

Image based on data from Steffen, W., Crutzen, P. J., & McNeill, J. R. (2007). The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature. Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment, 36(8), 614-621.

Image based on data from Steffen, W., Crutzen, P. J., & McNeill, J. R. (2007). “The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature.” Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment , 36(8), 614-621.

The externalities of economic and industrial systems–waste and discards–play a major role in both creating the Anthropocene and in marking its place in…

View original 551 more words


October 23, 2014 by

The Guardian published an article on the Extinction Marathon which took place at the Serpentine Gallery in London last weekend.
Cultural spaces (galleries, museums, concert halls) can make space for challenging subjects and the Serpentine Marathon is a great mechanism, but this feels behind the curve – the extinction issue is something scientists have been asessing and analysing and publishing on for a good while now. Just because the Serpentine got some big names on a platform to speak about the issue for 10 mins each doesn’t make it news.


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