Category Archives: nature

Disappearing Legacies: The World as Forest

As i mentioned on Monday, a fabulously perceptive and captivating exhibition titled Verschwindende Vermächtnisse: Die Welt als Wald / Disappearing Legacies: The World as a Forest opened at the Zoological Museum in Hamburg back in November. The show follows on the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist who, over 150 years ago, (co-)formulated the principle of species evolution during research trips to South America and Southeast Asia. 150 years is not a very long time. Yet, if Wallace were to return to these tropical habitats, chances are that he would not recognized them. The rainforests have been destroyed at a very rapid pace by heavy logging, agricultural clearance and urbanisation. Large numbers of species have been driven to extinction in the process. Would Wallace still be able to develop the theory of evolution through natural selection in this context?

Exhibition view (entry lithograph of Amazonia.) Photo:, Michael Pfisterer

Armin Linke, Orangutan in the Tanjung Puting National Park, Kumai, Kalimantan Tengah (Borneo) Indonesia, 2017. Photo: © Armin Linke

Disappearing Legacies: The World as a Forest gathers contemporary artworks as well as zoological and botanical objects to investigate the changes in the tropical regions that Wallace once traveled and to shed light on the ecological issues faced by today’s fauna and flora of Amazon, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

The show also interrogates our traditional concept of nature: how can it be mediated and maintained in a context characterized by extinction, deforestation and climate change?

The artworks are exhibited inside the main exhibition space of the museum and not in a dedicated, white space gallery. The curatorial decision means that families who enter the space to see taxidermied bears and exotic flowers are confronted with challenging questions and artifacts they might not otherwise get a chance to explore in such details. It might look like an unusual curating choice to some but i thought it was a brilliant move as 1. I’m always in favour of broadening the audience of contemporary artworks 2. by installing the works in the middle of a traditional Museum of Natural History, the curators invite us to reflect on the role that such an institution should play in the age of the anthropocene and Sixth Mass Extinction. Is our knowledge about biology and evolution in need of an update?

Here’s a quick and very partial tour of the exhibition:

Shannon Lee Castleman, Tree Wounds, Muna Island, Southeast Sulawesi, 2010-2011

Shannon Lee Castleman, Tree Wounds, Muna Island, Southeast Sulawesi, 2010-2011

Shannon Lee Castleman, Tree Wounds, Muna Island, Southeast Sulawesi, 2010-2011. Verschwindende Vermächtnisse: Die Welt als Wald. Photo: UHH/CeNak, Reiss

I was very moved by the Tree Wound photographs that Shannon Lee Castleman took during a field trip to Muna Island in Indonesia.

While visiting the island, the artist noticed enormous wounds on many of the older teak trees in the conservation forest. These forests are older teak plantations that have been awarded “conservation” forest status—not because of bio-diversity (which was devastated by timber planting in the 19th and 20th centuries) but because former plantations maintain the water table for the island. Castleman was told that since felling teak in these forests is illegal, impoverished villagers who pass by large teak trees will give a tree one cut with an axe after another … until finally the tree falls or dies and no-one is to blame.

The portraits of these wounded trees recount, on a micro-scale, the tragedy of deforestation and illegal logging taking place all over the world.

Julian Oliver & Crystelle Vũ, Extinction Gong, 2017

Julian Oliver & Crystelle Vũ, Extinction Gong (details at the back of the gong), 2017

The Extinction Gong, by Julian Oliver and Crystelle Vũ, is a ceremonial automaton for the Sixth Mass Extinction.

The Chinese ‘Chao Gong’ beats to the rhythm of species extinction, estimated by biologist E.O. Wilson to be about 27,000 losses every year, or once every 19 minutes. Even though this is a conservative estimate, it is still much higher than the average background rate (the non-anthropogenically influenced extinction rates) of plant, animal and insect species extinction.

Should biologists declare a new species extinct while the Extinction Gong is active it will receive an update via a 3g link and perform a special ceremony: four strikes in quick succession alongside a text-to-speech utterance of the Latin Name of the species lost, resonating through the gong.

The front side of the Chinese ‘Chao Gong’ is painted with the Extinction Symbol, the official mark of the Sixth Mass Extinction. The back, however, reveals the engineering of the artwork.

“This diametric expresses a brutal and contradicting irony – while advances in science and technology augment the devastating impact of human endeavours over wild habitats, so are they our best means of studying and understanding it.”

I found the work extremely moving. It gives presence and dignity to insects, plants and animals who disappear quietly while most of us remain deaf and indifferent to the loss of biodiversity.

Robert Zhao Renhui / The Institute of Critical Zoologists, Useful Nature, Useless Nature, 2017

Robert Zhao Renhui / The Institute of Critical Zoologists, Useful Nature, Useless Nature, 2017

Robert Zhao Renhui / The Institute of Critical Zoologists, Useful Nature, Useless Nature, 2017

Over the past few years, Robert Zhao Renhui has been documenting the ways in which the human species is altering other life forms. Directly or indirectly. His photographic works show animals, insects and plants that had to evolve in order to cope with the pressures of a fast changing world or as the direct result of human intervention and for purposes ranging from scientific research to the desire for ornamentation.

For the exhibition in Hamburg, the artist focused his research on insects. Over a single day, Zhao gathered insect carcasses from windows, insect traps, house corners and other crevices in his studio in Singapore. The carcasses reveal the wide variety of insect life that co-exists with human beings yet go largely unnoticed.

The carcasses are neatly aligned in one exhibition window. A nearby display features a collection of gadgets and chemicals used to repel and kill insects.

One of the questions raised by Zhao regards our selective love for nature and for insects in particular: why do we classify some species as useful resources or products while we regard others as pests or vermin? What gives us the right to celebrate some, tolerate others and wipe out a third group of insects?

The work is sadly echoed by the result of recent studies that observed that insect populations have dramatically plummeted in Germany: the researchers counted that the country hosts 76 percent flying insects compared to 30 years ago.

Lower jaw of the critically endangered Sumatran rhinoceros in the CT scanner of YXLON. Photo: Reassembling the Natural / Etienne Turpin, 2017

Skull of the critically endangered Sumatran rhinoceros in the CT scanner of YXLON. Photo: Reassembling the Natural / Etienne Turpin, 2017

As rhinoceros horns are in high demand on the black market, even the skulls of the already dead animals have been stolen from zoological museums. On the occasion of Disappearing Legacies: The World as Forest, CT-scanner developer Xylon International produced a high-res scan of a Sumatran rhinoceros skull from the Mammal Collection of the CeNak. Even the horn of the specimen was cut off before it was acquired for the collections.

Armin Linke and Giulia Bruno, Riau, (Sumatra) Indonesia. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Anna-Sophie Springer, 2017

Drone Akademi Indonesia, Indonesian Province of Riau, Sumatra. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Etienne Turpin, 2017

In 2014 activist geographer Radjawali Irendra founded Akademi Drone Indonesia (ADI), an organisation dedicated to research, education and policy surrounding unmanned vehicles for terrestrial and aquatic research and an advocacy interested in environmental issues.

Indigenous communities and poor people whose land rights are threatened use ADI’s drones to collect detailed spatial data, create their own aerial imagery and challenge official narratives.

Paulo Tavares, Trees, Vines, Palms and Other Architectural Monuments, 2017. Satellite and ground identification of the ancient village of Bö’u, the old geopolitical center of the Xavante territory of Marãiwatsédé, which is still outside their demarcated land. Credit: Bö’u Association/autonoma

Paulo Tavares, Trees, Vines, Palms and Other Architectural Monuments, 2017. Policarpo Tserenhorã and Domingos Hö’awari conduct botanic inventory research in the cemetery site of the ancient settlement of Tsinõ. Credit: Bö’u Association/autonoma

From the early 1950s to the late 1960s, the A’uwe – Xavante people, an indigenous nation of Brazilian Amazon was subjected to a brutal land dispossession and forced removals to open space for giant cattle farms and soy plantation. The campaign was part of a strategy of territorial colonisation that the Brazilian military described as “occupying demographic voids.”

In 1966 the A’uwe of Marãiwatséde were deported from their ancestral land in an operation led by the Brazilian Air Force. In 1974, the State Indigenous Agency (FUNAI) emitted a certificate attesting that this territory wasn’t indigenous land anymore.

In collaboration with the Bö’u Xavante Association of Marãiwatséde, a team led by architect Paulo Tavares conducted a forensic analysis of the sites, mapping and surveying their ancient villages and cemeteries in order to provide evidence of their ancestral possession of this territory.

The sites studied display very similar feature in that a patch of vegetation had grown precisely in the arc-like shape of the ancient village. Made of a combination between medium and large trees, palms and other types of plants and vines, these botanic formations contain certain species that are associates with Xavante traditional occupation and land managing systems.
The botanic formations are the equivalent to an architectural ruin. Some of the questions raised by this research into forest wilderness/domestication include:

Can we claim trees, vines and palms to be historic monuments? Is the forest an “urban heritage” of indigenous designs?

Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares, Forest Law, 2014. Installation view

Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, Savane Du Sud (Pirouette), 2017

I’ll leave you with more images from the show and a text from Alfred Russel Wallace that reads like it has been written yesterday and not in 1910:

Yet during the past century, which has seen those great advances in the knowledge of Nature of which we are so proud, there has been no corresponding development of a love or reverence for her works; so that never before has there been such widespread ravage of the earth’s surface by destruction of native vegetation and with it of much animal life, and such wholesale defacement of the earth by mineral workings and by pouring into our streams and rivers the refuse of manufactories and of cities; and this has been done by all the greatest nations claiming the first place for civilisation and religion! And what is worse, the greater part of this waste and devastation has been and is being carried on, not for any good or worthy purpose, but in the interest of personal greed and avarice; so that in every case, while wealth has increased in the hands of the few, millions are still living without the bare necessaries for a healthy or a decent life, thousands dying yearly of actual starvation, and other thousands being slowly or suddenly destroyed by hideous diseases or accidents, directly caused in this cruel race for wealth, and in almost every case easily preventable. Yet they are not prevented, solely because to do so would somewhat diminish the profits of the capitalists and legislators who are directly responsible for this almost world-wide defacement and destruction, and virtual massacre of the ignorant and defenceless workers.

Alfred Russel Wallace, 1910

“Natives of Aru shooting the great bird of paradise”, in Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, 1869

Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, Savane Du Sud Dessus, 2016

Verschwindende Vermächtnisse: Die Welt als Wald. Photo: UHH/CeNak, Reiss

Beetle drawings in Alfred Russel Wallace’s Natural History Notebook, 1854. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Etienne Turpin, 2014. Courtesy Linnean Society London

Palm oil plantation in the Indonesian province of Riau, Sumatra. Photo: Reassembling the Natural/Etienne Turpin, 2016.

Mark Dion, Monument for the Anthropocene, 2014

Exhibition view (Wallace panel / Mark Dion rhino replica.) Photo:, Michael Pfisterer

Exhibition view. Photo:, Michael Pfisterer

Exhibition view. Photo:, Michael Pfisterer

Verschwindende Vermächtnisse: Die Welt als Wald. Photo: UHH/CeNak, Reiss

Barbara Marcel, The Open Forest, 2017. Still from the Videoessay

Barbara Marcel, The Open Forest, 2017. Still from the video essay

Armin Linke, Palm oil plantation, Kecematan Bataian Kabupaten Rokan Hilir (Sumatra) Indonesia, 2017. Photo: © Armin Linke

Armin Linke, Fighting fire in the peatland, Kecematan Bataian Kabupaten Rokan Hilir (Sumatra) Indonesia, 2017. Photo: © Armin Linke

Armin Linke, Inagritech International Agricultural Machinery fair, truck for palm oil collection, Jakarta Indonesia, 2017. Photo: © Armin Linke

Previously: Palm oil, peatfires, Nutella and the anthropocene.

Disappearing Legacies: The World as Forest / Verschwindende Vermächtnisse: Die Welt als Wald remains open until 29 March 2018 at the Zoological Museum in Hamburg.
The exhibition is free.

Prof. Anna Tsing will give a keynote lecture on 26 March in the context of the Hamburg exhibition. On 26 April a second version of the exhibition will open at Tieranatomisches Theater in Berlin. In the fall, a third iteration of the exhibition will open in Halle/Saale.

Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene

Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, edited by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan and Nils Bubandt.

It’s on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher University of Minnesota Press writes: Can humans and other species continue to inhabit the earth together?

As human-induced environmental change threatens multispecies livability, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet puts forward a bold proposal: entangled histories, situated narratives, and thick descriptions offer urgent “arts of living.” Included are essays by scholars in anthropology, ecology, science studies, art, literature, and bioinformatics who posit critical and creative tools for collaborative survival in a more-than-human Anthropocene.

Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is divided in two. One half the volume is subtitled Ghosts. Flip the book the other way and you have the Monsters. The content of both half-volumes often overlap but while Ghosts left me a bit melancholy and sad, Monsters fascinated me with its stories that sound even more frightening than fiction (jellyfish are the new sharks, people!)

A 2007 aerial photograph showing mud covering almost 1,400 acres in the East Java region of Indonesia. Credit Eka Dharma/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, via

I started with Ghost, the part dedicated to the landscape haunted by long-gone creatures and wiped-out plants. The essays in the half-volume mourn the loss of individual species but look also at the cascading effects that the extinction of one species can have on the others that depended directly or indirectly upon it. Examples abound but i was particularly taken by the one described in Deborah Bird Rose‘s essay. Big bats called flying foxes play a crucial role in Aboriginal people’s concept of the “shimmer of life” (which she describes as the different ways that species find to do interesting things together) through their pollination of eucalyptus trees. Sadly, white people living in small town in Australia don’t care for flying foxes. They shoot them, destroy their habitat and make the landscape less colourful and fertile in the process.

Human action and destruction also have effects that reverberate through time frames and geographies. When manga artist Erika Kobayashi visited the library in Japan where Marie Curie’s notebooks are archived, she brought a geiger counter and found out that, 70 years after the death of the French physicist and chemist, her radioactive fingerprints still registered.

Physicist and philosopher Karen Barad goes even further in her essay when she argues that there is an atom bomb inside each ‘morsel of life’. In Japan, the surviving victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are called Hibakusha. From the precise moment of the explosion, their body clock has been reset and their cells have been ticking with the rhythms of radioactivity. U.S. officials have since reduced the bodies of Hibakusha to yardstick for measuring bodily tolerance limits and radioactivity worldwide has been synchronized to the bombings in Japan. The effects of the bomb, Barad explains, can thus be felt at the level of the nation-state but also at the level of the local ecosystem, of the organism and of the cell.

All is not doom and gloom in the land of the ghosts though. Jens-Christian Svenning narrates how most of the megafaunas that inhabited the earth disappeared with the arrival of the homo sapiens. Today, 60% of herbivores weighting 100kg or more are threatened with extinction.

However, he continues, some large carnivores and herbivores are being reintroduced in parts of Europe and the U.S., even recolonizing rural areas abandoned by human populations. The reason why European bisons, wild boars, wolves, brown bear and other large animals are welcome again in our landscapes is that their presence benefits us of course! It is hoped that they will restore self-regulating, biodiverse and healthy ecosystems.

As Svenning writes “Megafauna are constant gardeners, one might say, and their extinctions have long-term ecological effects.”

Wrecked machinery in the Chernobyl sarcophagus. Photo: Alexander Kupny, via atlas obscura

In her essay, essay Kate Brown tells the story of an Ukrainian technician who remains optimistic in the accomplishments and talent of the humankind, even in the face of adversity. She talked to Aleksandr Kupny who climbed into a small hole under the Chernobyl’s charred No. 4 reactor to take photos of the concrete tomb built around the reactor in the months following the accident. His images picture the inside of the sarcophagus but also the decaying the photons of radioactive energy that impose their image onto his film.

Nomura jellyfish are the biggest in the world and can weigh 200kgs. Photo: Y.Taniguchi/Niu Fisheries Cooperative, via

As i mentioned above, i particularly enjoyed the Monsters half-book. The Monsters are the ones that both result from and bring about ecological disruption. They are the unassuming species that suddenly becomes dominant and predatory, the virulent new pathogens that extinguish life from the inside and on top of this pyramid of the villains, there’s the human being who disturbs complex relationships, turn nature into a disquieting territory in which only freakish creatures can survive.

Marianne Lien gives a particularly shocking example of monster ecology in her description of the pseudo-marine ecosystem required to support intensive salmon farming. Salmon farms across Norway and other countries have to contend with lice infestations that threaten fish health. Because the parasite resist drugs, farmers have to breed wrasse, a fish that snacks on sea lice. The appetites and behaviour of wrasses have to be strictly controlled to ensure that they perform their cleaning duties satisfactorily. The problem is that young wrasse don’t fancy lice. They need tiny crustaceans. So farmers have to cultivate copepods too. The problems obviously don’t end there, local ecosystems have been depleted of wrasses and millions of these lice-eaters now have to be transported over long distances. The ecological simplifications of the modern world have turned monstrosity back against us!

I could go on and on describing everything i’ve learnt in these essays, all the stories about multispecies vulnerability, about edible plants growing in open sewers, gigantic jellyfish capsizing a 10-ton fishing boat, single-cell organisms making life possible, vast landscape of stinking mud, human cruelty and human ability to care. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet doesn’t pretend to contain the magic recipe to eradicate the overwhelming threats that this planet is facing but it is certainly the most thought-provoking, intelligent and enlightening book i’ve ever read on the topic of the anthropocene.

Here are some of the key points expressed in the book:

– we must look beyond the individual because we live and die entangled with one another. Every living thing is symbiotic, co-evolved and co-dependent on other species. Even the mental and physical well-being of humans relies on the bacteria residing in the intestines;
– we thus need more research that looks at bodies as ecosystems;
– we are still bind to what surrounds us: many ecological phenomena are driven by patterns we cannot see;
– we are not just short-sighted, we also suffer from amnesia and struggle to imagine ecosystems or species that have disappeared only a few generations ago;
– a rigid segregation of humanities and natural science is a mediocre tool for collaborative survival;
– we shouldn’t take the word ‘arts’ in the title too literally because there was very little artistic presence in this book.

Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet has its origins in an interdisciplinary conference that took place 3 years ago at the University of California – Santa Cruz. The videos of the talks are online.

Related book reviews: Extinction Studies. Stories of Time, Death, and Generations and The Edge of the Earth. Climate Change in Photography and Video.

Related stories: From animal sensors to Monet as a painter of the anthropocene. 9 things i learnt on the opening day of the HYBRID MATTERs symposium, HYBRID MATTERs exhibition: when biological and technological entities escape our control and transform the planet, etc.

Image on the homepage: Paislie Hadley, via.

Book review: Extinction Studies. Stories of Time, Death, and Generations

Extinction Studies. Stories of Time, Death, and Generations, edited by Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, and Matthew Chrulew. Foreword by Cary Wolfe.

Amazon USA and UK.

Photo via UNSW Bookshop

Publisher Columbia University Press writes: Extinction Studies focuses on the entangled ecological and social dimensions of extinction, exploring the ways in which extinction catastrophically interrupts life-giving processes of time, death, and generations. The volume opens up important philosophical questions about our place in, and obligations to, a more-than-human world. Drawing on fieldwork, philosophy, literature, history, and a range of other perspectives, each of the chapters in this book tells a unique extinction story that explores what extinction is, what it means, why it matters—and to whom.

Elliot the Birds of Paradise-04 Red Bird of ParadiseImage via a shop

Leatherback turtle. Image via Dorset Echo

We are well on our way to or within the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals. It’s not the first biotic crisis, it’s the 6th! What makes it special and deeply disturbing is that it is almost entirely driven by humans.

I found about this book while reading the always informative SymbioticA Digest newsletter. I had just been listening to the podcast Could extinct species be brought back to life? and wondering, as anyone would when pondering upon deextinction, if it wouldn’t be wiser to focus all our efforts on protecting endangered species. So I got this book without much thinking and i’m glad i acted on a whim.

Extinction Studies. Stories of Time, Death, and Generations is not a treatise on the full tragedy but a series of narratives exploring the complete disappearance of an animal and the threats over a specific endangered species. There’s Hawaiian crow or ʻalalā, the leatherback turtle, the golden lion tamarin, the ōkami, the Elliot’s bird of paradise, the Hawaiian Monk Seal and the American Passenger Pigeon.

As the editors explain, extinction is a “multi-contextual phenomenon that requires multi-disciplinary modes of understanding”, so each story reveals very different mechanisms leading to the disappearance of a species, different strategies deployed to avoid the extinction (with various levels of success), different degrees of violence and accountability and different human and non-human actors affected by the loss or decline of a species.

The book taught me that saving an endangered species is an incredibly complex process. Scientists involved in preserving biodiversity seem to encounter hurdles every step of the way: predators that would normally ignore an endangered species now hunt for them because there aren’t many meat options left in their ever shrinking habitat; researchers’ best intentions can be thwarted by their assumption about the behaviour and social structure of a species; trying to re-introduce a species in the wild when their original habitat has disappeared can have disastrous consequences; etc.

I was particularly moved by the fact that co-evolution often means co-extinction. For example, the disappearance of a bird particularly active as a native seed disperser means that a number of botanical species will die out too.

The book has its uplifting moments though. For example, when the contributors to the book move beyond the academy and western colonization boundaries and call for the expertise of indigenous people. Or when communities emerge in a bid to save an animal at the edge of extinction.

Each story is written by a different author. Each of them is engaging, informative and thoroughly researched. Except for one that I found tragically boring.

Macro Photographs of Singapore’s Most Unusual Insects and Arachnids by Nicky Bay

Cicadae Parasite Beetle (Rhipiceridae)

One of my favorite Flickr accounts to follow is Singapore-based photographer Nicky Bay (previously) who ventures into some of the most ecologically diverse (ie. creepiest and crawliest) places in the world to shoot macro photos of insects, arachnids, and fungi. Bay went on 46 different shooting excursions in 2014 and discovered creatures that seem more at home in an Avatar movie than here on Earth. He’s also begun working more with ultraviolet light that he uses to reveal the natural fluorescence of many organisms he encounters. My favorite discovery while scrolling through Bay’s 2014 photos is this species of moth that builds a cage out of its own caterpillar spines to protect itself while in a pupal stage. You can follow his day-to-day adventures on Facebook.

Archduke larva (Lexias pardalis dirteana)


Freshly moulted Jumping Spider

Harvestman illuminated with 365nm wavelength ultraviolet light; Millipede fluorescence.

Treehopper (Membracidae)

Cuckoo Bee

Caged pupa. The spines of the caterpillar were used to construct this magnificent cage for protection during pupation.

Bioluminescent fungi

Longhorn beetle

Huntsman Spider consuming prey exposed under ultraviolet light for 20 seconds.

Twig Spider