An unthinkably large pile of bison skulls with one man standing proudly on top and one at the base

This initiative evolved via a tangle of conversations, reflections, mournings, meditations, iterations and utterings. It is an attempt to engage emotionally and imaginatively with the Sixth Mass Extinction Event: the human-caused decimation of life and life forms. A topic that can seem so enormous, so existentially all-encompassing, so planetary, that it is hard to know whether any kind of feelings — and if so, which ones — are possible, appropriate or recognised. What does it actually mean to people from different backgrounds, experiences and stages of life, to face extinction? This project has been an attempt to give voice, by way of creative expression and practice, to this question. Through writing, movement, storytelling, poetry, drawing, animation and music, a selection of artists, writers and participants have explored what it means to stay with, and face up to, extinction.

The project from which a printed book and this microsite emerged was about extinction in public life, with a focus on museums and the people they aim to reach out to. The pandemic, and the forced retreat indoors and closing of institutions, made us rethink our focus as well as our intended outreach and distribution plans. In the early stages we imagined discussing our publication at a busy launch event, but this quieter encounter is perhaps more fitting. The microsite, live from December 2020, is the final manifestation of the publication and includes additional content produced during a series of 14 online workshops with invited members of the public. It was conceived after lockdown, to reach a broader audience and to platform sound and video elements, in the absence of live viewing or screenings. To break from the digital engagement that has been replacing our real lives since COVID-19 took hold, we also printed a limited number of copies (adhering to environmental standards) and posted them to participants and individuals we thought would value them.

As our workshops and residencies moved online, we were inspired to see how a shared vulnerability in the face of a pandemic emerged, closely connected to the global, human dimension of extinction. The lockdown also presented more serious challenges and questions in terms of whose voices we were able to bring to the table. New questions troubled us — who are we to assume how people should feel about a problem that impacts some demographics far greater than others, historically and in the present day? What other ways to approach it, beyond scientific facts and discourses of mourning, for example, might we have overlooked as academics and creative professionals, and how can we reach beyond our networks to find out what they are?

Thinking Through Extinction — of which this publication is a part — is an AHRC funded project that brought together academics at the University of Leeds, curators at Manchester Museum (The University of Manchester), editors at Corridor8 and artists and art writers across the UK. It is part of an EU funded consortium, and alongside projects in Norway and Poland, has explored ‘Extinction as Cultural Heritage’; how museums and galleries are engaging with biodiversity loss, recovery and memory. The facing Extinction publication comprises an introduction to the ideas behind Thinking Through Extinction by Dominic O’Key, and two commissioned pieces of writing by Anna Souter and Daisy Hildyard that explore human and plant perspectives, and their subtle hauntings.

On the Voicing Silence page are short poems, drawings, video stills and GIFs created during a series of online public workshops with diverse groups of participants, led by Laurence Payot and collaborating artists Stacey Atkinson, Scott Farlow, Jon Hughes and Laura Spark during the locked-down summer of 2020. Payot’s final artwork, which takes the same title and will, we hope, have a live audience in 2021, brings together some of this material in a two-channel video projected into a black display structure, a homage to plant forms that will never again delicately, colourfully unfurl. In reanimating the once-vibrant flora trapped in lantern slides and display cases, our contributors remind us of the beauty and complexity that we have lost, and will continue to lose, in our current age of extinction.

Through these words and artworks we invite you to enter into this dark and threatening ‘now’; to feel it in your limbs, to conjure it with words, to hear it as sounds, to break it down and look at it frame by frame. Is extinction something we can embody, or inhabit? And if we could somehow learn to explore that embodiment, and to share it with others, would it help us to change, to act?

Photograph: Detroit, Michigan, 1892. The remains of hunted bison wait to be ground for fertilizer and charcoal. Creative Commons.