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Extinction Marathon: Visions of the Future – Live coverage by Karen Archey

Follow writer and curator Karen Archey on this thread Saturday, October 18, 12pm–10pm and Sunday, October 19, 12pm–8pm (GMT) live from the Extinction Marathon at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London.

Coinciding with the marathon, Serpentine Galleries and The Space will launch EXTINCT.LY, “a new digital platform created to host the work of artists, writers, speculative designers and programmers exploring the subject of extinction.”


Wifi is apparently an endangered species here at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, so please bear with my intermittent updates.

A few thoughts amid the beginning of the Marathon: It took me about 90 minutes in a cab and 30 GBP to get to Hyde Park, where the Serpentine Gallery is located, and during that time my cab driver spoke about property values and how they became increasingly more expensive during our trip from south to central London. As we were stuck in traffic, uncannily surrounded by a demonstration against income inequality, my cabbie relayed that houses in this neighborhood easily fetch tens of millions of pounds. “Where does this money even come from?” I asked, prompting an obvious response: Oil.

I got into London from Warsaw about a week ago, and one the most shocking differences in social behavior from Eastern Europe to England is the hurried pace pace of pedestrians in this city. Londoners literally run through the many layers of the Tube, bumping into each other on the way. Further, my colleagues have generally gone to social functions all night and work twelve hours the next day, participating in this exhausting professional marathon known as Frieze Week. (It also makes me wonder if my friends’ diligent work ethic in England is connected with a Protestant work ethic.)

Since I’ve been traveling over the past 9 months, I’ve become more aware of how different cities can strain one’s resources in various ways: for example, Warsaw is taxing because I feel alienated by my inability to speak Polish; England is taxing because of the poor value of the dollar and this generally hurried public demeanor I previously mentioned.

Living in a city as taxing as London has prompted me to think about the protection of resources as a means of survival, or essentially, staving off extinction by parsimonious living. Perhaps this is one of the most difficult lessons of life: to be so convinced of future events that it changes the course of your present. One one hand, the very concept of a marathon seems a bit suspect in its exhaustion and taxing of resources (see the story of Pheidippides, who died upon completion of running the first marathon). On the other hand, perhaps the consciousness raising of such endeavors is precisely what might change the course of the present.


Helena Cronin, co-director of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and the Darwin Centre at the London School of Economics, gave a short presentation on the science behind sexual difference. Cronin claims that sex differences genetically wire us to be interested in different things based on our gender, which pervades our entire psychology. She proves this by referencing a study in which baby monkeys were given stereotypically gendered toys (trucks and dolls), and the male monkeys chose conventionally “male” toys while the female monkeys chose “female” toys. Boys are interested in mechanical things, she says, while the girls are drawn to faces. This, Cronin says, supports the idea that women are interested in “people things,” while men are interested in “thingy things.” Further proving this theory, she suggests is the fact that women are typically found in “people” professions, such as nursing, which is composed of 89% female workers, whereas engineering (a “thing” profession), has only 6% female workers.

At this point, I began to wonder Cronin’s “facts” undermined her supposedly feminist mission, and the talk mercifully ended.


Biodiversity and ecosystems expert Georgina Mace poses the question “Are we in the midst of a 6th mass extinction?” She says that unfortunately, data points to yes. Since The Great Acceleration amid the Industrial Revolution, population has boomed in tandem with resource consumption: fertilizer consumption has boomed, water usage has boomed, coal consumption has boomed, etc.

Today, we have increased species extinction rates by 100-1000 times. If we were to look at that figure in previous era, such an accelerated species extinction rate would be considered a mass extinction. Mace points out that the extinction of many species has a profound impact on earth’s delicate ecological balance, to include climate control, biodiversity, habitat loss, etc. She concludes her talk with saying that we’re at a turning point, and need to check our prodigal consumption before we officially precipitate a mass extinction.

Paleontologist Richard Fortey continues to speak about mass extinction, and focuses specifically on human causation of other species’ extinction. In no other previous mass extinction, he says, has been caused by one species–in this case, homo sapiens. Additionally, never before have carbon emissions or what Fortey calls human vanity caused a mass extinction. (He points to the human killing of tropical birds for their plumage, to be used in hats and other clothing, as one aspect of such vanity.)

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Jimmie Durham’s talk (actually given by a surrogate as the artist is ill) made a fascinating, albeit abstract point about human disposition: while it has been the project of human civilization for centuries to order and control the world, and to essentially exclude earthly elements via building shelter, humans are actually happier when the world is part of their daily life. This is why we populate our offices with plants, he writes, and why sick people recover more quickly if they are visited regularly by cats or dogs. This is also, I’d imagine, why seasonal affective disorder (SAD) exists, as its essential a psychological ailment that occurs only when a human has experienced a lack of sunshine.

One of the more interesting aspects of the marathon thus far is this more scientific approach that considers humans as animals that have their own mysteries and quirks.


One of the main subjects of the Serpentine marathon is the extinction of animal species. Here are a few of the animals spoken about at today’s marathon:


The Pangolin is an incredibly weird animal–the only mammal that has keratin scales covering its body. It’s also called the scaly anteater. Unfortunately, it has been hunted close to extinction in Africa, where it is killed for bush meat, and southeast Asia, where its scales are thought to have medicinal properties. In addition to the diminishing of pangolin populations due to hunting, the species has also suffered population loss due to deforestation.

Steller’s Sea Cow

Hunted to extinction in 1768, Steller’s Sea Cow appeared similar to a gigantic seal. Related to but much larger than the manatee, Steller’s Sea Cow was approximately 30 feet in length and is estimated to weigh 10 tons. The sea cow primarily chilled out and ate kelp around the Aleutian Islands, and was so docile that it provided an easy target for hunters. Within 27 years of its discovery by Europeans, the sea cow was hunted to extinction.

American Bison

The American Bison is a success story among endangered species. Hunted nearly to extinction in the late 19th cnetury, the American Bison is now categorized as “Near Threatened,” only one category worse than Least Concern. However, today’s estimate of 360,000 American Bison pale in comparison to the 15th century bison population of 60 million.


Jack Halberstam just blew the lid off the Serpentine, bringing up the issues of heteronormativity and biopolitics in what had been otherwise a “very straight marathon” (in Halberstam’s own words.) He outlined the concept “biopolitics” (social and political power over life) and introduced the idea that our over-usage of resources–which exist in a finite amount–will take away resources from someone somewhere else in the world. By choosing life, Halberstam argues, we agree within ourselves that we will marginalize entire other populations on behalf of our choice for life. What happens when we keep living and no one dies? Resource issues such as food scarcity and limited access to health care arise, and we consign another to death.

“Why choose life over everything else?”, Halberstam asks. In other eras, people have not wanted to live as long as we do, yet this common narrative to survive despite all odds exists. But what is life for most people? What if you’re rotting in prison, engulfed by debt, besieged by depression? Why not death?

Halberstam continues his analysis by speaking about the symbolic manifestations of the collective social will for life. The homosexual, he says, is a symbol of the inability to procreate, an icon of sterility. A radical actor, the homosexual says no to life, and yes to sterility.


Charles Atlas at yesterday’s Extinction Marathon

Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist kicked off this morning’s marathon with morning addresses. Peyton-Jones emphasized that this year’s marathon is dedicated to the pangolin, that irresistible scaly mammal we wrote about yesterday. Never before since the dawn of humanity millions of years ago, Peyton-Jones says, have the levels of carbon emissions in our atmosphere been so high. As we’re rapidly approaching an age of resource scarcity and mass extinction of thousands of animal and plant species, it’s doubtful we can save every or even a large amount of species from going extinct, she says, but we can try. Peyton-Jones says that the unique nature of the pangolin makes it a symbol for biodiversity. An extenuation of the Serpentine marathon ethos, it is the institution’s commitment to make a contribution to species extinction in an ongoing way.

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inserting personal opinion here, and my reason to love pangolin: They look like artichokes.


The Eurasian Beaver

How does law help us save species? Lawyers can act as middlemen between politicians and scientists, says James Thornton, an environmentalist and lawyer who is the founding CEO of ClientEarth. For example, European fisheries were on the brink of collapse from being overfished, and when the law about European fishing allowances was being revised, a firm such as ClientEarth is needed to help protect the interests of the earth. If a company doesn’t abide by these laws, ClientEarth can take them to court. There are also other legal issues pop up with environmental and species conservation. For example, if a species is locally extinct and then reintroduced to an area that it used to thrive, some governments consider the reintroduced species a new species with no protection, and the animal can be hunted to extinction once more. An example of this is the Eurasian beaver, which was hunted to extinction in England by about 1200 and has since been reintroduced.

What can we do as a concerned person in the world? Don’t buy anything that supports the hunting of endangered animals, such as ivory or pangolin soup, says Thornton. Learn about extinction. Educate yourself and others. Stay positive and stay hopeful and demand action.


Trevor Paglen’s diamond microfiche developed with MIT

Trevor Paglen has been working on a project titled “The Last Pictures.” The project starts with a consideration of abandoned spacecraft. There is a man made ring around the earth–unlike the rings of Saturn, which are made out of dust and ice, the earth’s rings are composed of man-made machines (old satellites and the like) that continually rotate around the earth. Unlike other satellites that eventually get sucked back into the gravity of Earth, these machines are far enough away from the planet evade this, says Paglen.

Age of Mammals began 65 million years ago. Age of Humans, if it could even be considered a category, is so incredibly small that it would be barely perceptible on a graph. After humans are gone, will there be an age of dogs, centipedes, giant squid, or small marsupials? Perhaps these derelict spacecraft will eventually be a ring of man-made remembrances that far outlive human life on earth.

The Voyager golden record

How might this space be intentionally exploited to put a man-made fossil in space, where it will live for eternity? Paglen collaborated with MIT press to create a microfiche time capsule containing a record of the historical moment in which it was created. A company called EchoStar had been building a spacecraft called EchoStar16, and this diamond microfiche project created by Paglen at MIT was attached to and launched in space in January 2012. This project was also inspired by the golden record aboard the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, which are currently the farthest-reach man-made objects in space. The golden record is meant to act as an introduction to human life should the spacecraft ever come into contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

For more information on Last Pictures, check out Paglen’s site.


After NASA had received criticism over the nudity on the Pioneer plaque (line drawings of a naked man and woman), the agency chose not to allow Sagan and his colleagues to include a photograph of a nude man and woman on the record. Instead, only a silhouette of the couple was included.



Artist Katja Novitskova speaking at the Extinction Marathon

Artist Katja Novitskova outlined her research interests in the intersection of biotechnology and art, and how these new technologies give us new gateways to experience reality. Her work considers how our our biological experience effects our daily lives, from the physical makeup of eyes to the increasingly understood structure of the human brain. She locates these sites as something that is potentially changed, bettered, or exploited by new biotechnologies such as neural implants.

Detail of Katja Novitskova’s work at the Sackler Gallery

Check out more of Katja’s work at katjanovi.net

Not all aliens are so modest… http://vimeo.com/108969184

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“Calendars (2020-2096)” by Heman Chong
Science fiction, says artist Heman Chong, is unique as it envisions the future of the everyday. His series "Calendars (2020-2096) is a a series of calendars for those years featuring photos of semi-public interiors (hotels, stores, etc.) in which there are no people present, taken by Chong himself.

Here is an exhaustive PDF publication on the project.


Lord Martin Rees

Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, ended his Extinction Marathon talk on ethics and environmentalism with this great quote:

“The bells which toll for mankind are—most of them, anyway—like the bells of Alpine cattle; they are attached to our own necks, and it must be our fault if they do not make a cheerful and harmonious sound.” –Peter Medawar

His comment reminds me of what someone told me about Ancient Egypt as a civilization (bit of context: we were discussing mythologies and how they shape culture). Most civilizations are driven ‘towards life’: motifs of reincarnation, immortality, sex/reproduction but the myths of Ancient Egypt as well as their religious rituals were always pointed towards death (Bast festival for instance, required 100 barrels of blood mixed with beer). One could argue that one of the major reasons why they were so destroyed is because their entire culture centered around death and the worship required a great deal of human sacrifice.

The other thought I have is David Attenborough’s controversial talk about overpopulation: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/10316271/Sir-David-Attenborough-If-we-do-not-control-population-the-natural-world-will.html It’s vastly interesting to consider because here is where capitalism meets biology. Economies are normally judged by their GDP growth, or gross domestic product growth; and one easy way of raising this number is to increase growth through sheer numbers — a population explosion (see: baby boom effects) because a young workforce means less welfare burden to the state and higher productivity (the old way was, if they couldn’t get a job you would conscript them into the army) and this kind of hmm, how to say, I suppose this kind of equilibrium was maintained for many decades due to natural causes (high infant mortality rates combined with age related diseases kept a reasonably balanced population control)

However recent progresses in science over the last decade has destroyed this equilibrium that has been around since 1800s-1980s (if you look at USA’s infant mortality rate, it’s still not fantastic) The biggest change has probably been advances in late stage life and care - it’s not difficult to live up to 80 or 90 nowadays, or women to bear children up till their 40s (unheard of or extremely rare 10 years ago) which leads to a weird conflict: a government would want this large population for growth reasons, but at the same time this large population is technically unsustainable in terms of material resources. You have a economic reason to maintain a large population, but a material/scarcity reason not to. Unless the measurement of economies (the health and growth of them) is changed, its very unlikely we see any kind of real progress in questions of how to deal with scarcity.


I like to think, that with Paglen’s work, that there’s a possibility: we’ve moved past anthropocene (how quaint) into a planetary scale, antroplanetary? terraplanetary? because we’re not just irreversibly changing Earth, but the environs surrounding Earth (our solar system). After all, Mars is well inhabited by robots.


A rather random reference and coincidence, but the (very light-hearted) podcast ‘Stuff you should know’ released an episode titled “How Extinction Works” only three days after the Marathon began. Our human role in this posited “6th mass extinction” must be in the collective consciousness; they refer to this New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert.

It is difficult to say when, exactly, the current extinction event—sometimes called the sixth extinction—began. What might be thought of as its opening phase appears to have started about fifty thousand years ago. At that time, Australia was home to a fantastic assortment of enormous animals; these included a wombatlike creature the size of a hippo, a land tortoise nearly as big as a VW Beetle, and the giant short-faced kangaroo, which grew to be ten feet tall. Then all of the continent’s largest animals disappeared. Every species of marsupial weighing more than two hundred pounds—there were nineteen of them—vanished, as did three species of giant reptiles and a flightless bird with stumpy legs known as Genyornis newtoni.
This die-off roughly coincided with the arrival of the first people on the continent, probably from Southeast Asia.

The Sixth Extinction?
There have been five great die-offs in history. This time, the cataclysm is us. – Elizabeth Kolbert, May 25 2009 Issue


To speculate about The Sixth Extinction’s ‘Final Girl’ (IE the last woman alive to confront the killer as a central trope within cinema’s slasher genre)…these characters operate within a field of abject terror but are rewarded with survival…a singular survival. I am mentally fooling with this embodiment of the victim within a non-cinematic realm, a very real ecological frame, but to what End?