Making amidst extinction: a call for creative practices

Centre for Environmental Humanities, University of Bristol & online, November 2, 2023

How to engage in world making across species? How to work toward world making that enhances the lives of others? And how to do all this in the time of extinctions, knowing, as we must, that we are living amidst the ruination of others?

—Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction (2011)

Growing awareness of massive biotic diminishment and the accompanying large-scale loss of biological and cultural diversity has led to a surge in academic interest into what has become known as the sixth mass extinction. Centred around the emergent field of critical extinction studies, this concern seeks to establish ‘an interdisciplinary, biocultural approach that can attend to the plural phenomena and entangled significance of extinction’.[i] Broadly speaking, this field comprises humanities and social sciences (including but certainly not limited to the academic fields of ecocriticism, human geography, environmental history and philosophy, cultural studies, and multispecies anthropology) and researches the ways in which the sixth extinction is perceived, experienced, and narrated among different communities and individuals. Defining an expressive mode for this work, Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooren write that storytelling ‘is one of the great arts of witness, and in these difficult times telling lively stories is a deeply committed project, one of engaging with the multitudes of others in their noisy, fleshy living and dying’.[ii] Stories, in their most generous interpretation, Rose writes, ‘have the potential to promote understandings of embodied, relational, contingent ethics’ and can ‘pull readers into ethical proximity’.[iii] This raises the following questions: who is able to join this deeply committed project of telling stories, and what kind of stories are told? Dealing with unprecedented loss, the stories currently told are often driven by a strong elegiac impulse.[iv] As the Australian poet John Kinsella writes in response to the extinction of the Christmas Island Pipistrelle: ‘What family / will post your obituary — trapped / in descriptors and comparatives, analogies / and desperate metaphors?’[v] But there are many ways to tell stories, and these are certainly not limited to the spoken and written word.

Auk eggs installation at the Kelp Store, Papa Westray. Photograph is copyright Milo Newman, 2022
Auk eggs installation, Kelp Store, Papa Westray. Photograph © Milo Newman, 2022

In this light, this call for creative practices aims to gather together myriad other modes of expression concerned with extinction and the ways in which biocultural loss affects more-than-human communities. In doing so it seeks to explore alternate modes of telling these extinction stories beyond the elegiac, and beyond the confines of the academic journal or book. Our interest in creative practices here is a broad one, encompassing a range of different mediums, approaches, and forms of creativity. It is about art-making as a process, not just as an outcome; a way for practitioners, researchers, or academics to explore different ways of knowing. Our concern is therefore with the doings of art. We want to explore what ‘“work” art does in the world’ in context of extinction, what it can set in motion.[vi] We think that art does far more here than simply help promote understanding, foster engagement or raise awareness. Instead, we want to explore how (or if!) a plurality of individual creative responses expressing personal emotional, ethical, poetic, critical, and many other reactions to biocultural loss are quietly (or even loudly) involved in the production of new worlds, knowledges, and subjectivities.[vii] To help us explore these ideas we invite contributions from artists, writers, activists, and academics (both individuals and collectives) that seek to make connections between creative practices and biotic diminishment, biodiversity loss, or extinction. While the symposium itself focuses on creative practice, other reflections on extinction are also welcome. We hope to publish some of the work resulting from this event at a later stage. Proposals may include:

  • Written texts, both fiction and nonfiction (4500–5000 words)
  • Poetry (up to five poems)
  • Artworks
  • Film
  • Performance
  • Artistic interventions/reflections/provocations (3500-4000 words)

The symposium will be hybrid. Registration is free; lunch (vegan only) will be provided. Please let us know if you have any allergies.

Please submit abstracts and/or short proposals (300 words, with accompanying images—max. 3—as necessary) to and by 31 August, 2023. While work is welcome in any language, we ask that the presentations and abstracts are in English. Please include a short bio for each contributor. Selected contributors will be notified by September 15, 2023.

This event is generously supported by the Bristol Centre for Environmental Humanities.

[i] Matthew Chrulew and Rick De Vos, ‘Extinction: Stories of Unravelling and Reworlding’, Cultural Studies Review 25.1 (2019): 23–28, 24.

[ii] Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Lively Ethography: Storying Animist Worlds’, Environmental Humanities 8.1 (2016): 77–94, 91.

[iii] Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Slowly ~ Writing into the Anthropocene’, TEXT 20 (2013): 1–14.

[iv] Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[v] John Kinsella, ‘Not the Postage Stamp of the Christmas Island Pipistrelle!’, Red Room Poetry (2020).

[vi] Harriet Hawkins, For Creative Geographies: Geography, Visual Arts and the Making of Worlds (Milton Park & New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), 6.

[vii] Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari: Thought beyond Representation (London: Palgrave, 2009).

Life within the viral cloud

This post is reblogged from Milo Newman‘s blog, Mourning Auks: exploring creative articulations of ecological loss. Milo is a third-year PhD student in the School of Geographical Sciences.

The post details a period of artwork production and fieldwork on the island of Papay in Orkney, forming part of a PhD project exploring bird extinction through creative practice.

(C) Milo Newman

Time passes, washing over the island in a cycle of near continuous day. The Earth spins, and the sun is drawn down into a brief dusk, pulling light into the sea and lower sky. My plaster eggs, held in their pinhole cameras, collect all this illuminance onto their surfaces. Occasionally the haar drifts in, a sea fog borne by the wind. Moisture condensed over the coldness of the North Sea clags over the island. Distance collapses to a world of immediacy, to sequences of greys and eerie silhouettes. The experience of this light also gathers onto the eggshells.

On mornings when the haar is absent and the Holm is visible I often walk down to the beach and scan its distant shore with my binoculars, counting the pinhole cameras, and checking if they still look secure. Over the course of these repeated inspections I realise that the eggs are perhaps not recording a period of former care as I had imagined. Rather, they are collecting a durational space—one of reflection, or meditation perhaps, on the collapse of avian becoming (Rose, 2012; Rose et al., 2017; van Dooren, 2014) that is quite visibly occurring here.

As the most perceptible sign of this dull slide towards extinction (again see van Dooren, 2014), it’s been impossible not to keep thinking about the H5N1 influenza virus. Though just one of many pressures impacting the seabirds here and driving their decline, it is by far the most noticeable. The morbidity is devastating. Even though I am here researching such exterminating processes there are days when I find it too overwhelming—when I can’t bear to see any more sick, dead, and dying birds. Avian lives are precarious at the best of times, but the far-reaching ripples of anthropogenic activity, (including H5N1, which emerged in the virus laboratory that is industrial-scale poultry farming) mean that recovery from such mass mortality becomes harder and harder.

The forty-four day photographic exposure I’m recording to mimic the incubation of the extinct auks has been marked by this experience of death. On my walks I see the corpses of birds everywhere. Gannets protrude from the sand, half buried. Sometimes just the tops of their heads protrude, the feathers moving slightly as the wind scrapes the ground, rippling the beach away into streams of matter. Still other birds lie discarded amongst the seaweed on the tideline; guillemots, fulmars. Tattered feathers are strewn throughout. On another day I am invited to come and collect the dead bonxies (great skuas) that litter North Hill. There is a concern that this might spread disease by transferring the virus around on boots and clothes, and also a deeper anxiety that contact (albeit brief) risks giving the virus the opportunity to mutate and jump species. However, these apprehensions are countered by the fact that doing nothing also risks allowing the virus to spread. By leaving deceased birds to decay they are often scavenged, and can contaminate bodies of water. We use litter pickers to collect the carcases, lifting them around their necks and dumping them into binbags. It is depressing work. Many look to have died in anguish; their wings contorted and their heads pushed hard into the soft ground. Over the course of the afternoon we gather the bodies of a third of Papay’s breeding population.

I find myself thinking through the space of the island, and how it has been changed by all this death. Or rather, not how it has changed, but what falsities have been revealed in how space is predominantly conceptualised. I remember whilst gathering the dead bonxies looking up and catching sight of the trig point beneath the clouds on the summit of North Hill. Providing a fixed position from which triangulation can occur, these pillars allow land to be abstracted into grids, and accurately mapped. But to be amidst this unravelling ecosystem is to feel unmoored from the certainties such spatial imaginings promise. The island is not a space of fixity, but one of flux. Its moods change with the weather fronts that pass so rapidly overhead. Further, its small size does not equate to simplicity—it is a locus of complexity, where drifts of matter and lives snag and are held for various lengths of time. Deeply entangled ecologies bloom over evolutionary time. Their being, again, is not fixed, but fluctuates and transforms. Worlds are co-shaped; ways of being are re-negotiated in every moment between organisms themselves, and with a world that changes around them. The character of space gathers, coheres, and transforms through relations.

The idea of the island as a place with fixed boundaries also begins to break down. On a simple level, its erosion is an ongoing process. The coastlines change shape almost daily; the sandy eastern shore especially so. But the island also reveals a deeper porosity. This is perhaps made most visible through the H5N1 virus itself. Celia Lowe (2010) writes how viruses, rather than existing as well-bounded organisms are quasi-species that form and enact their identities with others. The virus blurs the boundaries between bodies, between species. As she puts it, multiple ways of being are:

 ‘transformed amid encounters among viruses[:] the immune systems of animal hosts, and the human institutions that struggle to reckon with the specter of a terrifying pandemic. One can think, then, of [the space of the virus as] “multispecies clouds,” collections of species transforming together in both ordinary and surprising ways.’ (Ibid., 626)

I find I have begun to draw imaginative connections between these viral clouds, and the haar that at times glides in and envelops the island. The viral cloud is transformational. It affects and alters my being, even if infection is avoided. Indeed, it is impossible not to be pulled apart emotionally whilst witnessing the individual suffering of so many birds.

The melancholy fact is that we exist in a world of change, and live long enough to notice long-term declines. We might remember the abundance of the past and compare that memory to how things are now, and wish to return. I often fear this is an impossibility. We might also find solace in the promise of deep, evolutionary futures; with the prospect that at some point life’s richness will repair itself. But, this argument disavows the beauty that still surrounds us amidst these unravelling worlds, and leads towards the easy options of acceptance and inaction. Just as the haar collapses distances, the viral cloud holds us in the present, and in proximity with intense vulnerability.

(C) Milo Newman

Some days it feels like enough research just to walk out amidst the blurred, rain-filled light onto the hill and watch the remaining skuas wheeling over the darkened ground of their territories, white flashing from their wings. As I sit in the midst of such relation, I feel that we should not quietly accept the injustices that ripple into this shared realm.


LOWE, C. 2010. VIRAL CLOUDS: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia. Cultural Anthropology, 25, 625-649.

ROSE, D. B. 2012. Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time. Environmental Philosophy, 9, 127-140.

ROSE, D. B., VAN DOOREN, T. & CHRULEW, M. 2017. Introduction: Telling Extinction Stories. In: DEBORAH BIRD ROSE, T. V. D. A. M. C. (ed.) Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations. New York: Columbia University Press.

VAN DOOREN, T. 2014. Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, New York, Columbia University Press.


Read the original post on Milo’s website.

Mourning Auks: Creative Expressions of Extinction in an Era of Ecological Loss

Milo Newman, PhD candidate in human geography, introduces his project on creativity and extinction. Milo’s research is funded through the AHRC South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership.

Looking at your hearts, suspended in their jar, I try and imagine the two of you still alive. I know that if you were anything like your closest living kin, you would have bonded for life. You lived a long time, and it would have been a relationship that had gathered and deepened over years. By the time you came together this final time, the congregations that were so important to your kind were already a thing of the past. Perhaps you were aware of how empty your world had become. Although you were alone on that low rock, it could be that you were accompanied by the memory of the multitude that had once been. By this point it was already too late. There were too few of you to recover what had been lost. Even so, maybe you would have nodded to each other and tried to make the best of it. Maybe you would have started showing off, just as those before you had always done; turning your heads from side to side so the bright white around your eye would have caught the light. Maybe then, with an exuberance tinged with grief, you would have thrown your heads back and let out an ecstatic cry; the vivid yellow inside your mouths shining like a beacon, mimicking the sun.

Catastrophic anthropogenically-driven biodiversity loss is a defining problem of our time, with hundreds of extinctions observed every year, and many more occurring unnoticed. Reacting to the scale of this issue, extinction studies researchers have called for new interdisciplinary responses interrogating what extinction means, why it matters, and how it is narrated.

‘Mourning Auks’ is an innovative practice-led project examining how artful geographic methods and outcomes can contribute to these vital questions. Over the next four years I plan to explore what novel and affective modes of engaging with anthropogenically-driven species loss can be generated through creative articulations of the emotional dimensions of extinction, and how these can be communicated in public artistic and museum contexts.

In extinction studies, extinction is understood not as a singular, generic concept, but as something that exists through multiple specificities relatable to the diversity of lifeworlds being lost. This is generally explored via case studies, which employ critically-driven creative-academic storytelling to express the biological, cultural and temporal particularities of species, their unique phenomenal worlds, and the significance of extinction within multispecies entanglements. This narrative-based approach provides a form of witnessing that is attentive to others in the face of irreparable loss, that counters human exceptionalism, and creates new ethical and cultural modes that help to resist the destructive legacies of anthropogenically-driven extinction more broadly.

Unexplored potential exists for artistic methods to undertake and communicate these extinction-orientated case studies. Through a case study on the now extinct great auk, my practice-led project will explore and analyse ways of engaging broader audiences with this field. It aims to expand the affective reach of these essential attempts to re-articulate contemporary species loss, and its ethical and socio-cultural imperative.

Fig. 1 Alca Impennis by John Gould, from The Birds of Great Britain, Vol. 5 (1873). John Gould/Public Domain

The great auk was a flightless seabird that was once found in the cold coastal waters of the North Atlantic. These birds nested in huge social colonies on isolated islands, which they returned to every year. These remote skerries provided protection from terrestrial predators. However, they became increasingly vulnerable after technological advances in ocean-going vessels brought European sailors into close proximity to these breeding colonies, which they ruthlessly exploited for food on trans-Atlantic voyages.

My research will begin with analysis of the ‘Garefowl books’, a substantial, underexploited resource held in the Cambridge University Library collections. These manuscript diaries, kept by the Victorian ornithologist and egg collector John Wolley, record interviews with witnesses who were amongst the last to see the auks alive, and who took part in the final hunting parties to their breeding places. Close reading of this material will inform studio-based experimentation utilising artistic methods drawn from archival impulses in contemporary art (see the works of John Akomfrah and Tacita Dean, amongst many others). Following on from Brian Massumi’s 2014 book What Animals Teach us About Politics such ‘playful’ creative practices can be seen as animal in origin, and provide a continuum with animal life (see Merle Patchett’s Archiving). In this context, these textual encounters with the auk’s disappearance offer the means of both interrogating the socio-cultural practices that drove their extinction, and of generating sympathetic multispecies re-alignments.

I also plan to draw the narratives surrounding the auks’ disappearance into emotional geographic frames. These examine spatialisations of emotion in relation to landscape, including those relating to death, such as mourning and grief. Study here is mostly restricted to human contexts, and my project aims to develop this to explore the affective geographies of sites of extinction-driven absence.

Fig. 2 An eighteenth-century sketch of Geirfuglasker by Guðni Sigurðsson. Geirfuglasker, a now submerged volcanic island off the south coast of Iceland, was one of the great auk’s breeding colonies. National Museum of Iceland/Public Domain

In recent re-interpretations, avian philopatry has been re-conceptualised as other-than-human ‘storying-of-place’ (see Thom van Dooren’s excellent book Flight Ways). Hypothesising this for great auks gives their breeding sites potency as places, not just because they were invested with history and meaning for the auks, but because these became the traumatic sites of their extinction. In this context, I plan to undertake fieldwork at some of the auks’ historical breeding colonies, and at those of their closest living relatives. Here, imaginative curiosity towards these species’ remote, liminal, and aquatic geographies will inform a creative enlivening of the great auks’ historical lifeworld, providing the basis for further artistic experimentation centred on site-specific place-making exercises. These will attend to how landscapes are matters ‘of [other-than-human] biographies, attachments and exiles’ in which ‘absence, loss and haunting’ abound (Wylie, 2007: 10), and will survey the more-than-representational emotional aspects of extinction.

You can follow Milo on twitter @_milonewman and see more of his work at

What did the dinosaurs ever do for us?

Since their discovery less than 200 years ago, dinosaurs have invaded popular culture, appearing in literature, fiction, art, film and entertainment. Dinosaur displays draw eager visitors to museums, and dinosaur-related feature films yield some of the highest box-office returns of all time.[1] A general public usually indifferent to science reacts enthusiastically to a new dinosaur discovery reported in popular news and media channels. Yet the word ‘dinosaur’ is still used to refer to something – or someone – out of date, extinct, obsolete and inflexible.

Apart from their entertainment value, why are dinosaurs relevant today? Why spend time, effort and money studying an apparently extinct group of animals? Because dinosaurs were the dominant life form on land for over 200 million years. They were amazingly diverse – they came in all shapes and sizes, from the size of a raven to the largest animals ever to walk on land, living all over the planet from the Antarctic to Siberia, from Scotland to China.

So, first, if we want to understand life in its entirety, we need to understand how and why dinosaurs became so successful, how they adapted to variations in their environment and how they dominated the planet for so long.

Second, and perhaps more urgent today, we need them to tell us what went wrong – what were the global repercussions of a massive asteroid impact? What exactly caused the extinction* of such resilient, adaptable creatures? Dinosaurs lived through some of the most dramatic environmental upheavals the planet has experienced – variations in oxygen levels, climate, even the position of the land masses – yet, in the end, were at the mercy of their changing environment.

Third, some dinosaurs were the largest creatures to walk the planet, massive creatures more than ten times the size of an elephant. Scientists in the field of biomechanics are trying to understand how they lived, exceeding any limits we can even imagine from extant life. How did they live? Eat? Mate? Grow? Understanding them helps us to understand how evolution solves the problems of life.

If the environmental humanities study our relationship with, and effect on, our environment, the dinosaurs can put that in context. More than that, the popularity of dinosaurs in contemporary culture needs the methodologies used by the humanities to understand the underlying critical influences in their interpretations. Any representation of a dinosaur is a product of speculation and that speculation can carry hidden bias and social influences even when based on known science.

*Except, of course, the dinosaurs didn’t die out. Today, around 10,000 species of them feed on your garden feeders, fly overhead and sing at dawn. Birds are dinosaurs, evolved from a common ancestor in the branch of theropods that included T. rex – and T. rex is more closely related to a hummingbird than to a stegosaurus.

This post was written by Vicky Coules (@victoriacoules). Images kindly supplied by Robert Nicholls

Bristol’s Palaeomedia Project is an informal discussion group and blog, ( that explores how dinosaurs and allied prehistoric creatures are represented in media and welcomes anyone in touch with their inner 7-year-old who loves dinosaurs. For further information or to join the mailing group, contact me at

[1] See, for example, the increase in numbers to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery when they displayed the diplodocus skeleton from May to Sept 2018; Among worldwide grossing films of all time, Jurassic World is no. 5 and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom no 12. Jurassic Park comes in at no. 32.