Pangolin: A Mascot
The Extinction Marathon kicks off with Julia Peyton-Jones paying tribute to the artist and activist Gustav Metzger, whose tireless work drawing attention to the climate crisis has inspired and "been the guiding light" of this year's Marathon.
This year's Marathon is dedicated to the pangolin, the world's only scaly mammal. In many ways, issues around the continued existence of the pangolin can help us frame the upcoming talks and screenings over the next couple of days. The struggle of the pangolin sits within worldwide context of climate change, economic crisis and political contestation. The pangolin is victim of humanity's worse impulses; the acquisition of huge wealth caused by the deforestation of the beautiful animal's habitat and its widespread hunting to satisfy superstitious cravings for its supposed medicinal properties. It's also at risk due to hunting by people struggling to subside amidst widespread poverty and hunger; itself not a natural disaster but the result of hundreds of years of exploitation, disempowerment and land injustice. Finally, it's suffering at the hands of a world rapidly industrialising and causing significant climate crises with an economic system orientated towards profit at any cost.
However, the pangolin is also the focus of international campaigns by passionate activists aimed at defending and protecting the population. In 2010 the Zoological Society of London raised awareness of the plight of the pangolin by adding it to its list of genetically distinct and endangered mammals. Today, the entire genus, the Manis, is classified as threatened by extinction.
As such, the pangolin stands in as a mascot for the Marathon, an avatar for risk and hope.
Peyton-Jones quotes Elizabeth Colbert, who claims "We're currently living in the sixth extinction". Colbert argues we're currently living through the most serious extinction since the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. She also makes a nod towards the "anthropocene", a term gaining increasing significance and focus within both geological and philosophical communities. The anthropocene refers to a new epoch, an epoch characterised by the significant impact humans have made upon the environment. Andrew Revkin referred to the current epoch as "a geological age of our own making". It's a indictment of the homo sapien that the defining characteristic of the anthropocene is the destruction of biodiversity on the planet, the consumption of natural and mineral resources, and, of course, extinction: a coming to an end. A category death.
Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes at the Serpentine, continues by offering his gratitude to Metzger. Over the course of the Marathon, artists, scientists, mathematicians and thinkers will tackle this thorny and urgent situation of extinction. "Extinction" is tackled not just as an ecological situation, but as a wider metaphor for collapsing ecosystems of economics, culture and languages. The Marathon, Obrist says, didn't actually begin to day, but symbolically began a few weeks ago at the Serpentine's "Park Nights" event, where he was in conversation with the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. At that talk Bauman stated that the modern life that we experience daily looks very much like a dress rehearsal for extinction. We are in a constant state of flux which refuses to materialise.
Obrist introduces a moving and passionate short film by Metzger, where he discusses his concerns and thoughts on devastating human actions on the environment. "It's not enough to talk about climate change. We will never listen! We must talk about extinction", he says. Looking forward to the weekend's events, he says "What we are going to here is open up vistas on extinction… I hope this will extend our capacities to feel and reimagine what humans are doing to animals, to plant life… we hope all those who gather here over the next couple of days will make a difference, if only through extending the knowledge of what is happening."
He wants to reorientate our artistic practices and discourse towards nature. "Art through it's history … is always interacting with nature. There is no art without nature… Art is effervescence… art is everything our specific civilisation doesn't actually want."
"This is an opportunity for art to expand it's range and inspire new areas of activities… we are finding fields of action which ultimately will be very very helpful to all of us".
Metzger then issues a call for action. He asks all art schools, performance academies and the like to come together for a day of action. "What has happened over the last few months in this country is an increasing preparedness to radicalise and bring forward important issues."
Talking of nuclear weapons, which are still the defining condition of contemporary civilization - "When universal death comes about, the animal kingdom will not be spared, the plant kingdom will not be spared. It will be universal."
A sobering introduction to what promises to be a complex and challenging weekend of talks.