Seeing Red…Overdrawn (2016) is a large canvas is filled with the names of over four thousand animals on the brink of distinction, transcribed from the IUCN Red List of critically endangered species. Scientific names, usually in Latin, appear in red, and common English names in black. The lettering is so faint that it is bearly legible, in representation of how close these animals are to disappearing. The canvas’s creators Ackroyd & Harvey aim to “bring the names into prominence” by inviting visitors to “overwrite” in marker pen. Visitors are asked to pull on white gloves and choose a name on the canvas, then write over it so that the faint letters become more visible.
This canvas performs the dual purpose of increasing awareness of the unfamiliar animals and alerting viewers to their demise. Ackroyd hopes that viewers will be as fascinated by the names as she was when she first read them. “The names themselves are very evocative,” she says, referring to some of the unfamiliar Latin terms and their sometimes bizarre English equivalents, such as “Edith’s Fungus Weevil”, “White-rumped Vulture”, or “Squirrel Chimney Cave Shrimp”. The names beg questions about how they were named, and who named them. The care and attention that is required while tracing over each letter helps to etch the animal’s name into the mind of the writer.
The work was originally commissioned by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, but is on display at UH as part of the Slow Violence exhibition as it so closely fits with the themes of the project, explored in this previous post. These animals are so numerous and unfamiliar that we feel too distant and too uninformed to care about their plight. The rendering of their names onto canvas in a familiar setting helps to make them seek tangible and close, even if the animals themselves remain elusive.
Where we have failed to conserve these animals, we can at least conserve their memory. Harvey compares the piece to a memorial wall. The lists of names, so numerous that they must appear in minutely sized lettering, bears resemblance to the list of names of fallen servicemen memorialised in Washington DC’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, or of 9/11 victims inscribed on the parapets of the 9/11 museum. Like many memorials, the piece aims to communicate the scale of a tragedy so large that it is almost impossible to comprehend. Dan Harvey points out that each of these names does not refer to an individual animal, but rather an entire species. The list provides “only an idea of the enormity” of the problem.
The likeness to memorials further aligns Ackroyd & Harvey’s piece with the rest of the exhibition. The main theme of Slow Violence is the invisible trauma of climate change, in contrast to the immediate, terrifying spectacle of short and sudden acts of destruction. Memorials have become part of the material culture of war: a way of quantifying the large-scale loss that results from conflict (Saunders, 2002, p. 178). The spectacle of war contrasts with the slow violence of climate change, but human-induced mass extinction is no less terrible, and no less deserving of a memorial.
Heather Ackroyd describes being surprised at how many of the species on the list were completely unknown to her, as if they are invisible. They are such rare and unfamiliar creatures that visitors often find themselves pulling out their phones and Googling the names that they have read, or asking the invigilator to do this on their behalf. They are so rare and elusive that, in some cases, conservationists are not yet certain whether they are extinct. Like memorialised missing persons, these animals require a material substitute to mediate their absence. Meyer (2012, p. 301) writes that, through memorial artifacts, absence is “materialized…objectified” or otherwise made present. Animals that are unknown to us are brought closer and made significant through this tangible object. The recording of the names in close proximity gives viewers a reason to care about their pending extinction.
However enamored they became by some of these creatures, the artists felt that it was important not to give viewers too much information. Ackroyd describes becoming fascinated by the details that she learned while conduction research into the creatures on the list, but felt strongly that it should be left up to the viewer to pursue that additional information only if they desired to do so. They loathe “top-down activism”, and did not want the piece to become a call-to-action. Rather, they wanted to create something “more subliminal” that would “just make people aware of the presence of these animals”, and would “pinch them” but not “direct them beyond that immediate interaction with the wall and the pen”.
The 4,734 names were drawn from the IUCN Red List in 2015 – that is revised every year – and the artists do not know how many of the names remain on the current list. In 2017, many of the names may now represent creatures that no longer exist. For this reason, the significance of the piece will change over time. It currently displays a list of endangered species, but may one day become to represent the many thousands of animals that have been lost since the list was first transcribed by the artists. However, notes Ackroyd, we have reasons not to be so pessimistic. Action is being taken, and when names are removed from the Red List, it is not always because the animal has become extinct. Sometimes the work of conservationists pays off, and a name is dropped from the list because an animal has been brought back from the brink. Eventually, this canvas may come to represent the extent to which conservation efforts can succeed.
Meyer, M. (2012), “Placing and Tracing absence: A material culture of the immaterial”, Journal of Material Culture, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 103-110.
Saunders, N. J. (2002), “Memory and Conflict”, in V. Buchli (ed), The Material Culture Reader, Oxford: Berg, pp. 175-180