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Duke University Press Books
The Multispecies Salon

The Multispecies Salon

by Eben Kirksey


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822356257
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/20/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 705,733
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Eben Kirksey is a permanent faculty member in Environmental Humanities at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Global Architecture of Power, also published by Duke University Press.

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The Multispecies Salon

By Eben Kirksey

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7698-9



Eben Kirksey, Nicholas Shapiro, and Maria Brodine

In early November 2010, the multitude of creative agents animating the Multispecies Salon in New Orleans descended on a warehouse, the Ironworks, and hastily remodeled it as an art gallery. There curators gathered together some sixty artworks orbiting around a central question: "In the aftermath of disasters—in blasted landscapes that have been transformed by multiple catastrophes—what are the possibilities of biocultural hope?" The Ironworks became a site where culture workers who were deeply implicated in sweeping political, economic, and ecological transformations cautiously explored future horizons in the wake of recent disasters that put New Orleans in the national spotlight. The opening night of the exhibit coincided with the Second Saturday Art Walk in the emerging Saint Claude Arts District. Hundreds flocked to the Ironworks, crowding to see a recycled fashion show by Calamity, a designer who outfitted models in postapocalyptic garb and crust-punk drag. The usual crowd of bike-riding twenty-somethings was there in full force. A strong current of cleaner-cut middle-aged viewers and a sprinkling of out-oft-owners rounded out the masses. "I flew down from New York for this," a beaming fifty-year-old noted as she slipped on headphones to hear the beehive of the SOUND::MEDICINE::HOUSE installation, composed of wood and plants salvaged from nearby blighted buildings.

Dark, dystopic images, a digital rendering of fugitive emissions from nearby oil refineries, flickered overhead. Illustrations of deformed and crippled insects, collected from the shadows of nuclear disasters, covered a makeshift plywood wall. Images of chemical oceanographers—working to make sense of molecular and microbial transformations taking place near the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion—fueled discussions about upcoming protests against BP and funeral processions for the creatures killed by the flood of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. One might expect that this accumulated evidence of advancing disasters—a perfect storm of human follies and agencies beyond the control of gallery visitors—might dampen their revelry. Instead, these signs of calamity strangely fueled a celebratory atmosphere in which it seemed as if anything might happen at any time.

Amid revelry in the wreckage of natural and fiscal catastrophes we found semi-empowered intellectuals who were embracing and tussling with forms of collective desire. Powerful forces have tried to appropriate the very idea of hope. As a vacuous political slogan, "hope" has bulldozed over our dreams. Yet artists, scientists, and other culture workers gathered together at the Multispecies Salon to engage in strategic storytelling about Hope in Blasted Landscapes. Building on the critical insights of these storytellers, this essay explores the persistence of life in the face of catastrophe. Following people, and following multiple species, from the art gallery to the blasted landscapes of New Orleans and beyond, we trace the contours of modest forms of biocultural hope.


The flood of oil spreading in the Gulf set the backdrop for the Multispecies Salon in New Orleans. When news of oil plumes first reached Jacqueline Bishop, an artist who teaches at Loyola University, she was hardly surprised. Some five years earlier, she had created Trespass, an uncanny illustration of disasters looming on future horizons. First exhibited in the months before Hurricane Katrina, this assemblage of flotsam and jetsam—baby shoes and birds' nests, toys and balls of twine—contained aesthetic premonitions of the floating debris that were omnipresent after the storm. Coated in a black patina, a dark, glossy finish like crude oil, this artwork also prefigured the oil flood that came in 2010. At first blush, from far away, Trespass seems to just be a collection of wreckage—a dreadful rendering of disaster. When viewed from the middle distance, it appears to shimmer and dance about like oil in water—moving in different directions, coalescing around a heterogeneous collection of objects. Scrutinizing this aqueous landscape at a close range, moving in even closer still, reveals that it is populated with hopeful figures.

A figure might be regarded as "a fashioning, a resemblance, a shape; also a chimerical vision," following Nathan Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum of 1730. "To figure" also means to have a role in a story. Gathering up desires, figures serve as anchoring points for dreams. If, at a distance, Trespass seems to be a uniform black morass—prefiguring Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil flood—closer inspection reveals colorful organisms hiding in the shadows. Mushrooms, seed pods, and birds' eggs anchor hopes in living forms. Like a bird's nest, built from scavenged detritus, Trespass nurtures hopeful dreams. The figural play of this assemblage works with shifts of scale: A sea slick with oil and wreckage, an unfathomable disaster when viewed from afar, contains anchoring points for hopeful desires that can be grasped on a molecular level. Zooming in reveals that when droplets merge together, when they grab hold of almost imperceptible figures, they generate dynamic coalescences. Panning back out reveals the dance of oil in water.

Looking to possible futures, rather than to absolute endings, Jacques Derrida draws a helpful distinction between apocalyptic and messianic thinking. Messianic hopes contain "the attraction, invincible élan or affirmation of an unpredictable future-to-come (or even of a past-to-come-again)," writes Derrida. "Not only must one not renounce the emancipatory desire, it is necessary to insist on it more than ever." Yet Derrida's sense of expectation is not oriented toward a specific messiah. In contrast to Christian traditions, which pin hopes to a particular figure, Jesus Christ, Derrida's notion of messianicity is "without content." Celebrating messianic desires that operate beyond the confines of any particular figure, he describes a universal structure of feeling that works independently of any specific historical moment or cultural location: "The universal, quasi-transcendental structure that I call messianicity without messianism," writes Derrida, "is not bound up with any particular moment of (political or general) history or culture." In other words, his notion of messianicity is not attached to a specific figure, event, political project, or messiah.

Nutria were once farmed for their fur. The species was imported to the United States in the nineteenth century to support trends in high fashion. As fur became less fashionable, wild nutria populations exploded in North America. "We used to have a big nutria trapping industry," said Elizabeth Shannon, a licensed alligator hunter and ecoartist who exhibited her work in the Salon. "But the price of nutria went down to about a dollar a hide. So my friends basically stopped trapping." Lately, the prolific species has been damaging human infrastructures. Jefferson Parish, the district that includes most suburbs of New Orleans, largely lies below sea level and is kept dry by an elaborate series of dykes and canals. "Nutria have seriously weakened the canal banks by overgrazing and building a labyrinth of tunnels under the surface," says Marnie Winter, director of environmental affairs for Jefferson Parish. "The burrows are interconnected in a sort of honeycomb pattern so that some extend under the surface as much as fifty to one hundred fifty feet. Occasionally, severe tunnelling in a small area will cause a section of canal bank to collapse into the canal.... Patches of grass that hold the canal banks in place have been grazed down to the bare ground by these voracious critters." Calamity was reinvesting nutria with use value, drawing the nomadic species into microbiopolitical networks of matter and meaning. By generating a new market for nutria pelts and thereby creating economic incentives for trappers to remove animals from Louisiana bayous, he scripted this species into what Haraway might regard as story of lively capital, where commerce and consciousness, ethics and aesthetics were all in play.

The empty dreamscape of Derrida is haunted by a messianic spirit that refuses to be grounded in any particular figure. Jacqueline Bishop's imagination, by contrast, contains multiple specific objects of desire. In Bishop's work, we found a cautious spirit searching through refuse, coalescing around specific figures, and then dancing away again on other lines of flight. When we first encountered Trespass in Bishop's studio in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans, our visit became an opportunity for her to tell a circuitous story about how she found hope, without even going to look for it, in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20, 2010. For Bishop, the uninterrupted flood of oil was an actualization of her worst nightmares, the horrible environmental disaster she had long imagined.

Bishop's first impulse, in the early weeks of the oil flood, was to travel to Louisiana's Gulf Coast. Initially she wanted to collect some of the oil, to use the potent substance in her artwork. Powerful fumes, a haunting cloud of toxicity, was hanging over Grand Isle—a sleepy beach town visited by Bishop that was quickly becoming the epicenter of the oil flood, as well as of the efforts to clean it up. Spectatorship was officially discouraged by BP and government officials who were playing rhetorically with the potential harm of toxic vapors and substances. Rigid codes of conduct and access restrictions were put in place ostensibly to protect the public's safety. "They didn't want to get anybody hurt," Bishop told us with a smirk. Safety protocol kept journalists, independent researchers, and curious members of the public off the beaches and meant that the BP contractors who took control of the cleanup were working under a veil of secrecy. People who marched past BP's cordon themselves became objects of heightened scrutiny and surveillance. "The toxicity is why no one was allowed on the beaches, why the beaches were closed," Bishop said. "I had access as long as I was with park rangers. There were some people who drifted off, not abiding [by] the rules and the signs. A couple walked down the beach, and when they came back, [the BP contractors] stripped them, made them take all their clothes off, completely nude: 'Check their clothes, check their bodies to make sure nothing happened to them, we have these laws for a reason.'"

Forthright claims about toxicity were taken seriously on Louisiana's Gulf Coast, for the truth was immediately assumed to be in excess of the official estimation. The human health effects of emissions from the petrochemical industry in the Gulf routinely have been low-balled or rendered imperceptible by blunt toxicological methodology. Downriver from one of the more chemical-drenched regions of the country—a section of the Mississippi River called Cancer Alley—Gulf Coast residents were long accustomed to taking precaution into their own hands as a result of corporate and governmental abdication. Bishop was quick to understand how the specter of toxicity was functioning as a means of social control on Grand Isle. She also quickly realized that actual chemical hazards were at play.

The reaction of Jacqueline Bishop's own body to Corexit, the chemical being sprayed on the Gulf to "disperse" the oil flood, became the source of critical ambivalence about this poison that was being used as a cure. "When I went around July 4, I didn't bring my swamp boots," she said. "I just had my forest boots, so I borrowed some swamp boots—they had a little bit of water in it. I didn't realize there was Corexit in this water. About two weeks later, several layers of my skin were eaten off the bottom of my feet. I had to ask, 'What's the deal with my feet? Is it just from the water and the oil?' They said, 'No, it's from the dispersants.' So I came to a realization about these chemicals. If they can affect my feet so quickly, just think what they are capable of in other species." Abandoning her plan to collect oil for use in her artwork, Bishop began to use her camera to document the extent of the disaster and to chronicle the cleanup response. She took pictures of oiled marshlands and tar balls on beaches, as well as of BP work crews—including teams of supervised inmates from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. She also began taking an inordinate number of pictures of hermit crabs.

Bishop's access to restricted sites was facilitated by Leanne Sarco, a ranger at Grand Isle State Park, who founded the Hermit Crab Survival Project. A recent graduate from Loyola University's biology program, Sarco started her job at Grand Isle weeks before the Deepwater Horizon blowout. As the first oil slicks began washing onto the beach, she helplessly watched oil-drenched birds struggle. "When we initially saw oiled animals we would call the US Fish and Wildlife hotline," Sarco said. "I was frustrated by their response. At best, it would take them an hour or two to show up. By that time, the bird had moved on or already died." Sarco eventually stopped calling the hotline. She began asking officials if she could clean the birds herself but was told that several months of special training was required before she would be permitted to handle birdlife.

Amid her frustration in dealing with the official channels regulating the care of oiled birds, she saw hundreds of hermit crabs attempting to scramble ashore, only to get stuck under the sheen and suffocate. "BP and Fish and Wildlife were busy saving the birds, as well as edible wildlife—animals with either an economic benefit or a cuteness factor," Sarco told us. "Hermit crabs were just part of the beach. When I saw the BP workers shoveling living hermit crabs covered with oil into bags for disposal, I knew I had to at least try to help them." Sarco was predisposed to notice this unloved species—a creature that was outside centralized biopolitical regimes—because she had first encountered Grand Isle as an undergraduate, when she worked on a research project about hermit crab biology.

Facing a bleak future, and feeling powerless as oil continued to gush into the Gulf with no end in sight, Sarco settled on a modest program of action. She called the Fish and Wildlife hotline one last time and secured permission to collect and clean the hermit crabs. Learning along the way, Sarco began to experiment with techniques for interspecies care. Falling through the bureaucratic cracks of the government's regime for managing life, being unloved in the realms of official regulation, ironically established the possibility of life for a multitude of hermit crabs. Upward of ten thousand animals were cared for during the Hermit Crab Survival Project. Sarco and a small cadre of volunteers cobbled together everyday technology—donated aquariums, Dr. Bronner's soap, and household artifacts—to create a life-support system for these creatures.

Jacqueline Bishop found hope in this initiative to care for another species. Against the nightmarish landscape of the oil slick, she grounded her desire for a livable future in the figure of the hermit crab. "We had this makeshift lab, and we would collect about a thousand crabs a day," she says. Caring for the hermit crabs involved edging Q-tips into their shells without injuring their delicate bodies. "I felt so comfortable cleaning the hermit crabs." Bishop reminisced as we gazed at Trespass in her studio: "Swabbing with the Qtip was the same gesture as painting, except I was taking oil off instead of applying it." Her seasoned hand traced the intricate recesses of hermit crab shells, legs, and claws. Modest hopes for specific animals stirred with each of her concrete, repetitive, and meditative actions.

As her imagination wandered from the Hermit Crab Survival Project to the fallout of the BP oil flood, Bishop found that the ultimate environmental disaster of her nightmares was generating order-destroying dreaming. The masses were starting to move. Out on the streets people were calling for BP executives to be jailed, agitating to disrupt the predictable flows of global capital. Out in the bayous and on the beaches, thousands of people were volunteering for the cleanup. The early years of the twenty-first century may have seemed like a moment when power relations were fixed in place, when nothing ever seemed to change. But this homogeneous, empty time was quickly giving way to a revolutionary time—a moment of political possibility when collective desires began to coalesce around multiple figures and future events.

Hopes began to move like oil in water. Discrete droplets danced around on the surface of water as figures of desire moved about in the imagination of individual people. Bumping into one another, figural oil bubbles coalesced—becoming more perceptible, a glimmering sheen spreading through the sea of collective imagination. The potent toxicity of this shimmering liquid gathered together expansive desires, serving as a common object for anchoring diverse hopes. In a word, the oil spreading in the Gulf embodied the indeterminate nature of the pharmakon—a poisonous substance that can double as remedy, something that presents an obstacle or an opportunity. The figurative power of oil in water provided an opening for a multitude who desired to cure the ills of extractive capitalism. The seemingly unstoppable flood of petrochemicals became a call for a collective response, spurring a swarm of creative agents into revolutionary action.


Excerpted from The Multispecies Salon by Eben Kirksey. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction / Eben Kirksey, Craig Schuetze, and Stefan Helmreich 1

Part I. Blasted Landscapes

1. Hope in Blasted Landscapes / Eben Kirksey, Nicholas Shapiro, and Maria Brodine 29

R. A. W. Assmilk Soap / Karin Bolender 64

3. Blasted Landscapes (And the Gentle Arts of Mushroom Picking) / Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, for the Matsutake Worlds Research Group 87

Part II. Edible Companions

Interlude. Microbiopolitics / Heather Paxson 115

Recipe 1. Plumpiñon / Lindsay Kelley 122

Recipe 2. Human Cheese / Miriam Sumin 135

Recipe 3. Multispecies Communities / Eben Kirksey 145

Recipe 4. Bitter Medicine is Stronger / Linda Noel, Christine Hamilton, Anna Rodriguez, Angela James, Nathan Rich, David S. Edmunds, and Kim TallBear 154

4. Life Cycle of a Common Weed / Caitlin Berrigan 164

Part III. Life and Biotechnology

5. Life in the Age of Biotechnology / Eben Kirksey, Brandon Costelleo-Kuehn, and Dorion Sagan 185

6. Invertebrate Visions: Diffractions of the Brittlestar / Karen Barad 221

7. Speculative Fabulations for Technoculture's Generations: Taking Care of Unexpected Country / Donna J. Haraway 242

Acknowledgments 263

Bibliography 271

Contributors 289

Index 295

What People are Saying About This

Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary - George Marcus

"The Multispecies Salon is an ambitious, important book, an excellent read, full of energy and imagination. I teach art and anthropology courses, and this volume will be a key pedagogical text for me. I am certain that The Multispecies Salon will also be an attractive text in science studies, environmental anthropology, and cultural studies courses. It's an enthralling collection."

Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells, and the Future of Kinship - Sarah Franklin

"This timely anthology offers a substantial and engaging introduction to the field of multispecies studies, clearly presenting the core concepts of an important and influential area of scholarship, which will become increasingly central to anthropology, science studies, environmental studies, and social theory. At the same time, The Multispecies Salon is in many ways an art book. It features an extraordinary range of remarkable art projects, which are fascinating in their own right and beautifully written up."

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