“Do you hear that? That’s the sound of a bird that no longer exists,” he says to his children while they gaze upon an odd assortment of curios—aquatic fossils, animal bones salvaged from East Texas piney woods, styrofoam, and gas pump handles among other curiosities—sitting atop a Sheila Pepe designed table at the Texas Contemporary Art Fair. He’s referring to the mating call of the O’o bird of Kauai whose song was last heard live circa 1987. Now, the lonely cry of the O’o can only be felt and heard with the aid of technology. One of his children looked up from the jaw bone he was studying to listen more attentively as the O’o song gave way to sounds of modem distortion circa 1995 during the golden age of dial-up—a sound now presumed to be functionally extinct.
Fossilized Houston, in partnership with DiverseWorks’ Tiny Art Salon, hosted this interactive exhibit to invite listeners to think about the future of extinction both in a biological and technological sense. As we enter a sixth major extinction wrought by the excesses of consumption and industry, how might we also reflect on the rapid pace of technology which drives its prior forms to extinction—modern fossils captured in landfill strata? What is the relationship between biological and technological extinction? What does agency look like when thinking about the fossilized future versus the past?
A soundtrack of noises both familiar and foreign, extinct or nearing extinction, played on a loop as patrons rearranged the curiosities strewn across the table or sat in the crocheted webbing beneath it. An animal skull nested in a styrofoam block that once cradled a radio. Fingers traced the delicate pattern of a fragile piece of fan coral. Hands squeezed and repositioned the gas pump handle detached from its familiar gas station setting. At an art fair where pieces sold for thousands of dollars, there were times that patrons wanted to know:
They didn’t have a price and they were not for sale.
However, a digital slideshow of the most recent artwork by local artists commissioned by Fossilized Houston participating artists played in the background highlighting even more species on the verge of extinction due to climate change and compounding factors. We directed them to the posters and stickers bearing those same images. “Take them,” we said, “they’re free.” They also were welcome to sit down to draw or create their own artwork.
Artist, anthropologist, and Fossilized organizer Lina Dib, while speaking to guests, further expounded on the role that art and technology will play with regard to the future and how we will come to know and experience extinction, pointing out that “In the future, sounds of extinct species will likely be heard in recorded form in art installations like this one—occasionally with 3d printed models to accompany it.” As she says this, I look at the 3d printed bird perched atop a petri dish filled with dead honeybees while the bellow of the Houston Toad drifts through the speakers. This particular amphibian, a native Texan, is expected to go extinct in ten years’ time. I’ve never seen one, but now I can say that I’ve heard one. I’m not sure that’s enough.
Fossilized Houston is a partnership between Houston artists, thinkers, activists, and environmentalists that seeks to make the environmental consequences of our actions visible on a day-to-day level. Co-founded by former CENHS postdoc fellow Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, it is now led by Tony Day, Lina Dib, Adrienne Simoes Correa, and Maureen Haver.
Maureen Haver is a 3rd year PhD student in the Rice Anthropology Department and a predoctoral fellow at CENHS. Broadly, her research focuses on the political and ethical dimensions of climate adaptation and energy transition in Alaska.