During the Brown Pelican breeding season of 1970, only one of 552 eggs on Anacapa Island in California survived. The presence of the insecticide DDT in the marine food web caused brown pelicans, among other bird species, to lay eggs with shells so thin that embryo survival was difficult. In 1978, the California subspecies reached a record 466 nests. It seemed at the time that this might be the end for the Brown Pelican. But it was not. Recent surveys suggest that there are approximately 150,000 brown pelicans in California and 650,000 brown pelicans in the world. Due to environmental regulations, conservation efforts, and strong human advocacy, birds like the brown pelican have survived what could have been their apocalypse.
Due to its near extinction and resurgence, the Brown Pelican is a main character in The endless end, an upcoming multimedia installation by Facing West Shadows (FWS) at the San José Institute of Contemporary Art. The Alameda-based experimental shadow theater collective wants to encourage audiences to meditate on extinction, survival, and what we can learn from both. Due to hits like the Brown Pelican, FWS director Caryl Kientz says she “really avoids the idea that it’s the end of the world and the apocalypse.” But at the same time, The endless end will not offer a watered-down perspective on extinction. “We’re going to have to show a bit of darkness,” adds artistic director Lydia Greer. “I think we’re going to have to go.
Although hope and darkness may seem like contradictory messages for the same artistic project, presenting them raises important questions about how to represent environmental crises. How, for example, can we think of extinction in a way that recognizes its seriousness while avoiding falling into doomsday thought? Can the focus on the darkness of ecological collapse help viewers imagine a better future?
The endless end will be an immersive experience occupying a 750 square foot gallery space and incorporating stop-motion animation, shadow puppet theater, sculpture and music. Viewers will enter the facility through an increasingly dark tunnel before emerging into a large cavernous room. Animations will swirl around the room, featuring a cast that could include endangered Bay Area species such as the San Joaquin fox, the tide goby, the saltwater harvest mouse, and the sea butterfly. bay, alongside more globally recognizable extinct species such as the carrier pigeon and the woolly mammoth.
The installation’s design is partly inspired by proto-cinema technologies and even cave paintings, especially abstract lines that some researchers say create a sense of movement when viewed by torchlight. The models and the animations in progress show an experience that seems primordial and raw. Animations of growing branches and mushrooms create a feeling of vibrancy, but there is also a ghostly feel to appearances of extinct or endangered species projected onto the cave walls.
“There is no teaching element that will tell people what to think and feel,” Kientz says. Nonetheless, in keeping with the circular spirit of the installation’s title, the artists designed the abstract narrative in terms of cycles, such as darkness and light, past and present, and preservation and survival.
FWS offers visitors the opportunity to slow down and observe, but not in a detached or neutral manner. Viewers can sit down with the experience as it overwhelms them, and no immediate call to action is required – no comments, shares, or likes. Artists argue that such contemplative observation leads to more radical ends. Rachel Carson’s Silent spring, which galvanized action against DDT, was prompted by a letter from a friend who had watched birds die on his property as a result of insecticide sprays. The endless end is an invitation for us to find a place in our political lives for this kind of observation and committed connection with the lands we inhabit.
The current ecological crisis marks the end of many things: species, ways of being, possible futures. But, say the artists, it is important to recognize that as serious as these ends are, they do not add up to the to finish. There is always a future; darkness and loss are not the same as the apocalypse. The disappearance of the brown pelican never happened because people took action. And so, says Greer, the play asks, ‘How do we survive this? If we predict that we will have to give up, says Kientz, “we let go of our ideas and our imaginations.”