Stephen’s Island – a small island close to New Zealand. For thousands of years this island had been the safe home of a bird. So safe, that the bird forgot how to fly. There was a lighthouse on this island, as well as a person to keep it. One day the lighthouse keeper, David Lyall, brought a cat on the island. It didn’t take long until all the birds were killed. The little Wren that had forgotten how to fly got extinct. Now one might ask themselves: Who’s guilty? The lighthouse keeper for bringing a cat on the island? The cat for eating the birds? Or is the bird guilty because it forgot how to fly? To Jozef Wouters the answer is simple: „It’s not about guilt. It’s about choices being made without knowing the consequences.“
Jozef Wouters started the institute of recently extinct species that is currently displaying a natural history museum on Kampnagel in Hamburg (5th – 15th June). Why a natural history museum? I asked him and got some very interesting answers.
We are standing in one of Kampnagel’s big, rustic rooms that are once again being turned into something new – an installation – „Zoological Institute of Recently Extinct Species“.
Kim: What exactly am I looking at?
Jozef: This is my proposition for a natural history museum.
Kim: What does that mean?
Jozef: This here, this thing I built, is a proposition for a new way of telling our natural history.
Behind us someone is working on the constructions of the exhibition, while someone else is working on the entrance. A third person is setting up, changing, improving. An inspiring work atmosphere, but too loud for my recorder to grasp the conversation. We grab a couple of chairs and move the interview outside. Jozef lights a cigarette and begins the story.
Jozef: I started with this institute called the zoological institute of recently extinct species. At first it was only me, then slowly we became a bigger group of technicians, scientists, historians and others 15 people or something, which is… He pauses shortly …I’m not sure if it’s a real institute or not, but let’s say that right now it is, because we are doing something. Anyway, I started this institute departing from stories that I read. Since I was a little child I’ve been fascinated by everything that’s natural history and everything that’s nature and science and then there’s stories that I’ve discovered – stories of recently extinct species. That’s where this project started, because I was fascinated by these animal species that were no longer here.
Kim: Can you tell me one of these stories?
Jozef: Seven of them are in the museum now. The first one I ever heard and I was ever fascinated by was the Tasmanian wolf. It came from the family of the kangaroos, evolved until it began to look like a wolf and became nearly extinct with the introduction of the Polynesians in Australia 40.000 years ago and then in the 18th century with the English colonists it became extinct until there was only one family left. Of this family everyone died except one female who was kept in the zoo in Hobart in Tasmania. People say she was called Benjamin, but it’s probably not true because she was a female, so they probably invented that name in the 1960s to give it more of a personality or something – anyway, there was one left and this one specimen died because someone forgot to open the little door that lead to the sleeping cage and this female froze to death on the night of 7th/8th September 1936. So it’s a precise date, a precise specimen.
The stories inspire and turn into an idea, which eventually becomes the Zoological Institute of Recently Extinct Species
Jozef: And then I started reading a lot of other stories of extinct species and I discovered that there’s six known species that have a last individual with often a name and always a precise date of death. I was so fascinated by this because I had the idea that those stories had the potential to capture the whole problematic and strange responsibility and dominance of mankind on this planet into one single image. You could say that ecology, whatever we call ecology, all the problems we call ecology, you could say that those problems are invisible – you cannot see it. We try to, but we cannot see it. And those stories have the potential to show something, to be symbolic. Because it’s the last one it’s symbolic but concrete at the same time.
Kim: You made a work last month at the natural history museum of Brussels. What did you do there?
Jozef: Well what we did in Brussels was we added a wing to the natural history museum, and in this wing we proposed another collection, because I think the way natural history museums are created over time, since the beginning of this 18th century until now and the way they display their collections is problematic – to say the least.
Kim: Why do you think so?
Jozef: The whole idea of natural history comes from a desire of harmony – a desire starting with Linnaeus, who was the first ever that tried to create a taxonomy, trying to describe the whole of nature with all species and to basically map nature. I think you can say that natural history museums still have the desire to show nature as this harmonious whole. As a temple, nature as a temple. And the whole ecology, or whatever we call ecology has a tendency to talk about harmony too, to talk in terms of nature as a temple. It says we are the ones who are responsible for this temple and we should be really careful not to let species die… We have to protect nature in a way.
Kim: And you don’t agree with that because you think what exactly?
Jozef: Well, my Institute, the zoological institute of recently extinct species, thinks that we have a very problematic way of imagining ecology. And I’m talking about image, not about the actions but how we envision ecology, how we look at it – the “Bildsprache”. What are the concrete images we think of? Our grandparents were in harmony with nature and our grandchildren will inherit a world that is chaos, on the concrete, we are the guilty generation right now. We are standing on the foot of a mountain; we are standing on the edge of a cliff. I’m trying to describe the images. Recently they did a story in America asking people: “What do you see when you think of ecology? What’s the image of ecology?” More than half of the people said: “Melting ice.” That’s the image we have of ecology – melting ice. I think that’s problematic.
The conversation is shortly interrupted, as the preparations for the festival do not pause. Fortunately, my recorder does…
Jozef continues: The more I talked with scientists and the more I read about it I started discovering that if we talk about ecology we should go 200.000 years back in time, back to the first human being or homo sapiens who left Africa, because a very interesting scientist told me that there is no proof that there was ever a ecosystem in harmony after we left Africa. We often talk about ecology only in the last 200 years. We think industrial revolution, the discovery of fossil fuels is “0” and from then on everything went wrong and I think it’s super interesting to think of ecology in terms of 200.000 years, because it makes it less about guilt. You cannot say that we shouldn’t have left Africa. You cannot say that we shouldn’t have domesticated the pig, which is also a big problem if you think of it. You cannot say that we shouldn’t have discovered different parts of the world.
About the responsibility of natural history museums…
Jozef: The final thought is that if we want different images of ecology, then natural history museums are probably responsible for these images. They are the ones who should provide society with images and I think those images should not be about harmony, they should be about doubt. Because we think natural history is a history of doubt, a history of choices being made without knowing the consequences. You could say that if Columbus would have known the consequences of conquering America, ecological consequences, worldwide consequences, maybe he wouldn’t have done it. So many of the stories in our museum are about choices. We’ve made a collection of 35 images, 35 exact moments in history – a collection that tries to show our natural history as a series of doubt – choices full of doubt. And we propose that natural history museums should empty their collections and start looking for different images.
Kim: Didn’t the natural history museum in Brussels mind? What was their opinion about this?
Jozef: It’s hard to say. For sure a big part of our collection is critique on the natural history museum except that I didn’t feel like they got it. Laughs a little. There was a lot of media attention and television crews coming in, so they loved it. But they didn’t get the critique of course. I’ve worked with a lot of institutes as an artist associated to an institute, and I’ve never worked with an institute that is so rigid and so incapable of reflecting about themselves as the natural history museum. Those places are stuck. All they have to do is conserve, preserve, keep it exactly the way it is. For centuries natural history museums have been sending out hunters all over the world to collect, to shoot animals. They sent them so the collection got bigger. Now they don’t do this anymore because it’s forbidden, they just preserve. And with this installation we actually try to say that those museums should go hunting again because there’s still so much we don’t know, the world is filled with things I don’t understand. And 200 years ago people wanted to see an elephant, because they couldn’t understand what this animal is, so they wanted to see it.
Ecology is complex…
Jozef: Right now I cannot understand ecology, really, I cannot get my head around this whole complex problem which I don’t see, which I hear of. I think the natural history museums should send out hunters again to hunt for images of ecology right now. And not the weakass bullshit images they feed us, those endings of documentaries about ecology that are always hopeful. We should protect nature because it’s so fucking beautiful and we are guilty and if we don’t blablabla… That’s why I make this work.
Kim: You talked about this first image you had when it all started for you and you started researching extinct species. Was that three years ago?
Jozef: 4 Years.
Kim: And since then you’ve been working with it?
Jozef: Yeah, not knowing where it would end of course. I was just researching and making images but I made the cage of the Tasmanian wolf 2,5 years ago, I think. Just out of the desire to see it, I wanted to see it. That’s the whole thing – I want to see. I want to be able to look at something and hear a story and think and feel doubt or something. That’s actually what I wanted. And then gradually I came in contact with the museum in Brussels and Kampnagel here.
Kim: How was the reaction of people in Brussels to what you did? Did they understand it immediately?
Jozef: In Brussels it was amazing. I didn’t expect it to be so good. In Brussels I gave a lecture every evening to the audience. It was kind of a long lecture, one hour. But it was lovely because people were listening to headphones and it was like they were studying. Here it’s going to be completely different. This is way smaller, I like it a lot. It’s a bit compressed. I like that it’s a proposition. It’s fictional. It tries to be a natural history museum. In Brussels it was really a natural history Museum, because it was next to the real one.
Kim: Do you think people would understand the museum without lectures?
Jozef: I’m going to find out, I don’t know. I changed the information panels a lot to make it a bit more accessible. I’m pretty sure a lot of people are going to think: “What the hell – I don’t understand anything”, that’s fine. We don’t want to give answers – it’s complex. But the stories are great.
Kim: Which one of them is your favourite?
Jozef: There are so many complex stories. But there’s one about Hamburg, which might make sense. There’s this guy called Hagenbeck, he made the zoo. Hagenbeck is famous for an invention that he made which is the “naturwissenschaftliches Panorama”. He has a patent on this and it is actually an invention that permits you to exhibit different kind of animals in one image. He positioned seals and penguins and ice bears into one image that a human being can look at, thinking that it’s one harmonious whole. In his patent he wrote that he has the desire to show all animals in harmony. He wanted to eliminate the desire of survival in his zoos. And let’s say that’s exactly what we are talking about. Our desire to show nature as a harmonious whole, a temple, something that’s perfectly together, but of course that’s an anthropocentric view. Because it’s not at all a realistic representation of the chaos and war of nature, if you really go to nature, whatever that might be. You don’t see harmony, you see fight, you see chaos and catastrophe.
At the moment Jozef sees himself as someone who tries to make architecture without rules and without planning in advance and compromising.
Jozef: Right now it’s perfect, this way of working. It’s fast, it’s urgent, it’s what I like the most.