Cultural Ecology

White Male Human Privilege

I just want to say something brief in regards to the use of live animals in art exhibitions, because it has recently re-re-re-emerged as an annoying trend. Most recently I encountered the dog that is living in the gallery at LACMA as part of Pierre Huyge's retrospective. While I personally believe that living beings have no place as part of human economic transactions (which art exhibits usually are in one way or another), I wont try to convince anyone that it is morally wrong, because there is endless far worse exploitation of animals occurring every second of every day all around us. Instead, I'll just say that I find it artistically pathetic. There is almost always in these cases a white male "provocateur" behind it, who clearly believes that including a non-human living being in the art work is in some way novel or edgy - congratulating themselves for provoking an emotional response from a viewer based on concern and empathy which they mock or play with from their meta-human meta-animal perspective. What's pathetic is that they think they are breaking with a tradition when instead all they are doing is cynically exploiting a tradition by breaking only its most superficial of rules. It's still objectification and commodification based on white, male, human privilege. It isn't novel, and it could hardly be a stodgier, more classical idea. Pierre Huyge could simply have rescued the dog and provided a good home for it, but that would hardly provide him and others who think like him with the false sense of provocation they depend upon to escape real ideas. And the monkey used in a video piece shatters at every moment any concept or artistic intent in the piece by clearly being a bored and confused monkey in a room. The crabs, lobsters and fish are almost certainly bred by businesses that exploit animals or captured wild - both of which are in a real and concrete way environmentally destructive, undercutting Huyge's otherwise interesting ecological constructions. The only way to enter into the meaning of the piece is to ignore these facts, and thats the same way of thinking that exists everywhere. It'd be fucking boring if it wasn't vile. Maybe it's just another banality of evil. It's unfortunate because I admire much about Huyge's work - but empathy and real politics are not in vogue in the very elite and lucrative echelons of international conceptual art exhibitions, or for those who aspire to be included in it.


Nicholas Monsour
Extinction Phone, 2014

Aluminum, thermoplastic, PVC, plywood, paper, refurbished pay phone, crystal oscillator timer circuit, Arduino control circuit, audio circuit, lead-acid batteries, recordings of extinct species, phone book containing scientific names of extinct species.

The extinction phone rings every time a unique species goes extinct on Earth, which is 73,000 times per year, or 200 times per day, or every 7.2 minutes.

This project is a site-specific, interactive art installation.  The phone is controlled by an Arduino microcontroller, and uses an AdaFruit Waveshield to playback audio.  The phone also includes custom built timer and interaction circuitry.  The recordings of extinct animals were gathered from various libraries and collections around the world.

The directory that hangs from the pay phone contains the most up to date and comprehensive list of identified species believed to be extinct.  The phone book can be purchased here.


Taken from


Arranged Exhibition Slide comprised of Diatoms, Sponge Spicules, and Plates and Anchors of Synapta; Imaged using Darkfield lighting technique.

Arranged mount of Sponge Spicula by A.C. Cole, imaged using Darkfield lighting.


Arranged slide, Watson & Sons "Eggs of Butterflies, Etc." shown in detail.

Three arranged slides on opaque backgrounds for incident lighting

The Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system. The book has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century (1404–1438), and may have been composed in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance. The manuscript is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer who purchased it in 1912.

The pages of the codex are vellum. Some of the pages are missing, but about 240 remain. The text is written from left to right, and most of the pages have illustrations or diagrams. Many people have speculated that the writing might be nonsense. However, in 2013, Marcelo Montemurro of the University of Manchester and Damian Zanette of the Bariloche Atomic Centre published a paper documenting their identification of a semantic pattern in the writing; this suggests that the Voynich manuscript is a ciphertext with a message.

The Voynich manuscript has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War I and World War II. No one has yet succeeded in deciphering the text, and it has become a famous case in the history of cryptography. The mystery of the meaning and origin of the manuscript has excited the popular imagination, making the manuscript the subject of novels and speculation. None of the many hypotheses proposed over the last hundred years has yet been independently verified.

The Voynich manuscript was donated by Hans P. Kraus to Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 1969, where it is catalogued under call number MS 408. A digitized high-resolution copy is also accessible freely at their website. (Wikipedia)

Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

In 2012, a group of neuroscientists attending a conference on "Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals" at Cambridge University in the UK, signed 

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.  

(Download a copy of the Declaration).

Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

"The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates."

The hummingbird people

Regard Eloigne

"To the Yanomami, each person has an ‘image-essence’, a double called a utupë, to which they are joined until death.  A utupë can present itself in the image of many different living creatures, including a bird, mammal or insect. There are also spirits of trees, waterfalls and wild honey." (Survival International)

One by one the spirits arrived. The toucan spirits arrived with their big ear sticks and bright red loin cloths, describes Davi. The hummingbird people arrived and flew around. The moka frog spirits were there with quivers of arrows on their backs. Then came the peccary spirits, the bat people and the spirits of the waterfall.

My soul began to shine.

All came and slung their hammocks in my chest.

New editing project — Witness: South Sudan

The episode of the docu-series Witness that I edited will premiere on HBO on Nov. 19th. It profiles the photographer Veronique de Viguerie.  It was directed and produced by David Frankham, and produced by Michael Mann.

The four-part series premiers on Monday, November 5th. For more information on HBO Documentary Films, visit

Kestrel's Eye

This intrepid documentary by Swedish filmmaker Mikael Kristersson follows two European falcons as they go about their daily activities. Two years in the making, the film is shot without any supplemental audio, allowing the two birds to be the sole focal point. As the birds hunt for food and care for their offspring, viewers are treated to a literal bird's-eye view from their nest at the top of an old church steeple. (Netflix)

Tropic of Chaos

Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence

By Christian Parenti 

Nation Books, 304 pages 

From Africa to Asia and Latin America, the era of climate wars has begun. Extreme weather is breeding banditry, humanitarian crisis, and state failure. In 

Tropic of Chaos

, investigative journalist Christian Parenti travels along the front lines of this gathering catastrophe--the belt of economically and politically battered postcolonial nations and war zones girding the planet's midlatitudes. Here he finds failed states amid climatic disasters. But he also reveals the unsettling presence of Western military forces and explains how they see an opportunity in the crisis to prepare for open-ended global counterinsurgency.  Parenti argues that this incipient "climate fascism"--a political hardening of wealthy states-- is bound to fail. The struggling states of the developing world cannot be allowed to collapse, as they will take other nations down as well. Instead, we must work to meet the challenge of climate-driven violence with a very different set of sustainable economic and development policies.

Progress and Resistance in Central India, Part 3

Arundhati Roy has republished her essays on the Maoist struggle in central India (previously discussed




) in her new book of essays,

Broken Republic

.  Of course, like all of her work, these essays follow the logical and poetic implications of the injustices and struggles of indigenous people in India to global and metaphysical levels, providing novel possbilities of understanding and inspiration.  I can say without having read the new edition and the third essay it contains that this is a must-read for advocates of indigenous rights, environmentalists, and anti-capitalists of all stripes.

Here is a BBC interview with Arundhati Roy about the book:

General Electric: Extremely Bad Liars




While cautiously perusing the Huffington Post the other day, my morbid curiosity bested me: I clicked on a GE ad on the right of the page which had a faux-naive drawing of a cow on it.  I proceeded to be accosted by an uber-cute, child-like animation of a day glow, up-beat, sultry-yet-approachable taking cow telling me that besides continuing to offer herself to me for food, she was now going to provide me with clean energy.  According to this every-cow, the "geniuses" at GE found a way to turn her waste into "renewable" power.

They forgot to leave a section for feedback from me, the viewer — an oversight that seems endemic in the new-media advertisement age.  Here's my response:

Dear GE,

I'd like to call your attention to a few factual errors in your advertisement.

  • You did not discover trapped methane power.  As you well kow, subsistence farmers, collectives, environmentalists and bio-engineers have been using and developing this technology for a century. 
  • Cows are not happy, or renewable.  They require immense amounts of non-renewable resources, and your cartoon personification of such an unfortunate creature is perverse considering the objectification you are violently enacting upon living beings when you label them as renewable.  
In short, I don't want your animal concentration camp energy.  Your coinage and use here of the word "ecomagination" is a crime against the English language, not to mention any semblance of advertising ethics.  You and whatever shit ad agency is responsible for this disgusting piece of work can kindly go fuck yourselves. 
Sincerely, etc., etc.


Un/fortunately, I can't find that ad online now, but a quick and nauseating perusal of the Ecomagination YouTube channel has provided me with more lovely examples of the kind of advertising employed by large corporations when they know you'd have to be an idiot to believe what they are saying.  First: treat the audience like a 5 year old. Second: create cartoon-like parodies of utopic worlds so absurd that they make even the most level-headed viewer question their grasp on reality.  Perhaps the slight cultural distance from their Chinese ad campaigns can illustrate this even more effectively:

And while the Chinese audience is presumably swayed by industrial and technological visions of paradise, we Americans require that familiar stink of nostalgia to make us so confused we give up:

I hope Donovan feels like a total ass for selling them his song "Catch the Wind".  (Is it possible that he was in fact thinking about trapped farts when he wrote it?)

We American consumers shouldn't be proud of GEs evident belief in our being more effectively stultified by saccharine pastoral landscapes, folk music and the dreams of children than our Chinese counterparts.  GE has also wisely provided Americans with sufficient amounts of the cartoon mockery of our intellect —  technique we arguably are responsible for imagineering:

This is of course just a minute bump on the landfill of big energy advertising pretending to pander to our concern for the environment while slapping us in the face with the complete absurdity of entrusting the fate of the planet to profit-seeking criminals who spend the other 98% of their time wreaking devastation.  Nevertheless, I think it is important to attempt to convert some of this waste into useful thought.

The Impossibilities of Environmental Justice

Greenpeace worker Lindsey Allen walks past a pool of oil as she collects samples of oil that washed up along the mouth of the Mississippi River south of Venice, La. Wednesday, May 19, 2010. Oil from last month's Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico has started drifting ashore along the Louisiana coast. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)


What constitutes a "crime against humanity"?  When is an "ecological crime"? not a crime against humanity?  These are questions I ask myself when attempting to understand the gravity and consequences of the ongoing Deep Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, because I am stunned by the absence of discussion of criminal liability for the responsible parties.  I know that part of this silence is generated by a lack of established legal frameworks for determining criminal liability in such cases, let alone in actually holding trials and executing judgements. 

For those who are curious, like me, crimes against humanity, as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Explanatory Memorandum,

are particularly odious offences in that they constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings. They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority. Murder; extermination; torture; rape and political, racial, or religious persecution and other inhumane acts reach the threshold of crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice. Isolated inhumane acts of this nature may constitute grave infringements of human rights, or depending on the circumstances, war crimes, but may fall short of falling into the category of crimes under discussion.

The Rome Statute has one paragraph that refers to environmental damages as war crimes: Article 8(2)(b)(iv):

Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated;

In a 2001 U.S Army Environmental Policy Report, the authors state that

There are three ways a case may come before the Court: referral by a State Party to the Statute; referral by the UN Security Council; or initiation of an investigation by the Prosecutor of the ICC.

For the court to have jurisdiction, several stringent conditions must be met.  The act must be:

  1. Among “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole” (Preamble, par. 4, Doc. UN/A/CONF.183/9, 17 July 1998;
  2. The result of an attack specifically intended to create that damage; “collateral” damage would not come under the Court’s jurisdiction (in the words of one of the interviewees, the Statute “is about war crimes, not mistakes”); 
  3. Launched with the knowledge that it would cause “long-term and severe damage to the natural environment” which would be “clearly excessive” to anticipated military gains; and 
  4. If the above three conditions were met, the principle of “complementarity” would come into play. The ICC will complement national procedures, not replace them. If a country has legal mechanisms to address the crime, and they are functioning properly, the ICC would not have jurisdiction. 
  5. All cases are filtered by a three-judge panel. If a series of frivolous cases flooded the court, they would not pass the panel.

Apparently, many suggestions have been made for the establishment of a specific statute and category for "Enviromental Crimes" to address those most aggregious actions which occurr outside of wartime and whose victims are not considered to be immediately "human".  For instance, Mary Clifford proposed a definition of environmental crime in her 1998 book Environmental Crime, as

  1. A broad philosophical definition: An environmental crime is an act committed with the intent to harm or with a potential to cause harm to ecological and/or biological systems and for the purpose of securing business or personal advantage.
  2. A practitioners’ definition for a legal framework: An environmental crime is any act that violates an environmental protection statute.

Here's the problem: the rigid distinction between crimes against humanity and environmental crimes (and the relative devaluation of the seriousness of the latter) is absurd.  Environments are — in a very tangible and real way — part of what constitutes "humanity" in an individual or group of individuals, and must be considered as such in the constitution of the legal subject.  There are established legal dialogues and formulations of the environmental component of cultures (they exist, although they too are still underdeveloped and underrecognized) and yet when it comes to the conception of the "humanity" which is a victim of "crimes against humanity", the undeniable connections of the well-being of human with non-human species, geological and weather conditions with human populations, are ignored — or rather, left out because of their extreme unpopularity with status quo financial and economic international bodies.  Is there anybody who lives anywhere near the gulf region who does not feel that the current Deep Horizon disaster constitutes "a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation"? Is it not abundantly clear that vast numbers of people who live near coastlines that are being developed for off-shore drilling, oil refining and other potentially disastrous scenarios feel that their environmental rights are being degraded? 

Despite the fact that environmental protection laws are often put on the books because of their seriousness and the potential effects on humans as well as natural environments and animals — including death in many cases — and despite the fact that it is possible and not uncommon for companies and governments to be held criminally responsible for injuries and deaths of individuals through their infringement of environmental protection laws — there is a massive disconnect between the specific case to the general or systemic which prevents the recognition of the severity and international character of systemic instances of massive environmental damage.  

It is true that there are more complicated determinations to be made than others — the factors in determining the parties responsible in climate change and proving their criminality is a massive project (although by no means impossible).  But the oil spill in the Gulf is as black and white as they come, if only you actually hold to the letter of the law.  Officials within the Obama administration (previous administrations are not exempt, merely not of immediate concern), the EPA, the MMA British Petroleum, Halliburton, Transocean, Chevron, ExxonMobil and other institutions are — without a doubt — guilty of crimes against humanity. 

The president and his administration continue to tolerate and condone the systemic practices of massive environmental degradation which kills and injures humans and environments alike.  I agree that boycotting BP and other companies makes sense for concerned individuals looking for ways to make a posititve difference in the course of their daily lives.  I agree that voting against policies and politicians who support these practices makes sense in the short term.  Unfortunately, this is not enough.  According to the Institute for Southern Studies, the immediate-to-near term fluctuations in brand loyalty and party politics do not threaten entrenched off-shore oil enonomics: 

While the short-term picture for offshore drilling is cloudy, there are few signs that the energy industry intends to move away from offshore drilling -- including deepwater exploration, like that which the Deepwater Horizon rig was conducting before its fateful April 20 explosion.

That's because the offshore drilling industry operates on a different, longer-term cycle than politics. Due to the immense cost and scale of offshore drilling projects, the companies involved operate on multi-year plans and leases, which they have no intention of abandoning after one disaster, even if it is the biggest oil spill in history.

In the short-run, the energy industry is bracing for a series of setbacks: lawsuits, regulations, even temporary drilling bans. For example, on Monday, the Obama administration revealed the details of a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling (defined as deeper than 500 feet), including some 30 exploratory wells.

But six months is a short time horizon for deepwater offshore drilling projects, which take years to get off the ground. With shallow water drilling showing diminishing returns, the major oil companies view deepwater drilling a fixed part of their future: Deepwater rigs capable of drilling 3,000 or more have increased 43% since 2006.

It is long past the time to consider the implications of not addressing the systemic practices that threaten, harm and kill humans and their environments — not only in protests, boycotts, direct action and democratic referendums — but in the theory and practice of international law.


YX is an allegory about cities, bodies, fluid media, privation and loss, in which hermetic spaces create hermetic narratives. Shot in 2007 in Chicago with performances by Evan Scott Rubin and Jeff Harms, production assistance by Sam Wagster, Britt Willey, Matthew Kellard, Chris Vlasses and Lizzy Lynette Vlasses.  Music by Vaughan Williams and Paysage d'hiver.

You can also view the full page with stills here.