What is the sound of extinction?
With apt gravity, artist-activists Crystelle Vu and Julian Oliver have chosen the solemn timbre of a traditional Chau Gong. Bearing “the stark neo-primitivist image” of the Extinction Symbol — an hourglass (for time, swiftly depleting) within a circle (for the planet) — their automated instrument is called “The Extinction Gong.” Austerely, it “beats to the rhythm of species extinction” — about 27,000 losses each year, or one every nineteen minutes. Contrast their figure (between one and five per year) for the pre-human average “background rate” of species’ extinctions. This relatively diminutive rate dates to the fifth (and last) major extinction event sixty-five million years ago, when the dinosaurs met their demise. The numbers speak for themselves: humanity, as all too often, is uniquely culpable.
The gong intones the barren melody of the Sixth Extinction, which is currently ravaging the diversity of life on earth. Its music is at once ancient and contemporary; looking both backwards at better times for the prospects of non-human life and forwards at the desolate arch of the future. Viewed from the front, the Extinction Gong seems (despite its iconography) a relic of the past. From the rear, however, it is revealed to be an object of modern mechanical design, fit as it is with “mallet, electro-magnet, audio transducer, embedded computer and 3g downlink” — this last to receive word of any new extinction and announce it ceremonially with four gong-strikes in quick succession, accompanied by a synthetic voice’s declaring the extinct species’ Latin name. This contrast, according to the artists, “expresses a brutal and contradicting irony”: “while advances in science and technology augment the devastating impact of human endeavours over wild habitats, so are they our best means of studying and understanding it.” The music of the present — and of a future we may not be able to avoid — is the grim, unceasing chime of a death knell.