3 Laboratory | Field | Studio

Unsettling Life/Death through Encounters with Marine Life

A Cross-Disciplinary Research Generation Workshop


February 4th, 2015 Byrne House, Streatham Campus University of Exeter

In light of climate change and new threats to life on earth and in the ocean, cross disciplinary collaborations seem crucial. No one way of knowing and meaning-making can capture our changing relations to nonhuman forms of life. Recent studies of marine organisms have generated new ways of figuring ‘life’. Snails that develop with two hearts, ‘immortal jellyfish’, marine microbes that commit ‘suicide’ are some of the examples that challenge anthropocentric conceptions of life and death. Our workshop engendered conversations among social scientists, artists, and marine biologists around alternative conceptions of life/death inspired by changing life styles of diverse marine organisms. In addition, we are exploring new ways of collaborating that are attentive to diverging meanings of experimentation and representation within and across the disciplines.



Astrid Schrader
University of Exeter

Astrid works at the intersections of Science and Technology Studies (STS), Human-Animal Studies and Feminist and Poststructuralist Theories. Her work explores questions of responsibility, care and agency in scientific knowledge production. She has been particularly interested in the scientific studies of marine microbes (such as dinoflagellates). In this and other contexts, she has explored the link between human-exceptionalism and conceptions of time. Her current project examines the scientific reconfigurations of life and death through research into programmed cell death in unicellular marine microbes. Her work has been published in the journals Social Studies of Science,Environmental Philosophy and differences.

Elizabeth Johnson
University of Exeter

I am a Research Fellow with the STaC Lab and Department of Geography at the University of Exeter. I’ve spent time with “biomimetic” scientists who have made robots by harnessing knowledge about how lobster brains work and flies take flight.  I’m interested in how biomimicry changes the role of the biosciences and how we (primarily “we” in the West) think about our relationship to the environment, but also how that reflects back on considerations of life. I have written on the spatial productions of life and labour in the making of bio-inspired technologies and am presently working on a book manuscript titled, Life’s Work: Biomimesis and the Labor of New Natures. I became interested in jellyfish in 2009 working with a biologist who was attempting to understand jellyfish neurology as part of efforts to mimic the movement of tentacles for oil extraction. Since then, jellyfish and other Cnidaria—organisms like hydra and box jellyfish of the same phylum–have become what Bruno Latour would call a “matter of concern”. Where they were once largely to be avoided or ignored, they are now part of conversations about anthropogenic change to the oceans as well as stem cell research to extend life. I am writing about how these organisms are emblematic of the “Paradox of the Anthropocene,” in which we are increasingly concerned with our own mortality, but continue to invest in immoral life.


Susan Kimmance
Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Dr Susan Kimmance is a microbial experimental ecologist at PML, whose main area of research is the functional ecology of phytoplankton. She is particularly interested in the impact of abiotic and biotic stress on phytoplankton physiology and mortality and how this influences primary production, microbial food web dynamics and biogeochemical cycling. Her research combines laboratory experimentation with coastal and oceanic fieldwork to primarily investigate the functional relationships between algal viruses and their phytoplankton hosts, and thus elucidate the ecological and biogeochemical importance of viral control of primary production in comparison with other mortality pathways such as grazing or programmed cell death.

‘Although viruses are present everywhere in the world’s oceans, how significant are they as causes of phytoplankton death? Can viruses prevent algal blooms from occurring or are they just opportunistic mortality agents that can only really have an impact when algal numbers are high? What are the implications of virus infection for phytoplankton physiology, phytoplankton/virus diversity and oceanic carbon cycling?’

Ceri Lewis
University of Exeter

My over-riding research interests lie in understanding how marine invertebrates adapt and survive in a changing and increasingly polluted marine environment, and the potential impacts of environmental change on their reproduction, larval ecology and life history evolution. My current research focuses on 2 main areas; 1) the interactions between chronic pollution and ocean acidification on fitness parameters in adult and larval marine invertebrates; 2) the potential for environmental disruption of sperm function in broadcast spawning invertebrates and its ecological consequences. I am also a key member of an international team of biologists and oceanographers conducting ocean acidification research in the Canadian High Arctic as part of the Catlin Arctic Survey, joining their expeditions in 2010 and 2011.

Simon Rundle
University of Plymouth

My main biological research interest is in the way that aquatic invertebrates develop, how this development is influenced by the environment, and how alterations to developmental itineraries affect survival and, ultimately, species’ evolution. I also carry out interdisciplinary research that aims to explore the relationship between art and scientific investigation.

John Spicer
University of Plymouth

Prof. Spicer is a marine zoologist with particular expertise in ecophysiological measurements (including acid-base parameters such as pH and CO2) both in the laboratory and in the field. His recent research has concentrated on the whole organism effects of high CO2 on marine animals; how climate change will influence the geographic distribution of animals via physiological tolerances and capacities; the evolution and development of physiological function in aquatic animals, with particular reference to modifications in the sequence of developmental events. We look forward to hearing from him on the subject of progress.

Willie Wilson
Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Dr Willie Wilson has 24 years research and management experience and is currently a Senior Research Scientist at PML and Adjunct Scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in the US. Prior to arriving at PML in 2014, he was Director of the National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota (NCMA) at Bigelow Laboratory; he has also had positions at the Marine Biological Association of the UK, and the University of Warwick (where he conducted his PhD). Willie is a self-described “virus evangelist,” spreading the good word through research, collaboration, commercialization, and outreach on how viruses are “lubricants of the great engines of planetary control”. His research focuses on the diverse roles of marine viruses; including algal viruses, giant viruses, coral viruses, persistent virus infections, and the paradox of how viruses are necessary for life. He is also enthusiastic about scientific outreach and technology transfer; and believes microbial commodities of the ocean represent the largest untapped biological resource on the planet. His research has contributed to over 100 publications in internationally renowned journals and books.


Liz Nicol

Jellyfish intrigue me I would be interested in challenging this fascination through a project where different bodies of knowledge are shared in a collaborative process. Compared to the history of science, photography is a relatively recent invention with roots in both scientific investigation and artistic transformation. I think this dualism could be a useful dynamic for a cross-disciplinary project.

As a practicing photographer over the years my interests have become clearer and connections stronger with subjects reoccurring. My vision and the use of the intrinsic qualities of the photographic process have become more personal and evident.

Yesterday I visited The Museum of Natural History in Venice. Walking through rooms full of fossils, stuffed animals and fish, I came to the last room where there was a display of ‘bubbles’ one included an intricate glass jellyfish and a jar containing a white translucent formless mass.

Twenty years ago I photographed my son (then a young boy) whilst he was playing on the beach – he had found small perfect jelly (fish) lozenges and he held one in the palm of his small hand. It was intriguing. Two new lives.

More recently I was shocked to see that when photographing dead people (in Chapel’s of Rest), I had subconsciously photographed them in the same aesthetic style I had used when photographing fish in the market place.

Jay Prosser wrote in ‘Light in the Dark Room: Photography and Loss’, “Photographs are not signs of presence but evidence of absence. Or rather the presence of a photograph indicates its subjects absence. Photographs contain a realization of loss.” 

Deborah Robinson
University of Plymouth

I am an artist who collaborates with scientists, artists, writers and technologists in the making of experimental installation artwork using moving image and sound. I am interested in strategies derived from surrealism (these include tactics of displacement) as a means of revealing fragments of an ‘underside’ to the construction of scientific knowledge. My artworks have explored data transposition, disease, questions of agency (human/non human), and the exploration of a dynamics of power that is implicit within disciplinary viewpoints. Since 2011 I have worked with aquatic embryos on a series of collaborative works that mostly relate to developmental biology.

Helen Scalway
Royal Halloway

Helen Scalway received her training (M.A. Fine Art) at Chelsea College of Art, London University of the Arts. Her practice is concerned with the representation of complex contemporary spaces, which are still coming into being. She works through the creation of diagrams, drawings, collages and models. She has exhibited on many occasions in the UK and internationally and her work features in several books.

For some years I have been involved as an artist in collaborations with geographers, the most recent being with Professor Gail Davies in relation to her work on the complex spatialities involved in the worlds of lab mice. My concern has always been to move right away from the idea of ‘sci-art’, with its leaden implication of illustration, and towards the idea of art as lively provocation to thought: that artists’ investigations may involve imaginative analogies and uses of materials which on occasion may lead to unforeseen but deeply interesting outcomes. http://www.micespace.org/

Social Scientists

Henry Buller
University of Exeter

From early investigations into the life and premature death of shellfish (via research on the EU Shellfish Waters Directive) to more recent research into the raising and killing of farmed salmon (lead author of a recent report to UK government on the ‘Welfare of Farmed Fish at Killing’), I am keenly interested in both the broader issue of life/death/killing of non-humans and marine/aquatic non-humans as occupying a rather particular ‘milieu’ of difference (particularly when it comes to the challenges of cross species concerns of sentience, embodied empathy and affect).

John Dupre
University of Exeter

I am a philosopher of science, with a main focus on philosophy of biology.  I am the Director of Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences, which from 2002-2012 was the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society. From May 2013 I will lead a major new project at Egenis, funded by the European Research Council (ERC). “A Process Ontology for Contemporary Biology” aims to rethink central issues in the philosophy of biology by elaborating an ontology for biology that takes full account of the processual nature of living systems. “Coming to terms with new developments in our understanding of biology requires that we take more seriously the ways in which life is dynamic at all levels, and that what we think of as living things – genes, cells, organisms – are more fundamentally processes, maintained in relatively stable conditions by yet further processes. The project will develop this thesis in relation to cutting-edge work in the philosophy of biology, and also in dialogue with emerging biological ideas in related scientific fields.”

Dr Hannah Rumble
University of Exeter

I sit on the Editorial Board of the Journal Mortality and on the General Council of the Association for the Study of Death and Society (ASDS). As an anthropologist I specialise in ethnographic studies of the relationship between life and death, mortality and immortality, and mortuary practices; particularly in relation to contemporary ‘Western’ practices and values. I have published articles on funeral poverty in the UK and on how new technological innovations allow the spatial and temporal relationship of life/death to be changed through new rites and rituals. I have also published a monograph on the cultural burial phenomenon in Britain known as ‘natural burial’. I have regularly participated in different kinds of collaborations between arts, science and social sciences. The latest was a community arts collaboration in Bristol called Dead and Buried with young unemployed people between 18 and 25 years old.

Susanne Schmitt
Rachel Carson Center

I am a social and cultural anthropologist (PhD 2011) and I currently work on the atmospheric politics and design strategies of public aquariums and private aquarium owners. My project, called “Decorative Ecologies”, asks how biodiversity and extinction/survival concerns are transmitted and recieved through a variety of aesthetic means.

Lately my fieldwork has also brought me in closer contact with amateurs and professionals who breed and care for seahorses and I am currently beginning to follow this work of care and dedication through filming intended to culminate in a video installation.

A large part of my work is situated at the intersection between ethnography, artistic intervention, and outreach to diverse academic and non-academic audiences and I am very excited to see that your workshop does not only bring together like-minded colleagues interested in marine life but also opens up to those perspectives.

Special Guest
Dorion Sagan

Dorion Sagan is an award-winning author and co-author of twenty-four books translated into eleven languages. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, The Skeptical Inquirer, Wired, Cabinet, Natural History, The Sciences, and other magazines. His coauthored What is Life? (Main Selection, Global Business Network Book Club), was called “A masterpiece of science writing” in Orion magazine, and included on a list of “Mind-Altering Masterpieces” by Utne Reader. Although known primarily as a science writer and essayist, he has also contributed to philosophical works such as Zone 6: Incorporations (MIT Press) and A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans (University of Minnesota Press).

He has received an Educational Press Association of America Excellence in Educational Journalism Award for “The Riddle of Sex,” which appeared in The Science Teacher. His Death and Sex, a two-in-one hardcover published by Chelsea Green, won the 2010 New York Book Show in the competitive general trade nonfiction category. His current interests include philosophy and science fiction.

For more information on this event, please visit the Unsettling Life / Death website.

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