Récits des vivants / More-than-human narratives:

an online seminar series, February-July 2023

Récits des vivants / More-than-human Narratives’ is a series of five online seminars that took place from February to July 2023 and in which artists and activists discussed how their work engages with environmental and animal questions, in questioning anthropocentrism and contesting injustice, and with a view towards fostering ecological awareness and meaningful sustainability. The seminar series is part of Dr Armelle Blin-Rolland research project on the relationship between space, environment and narratives in contemporary France, with the aim to explore how narrative can help us as a critical and creative tool to formulate and deploy an ecopolitics of solidarity, understood as a praxis of both care and resistance. ‘Récits des vivants / More-than-human Narratives’ is funded by the British Academy / Leverhulme Trust Small Grant scheme (SRG22\220097).

About this event

Drawing on a broad range of media and artforms (painting, drawing, sculpture, performance, film, writing, graphic narrative), this series explored key topics for our changing world, such as oceanic potentialities, revolutionary popular environmentalism, the biopolitics of industrial slaughter, animal ethics, and decolonial ecology.

In doing so, we aimed to shine a light on the varied modes of resistance deployed by artists and activists to create and share alternative narratives for environmental justice, care and solidarity, engaging with multispecies, feminist, queer, and decolonial ecologies.

While this series focused on more-than-human narratives through the lens of contemporary France, it aimed to open a dialogue among scholars, practitioners, and activists working in the Environmental Humanities in any subject area. Across the series, we discussed inspiring and militant ways of exposing and challenging anthropocentric, gendered, (neo-)colonial, heteronormative, nationalistic, and capitalist ideologies, as well as their material impacts on bodies and territories. We explored narratives, imaginaries and practices that work to create possibilities for alternative modes of representing, engaging and living with the more-than-human in our troubling times.

Seminar 1:
talk & Q&A visual artist Alexander Lee

Alexander Lee was born in Stockton, CA, and grew up on the island of Tahiti, French Polynesia. He earned his BFA from the School of Visual Arts (2000), his MFA from Columbia University (2002), and MPS from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University (2004). His work, which has been exhibited extensively worldwide, spans drawing, sculpture, performance, painting and video, forming a thought-provoking decolonial practice-based reflection on Polynesia’s pasts, presents and futures and on environmental collapse from the multi-layered perspectives of the Pacific. Drawing on Polynesian natural-cultural forms, concepts and images, questioning and dismantling the history and legacy of imperialism and colonial narratives, Lee’s work is concerned with the necessity and urgency of transformation on our changing planet.

For an overview of Alexander Lee’s incredibly rich and powerful artistic practice see www.alexanderleestudio.com, and www.marisanewman.com/projects#/alexander-lee on his recent series of sculptures Rā’au.

Took place via Zoom on 8th February 2023

Seminar 2:
in conversation with author, political scientist and activist Fatima Ouassak

For the second seminar in our online series, it was an honour to welcome Fatima Ouassak, who is a political scientist and activist, and a key and vital voice in contemporary environmentalism in France. A militant for a feminist, popular, antiracist and radical ecology, she is the author of La Puissance des mères, pour un nouveau sujet révolutionnaire [The power of mothers: for a new revolutionary subject] (2020); and Pour une écologie pirate. Et nous serons libres [For a pirate ecology. And we will be free] (2023). Fatima Ouassak is the founder of the Classe/Genre/Race network, co-founder of the association Front de mères (Mothers’ Front) and the Maison d’Écologie populaire Verdragon (Centre of Popular Ecology). During this seminar Fatima Ouassak talked about her activism and her call for a pirate ecology.

The recording of the seminar is available in French only.

Took place via Zoom on 23rd March 2023

Seminar 3:
in conversation with film director Maud Alpi 

‘Les bêtes arrivent la nuit. Elles sentent. Elles résistent. Avant l’aube, un jeune homme les conduit à la mort. Son chien découvre un monde effrayant qui semble ne jamais devoir s’arrêter.’

‘The animals arrive by night. They feel. They resist. A young man leads them to their deaths before dawn. His dog discovers a terrifying world that seems certain never to end.’

For the third seminar in our online series, we were delighted to welcome Maud Alpi. Maud Alpi is the award-winning director of the short films Le fils de la sorcière (2004), Nice (2009), Drakkar (2015), and the feature-length film Gorge Cœur Ventre/Still Life (2016), on which this seminar focused.

Gorge cœur ventre was shot in a working slaughterhouse and tells the entangled stories of the cows, calves, pigs and lambs who arrive at night to be killed; Virgile, a young man who works there; and Boston, his dog. During this seminar, which took the form of a conversation around selected excerpts from the film, Maud Api talked about the context in which she made Gorge Cœur Ventre, how the initial script and ideas evolved in contact with the non-human animals that are at the core of the film; the tension during the making of the film between the effort to look both at the slaughterhouse prisoners, showing their presence and the community they form, as well as at the violence that is committed in this space; and the complex aesthetic, ethical and political issues this film raises for creating and articulating more-than-human narratives.

Gorge cœur ventre is an incredibly powerful film that infiltrates the space of the slaughterhouse to resist, through narrative, against the lethal exploitation of non-human animal vitalities to be disassembled on the capitalist assembly line. The film refuses to reduce them to resources for human needs, recognising them instead as subjects, prisoners of a space of violence and power, and beings with agency. They are de-mechanised and re-animalised, rather than anthropomorphised, as the camera stays with them, rendering both their vitality – as a community, and as individuals – and the violence that is committed against them. A peaceful scene of pigs sleeping is juxtaposed with the violence with which they are wrenched from this communal moment when the morning comes; a long take and close-ups show calves’ fears and struggles to resist as they are being led to their death. During our seminar on the film, Maud Alpi told us that it is through editing that Boston emerged as the protagonist of the film, a key presence who moves between the two worlds of the inside and outside, and allows the viewer to relate to and feel the perspectives of both human and nonhuman animals characters.

It is with Boston that the film ends, as he joins a pack of dogs in a disused slaughterhouse whose machinery is now being overtaken by vegetation. Maud Alpi told us about the strong reactions elicited by this ending by different audiences, including slaughterhouse workers. In a film that combines documentary and fiction, narrative allows also for imagining a world in which sites of the capitalist meat industry are remnants of the past and ruins for the future. This scene of life, in a site that is now open to animal and vegetal vitalities, closes a film that, in an ethical and political gesture, is dedicated to nonhuman animals killed at the slaughterhouse – those whose stories it has told, and all the unnamed others. Gorge cœur ventre is a beautiful and haunting film whose powerful aesthetic, ethical and political cinematic gesture is all the more urgent in a world where we must open our eyes to the realities of our relationships with other animals, refuse their exploitation, and never background them in the more-than-human narratives of our world.

Took place via Zoom on 19th April 2023

Seminar 4:
talk and Q&A with comics artist Anne Defréville

‘Eco-Comics for Better Living in the More-than-Human World’

For our fourth seminar we were thrilled to welcome comics artist Anne Defréville. This seminar was organised in coordination with Better Living Through Comics: The 2023 Joint Conference of the International Graphic Novel & Comics and the International Bande Dessinée Society

Anne Defréville (https://www.annedefreville.com/) is a visual artist, designer, illustrator and comics artist. She is deeply committed to ecology, and much of her comics work has focused on environmental and animal issues. She has worked in collaboration with INSERM (the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research) and many environmental associations. Her bandes dessinées challenge anthropocentrism in creative, sometimes humorous, and always thought-provoking ways, shifting across autobiography, documentary and science fiction.

She is the author of L’Age bleu [The blue age] (2019), which was awarded the 2020 Artemisia Prize for the Environment and the Mouans-Sartoux Prize for best environmental book;Journal anthropique de la cause animale [Anthropogenic diary of the animal cause] (2022); Mémoires d’un cétacé [Memoirs of a cetacean] (2023); and SEFARDIM, l’épopée d’unefamille juive durant 3,000 ans [Sefardim, the 3,000-year saga of a Jewish family] (2023).  

The seminar took the form of a presentation followed by a Q&A. During her presentation, Anne talked about her career trajectory, her works, and her commitment to the environment both in her professional and personal life. Anne’s presentation was beautiful and engaging, full of images and sounds (notably mesmerising whale songs) that gave the audience a sense of the scope and depth of her work and brought forward her passion for her subjects along with her extraordinary creative ability.

During the Q&A, we talked about the importance of water in her work, in terms of her subject matters in comics that deal with the climate-ocean crisis and marine species extinction, her own environment in the south of France in the Mediterranean region, and the techniques and materiality of her work, which is often in watercolour.

Anne talked to us about her commitment to ecology not only in terms of the themes of her books, but also her practice, in using sustainable materials – for instance biodegradable egg-based paint for the ‘natural murals’ she has created with children and young adults in Morocco, France and Brazil, or in making her own watercolour, using sea water and coffee. Anne told us about the fact that her formal training is in art, rather than specifically in comics, which means that she allows herself a lot of freedom to play and experiment with the codes of the medium such as in terms of page layout and framing. She has deployed this in creative and thought-provoking ways in particular in the fluidity of the oceanic imageries and imaginaries that populate her work.

We also talked about the accessibility of Anne’s work, which is suitable for a range of audiences, and notably includes children’s books, and the importance of humour in her narratives. While her comics deal with complex and often dark subject matters, such as ecological collapse and species extinction, her work is both about raising readers’ knowledge and awareness of environmental issues and giving a sense of hope that in our troubling times we can still act. Anne’s gorgeous, multi-faceted work in text and image, and her passion and infectious enthusiasm, show us the potential and power of comics for ecology. Anne Defréville’s creative and engaged comics are some of the more-than-human narratives that we need today to rethink our relationship with the environment and other animals.

In partnership with GwE Global Futures, Armelle Blin-Rolland also had the privilege and honour to collaborate further with Anne, during a one-week artist residence in Bangor, North Wales, which took place in spring 2024 and was funded by Bangor University’s Innovation and Impact Award Scheme. The residence was part of Armelle’s project ‘Cwricwlym Ieithoedd Modern Gwyrddach i Gymru/A Greener Modern Language Curriculum for Wales’, which is a follow-on project from Greening Modern Languages that explores its local impacts and benefits in Wales, and aims to develop creative approaches to fostering environmental sustainability in conjunction with international language learning. We organised innovative workshops with primary and secondary school pupils from across North Wales, who took part in eco-comics workshops and the creation of a multilingual natural mural. For more information see here.

Took place via Zoom on 4th July 2023

Seminar 5:
in conversation with comics writer Jessica Oublié

For our last seminar in this series, it was an honour to welcome comics writer Jessica Oublié.

Jessica Oublié is the author of the documentary graphic narratives Péyi an nou (2017), on the migration of French Caribbeans to mainland France in the 1960s-1980s via the state agency BUMIDOM; and Tropiques Toxiques (2020), which was the focus of this seminar. Tropiques Toxiques explores the toxic history and legacies of the use of Chlordecone pesticide in Guadeloupe and Martinique’s banana plantations between 1972 and 1993, resulting in the poisoning of land, sea, and human and nonhuman bodies. The bande dessinée combines insights from scientific expertise and lived experience in an in-depth investigation of a scandal of environmental injustice and toxic politics. In this seminar Jessica Oublié talked about the possibilities offered by the comics medium, in terms not only of its complexity but also its accessibility and impact, and the intersections of environmental, political, cultural, historical and social issues, from the situated and planetary perspective of the Antilles.

The recording of this seminar is available in French only.

Took place via Zoom on 19th July 2023