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April 21, 2021

Digital vigil for the extinct Smooth Handfish

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Vigil for the Smooth Handfish – artwork by Ahmed Salama.

The smooth handfish (Sympterichthys unipennis) is an extinct species of handfish in the genus Sympterichthys. It was endemic to waters off the coast of Tasmania, mainly the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. It was declared extinct by the IUCN Red List in May 2018 and once again in March 2020, marking the first entirely marine fish classified as such – Wikipedia.

A digital vigil for the Smooth Handfish will turn a eulogy for an extinct marine creature into a deeper reflection  of life and loss in a world in crisis.

Artistic Director of the vigil, Daz Chandler, says that 2020 has often asked us ‘What does it take to survive?’

He says It’s something The Parallel Effect – a collective of creators and thinkers who tackle issues connected to environmental crisis, knows all too well.

‘This diverse group with backgrounds in art, philosophy, archival research, international relations, music and science, first came together to hold a large-scale participatory installation as part of Australia’s Next Wave Festival.

‘When COVID struck not long before the event, they were forced to find new ways to sustain and present their ideas to a world under physical restrictions. The success of these supplementary works paved the way for their next event constructed for virtual attendance, Vigil for the Smooth Handfish taking place on November 22.

The punk fish of Tasmania

The Smooth Handfish – an unusual looking sea creature with bulging eyes, a mohawk on its head, and hand-like fins that enabled it to walk on the seabed – was once so plentiful in the Tasman region, it was one of the first fish species to be documented in Australia. However, in March this year, the fish was declared officially extinct.

‘Sadly, I’d never heard of the Smooth Handfish, but when I read about its extinction, I became deeply affected by it.

‘We live in very difficult times, in the midst of multiple crises – dealing with a variety of profound losses, every day. The global pandemic has only heightened this – yet we rarely have the opportunity to come together in recognition of that grief.

‘The frantic pace of the type of world and systems we’re navigating has meant that over the years many of us have misplaced important personal and communal rituals, and have lost spaces for meaningful philosophical discourse, for connection to country.

‘But what do we do with this understanding? What do we do with all this grief? Is it useful to acknowledge it? How much suffering should and indeed, can we carry? Can grief be transformative and an agent of change? Have we lost the capacity to grieve what we have lost?’

Vigil for the extinct marine creature

To explore these questions, The Parallel Effect will hold a virtual vigil for the extinct marine creature.

Together, their work will provide a space where audiences can digitally congregate to contemplate loss, grief, the parameters of care, the interconnectedness of conservation and radical hope – transcending together in an act they call ‘collaborative survival’.

Joining The Parallel Effect’s Vigil for the Smooth Handfish will be an incredible line-up of first nations speakers, local and international guests, spanning Australia, South Africa, India, US, Canada, UK, Germany, Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine and featuring artists, writers, filmmakers, poets, musicians, scholars, scientists, ecologists and biological anthropologists.

Among this stellar list of 24 contributors are Aboriginal Australian writer, Bruce Pascoe; scholar, controversial environmental activist and food sovereignty advocate, Vandana Shiva; ecological theorist and writer, Dorion Sagan, celebrated poet Jane Hirshfield and Canadian cellist Zoe Keating. 

The freedom to mourn

They will provide a range of perspectives on the work’s themes through a variety of mediums, including music, performance,  video essays and spoken word. Each contributor has been given the freedom to mourn, remember and respond to the loss of the Smooth Handfish however they wish.

Australian First Nations man, Chris Bonney, will share a 130,000 year-old Ngarrindjeri dreaming story about sustainability; biological anthropologist Barbara J. King will present some of her research documenting grief and bereavement across the animal kingdom; filmmaker and writer, Benjamin Gilmour, will explore the parameters of care; Afghani artist Kabir Mokamel – joining us from his home in Kabul – will articulate the relationship between time and daily tragedy in a warzone; and grief scholar and somatic educator, Camille Barton, will unpack the relationship between colonisation, empire and misplaced rituals and healing customs.

The result has yielded a fascinating spectrum of issues and perspectives that transcend the extinction of a Tasmanian fish and enable us to gaze into a collective mirror where all of us, no matter where in the world we are, can come together to experience and reflect upon the way we lose, grieve and survive in an increasingly complex, and often far too difficult, world.

The Vigil for the Smooth Handfish is a free event and can be attended on Sunday, November 22, at 3pm via official social channels or via the official vigil website at www.handfishvigil.com.

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