Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Webinar: Artist Talk with Jenny Kendler on Music for Elephants

Webinar: Artist Talk with Jenny Kendler on Music for Elephants

February 24, 2022

Joanna Marsh:

Okay, we're going to get started now. It's wonderful to have everyone here this evening. I am Joanna Marsh, deputy education chair, and head of Interpretation and Audience Research at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I'm also co-curator of the exhibition, Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans. And I'm excited to be here tonight for the next in a series of programs.

As people trickle in now, I'm going to go through some standard housekeeping notes for those who are new to the Natural History programs. First, closed captions are available by clicking on the arrow next to the CC button on the Zoom tool bar.

We're going to open up audience Q&A after the conversation this evening, but feel free to submit your questions at any time using the Q&A box, again on the Zoom tool bar. The question and answer period goes really quickly during the program, so please help us answer as many questions as possible by submitting your thoughts and queries as you have them. And if your question is for someone specific, then please let us know when you submit it.

Tonight's discussion is the fifth in a series of talks that started last fall and ran through the winter, with artists featured in the current exhibition, Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans. We have one more event after this evening's program left, taking place on March 30th. And you can follow the link, again, in the Q&A to find out more about that program.

If you've attended other events in this program series, you know that the exhibit and the work featured within it is a meditation on the influence that humans now have on all of Earth's natural systems. And how the effects are both visually stunning and sobering.

Each of the artists in the exhibition aims to set us back on our heels, to surprise and unsettle us, and awaken us to humankind's cumulative impact on the planet. And with the hope of inspiring reflection and action.

In September, I spoke with artist David Maisel, whose aerial photographs invite us to gaze upon landscapes forever transformed by human industry. In October, Ellie Irons discussed the value of urban plants and what she calls, quote, "weedy species," and helped us rethink notions of nature and beauty through her photographs of urban vacant lots.

And in January, artist Andrew Yang shared his project of attempting to grow plants from seeds found inside birds that have died in collisions with urban buildings. And last month, artist Bethany Taylor explained how her sprawling installations of tapestries and fiber drawings evoke the interconnectedness of the natural world, and comment on the fragility of our landscapes.

Tonight's program centers around Jenny Kendler's piece, Music for Elephants, a haunting musical meditation on the decline of African elephant populations. It's now my pleasure to share a little bit of biography about Jenny Kendler.

She is an interdisciplinary artist, excuse me, naturalist, and environmental activist, whose work asks us to decenter humans and re-enchant our relationship with the natural world.

Over the last 15 years, her work, which is centered on biodiversity loss and the climate crisis, has been shown both nationally and internationally. It's been featured in the New Yorker, Audubon Magazine, and on NPR.

And she is committed to art in public spaces, as well as showing in galleries and museums. She's been commissioned to create projects for locations from urban conservatories, to remote deserts and tropical forests.

Since 2014, Jenny has been artist-in-residence with the environmental nonprofit National Resources Defense Council, with whom she is currently developing a public art project for New York city's Governors Island. That will debut in 2023.

Jenny tonight is joined by Carlene Stephens. Carlene is a curator in the division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. She oversees the museum's collection of historical clocks and watches, robots and acoustic sound recording technologies.

She's the author of several publications related to the cultural history of timekeeping and time-finding. And her recent exhibitions include Time and Navigation, currently on view at the National Air and Space Museum. As well as Hear My Voice, which is a display of objects and audio recovered from some of the earliest sound recordings ever made, all from an Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Laboratory.

In 2019, Carlene organized an exhibition entitled Elephants and Us, considering extinction, which we'll hear about from her later in the program. And that exhibition closed in 2020. It is now my pleasure to bring Jenny Kendler on, and she'll provide a brief overview of her work before we have a discussion.

Jenny Kendler:

Hi, Joanna. Thank you so much, everyone at the museum for having me. I especially want to extend my thank you's to you, Joanna, and to Scott Wing, who curated the exhibition. It was a lot of fun to work on putting this together with you. And also to the team that has helped to put this program together. As everyone knows, it's a lot of work put together these digital programs.

So I'm going to give a presentation, and then I'm really looking forward to doing some Q&A with everyone in the audience right now. Give me just a moment to screen share.

Firstly, I'm going to go through a few projects of mine quite quickly, but just to give you a little bit of context for the other types of work that I make, so that you can sort of center Music for Elephants within that relation.

This is a project, it's a 40-foot long sculpture composed of reflective eyes of 100 birds that are threatened by climate change. And it was originally created for Storm King's exhibition, Indicators: Artists on Climate Change.

This is a beautiful photo that a photographer from the New Yorker took. But it's really asking us, like much of my work, to consider our relationship to the natural world and what these others that we share the planet with might be thinking of us.

This is a project called Underground Library. It was an index, a library I created, of five decades of defunct or forgotten books on climate change which I biocharred in a homemade biochar kiln built by some friends. Biocharring is a form of low-oxygen burning that leaves the books as a highly stable form of carbon.

And at the conclusion of each exhibition, these books are then taken and buried in the earth, which is a way of honoring and memorializing the words of these authors who were trying their best to sound a clarion call for the climate. But also literally sequesters the carbon in these books, which were once trees, potentially for millennia to come.

This is an image from my most recent solo exhibition, which was at the MSU Broad Museum in Michigan. And the project here that I want to highlight in relation to Music for Elephants is entitled Amber Archive.

It's an ongoing effort to preserve biological material from thousands of species. Each created amber nodule contains a fragment of a species that may be threatened or endangered by human activities on the Earth, and could potentially preserve these species' DNA for millennia to come.

So whether this be for a scale, leaf, bone, insect wing, this genetic code could possibly be used in some far future when it would be both ethical and feasible to de-extinct species. And it's a time capsule for a world generations hence, and a potent reminder of what we may stand to lose in the sixth extinction.

So that brings us to Music for Elephants, which of course is also really rooted in this time of the sixth extinction. This is the project that is at the Smithsonian currently, and is essentially a player piano, which plays a score that helps us to sort of understand the threat to elephants.

And I'll tell you a bit more about that as we go along. But first I want to start with the elephants themselves. So the African elephant is known by its Latin name, Loxodonta africana, and is a species which, of course, is known to us all and beloved by many of us.

They're deeply social, long-lived, and they have a famously long memory. Elephants are much like us. Like us, they are highly communicative in ways that we're only beginning to understand. Do they have language? They very well may.

Like us, they change their environment, and they care for their families. They're known to mourn their dead, habitually revisiting the sites where loved ones have died to caress the bones, to pass the ivory tusks between family members. And we can only imagine that, like us, they know love and loss.

We don't know exactly how many elephants there were before humans began carving up their land, capturing them for work and warfare, or killing them for meat and ivory. We do know that at the beginning of the 20th century there were at least several million of them. Though far fewer remain today.

By far the largest cause of these deaths is the illegal poaching of elephants for their ivory tusks. In the 19th century, King Leopold of Belgium's desire for access to what was referred to then as white gold, led to the devastating colonial occupation of Congo. A country which is still in free fall and continues to be a major source of poached ivory.

In the 1970s, before international trade was banned, ivory was used mainly for carvings and piano key tops, with about 40% of ivory going to Japan, 40% going to Europe and North America, and the rest remaining in Africa. Today illegal ivory still funds murderous militias like Sudan's Janjaweed and Joseph Kony's brutal Lord's Resistance Army, and is traded through international criminal networks.

Most of it ends up in Asia these days, where economically booming China consumes over 70%. But it did feel important to me to point out that the West was once a major consumer of ivory not very long ago. The murdered elephants' tusks are carved up and sold for upwards of thousands of dollars a pound to be made into chopsticks, rings, and other trinkets which demonstrate wealth.

This is the project, Music for Elephants. It's a sculptural and sound project intended to help us reckon with these losses, and to imagine a world without elephants, so that we might find a way to hopefully change the fate of these remarkable others before it's too late.

What you'll see if you attend the exhibit Unsettled Nature, is an ivory key player piano, which is using a system of pneumatic pumps to play a thin paper score that has generated notes on it. These notes represent algorithmically-translated data, which predicts future poaching of African elephants. This is an image of the project on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2016.

So each note you hear, which is played on this painstakingly restored 1921 instrument, represents the number of elephants who may die in the future from illegal ivory poaching in a single month. As the keys rise and depress with the pneumatic breath of the instrument, the viewer is intended to contemplate how this music is played upon the very substance which is driving the poaching deaths.

The score, which I mentioned is generated, not composed, has a random John Cage feel, which ended up being both eerie and melancholy. Larger numbers are translated as longer, lower notes, which are heard more frequently as time goes on.

The piece counts down, month by month, from a population of around 400,000 African elephants remaining today. When the count falls to zero, the player piano's ivory keys become still and silent, intended to leave one contemplating how you might feel upon learning that African elephants are extinct.

To create this model, I partnered with wildlife specialists at environmental nonprofit NRDC, where I've been artist-in-residence since 2014. Notably, I worked with deputy director of Wildlife Trade, Elly Pepper.

The data we gained access to and interpreted shows that African elephant populations have been declining precipitously in past decades. Extrapolating from data also gathered on elephants' natural births, deaths, and rates of illegal poaching, the algorithm shows a dark future of what could be if we are unwilling as a species to change the ways in which we relate to these magnificent others with whom we share this Earth.

Worryingly, though my predictive model has poaching increasing by only 1.5% annually, this scenario still leads to elephants becoming extinct within 25 years. Since 2020, although it has not always been able to be open, the work has been part of Unsettled Nature as a part of the exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

As side note, this was really a joy for me to work with the museum, and really a highlight of my artistic practice. As a child growing up in Richmond, Virginia, the museum was an absolute treat to visit, and was one of the most fascinating and magical places that I knew of. And certainly inspired a lot of my artistic practice. And so it's a really beautiful full-circle moment to be able to have this work exhibited at the museum.

So since ivory first became associated with power and capital, the hunger for ivory, and the associated devastating consequences have only grown. It is now up to us to decide what matters. The way human beings feel about other species is now one of the main factors in their survival. So our empathy, or lack thereof, has itself become an ecological force.

If we give into our desire for more, we may lose the chance to ever understand the minds of these remarkable others so much like our own. There are those who long to make contact with alien minds from other distance stars, but perhaps we have them here on our planet already, if we can only put aside our greed and sense of human exceptionalism and recognize our kin.

So now we're going to watch a short video that will actually show you the piece itself. And don't worry, there's a little bit of silence at the beginning, so there's nothing wrong with your speakers. Thank you. [video plays]

Joanna Marsh:

We're going to transition to the conversation portion of the program. I have a few questions for Carlene and Jenny, and then we'll move on in short order to audience questions.

So I'd like to start by asking both of you, Jenny and Carlene, about the paths that led you to research and advocate for elephant conservation. Jenny, you've already shared that Music for Elephants is the result of this artist's residency at the National Resources Defense Council.

But the NRDC works on a really wide range of environmental and humanitarian issues. So I'm curious what drew you to elephants specifically. There are any number of other issues and advocacy points that you could have chosen for that initial residency.

Jenny Kendler:

Yeah, that's a great question. You know, of course I think I would love to spend a long time researching each and every species especially that they work on. I've always been drawn to thinking about what one's role as an artist might be in trying to represent the non-human world, and especially those who are voiceless.

So I think that's why I'm really interested in working with what I would call non-human animals. And then elephants in particular, they're just so captivating. I think, there's a reason that we call them charismatic megafauna. I think that even if we're not conscious of how deeply they resemble us, we sort of recognize that implicitly.

They so clearly have culture. They have communication. And as I said on my talk, whether or not that's language remains to be seen, but I, for one, am open to that idea. And they're also ecosystem engineers. They change their environment in the same way that we do.

So, there's just absolute depths to be plumbed with them. And when I learned about really the ivory poaching crisis, and I began to kind of create these entanglements in my mind between this idea of the piano, the ivory, the music, the tusks. The elephants mourning rituals, where they touch and pass the tusks back and forth.

And the similarity between our fingers playing the keyboards. Some of the most meaningful works of art ever created in human history is music, played ivory keyboards. And really what we're doing is mimicking the same mourning gesture of the elephants, this caress of the tusks.

But we haven't been recognizing that. We've been really thinking of them as a commodity that we can use to create our own culture. And so I wanted to really turn that back around, and say that this is for them. That's why the piece is called Music for Elephants.

Joanna Marsh:

That's so beautiful. Thank you, Jenny. Carlene, I have roughly the same question for you. You're a historian of science and technology. How did you come to curate an exhibition that examines the role of humans, and that humans have played in elephant population decline?

Carlene Stephens:

Well, thank you for the question. And my answer is not going to be nearly as lyrical as Jenny's. It was a very inadvertent stumbling into the whole subject of elephants and ivory.

I, as the curator of timekeeping, became aware of a very special marine timekeeper that was coming up for auction in England in 2014. And I discovered I could bid on it, I could win it, but I would not be able to bring it into the country because there was a crackdown on the importation of ivory.

And that touched off a whole new chapter in my investigation of what we had in our own National Museum of American History, with regard to ivory. The gruesome things you see on the screen here, are actually the steps that ivory manufacturers would go through to turn a tusk into the veneers on the keys that you saw on Jenny's piano.

It was an enormous industry. Part of a global distribution of ivory from Africa. And it turned out that the Smithsonian acquired these pieces, these steps, for a special exhibition for the Smithsonian, for the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1893. Very, very proud of their Animal Products Division. Which is in such stark contrast to the messages of the exhibition that you co-curated, Joanna.

So we were able to, in a very straightforward way, rather than a metaphorical way, ask visitors in an exhibition about all of this, to consider extinction in light of the U.S. role in manufacturing things out of ivory. And the exhibition was paired to mark the African Elephant Conservation Act, which Congress passed in 1988, it went into effect in 1989. Followed about 10 years later by Asian Elephant Conservation Act. In many ways, signaling the U.S. interest in making sure that elephants do endure on the planet.

Joanna Marsh:

Thank you, Carlene. It was a circuitous journey for you.

Carlene Stephens:

Yes, it was. Right.

Joanna Marsh:

But it sounds like a fascinating and engrossing one. I think you've both touched on this a little bit already, but I'm curious, and this is for either one of you to kind of start to answer, how thinking around elephants has changed over time. Public perception, politics around elephant as commodity, versus as a species to be conserved. So either one of you can jump in.

Jenny Kendler:

Yeah. I think that I really enjoyed seeing Carlene's images of this behind the scenes process of how the tusk is turned into the ivory keys. There's, of course, these missing steps on the other side, which is the living elephants themselves being killed.

Honestly, I thought about including some of those slides, but they're too horrific. And so it just really illustrates in this very profound and step-by-step manner, how we, as human beings, have felt relatively unrepentant around taking deeply complex and intelligent living creatures and making them into things.

There's a lot of reasons why, and it's complicated, but I do think that luckily we're at the point in our cultural journey where we're starting to turn a corner. And we talked about the sort of overarching theme of this talk being from commodity to kin. And I really do think that is where we're trying to get.

Carlene Stephens:

Well, I can add a little bit to the transition from commodity to kin, by pointing out that, at the Smithsonian, there is considerable research done on elephant reproduction. Part of the problem with elephants' survival, is that it takes two years to make a baby elephant.

And until the 1970s, there was very little known about elephant reproduction. So the very fact that we are looking at their survival long-term, in terms of understanding their very being, I think, is a colossal and recent change.

Joanna Marsh:

That's so helpful. Jenny, were you going to add something there?

Jenny Kendler:

I mean, I think it really is just, the elephant specifically is so interesting, as we think about turning a corner in the way that we imagine our relationship with the natural world. Because you can see this kind of net transfer of energy, like life energy, into something that literally became a monetary substance. Right?

Well, you can see this also with whales, for example. There was whale bone and whale oil, which was the precursor to original fossil fuel, so that's also a very interesting story. But otherwise, when we think about creating sort of fungible, tradable, wealth, mostly it's minerals, or it's things that are non-living.

So it's such a clear illustration of the kind of misunderstanding of, I think, what our relationship with the natural world should be. And this real example of human supremacy, that we believe that we should be the sole owners and architects of the way that things work on the planet.

And so I think that as many of us begin to question whether or not extracted capitalism is really the way that we should run the world, and certainly the way that we even can continue to run the world, as we're sort of pushing all of our ecosystems to the brink. And we see with climate change and habitat degradation, that systems are literally collapsing. That it's very powerful to try to help people understand, with this very clear directional relationship, how this is a problematic way of relating with the rest of the world.

Joanna Marsh:

And Jenny, is that what you mean when you talk about re-enchanting our relationship with nature? That's a quote I used in to introduce you. And I'm curious to hear you describe a little bit more what that means for you.

Jenny Kendler:

Yeah. I think a lot about, in pre-agrarian, pre-capitalist cultures, how human beings would have lived in relationship with the natural world. And I think that we were really sort of sensuously and sensorially embedded in our relationship with nature.

That we were not understanding ourselves as different from other types of creatures, with whom we co-inhabited the world, but rather deeply interlinked with them. And rather than having an extractive capital perspective, where it was about what we could take out of the ecosystems around us, it was all relationality.

So everything was an exchange. When human beings took a life, when they were hunting or farming, it was always about exchange, and what was intended to be given back. And that was not just an empty reciprocity, but it was one that I think was enchanted with meaning.

Which is why I used this to term. I don't mean it in a metaphysical way, but I mean it in the sense of ceremony and respect and song and honor. And the way that transfer happens in a gift economy.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, who's an author I found deeply influential, and would recommend her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, to everyone listening to this, has a beautiful anecdote where she speaks about what we would do if we go to a, say a farmer's market, and everything is really cheap. Almost everyone in this room would fill their baskets with as much as they could carry, right?

But that if, in fact, everything was given as a gift, you would actually take very carefully. You would probably take only what you needed. Because a gift actually implies this deep need for reciprocity. And so you would understand that you had to do something in return.

So I think that that is this idea of re-enchanting our relationships, re-knitting them, reweaving them. And it will be very good for all of us. I think that people are, we're ecologically bored, and we're disconnected.

The things that we need to be satisfied as human beings have been taken away or held at a distance. And instead, we have all of this other stuff that we're having a hard time processing. So even if we can do this in small ways, kind of reweave these connections, it will help us. And hopefully help us to heal our relationship with nature before it's too late.

Joanna Marsh:

Thank you, Jenny. One of the other things that you've talked about, and sort of made reference to, is this idea of de-centering humans. And I think it's an interesting idea, especially in light of the work Music for Elephants, which is this player piano. But in fact, a playerless piano, right.

There is no human in this work. And so that has really struck me since the time I first saw it, and thought about including it in the show. And I want to bring the conversation now back to Music for Elephants. This musical instrument turned contemporary artwork that's on view, not in an art museum, or even in a history museum, but in a natural history museum.

And thinking about that context, how for you, Jenny, has showing that piece in the National Museum of Natural History kind of changed its meaning, or enhanced its meaning. In contrast to, for instance, showing it at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which is a more traditional contemporary art venue.

Jenny Kendler:

I have thought about this, and it might actually be the most perfect place for this work to be shown. Because I think with so much of my work, I'm really interested in de-siloing, and working across boundaries.

I understand, yeah, it's not a traditional contemporary art object really. It has so many threads that connect to human history, to history of commodity chains, like Carlene is studying and discussing. To all kinds of collection practices.

You also saw in some of my other work, I'm really invested in the idea of the archives, and really invested in a research-based practice. And so seating my work inside of this natural history museum really made a lot of sense to me.

I'm also really into museological display practices. And I think that it's partly because the Natural History Museum, that, as a, I'm putting it in quotes, it's an "archetype" as a center for human knowledge, is really one of the fundamental ways in which we started to process our relationship to nature, post-schism. Once we decided that we were different from nature.

In the 1500s, we started to create wunderkammers, and started to create collections of objects from all over the world. And we were putting things in relationship, one to the next, trying to understand. What is this weird bone? That we discover eventually is a fossil. And what is this strange shell? And how do these relate one to another?

But there was also this real investment in beauty, that was driving all of it. And so I think that I'm just really excited about museums getting back to that. Really thinking about how this passion for connection with the natural world, and how our sense of beauty, which I would...

we probably don't have time to get into this, but I actually think like derives from the natural world in general. That that's why our brains perceive certain things as beautiful is it's a pattern recognition of things that are going on in nature that are showing us when ecosystems are healthy and thriving, that that's beautiful to us.

And so I guess I'm really excited to think about how natural history museums might help us in this kind of, what Joanna Macy calls, the great turning. If we are not going to collapse as a civilization, but are in fact going to come back into some sort of healthy reciprocal relationship with the Earth.

I think that Natural History Museum is a really exciting place to start to think through. Because you have all of the breadcrumbs leading back to the very earliest times when we started to break things apart and then put them back together.

And we just need a more sophisticated way of putting things back together, you know? In the 20th century, we wanted to categorize everything into it's little places and give it its names. But now we need to reweave the connections.

Joanna Marsh:

Thank you, Jenny. We're going to transition in just a moment to audience questions. But Carlene, I wanted to ask you before we do that. Based on what Jenny's just shared about reconnecting, and the Natural History Museum as a place for reconnection. I mean, I would extend that to all the museums within the Smithsonian.

I've been thinking a lot about the museums as places for advocacy. And I'm just curious for your thoughts, as someone who's curated an exhibition, not in the Natural History Museum, but for American history, but that was very much about advocacy and awareness-raising, sort of the place you see in the function, a role for museums in that space.

Carlene Stephens:

Oh, that's a fabulous question. It occurred to me, when Jenny was talking, that we had a very strong natural history stream running through our exhibition at the Museum of American History. We started with the concept of extinction itself. Where did this idea of extinction come from? And elephants were embedded in that.

Cuvier compared mastodon, mammoth, and elephant. And he said, "These don't live anymore on Earth. And these do." And the idea that any museum could get visitors to think about the origins of extinction, as an entry point to considering extinction today. It's not normal for our place.

And I think just by doing something that isn't normal, that isn't expected, and isn't the standard what people learned in school was history, is so powerful. It's that whole element of surprise. I've seen it in the galleries, where people say, "Huh, I never thought about that before."

Then I think museums have success when that happens. And I'm sure that happens in all of the spots where the element of surprise is introduced.

Joanna Marsh:

That's beautiful. And I feel like you are reading the mind of myself and my co-curator, Scott Wing, for this exhibition. And the whole team that worked on this show, Unsettled Nature.

Because it was that idea, and that element of surprise. Of encountering a contemporary art exhibition, and a group of contemporary artworks, in the context of a natural history museum, that we were really after. And that that would be its own kind of awakening or aha moment. Because it stops you in your tracks a little bit with that unexpected material.

I'm going to transition us now, because we've got lots of great questions coming in from the audience. And I'm going to start with one, Carlene, for you. If you're able to talk at all about how elephants are evolving as tuskless due to poaching.

Carlene Stephens:

I've read this in one newspaper article, and it had to do, as I recall, with one particular group of elephants in one particular spot. I don't think we can count on that to stop the poaching. But that's just my uneducated information. I don't have any other details about that.

Joanna Marsh:

Jenny, do you want to add anything about that? Do you [crosstalk 00:41:40]

Jenny Kendler:

Yeah, I'm not an expert either, but I agree with what Carlene said. I believe it was just one small study population, and it was showing an increase maybe from a fifth to a half of, I believe it was female elephants being born tuskless.

Which, it's not surprising. I mean, species change under any type of survival pressure, or selection pressure. Yeah. I suppose that that is something that could be expected. But I agree that we can't count on that to be what stops poaching.

Joanna Marsh:

Great. Thank you. Thank you both. Okay, we have a number of questions, as you'd expect, about Music for Elephants. So this first one is for you, Jenny, from Jacqueline. "What made you think of the use of music as a medium to represent the environment and elephants?"

Jenny Kendler:

Yeah, and Jacqueline, thank you for asking that. I think that it was really the piano that became the bridge for that. So it was this, what I talked about earlier, the idea of the importance of pianos in human culture, and that direct link back to the elephant, but that's been relatively unconsidered.

And so then once I started to think about the piano itself as this object of interest, it felt in some way obvious that music needed to be involved. And Joanna, I see that there's also a related question from Dr. Jessica Miles. I might combine those together, if that's all right with you?

She's saying, "Why did you choose to use something as abstract as data for the music instead of composing something or setting the data notes within a composition?"

And so that would really be the second part of how I decided that I wanted to create the project, was thinking about what is the most direct, visceral emotional way that I can communicate this linkage between the ivory itself and the deaths of the elephants that presumptively died to create this piano, or pianos like it.

I actually didn't want to abstract away this potency, or set it within a composition that might be much more beautiful. It was important to me that when someone heard a note, that they would understand that it was real.

That it was not something that was fanciful, or abstract, or embellished. But that this was imagined data, but potentially real data. It was potentially real elephants that were dying. And then I did actually play with the way that it sounded quite a lot, while still keeping this real, tangible, direct correlation. So changed the key that everything was set in.

But ultimately, I was actually really quite happy with the sort of eerie and unsettling nature of what it... Humans, we're used to listening to things that are composed within keys, and where there's specific relationships between the notes. And if that doesn't happen, we feel a little bit uneasy. And I actually was quite happy with that as the end result with the score.

Joanna Marsh:

Jenny, you've maybe already addressed this, but there is a specific question from Joanne about what is the meaning of the notes played up or down the scale. So maybe you can elaborate a little bit more on that.

Jenny Kendler:

Absolutely. Yeah. So I basically decided to... I looked at how many elephants there were, which is about 400,000. I looked at the rate of natural death and the rate of natural birth, the rate of poaching.

And I essentially just wrote a big math equation that would then have this predictive element, where I could estimate how many elephants would die due to poaching in any month in the future. I then also introduced this factor of if poaching increased by 1.5%.

So I ended up on months, because that felt like about the right amount that people would sort of conceptualize, and would seem natural for people to hold in their mind. And I will say that I was actually really surprised to find that, based on this equation, that it's 25 years. It's about 300 months until we get to zero.

So to answer her question, they represent a randomly generated, but within reasonable possibility amount of elephants that would die due to poaching. And I had a bunch of different factors in the equation that sort of increased poaching a little bit over the years. But essentially...

I guess it's important to note that I've spoken with some conservation scientists, and it's at actually very unlikely that this is what will happen. To just give people some reassurance, but to hopefully not take the gravity out of it. Even if poaching gets worse, it's unlikely that Loxodonta africana will become extinct entirely, because there will be elephants in zoos and in small protective reserves.

But it's still actually quite possible that the ranging and diverse, thriving elephant population... And of course the associated culture that would be irreplaceable if that's lost. The culture of where the watering holes are when it's really dry. These grandmother elephants that are passing it down to their younger kin, that could be lost irrevocably. We could get very close to losing them.

But yeah, I just thought it was important to note that it's definitely hopeful. That's what I said, when people care, that can become an ecological force. It turns out that we're pulling a lot of the shots right now. So calling a lot of the shots. Yeah.

Joanna Marsh:

Thanks Jenny. This question is for both of you, but maybe, Carlene, you can start us off. Which is, how would you recommend reaching out to local communities that view elephants more as pests, or have otherwise negative views of elephants?

Carlene Stephens:

Yes, this is the real contradiction. It's an international set of influences that have to be juggled here. Living near elephants, living with elephants, is very dangerous.

And so the elephants are system builders of their own, but if you've got a field, and they want what's in it, and that's your livelihood. It's very difficult to convince people that the elephants are their friends.

So there are lots of different approaches to working with communities that live near elephants, especially in Africa. And I don't pretend to be an expert on this. There are people who have tried relocating elephants from proximity to communities, to more distant things. There are international organizations that help with these endeavors.

It depends on the local interest in so many ways. And so it's difficult for us here in the Northern West to tell people living on the other side of the world, how they should live with elephants, when they have a completely different set of needs.

And I don't have the answers. I think part of the steps forward, part of the way forward, is to have more communication. To find out what the local people need, what the local elephants need, and arrive at solutions together.

Joanna Marsh:

Jenny, do you want to add to that at all?

Jenny Kendler:

Yeah, I really appreciate that perspective. I think it's extremely important to recognize that we can't just prioritize the needs of one intelligent, amazing creature over another.

I mean, partly... I hinted towards this when I talking about Belgium's occupation of Congo. I also think that we in the West have a real duty to seriously confront the legacy of colonization. It is deeply unfair to look at Africa as a series of failed nation-states, and just think that's somehow a natural state, or that...

The West caused that. And the West caused it because they were interested in resource extraction, and this is still happening. And it's still happening with other developed nations. You know, China also coming in and continuing to want rare earth minerals that are in Congo, and diamonds and gold and fossil fuels.

And so until we really confront our responsibility for those things in a meaningful way, and really center the well-being of humans and non-humans, I think we're going to struggle. And I think it's problematic when we start to just pit villagers against elephants, and not actually want to consider the systemic problem that's causing that imbalance in the first place.

I actually think it's a false choice. We don't have to choose. What we need to do is, we need to change the system. And we need to, as I said, come back into exchange and reciprocity. And get all those extractive corporations out. Let people keep their own resources, manage their own land. Indigenous people know what to do. They know how to live on the land in ways that also allow the other creatures to thrive and to flourish.

Joanna Marsh:

Thanks, Jenny. And if any of our viewers wanted to help change those systems, how could they help in this specific fight against extinction of elephants?

Jenny Kendler:

I think that there's a lot of resources. I would recommend, obviously NRDC is doing great work on wildlife trade in particular, which is their legally-based organization.

It is very legally tricky territory, and really depends on us having the right laws in place. And so that's one thing that's really important, is that we get the international laws as airtight as possible, and that we make sure that other countries are in compliance with them as well.

I also think it's really important, as Carlene was suggesting, to support people on the ground. To support other types of agricultural practices, to make sure that people have what they need so that their communities can be resilient when there is an elephant in the neighborhood.

I think that Save the Elephants does a really good job on seeing that intersectional lens of elephant conservation. And so I would definitely recommend that people who are interested in learning more about specific initiatives, that would be a great resource to go and check out for sure.

Carlene Stephens:

And the African Elephant and Asian Elephant Conservation Acts allocate funds. They allocate funds for projects directly related to conserving elephants. And often a grant is matched by an outside group. It would be useful to know what projects are underway, who needs that matching money.

A lot of the projects have to do with elephant reproduction, elephant habitat. And the zoos have transformed themselves into conservation entities, rather than show places for people to just look at animals. Many zoos are actively trying to further conservation science. And it's worth investigating which zoos might benefit from support for elephant conservation.

Joanna Marsh:

Okay. Jenny, were you going to jump back in?

Jenny Kendler:

I just wanted to share very quickly that one of our commenters has also given another resource, which sounds really valuable. A nonprofit that they're involved with that works with the national parks of Zimbabwe, which is called the And so I'll look forward to learning more about that too.

Joanna Marsh:

Great. All right. We have just a few minutes left, and maybe time for one more question. So we'll bring it back to Music for Elephants. And I'll pose a question from Nela to Jenny.

And this is, she's wondering about... Sorry. I assumed you were a she, and I shouldn't. They are wondering which part of your process in creating this incredible artwork was the most challenging? And what element was the most exciting?

Jenny Kendler:

That's a great question. I'm laughing, because this was a really difficult project to pull off. There was five or six points where I just was like, "Oh, it can't be done."

For example, the score itself. There are very few people, and very few ways that you can create a new player piano score. So I was literally working with one person on the East Coast who has a...

People see this and they think, "Oh, it's laser cut with some kind of modern technology." It's actually literally die punched on this crazy rig that takes up an entire room and a half in this person's house.

And so that was really challenging. Actually connecting with the right people. I got really deeply involved in the player piano community, and was talking to this person in this state, who was passing me to this person at this museum, who finally connected me with someone else who does player piano restoration, and just so happened to have a piano that I could buy from him.

Not any player piano would've worked for this. I needed a very specific kind. One that had auto rewind. One that was one of these Duo-Art types. So I don't know, the whole thing was challenging.

It was also, it was hard to get access to the poaching data. And thankfully NRDC was able to really come through for me. Not all of it was publicly accessible.

And then the most exciting part, of course, was finishing it. Being able to... I mean, the beginning and the end. When you first get the idea, and then you start to realize maybe I could make this real. I love that part too.

Joanna Marsh:

And it is very real indeed. And I hope if you're anywhere near the Washington, D.C., area, that you'll have a chance to see Music for Elephants in person before the exhibition closes on March 7th.

So this is about all the time we have now. Please join me in thanking Jenny and Carlene, our featured guests tonight. And also give a really special thanks to all those who made tonight's program possible. Our donors, our volunteers, viewers like all of you, as well as all of the partners who help us reach, educate and empower millions of people around the world.

Our next program is with artist Dornith Doherty. You can find a link, again in the Q&A box to register for that program. And you'll find more information about the whole series. You can watch recordings of prior programs as well from the museum's website.

We hope you'll join us for the finale in this program series. And at the very end of the program, you'll see a link to a survey. If you have a moment, we'd love your input on how this program went, and what you're interested in seeing for future programs.

So that concludes our conversation tonight. Thank you so much, Jenny Kendler and Carlene Stephens for being with me and sharing your insights.

Jenny Kendler:

Thanks everyone for joining us.

Carlene Stephens:


Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar with artist Jenny Kendler aired February 24, 2022, as part of the Unsettled Nature: Artist Event Series. Watch a recording in the player above.


Jenny Kendler is an interdisciplinary artist interested in raising consciousness about ecological concerns. Her installation, "Music for Elephants," translates data predicting future poaching of African elephants into a score for a vintage ivory-keyed player piano. The score, both eerie and meditative, counts down month by month, from a population of around 400,000 African elephants remaining today, predicting that 25 years from today there will be no elephants remaining if we do nothing to stop ivory poaching and illegal trade. 

In this video, Kendler and Smithsonian’s Carlene Stephens discuss how humans relate to elephants as commodity and kin, reckoning with ivory in museum collections, and how art and science intersect to protect and restore this well-loved species.

Moderator: Joanna Marsh, co-curator of the exhibition, Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans.

Unsettled Nature: Artist Event Series

What is "natural" in a world where the human imprint is everywhere? In the exhibition Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans formerly at the National Museum of Natural History, contemporary artists challenged viewers to think about the changes we make to our planet. We hosted a series of conversations with them on the power of art to illuminate our relationship with the natural world. September 2021 – March 2022

Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts
Life Science
Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans