A Suitcase Full of Eels




This creative project brings together two academics and artists from different disciplines to use their love of narrative and absurdity to make artworks that draw on the historical importance and cultural relevance of the European Eel, Anguilla anguilla.

Working closely with The Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) the artists will create a body of work that is at once critically engaged, scientifically informed, rigorously researched, attractive and playful. The work will be published as an ‘object book’ and as an exhibition both nationally and internationally, as well as being presented through a series of talks, workshops and conferences.

The European Eel is a critically endangered animal, the decline of which is significantly impacting on a staggering breadth of species, including birds, mammals and fish, and both marine and freshwater species. It is at once one of the most written about fish in Britain and the most mysterious and elusive.

But eels are not (what conservationists refer to as) a ‘charismatic species’ and as such they have been unduly ignored. This is a perennial challenge for conservationists and it is the purpose of this project to highlight the ‘charisma’ of eels by using absurdity and narrative, reconnecting people to this environmentally and culturally significant species. Our research will look at the role of absurd narrative artworks on perceptions of eels and will promote new ways of thinking and communicating that will inform their sustainability management.

Eels should be considered separately from other marine and freshwater species, their migratory and physiological nature making them unique. Rather than banning fishing we need to consider how the eels’ value can be used to promote investment in tackling issues that threaten them, including trafficking and migration barriers such as industrial turbines and sluice gates.

Working with The Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) we are planning an exhibition at the European Parliament in Brussels featuring artwork relating to the European eel, and we would be inviting work from universities, researchers and artists in the UK and Europe, including already completed infographics from Plymouth Students and an Eel animation made with schools in Bristol as part of the AHRC-funded ‘Hydrocitizenship’ project. 

Throughout the run up to the exhibition we will publish content through websites, social media and Guillemot Press using dialectic measures of impact.


To raise popular awareness of the European eel’s extraordinary ecological, cultural and economic significance.
To create a body of work that is original, playful, diverse, informative and exciting. 

To use absurd narrative to approach the subject in new ways, engaging and exciting the readership.

To harness the power of real life stories and the intrinsic absurdity of the eel in form, life cycle and cultural connotation.


To create a body of work inspired by the European Eel in the form of an ‘object book’. This may be a collection of smaller works brought together as a cohesive collection or box-set.

To provide novel and innovative ways of communicating research related to sustainability.

To study the potential impact of absurd visual narratives in relation to engaging or transforming thinking around a critically endangered animal.

Previous publications

Luke Thompson & John Kilburn
Robot Squirrel(zimZalla, 2017)
Available here

John Kilburn 

is a lecturer and researcher in Illustration at the University of Plymouth. John is interested in the importance and potential of creativity in communicating ecological narratives and rhetoric to new audiences, with emphasis on the role of humour and absurdity. His current research relates to how sustainability can be embedded into the Illustration curriculum at Plymouth University. This has led to many successful community focused or cross-disciplinary student projects with groups such as The Sustainable Eel Group, Fresh Air, Bikespace, I Know You, Guillemot Press, Port Eliot Festival and the Open Doors Language School. John recently presented his work (Service-learning and sustainability within ILLUS510: pedagogy for compassionate change) at the Sustainability in Higher Education Conference, Plymouth University 2018. As an illustrator, John’s handmade zines, pop-up books and comics have been collected, published and exhibited internationally by the likes of Gestalten, Printed Matter NY and the Yale Center for British Art.

Dr. Luke Thompson 

is a writer, publisher and lecturer. He has written two poetry sequences, Robot Squirrel (zimZalla, 2017) and the clearing (Atlantic Press, 2016), as well as a biography, Clay Phoenix (Ally, 2016). Luke was a part of ‘Crosscurrents’, a series of collaborations between poets and marine biologists, for which he created experimental poetry based on the research at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory into microplastics. Luke has edited a number of books, including co-editing Tree Tales with Jos Smith for the arts and environment charity Common Ground in 2016. That same year Luke founded Guillemot Press, a small independent publisher that focuses on short form poetry, prose and illustration. Guillemot Press’s The Tender Map, written by Melanie Challenger and illustrated by Rose Ferraby, won the 2017 Michael Marks Award for Illustration. Luke lectures in creative writing and publishing at Falmouth University.

The Eel Suitcase project is supported by the University of Plymouth’s Creative Associate Awards.
images ©John Kilburn 2018