“Antworks” video had its debut at the NY Media Center in DUMBO this month (www.nymediacenter.com). With eight projectors on a 360 surround screen, the ants swarmed the opening party. What a perfect venue for them. The Center’s statement includes words like – collaborate, connect, incubate – words that also describe leafcutter ant society. Ants use the media of pheromones instead of text messages to share content, collaborate and build complexity. And they do it on the run. They are nature’s ultimate mobile communication devices. In “Antworks” the colony stages an art exhibition with the pieces of leaves they cut. I think this fits perfectly with the Center’s desire to bring together “storytellers from multiple disciplines.”
Are we ever really alone if we consider the ubiquity of invertebrates? Flies, spiders, ants and cockroaches – all could easily come and go through the cracks of a prison cell as if they were freeways, challenging the very notion of solitary. But would a bug offer companionship and therefore comfort or would their presence insight further terror to a confined individual? What are the physical and behavioral characteristics of an arthropod that might influence these opposite reactions?
Take the fly for example. Their incessant buzzing – always out of reach, small, quick, hard to kill – could drive anyone mad. We loathe them for spreading disease and for their larvae eating us when we die.
But if a fly was your only companion could you see it in another light? The same dramas of the human world – birth, sex, predation, war and death – play out in the insect world. They’re just on a smaller scale and take more patience to observe.
Flies have earned their moniker – they breed like flies. And to do that, they have a lot of sex. They put on a veritable mini-porn show. That might entertain a sex-starved prisoner.
Humans tend to like animals with eyes – the bigger the rounder the better. We certainly prefer eyes to antennae, two legs are better than four, which are usually preferable to six and no doubt for most people, superior to eight. Besides having too many legs, spiders don’t even have heads. And most importantly they don’t have eyes that we can look into, and relate to. Most spiders have an eye cluster mounted on a torso. Their morphology offers little opportunity for traditional engagement and companionship.
But, they make art. Orb weavers even make and remake their art daily, changing a solitary confinement cell into a spider’s studio. Spider webs are beautiful by any definition of art – gossamer, delicate, intricate, and composed. They are three-dimensional sculptures hanging in space. Who cares about the spider’s lack of expression when the web it spins is a masterpiece of expression?
It is difficult to befriend a bug if you cannot be certain to whom you are speaking. One fly is hard to distinguish from another. But spiders have a home address. If you call your new friend Charlotte you can be fairly certain you are still talking to her the next day if her web is in the same general location.
And Charlotte’s art is lethal. If your cell has both a fly and a spider, you are in for a glorious performance of nature’s ability to spin life into a dizzying ball of death.
Perhaps an isolated human being might embrace the chance to spend time with another species with whom we share our unique socialness. Ants are a sophisticated social species with complex communication and organized division of labor; they are master chemists and accomplished architects. Ants invented a networked communication system that rivals the Internet. Without central command – antennae touches are like text messages – complex decisions are made. Ant conversation is not top down, but bottom up, not command and control, but connect and collaborate. At some point a message goes viral.
Leave some food for the ants and those antennae touches will communicate a message to come visit you. To feed and care for another being, or hundreds of beings, has proven health and emotional benefits.
But provide too great a bounty and a rival colony might challenge for a place at the buffet. Is there a social species that doesn’t engage in warfare? To incite an ant war is to see mini-gladiators locked in epic battle.
I cannot imagine a creature more hated than the cockroach. The word itself is an insult in many languages. But on what is this based? They don’t bite or sting or carry the dangerous pathogens that flies and mice regularly do. There is nothing life-threatening about a cockroach.
Would it be possible to put disgust aside and draw companionship from one of the world’s most successful creatures? Getting past the dark, twitchy exterior, the roach is remarkably subtle and sculptural. Its wings are a glowing, translucent amber and its long, elegant antennae explore the world with the grace of a ballerina’s arms.
Even cockroaches, which are not defined as a social species, seek out each other’s company. When they are kept in isolation, they have significantly reduced lifespans. Like us, they enjoy hanging out together – when they drink, when they eat.
Their molting is a magical moment of transformation. The roach walks up and down the wall to make sure it has enough room, then it hangs upside down and drops out of it’s old skin. The newly emerged roach is white and delicate and soft. Cockroach sex lasts for nearly an hour. The female mates once, consequently is quite choosy, and then is pregnant for life.
But maybe you buy none of this. For some people solitary confinement is preferable to the company of insects. Then at least a bug could provide a rare opportunity for the expression of control over your environment, as you chase it around the cell and simply squish it out of existence. Humans have been doing this for a very long time.
What a summer! I have been working on “The Leafcutters” project since 2007, the year I shot “We Rule” on Jean Pigozzi’s island in Panama, and this summer I tested the waters with a small gallery show in Sun Valley Idaho with the work I’ve completed so far. The exhibition featured two videos, eight photographs including the ninety-inch long “Antworks Parade,” plus six pencil drawings of ants carrying letters. The experience was similar to what the theatre world calls a New Haven moment – to preview a show out-of-town, to test the actors, the sets, the dialogue, and to make adjustments all out of the gaze of big city critics.
Thank you Robin Reiners at Gallery DeNovo for giving me this opportunity and thank you Sun Valley for your rousing reception of my project’s debut. It’s been precarious to work under wraps for these past five years holding back finished work in order to exhibit this multi-media, multi-chapter ant extravaganza all at once.
The art establishment might not have been there but a member of the science aristocracy, Mr. E.O. Wilson, the world’s reining ant specialist and one of greatest biological theorists since Darwin, was in Sun Valley this summer. He spoke about his new book The Social Conquest of Earth at the Writer’s Conference. For years his work has inspired mine and it was an honor to finally meet him and say thank you.
“The Flight from Conversation” (Sherry Turkle, NYTimes, 4/21/12). Could it be true? Are we becoming increasingly shallow with each and every Tweet?
The more I thought about the gist of Ms. Turkle’s argument, that our constant digital exchange of short bits of dialogue is eroding meaningful conversation, the more reasons I found to disagree with her conclusions. Although she sites several studies, not one of them measures the frequency of meaningful conversation plotted over the time of social networking’s rise. And that pesky term “meaningful.’’ How is she measuring that? Does “connection” warrant her slight of being called “mere?”
Based on my own experience as an avid digital communicator, the frequency of conversations I call meaningful have not diminished in the least. Actually, I think they have increased. By staying digitally in-touch with people who are physically removed, I believe our interactions are far richer when we do get together for having shared words in the interim.
Philosophers for centuries have complained about the alienation of modern life, that we’re unconnected from, you name it – a moral authority, fulfilling labor, the land, our own nature, from each other. Now it seems social scientists are whining that we are too connected, too social, and unable to be alone.
For the majority of history Homo sapiens lived as hunter-gatherers in small bands of related individuals. Based on similar present-day groups, individuals are rarely alone and instead work collectively to insure the group’s survival. They engage in bits of conversation as they go about their affairs and I doubt their exchanges are categorically much different from the incidental stuff we Tweet and Facebook about today. If their daily banter didn’t prevent meaningful conversations later around the campfire, why assume our Web-based interactions thwart significant dialogue at the bar or dinner table?
Instead of alienating us from meaningful relationships I think our digital devices are reconnecting us to our evolutionary past. Social networking allows us to live more like our ancestors did – to be constantly connected in order to gossip, trade bits of information, to share stories, offer moments of comfort and encouragement. These relatively simple exchanges are part of the glue that holds a group together. We are a social species and there is deep satisfaction in simply staying in touch. Today our group of family and friends might be larger and more spread out, but the urge to stay connected is as strong as ever. I don’t think our hyperactive thumbs are turning the screws on human nature just yet.
Patience is a primary color on my artist’s palette. I often wait for a plant or animal to hatch or sprout, to eat, grow, molt or mate. But, with “The Leafcutters” project my work for the first time has been subject, at every stage, from concept to production, to the vagaries of climate.
Our expeditions to Costa Rica have all been during the dry season. It rains between 200-300 inches a year where we were on the Osa Peninsula and a dry season simply means it rains less in this period, but it still rains.
Not this year. It had not rained since December. Many plants were visibly suffering – dusty, wilted, shriveled or dead. I’ve never seen so much brown in the middle of what is supposed to be green.
Had I started my ant project this year, I would not have known the range of narrative possibilities. Leafcutter ants harvest from a wide variety of plants, yet what they take when I’m there establishes not only the aesthetics of the video, but more significantly, influences the formation of the storyline. I watch the ants and respond and experiment and adjust. Through this process the video emerges.
For example, the cornucopia of colorful flowers the ants carry in “The Chosen” did not blossom in abundance this year. There were not enough of them for me to have collected day after day, for six weeks, to shoot the video. Without flowers there would be no offerings to the golden idol.
Last year the ants lusted after a spotted plant that became the heart of the “Antworks” video. This year the plant was withered and dull. Not a pulse of moisture was flowing though its veins and the ants rejected it. I did manage to find a few healthy specimens to complete the video, but not enough to have started it.
I am fortunate to finish shooting the four videos of “The Leafcutters” series. My timing with the weather worked out, but barely. Was this year’s unusually parched dry season a random variance? Or is it a harbinger of harsher seasons to come? I would love to return year after year to see the how the interplay of plants and ants evolves in a capricious and changing climate.
After five trips to Central America—four videos and four photo series later—I’m wrapping up the fieldwork portion of “The Leafcutters” project. Next, it’s back to the studio to produce the accompanying drawings and sculptures.
There is the inevitable period of reflection at the end of a significant chapter. I started working with leafcutter ants simply because I found their colorful parade to be dazzling. But it was the eerie parallels to Homo sapiens that engaged my imagination: like us they wage war, are skilled agriculturalists, master chemists and accomplished architects. They are also rapacious defoliators, harvesting nearly 25% of the forest. The analogy to the deforestation humans are causing was not lost on me.
But as the project developed, I came to feel the real reward for lying countless hours on the ground was observing the ant’s social structure. Over the same five years, as social networking took root, I also witnessed our own patterns of communication become more like theirs. Ant conversation is not top down, but bottom up, not command and control, but connect and collaborate.
Even in art making the old paradigm of the solo artist as individual genius is changing. Now everyone is a photographer, a videomaker, a writer. With no questions asked if it’s art, it’s exhibited online for the world to see. The Internet is allowing people to produce culture collectively.
Leafcutter ants have selected leaves, cut shapes, and formed live drawings that flicker across the forest floor for millions of years. The accumulation of their small gestures produces great complexity. Ants are hyperaware of what their millions of mates are doing. Styles and preferences come and go like trends in the art world. Some days I see mostly red, other days purple. One day they carried a lot of spots. In the end it is always multiple decisions made by multiple minds. And therein lies their power.
On grant applications I check the box next to – Artist. It never occurred to me to select – Art Collective. But, perhaps I should. I never work alone. My collaborators just don’t happen to be human. Early on I raised my colleagues – fed them, housed them, cleaned up after them. The dialogue was between me and the cockroach, me and the praying mantis, me and the frog.
Now that I work with leafcutter ants in Costa Rica that model has morphed into something else. I am on the outside peering in at a true cooperative team with millions of members. Leafcutter ants constantly jabber to one another – antennae touches, vibrations, and pheromones. It’s non-stop text messaging. Twitter on steroids. Scare one ant and it screams, not with sound, but with a scent trail of fear. Her mates refuse to walk on that spot.
Ants invented a sophisticated, networked communication system that rivals the Internet. Without central command – individual antennae touches are like Google hits – complex decisions are made. At some point a message goes viral. If only I could write an algorithm to better decipher the data.
Yesterday was a rough day. I worked for hours to persuade the ants to enter my set stage right. Because of some hidden data that was clear as day to them, they insisted, in mass, on entering stage left. I felt like they shared the same Facebook friends and I wasn’t even online. Today I hope will be better and maybe the term Art Collective will even apply.
I finally started to work on Antworks, the video I shot last year but didn’t finish. Frankly, it’s great to have a break from the ant war. The carnage is getting to me.
I’m shooting the finale. The middle is a time-lapse sequence where the ants strip a tree and the end is an art show of the pieces they cut. The clippings look like Abstract Expressionists paintings – maybe a Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, or a Rothko.
I want the ants to walk, one at a time on the stone stage and present their artwork. I can imagine Jerry Saltz and the judges of Bravo’s art reality show deciding which ant made the best painting. The size, shape, color…
It should be a simple scene to shoot, but this is my fifth try. The stone I found on the beach proved to be too slippery. It was comical to see the ants struggle to walk under the weight of their work. After applying a little wax they now run too fast. This morning I scrapped most of it off. Each time I change the surface I alter the ant’s scent trail. They reach the stage and act as if the lights have suddenly been turned off. To retrain them to feel comfortable on center stage I entice them with plants they like and discourage them with leaf litter, which is the equivalent of throwing the Himalayas in their path.
Next problem – there are too many ants on the catwalk at once. I’m working with a fairly large colony (I call the Neo colony because it wasn’t there last year) and ants tend to do things in mass. Getting an ant to do anything alone is hard work.
This morning I created a detour around the stage by making a two-lane highway system. My goal is to divert about 50% of the outgoing ants and 100% of the returnees who come back from the forest with dull, dried leaves. It hasn’t rained here since December. Their efforts would surely be voted off the show in the first round.
For the half that comes my way I offer them leaves that contain nearly every color found on a painter’s palette, with elegant strips to rival Sean Scully and enough spots to make Damien Hirst jealous.
As soon as the ants emerge from their afternoon nap I’ll see if my plans have worked. Watching the ant’s parade with pieces of vegetation they have expertly cut into tiny artworks is as satisfying as a good afternoon in Chelsea.
Attached is a video still and a picture of the set.
P.S. As I type this a puma just walked 40 yards from my set. The monkeys are screaming. Got to go.
What a memorable morning. Charlie and I hiked into a stand of primary rainforest with Dr. Adrian Forsyth, founder and President of Osa Conservation (www.osaconservation.org) to look at a towering tree that might be a perfect candidate to host an observation and listening platform. The tree is on the side of a steep ridge overlooking a deep draw, which would make the deck hundreds of feet above the forest floor. As we macheted our way through the undergrowth it was fascinating to listen to Adrian illuminate the intricacies of rainforest ecology, from the relationship between fungus and tree roots, to medicinal uses of sap and seeds, to pointing out that the fur in the puma scat we almost stepped in was probably from a sloth.
The proposal is for Charlie to set up a listening station that would stream the cacophony of rainforest sounds live over the Internet. It’s a fantastic goal. When the live feed capability is established, I plan to set up a webcam on a mature leafcutter ant colony. Being one of the few species with a home address and a network of well-maintained superhighways, they are easy to spy on. A parade of leafcutters ants, carrying bits of leaves and flowers in their jaws, looks like a colorful line drawing flickering across the forest floor.
The tree under consideration is in the background of these two pictures. It might not look impressive (though the two Canadians with machetes certainly do) but scale is hard to capture with a point-n-shoot.
Last night was a gripping episode in antdom. The Vampire colony, so named because it comes out only after the sun is fully down, and is by far the largest colony in the area, brutally attacked one of its neighbors. The Vampires have been picking occasional fights on two fronts, but last night for whatever reason, because the night before they innocently went about their business cutting leaves, they decided to ramp up the war and send out the big girls – the massive, pitbull-jawed soldiers. These huge ants are nearly three times the size of an average worker and their bodies are impressively buff and statuesque. Unlike the fast moving workers, soldier ants have a lumbering, languid gait.
The defenders responded to Goliath with many Davids. A frenzy of medium and small ants latched into whatever body part their disadvantaged jaws could assault. The apparent strategy is strength through the determination to not let go. As more ants bit their way into the fight the growing brawl became a heaving ball of carnage. Eventually loosing most of their appendages the little ants fought on and on.
Attached are a couple video stills.