Art and Environmental Engagement, Stanford University, Spring quarter, 2018
The aim of this course is to use the tools of art to actively engage with the natural world. Students will be required to go beyond surface representations and dig deep with their work to uncover conceptual, ecological and historical meaning. Whether the focus is on a plant, animal, mineral or ecological system, students will be encouraged to investigate and interact with their subjects. Scientists who experiment in the field will be brought in to discuss their research and working processes. Collaborations are welcome. We will examine the work by artists, from past to present, who address the environment in a critical way. Students will work on creative projects with the goal to open new avenues of dialogue between culture and nature.
- Develop new skills of observation with the goal of seeing from a wider ecological point-of-view.
- Develop the ability to use art as a tool to investigate the environment.
- Build familiarity with artists and artworks, from prehistory to now, that focus on the natural world.
- Develop the analytical and critical skills to look at the visual arts from an environmental perspective.
- Become familiar with campus resources relating to art and the environment.
- Create finished artworks and develop the ability to present and critically discuss the works.
What an honor and a thrill to create a curriculum from scratch and teach it at my alma mater. With little teaching experience, I definitely took a plunge into the deep end. The last day of class my students told me how much they loved the course. One student said it was the best class she has taken at Stanford. Ok, she’s a freshman, but still! That I was able to engage and challenge a diverse and intelligent group of students for ten weeks was an achievement I will be proud of for years to come.
If a cockroach was making the rounds in Chelsea looking at art, I wager it would go apoplectic at Brice Marden’s show at Matthew Marks. The large paintings would not appeal, too much empty space – roaches abhor a barren landscape – but the small drawings in the gallery next door would send a roach’s antennae atwitter.
Marden’s sinuous lines are their type of mark-making. Scurrying is the roach’s specialty. Irregular, random lines not followed or traced by others is the standard of cockroach taste, the ideal Blattidian form. Roaches are not a social species. They may like each other’s company, and even die early when isolated, but they don’t follow the routes drawn by others.
It might even scoff, “Oh, I could do that.” And it would be right. Spontaneous gestures help protect a roach from being squished or eaten. Irrational aesthetics is a sound strategy to achieve a full short life when you’re considered both disgusting and tasty. It pays to have long sensitive antennae, not only to view art but also to tell you when to run for your life.
After Marden, I went to see Mark Bradford’s show at Hauser & Wirth. Well, a cockroach just wouldn’t get it. Maps, diagrams, centers – these are motifs not of beauty to a cockroach but depictions of fear. Yet, to leafcutter ants Bradford’s work would be genius. If they made art their work might look like his.
Morphologically, a leafcutter ant has the tools necessary to make art. Their jaws are veritable scissors able to deftly cut and carve. Collectively they are consummate earth artists, sculpting mounds, building pyramids and excavating underground labyrinths.
Unlike the cockroach, leafcutter ants have a home base, a center from which a network of pathways radiates out into the forest. These arteries are meticulously maintained foraging routes laboriously etched through stories of leaf litter, a process not unlike Bradford’s method of incising into layers of paper. The colony follows these pheromone maps to important trees, essentially creating a history of the colony’s existence.
Leafcutter ants are in a symbiotic relationship with the fungus they farm. Each is entirely dependent on the other. The abstract cellular pattern of healthy fungi would rank high in visual importance to the ants. The walls of their underground chambers are covered with layers of fungi that look remarkably similar to the molecular imagery in Bradford’s paintings.
After inventing agriculture over 50 million years ago, might leafcutter ants take the next step and develop culture?
What a winter – four weeks photographing leafcutter ants in Costa Rica and the next five at Rauschenberg’s studio in Captiva, FL. Both my husband and I were awarded Rauschenberg Residencies. It was a winter of snow and ice in New York and we missed it! Rauschenberg’s legendary print studio is in Capitva and I thought why not take advantage of this unique opportunity and learn how to screen print.
I’ve long been intrigued that the underground labyrinth of tunnels and chambers in a leafcutter ant colony mirrors the above ground tangle of branches and limbs of a tree stripped bare by the ants. I decided to do a series based on this curious parallel.
For ten years I’ve been taking photographs of trees. The pictures have no human perspective, no horizontal or vertical orientation and look like they are shot from the inside peering out, as if from the point-of-view of an arboreal animal. After several attempts, including translating them into paint, I had not figured out a way to work with them. I brought my vast archive of what I call “Lost in a Tree” photographs to Captiva to use as the basis for the aboveground, stripped-tree images.
To make a screen I learned it is necessary to first create a halftone of the image. With my inexact Photoshop skills when I pushed my photograph into black and white, plus isolating a portion to make a screen for one color, I inadvertently complicated things and created more color and detail, not less. The more I experimented the more my images became unsuitable for screen-printing. Flattening the richness I had created to make halftones just wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. But, had I not tried to manipulate them in the first place, I doubt I would have found such a wonderful new way to, essentially, climb and play in the trees again.
I worked in Rauschenberg’s main studio. His presence was everywhere – drips of paint on the floor, his materials neatly stacked in the corner. Pictures of his life – from young child to old man – shuffled as screensavers on the media room monitors. That’s where I spend most of my time. At night, alone in the room, it could be eerie, just me, and him on every screen. But, hardly a picture went by that didn’t radiate with his generous smile. When things were going really well, I’d hear myself say, thank you Bob!
The media room has the same Epson equipment my printer in New York uses and Carrell Courtright, the studio tech, taught me how to use them. Now I’m hooked. I want one of these printers. Had it not been for five weeks of 24-hour access, I could not have done the testing necessary to create this new series. The images would probably still be sleeping in my hard drive.
In addition, I am thrilled to have printed brand new work from the Leafcutters project that I had just shot the previous month in Costa Rica. My retoucher in New York and I worked up the first massive file of “Adoration of the Golden Ant” and I printed it at 40×80 inches. I also printed three new photographs of ants presenting their prized leaf cuttings on a white gallery wall.
Thank you Rauschenberg Foundation.
I’m back again on my favorite spot on the Osa Peninsula to photograph leaf cutter ants for my sprawling, multimedia project. I have four short weeks to work with the ants and try to make some magic.
Day one: survey the territory. Who’s still here? What colonies have gained or lost since my visit last year? Who’s new on the block?
After years of relative stability, I arrived in the winter of 2014 to discover a crash of the familiar colonies. Big, medium, small – they were gone. Had they died, moved, starved, or lost a war? It’s hard to know since I missed coming in 2013. The Vampire colony – massive, war-like and nocturnal – was fully mature in 2008 and probably died of old age. They were the center of all wars, one by one they picked-off their neighbors. It was hard to watch, but thank you for the images.
The others? What happened between 2012 and 2014? I speculate it was drought. Now that I’m here this year with normal rainfall I see the difference in the vegetation. The plant, called perennial peanut (Arachis glabrata) covers a large field at the center of the property where the solar panels are located and this year it is green and full of tiny yellow flowers. It’s the ant’s equivalent of a salad bowl and sustains far more colonies than would otherwise be possible, especially deep in the forest. In 2012 this plant was sunburnt and brown.
I try to play Sherlock and piece together what happens in my absence. The colony I photographed last year for the Scrolls (the only one large enough to work with that year) is still here. It has thrived and continues to harvest from the same set of trees as before. In my final post of 2014, I mentioned how odd it was the ants took a long, circuitous route to reach these trees. This year they are marching on a new direct super-highway, bypassing my old set in the bamboo. The colony still comes out precisely at 6:00 when darkness falls like a hatchet. And they continue to be light adverse, comically running away from my small headlight and hiding on the side of their highway.
It’s good news this colony is still here. At least I have one I can use. I prefer, though, to find a line of ants working the day shift. Night is tough and scary. It’s when the all-too-abundant and all-too-venomous Fer-de-Lance comes out to hunt.
Of the colonies I have seen come and go over the years in this kingdom of ants, all have been Atta cephalotes, except one, which was Atta colombica. A.cephalotes is the most widely distributed leafcutter ant species and A. colombica is more rare. They look similar. It’s hard to tell the difference with the naked eye. But, through the macro lens of my camera and especially once the image is enlarged and printed I see a marked difference.
A.colombica is darker, more magenta in hue. Its exoskeleton is mat, faintly textured and absorbs light. On average, the ants are smaller. None of these characteristics are preferable. In contrast, A.cephalotes is a luminous, golden brown with a shiny surface that glows under the lights. The ants are also slightly larger, and in this macro world, even a small size increase helps me focus the camera.
In the field, the most obvious point of distinction is how they handle their garbage. A.colombica tosses their trash outside. They make massive refuse dumps, sometimes dramatically so, dropping remains of spent fungus and biological waste from a high point. The garbage tumbles down like a waterfall. Overtime these piles grow and accumulate like sand dunes on the jungle floor. In contrast, A.cephalotes is tidy and buries its waste.
2010 was the only year I worked with A.colombica. A large colony that lived across the creek and up a steep hill sent a long line of ants my way to harvest from the perennial peanut in the open field. It took me an afternoon of climbing through tough terrain in snake boots to locate their distant home. The field must be an extraordinary draw for these ants to risk drowning and cross the creek. One day after a rainstorm I found hundreds of thousands of them stranded on a log floating in the creek.
A.colombica features only in two works – the second half of “The Chosen” video and in the “Offering” photographs. By 2011, this colony was gone, but its conical mounds still remain as evidence of a past civilization.
Day two: I surveyed the rest of the area and found many new colonies. But to my amazement they are all A.colombica, twelve of them. Incredible. Judging by their small refuse piles, they are relatively young.
It’s also the first time I’ve seen a colony dig their underground home in the open field. Previously, the ants that harvest there live on the perimeter, anchoring their homes near a tree, rock or bush. A.colombica moved right in, digging exit holes open to the elements.
The other weird thing I noticed, when I follow the various lines of ants – I do this to locate who they are, map where they live, identify their foraging routes – many of the pathways are confused. It looks like a freeway interchange instead of discrete highways. Lines from seemingly different colonies are passing uncharacteristically close to one another. If the ants are unrelated, I would see evidence of wars, but I do not. Some ants carrying foliage are even traveling in opposite directions on the same line, lines headed towards home bases too far away to be the same colony. Do underground tunnels connect these distant holes? But, the colonies have too few members to command such a large footprint.
It frankly looks like the new A.colombica colonies are related. They seem oddly tolerant of each other’s presence. Maybe the new queens are sisters originating from the same colony. Or the males they mated with are brothers. Has A.colombica evolved the ability to permit multiple queens like the Argentine ants? It is a strategy that has made them an extremely successful, invasive species.
Stay tuned for next year’s update of the Atta Chronicles.
I set up shop with the one local colony that’s large enough to film. Much farther into the forest are two enormous colonies but they’re beyond reach of my 100 meter extension cord. Filming at night is hard enough, nevermind without power. So I’m working with what I have. This modest, mid-sized colony lives on a hillside and has two main highways. I chose the larger of the two. Selecting the only partially-level area available, one that’s nestled in a stand of bamboo, I raked it clean to facilitate spotting snakes and scorpions in the dark and dug a six-foot, rectangular trench big enough for me that runs parallel to the line of ants. I like to be low to position the camera at their level.
It’s curious this colony’s main highway takes such a long, meandering route to reach the mango tree from which it’s harvesting. Emerging from their underground home, the ants cross into the bamboo, through scrub bush, out into a clover field, then back in the scrub and up the tree. It would be more efficient for them to simply walk down the hill. It’s a straight shot, relatively open and less than half the distance. Instead they make a grand, circular detour through the clover field. It would be like going from midtown to downtown by taking the Lincoln Tunnel, wandering around Jersey and returning in the Holland. At first I was hesitant to build my set on a line that made no sense. I thought one evening I would come to work and find no ants. Collectively they are smart and surely soon they would figure out the shortest route to the tree and bypass my encampment.
The more I thought about it, though, I begin to see something else at work. Perhaps their highways are like any organic system, the structure of which gives clues to its evolutionary past. Life doesn’t make things from scratch. Evolution works with what it has at hand. This is the dry season and the clover is shriveled and brown, but earlier in the year, in the rainy season, this area would have been lush and green. The ants love this clover plant. When it’s healthy and flowering colonies from all around make super-highways to harvest from it. I’ve seen seven different colonies, who risk war by passing so close, target the same field. It’s like a giant salad bowl and they all dig in.
My guess is this colony created the route in the wet season specifically to harvest clover. But, once the season changed, the ground cover withered and tender mango leaves sprouted, the ants extended their existing highway to the tree. The shortest route to the mango tree from the clover field is the exact route they are taking.
I had looked at their highway as if it was designed for its current purpose. Making super-highways are an expensive investment of energy and once constructed colonies tend to use them for years. It reminds me of what Neil Shubin talked about in his fabulous book, Your Inner Fish, which unfortunately I don’t have with me to quote. He said our bodies have pathways linking vital organs that loop around and take odd, indirect routes. Just like the ant’s trail, they too were not specifically designed to make the connections they do now, but evolved over time from other things with different objectives.
In a few days we’re heading back down to Costa Rica. The process of gathering the equipment – cameras, lenses, lights, tripods, hard drives, monitors, cables, batteries, the list always seems endless – is an exercise in precision and anxiety. Forget one cable or adapter and the shoot is compromised. What a lot of stuff it takes to work with ants. We lay everything out on the studio floor, check each piece of gear, each connection, each light.
This year for the first time I’ll be concentrating on photography. What a relief the four videos are finally filmed – We Rule and The Chosen are finished; War and Antworks are in post. Although I’ve done some photography on each trip, I’ve never had time to focus on it. Shooting the videos, working with a cast of millions of ants to create a narrative, is like hovering around a black hole. They suck up every ounce of time and mental energy.
If all goes swimmingly well, if the ants are amenable, the weather cooperative, and my prized plant in good shape, then over the month I hope to do four different series of photographs.
One series is similar to the above image. Using the same colorful plant from the Antworks video, I plan to set-up a dense thicket and photograph as the ants strip the leaves to reveal an abstract tangle of branches. No up, no down – ants defy our tie to gravity – but a square photograph that captures the entangled dynamic of ant and plant.
But, instead of one frame, like this image, I plan to do a Gigapan. I’ll take several photos and stitch them together to make one large high-res image. That should be a challenge. Supposedly it’s not that complicated, but shooting a moving subject makes it a more difficult proposition. I’ll also attempt to focus stack a photograph – to take several frames of one image, each with a different focus, and combine them to create a seemingly three dimensional view. I’d love to get beyond the shallow depth of field inherent in macro photography. We’ll see.
My goal with these images, and with the project in general, is to find a balance between nature and culture and to create situations where the two commingle. If my input predominates the work seems heavy-handed, but too much nature and it becomes a documentary. It’s the search for the provocative points where the two overlap that excites me.
“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.