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.
“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.