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.
Enough of being beaten up the ants. I took the day off – went for an early morning hike up a thousand vertical to view the Pacific; brunch at Derek’s for homemade bagels, fresh yellow fin tuna and Becca’s incredible Sweet Jesus mango hot sauce; lounged by the pool. Forget the ants.
Well… later things turned violent. Charlie and I ran into a Fer de Lance hidden in the leaf litter immediately by the trail we were on. It was coiled up like a small donut, almost impossible to see, ready to strike. Hero hubby saved the day. He saw it. I didn’t. It was a juvenile, the worst kind, they deliver the most venom.
After that I stayed up for hours filming an ant war. What a day.
This is my weeping blog entry. I knew there would be at least one. But, just when I thought I had it made, that shooting an ending for my “Antworks” video was easily within reach, the ants have presented an array of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Yesterday I roamed the area to check on the colonies I’ve been keeping track of for the past four years. Of the six original large colonies, only two are left. This is a big bummer – for them, for me, for my project. The colony I worked with last year is one of the causalities. It’s terrible when your actors die mid-movie.
I also wandered a good distance to collect the plant that forms the heart of the “Antworks” video. It’s been a dry summer and many of these plants are sadly drooping, but there are enough in good shape to shoot my ending. (You can see the time-laspe scene on my website.)
But, no, not another reason to cry? This plant that last year the ants couldn’t get enough of, that drew in millions of them within an hour of placing it near their trail, so many ants I could hear them cutting with my naked ear, this year none of the remaining colonies will touch it. It’s too strange. Where is E.O. Wilson when you need him!
I have no idea what I’m going to do.
Somehow all this gear fit into the plane, with a bit of room left for us.
Canon 5D Mark II, Marshall monitor, Sony HD lipstick camera, 2 Zylights, 2 Kino Divas, 2 Canon 580 flashes, macro twin lights, batteries, chargers, enough cables to circle the globe, 8 tripods, 5 hard drives, sound recording equipment, reflectors, set building materials, laptops, second monitors… On and on. 300 lbs. And the videos are only 6 minutes. Hum… I did have room to bring a bathing suit. Maybe I’ll even have time to use it.
Day 1 – preliminary assessment: the colony I filmed last year, which was under siege from its nearest neighbor, has been wiped out. So, so sad. I’ll have to finish the Antworks video using another colony. And now that the war is over I wonder if I’ll be able to find another one for my War video. I’m just about to head out to take a closer look at the five mature colonies I’ve been keeping track of for the past four years.
One of my New Year’s resolutions is to start a blog. Let’s hope this idea isn’t totally misguided. I’ve been keeping an iDribble file for years where I explore and develop ideas (sometimes rant and rave) but mostly I use it to figure out what I’m doing in my creative practice. Several people have encouraged me to post these musings, which is awfully flattering of them, so I’ve decided to give it a go.
I thought I would start now, get used to the process of blogging on a regular basis before I return to Costa Rica in February to finish the leafcutter ant videos. Working in the jungle, lying flat on the forest floor for six weeks is always good for some entertaining posts, usually at my expense. Last year I shared a few pictures and thoughts from the shoot on Facebook and I loved the feedback. Thanks for the confidence to do more. Stay tuned.
Attached is a picture of where I will be working on the Osa Peninsula.