Art & Environmental Engagement

 
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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 an 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.

COURSE OBJECTIVES

1. Develop new skills of observation with the goal of seeing from a wider ecological point of view.

2. Develop the ability to use art as a tool to investigate the environment. 

3. Build familiarity with artists and artworks, from prehistory to now, that focus on the natural world. 

4. Develop the analytical and critical stills to look at the visual arts from an environmental perspective.

5. Become familiar with campus resources relating to art and the environment.

6. Create finished artworks and develop the ability to present and critically discuss the works.

What an adventure to create a curriculum from scratch and teach it at my alma mater.  Decades of experience as an artist working with plants, animals and ecological systems went into constructing the syllabus.  That I was able to engage and challenge a diverse and intelligent group of students for ten weeks was an achievement.  Here are a couple comments from the students' evaluation form:

"Such a great opportunity to look at art and the world around us from a new perspective.  Extremely interesting guest speakers, field trips, and Catherine is amazing!"

"This was my favorite class this year."

Marden vs Bradford

 
 Left image: Brice Marden.  Right image: Mark Bradford

Left image: Brice Marden.  Right image: Mark Bradford

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?

Rauschenberg Residency

 
 My studio in the main building.

My studio in the main building.

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 one of my photographs 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, and as yet unnamed, tree 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 40x80 inches.  I also printed three new photographs of ants holding up their prized leaf cuttings on a white gallery wall. 

Again, thank you Bob.

The new neighbors are a different species

 
  Atta cephalotes

Atta cephalotes

  Atta colombica

Atta colombica

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 it 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 the 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 leaf cutter 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 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 crowded 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 from 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, 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 lines are confused.  It looks like a freeway interchange instead of discrete highways.  Lines from seemingly different colonies pass 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 seemed 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’s a strategy that has made them an extremely successful, invasive species.

Stay tuned for next year’s update of the Atta Chronicles. 

Working with what you have

 
 Map of the ant colony's route and my set.

Map of the ant colony's route and my set.

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, never mind 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.

More monkeys than ants

 
 Capuchins

Capuchins

What a mystery.  Where did all my leafcutter ant colonies go?  Of the twelve I've been tracking and filming every year since 2009 only one is left.  This magical spot on the Osa Peninsula was a kingdom (I mean a queendom) of ants, an Atta version of the Roman Empire.  The abundance of mature mango trees and a lip-smacking (mandible-munching), luscious clover ground cover had provided sustenance for a higher density of leafcutter ant colonies than I'd seen anywhere else.  The plants are still here.  The big ant colonies are not.  What changed?  It's usual for colonies to come and go.  Most don't make it to the ripe old age of thirteen, the top lifespan of the queen and hence the colony.  But, to survey colony after colony, of a variety of ages and sizes, and to discover them gone... that is unprecedented and unfortunate.

After a few more days of more detailed surveying I discovered several colonies so small they're difficult to spot.  With only a few hundred ants and one tiny exit hole each, my guess is they're all the same age.  Nuptial flights of fertile, winged males and females are coordinated and occur occasionally throughout the year. These colonies look to be from that same predawn ant orgy.  The collapse of the area's larger and medium sized colonies will probably give these young colonies a better chance to reach maturity.  But, that won't help me now.  They have too few members to film.

One previously small colony, though, has grown significantly since my last trip and has inherited this exquisite patch of earth.  The colony comes out at night (a bummer for me) and has a mere two-lane highway system, but at least the roadways are crowded with traffic.  One line goes to a tree about ten yards away and the other to one about 100 yards in the opposite direction.  It's an odd selection with so many choices recently made available.  The logistics of filming at night is trying, to put it mildly, and it's when terciopelos, the deadly and plentiful pit vipers, deem it cool enough to come out and hunt.  I guess I'll have to work in snake boots.

Tomorrow I'll start to build my set for the first image and see what this surviving colony can do.  It's an ant test drive.  I saw these Capuchins looking at me while I was looking for ants.

Expedition 2014

 
 Antworks in progress

Antworks in progress

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 debut

"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 words to share content, collaborate and build complexity.  And they do it on the run.  They are nature's ultimate mobile communication devices. 

One winter a large colony harvested from a brightly colored plant with stripes and spots.  The pieces of leaves the ants cut looked like art, like tiny Abstract Expressionists paintings.  It was art on parade across the forest floor.  Who is to say the ants are indifferent to the aesthetics of the leaves they carefully select, cut and carry home?  The NY Media Center aims to bring together "storytellers from multiple disciplines."  I think this fits perfectly with their mission. 

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Solitary

"SHOULD YOU EVER HAPPEN TO FIND YOURSELF IN SOLITARY"

A Wonder Cabinet organized by Lawrence Weschler for The New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU on November 17, 2012.

I. DREAMS OF SOLITAIRE: Tony Kushner, Joshua Foer, Mike Daisey, Catherine Chalmers, Carl Skelton, Alastair Reid, Samantha Holmes, Walter Murch, Stuart Firestein, The Yes Men, Dan Tague

II. FOUR WHO HAVE SPENT TIME: Breyten Breytenback, Robert Hillary King, Tim Blunk, Shane Bauer

III. THE SCANDAL OF SOLITARY IN THE US TODAY: Lisa Guenther, Juan Mendez, Scarlet S. Kim

Below is the presentation I gave (but without most of the audio and visual content).  A video of the event is at nyihumanities.org.

 Male housefly

Male housefly

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?

FLY

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.

 Sex

Sex

SPIDER

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.

 Big orange spider

Big orange spider

ANTS

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.

 Ant communication

Ant communication

 Ant war

Ant war

COCKROACH

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.

 American cockroach

American cockroach

CONCLUSION

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.

Leafcutter's debut

 
 Gallery DeNovo, Sun Valley, ID

Gallery DeNovo, Sun Valley, ID

 E.O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson

 Installation

Installation

 Offerings, Pigment prints, 30"x45" each

Offerings, Pigment prints, 30"x45" each

 The Chosen, video

The Chosen, video

 Antworks

Antworks

 Pictures at an Exhibition, Pigment print, 24"x92"

Pictures at an Exhibition, Pigment print, 24"x92"

 WE RULE, pencil on paper, 11"x14" each

WE RULE, pencil on paper, 11"x14" each

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.

Talk talk

 
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“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.

Caprice

 
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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.

Artists in Residence

 
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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.

The Original Social Network

 
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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.

Antworks

 
 Antworks, video still

Antworks, video still

 Antworks, set

Antworks, set

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.

Osa Conservation

 
 Adrian Forsyth, Osa Conservation

Adrian Forsyth, Osa Conservation

 Charlie and Adrian

Charlie and Adrian

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.

War

 
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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.

Bagel Sunday

 
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Enough of being beaten up the ants.  I took the day off - went for an early morning hike up a thousand vertical feet 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.  Charlie saw it, yelled snake.  We both jumped.  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.

Dead any colony

 
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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.

Flying to the Osa Peninsula

 
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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.