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.