The multimedia “Leafcutters” project is an unusual collaboration with millions of wild ants.  Since 2008 I have been filming, photographing and following the fates of more than a dozen colonies of leafcutter ants on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.   

Leafcutter ant colonies have eerie parallels to human society and this is the conceptual basis and the inspiration for the work.  To quote from eminent biologist E.O. Wilson, these ants are “the most complex social creatures other than humans.”  They are the charismatic mini-fauna, the Einsteins of the insect world, and the masters of chemical communication.

The project focuses on four supposedly unique human traits – language, ritual, war and art – and the narrative themes aim to blur the boundaries between culture and nature.

Leafcutter ants inhabit the Neo-tropics.  They live in large underground metropolises, with up to eight million members, where temperature and humidity are precisely controlled.  The colonies are a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers that can occupy ten square meters and be four meters deep.

The ants cut vegetation from high in the forest canopy and carry the pieces in their mandibles across the forest floor to their subterranean home, traveling up to a hundred meters on distinct trails, meticulously cleaned by them.  From this plant material they cultivate a fungus, which is their main food source. They are farmers.

As the principal herbivore of the rainforest, leafcutter ants are a dominant species and, like us, influence the grand structure of all other biological systems in their habitat.

The ants harvest from a wide variety of plants and this allowed me latitude in what I could offer them to form the narratives of the videos.  I worked with their natural behavior.  I would watch the ants, respond, experiment and adjust.  Though this back and forth process the series took shape. 

At the heart of the "Leafcutters" project are four videos.  In “We Rule” the ants carry language that is in keeping with their dominant status in the forest. “The Chosen” is a ritualistic procession, like a Balinese festival or pagan rite, where the ants bring flowers to lay at the feet of their golden idol. In “War” two colonies of the same species are locked in a merciless battle. With “Antworks,” who is to say ants are indifferent to the aesthetics of the leaves they carefully select, cut and carry home?

As the project developed, I came to feel the real reward for lying countless hours on the forest floor was observing the ants’ social structure. They constantly converse with one another, using pheromones, sound and vibration.  They are nature’s ultimate mobile communication devices.  Without central command millions of ants coordinate their behavior to create and sustain massive societies. The accumulation of their small gestures produces enormous complexity.

There is a natural parallel between social media and the emergent behavior of social insects.  Ants are an interconnected system of individual elements that self-organize to form adaptive behavior.  They are driven by the patterns of interactions they experience through the colony’s communication network.  Ants solve problems by drawing on what is essentially user-generated data.

With the rise of social media over the last decade, I’ve seen our own patterns of communication become more participatory and efficient like theirs, which is not top down, but bottom up, and not command and control but connect and collaborate.  With ants, it’s always multiple decisions made by multiple minds; therein lies their power and perhaps ours as well.