I have been invited to participate in a group exhibition at the Schering Foundation in Berlin that will take place during Transmediale. I have been asked to incorporate systematized live insects into an installation that can potentially (strategically) leave their containment and enter another artists’s piece to interact with their work/potentially eat plastic.
I now have a new challenge of figuring out how to gather insects in Germany, a task which I am incredibly thankful to have Cara’s input towards.
As we continue to discuss what our physical collaborative piece will look like together I found myself looking through different types of insects that can be purchased online.
An important part of my practices and pieces that involve living insects is the availability of ordering many types of life through the internet and having it delivered to your door. The accessibility and permeability of the internet world allows for these types of processes to become arguably commonplace.
I have also been looking into insects that consume plastic this week and reading through the following and speculating whether or not one might be able to apply these insects to PLA (“a biodegradable and bioactive thermoplastic aliphatic polyester derived from renewable resources, such as corn starch (in the United States and Canada)- wikipedia”. PLA is a common plastic used in the desktop 3D printing process:
What a crazy (completely overcommitted) week indeed!! (Capped off with an all-nighter of my little guy having the throw-ups last night - every half hour like clockwork.)
I’ve been thinking about Brittany’s model tipped on its side and elongated with an entire image on one surface.
I am drawn to how light and shadow create various layers of appreciating the same fundamental information, but distorted somewhat, giving a nod to how our perceptions come through the filters of our past experiences.
See the address numbering ‘3929’ on the outside glass? Although fine for the intended viewer, it appears backwards from our vantage point. Inside, where we stand, its completely legible at three different scales in the shadows on the wall.
I’ve been thinking about what we will produce and how it could be presented and consumed and why we should select any of the various methods. The idea of the final structure helping to slow the viewer’s consumption is appealing, somehow giving the viewer more time for an uncomfortable message -- as anything with insects is wont to be. But what should our message be? Do we select something generally difficult for most people? (Decomposition.) Or something easier, exploiting current popular momentum? (Pollination.) I’m hoping Brittany has a strong preference because I could make a case for anything.
Although insects can pester us daily, biting us, our pets, and livestock and transmitting disease; and they can be devastating agricultural or structural pests, on balance they are fundamental for so many services: Pollination (1 in 3 bites of your food is brought to you by pollinators), natural pest controllers, as food for other animals (e.g. many fish, small mammals, and birds rely on them), and as decomposers (note that this is the same as being horrible structural pests in cases, just in different contexts – cellulose in nature vs. your home).
Here is a lovely short (1’35”) video from the Royal Entomological Society about why insects are important. ‘Poo’ definitely sounds more authoritative with a British accent - check it out:
This week Cara and I had a long call discussing possible ideas for what a physical collaborative piece might look like. She discussed with me a recurring vision that she has had for our potential piece. I wrote down a few of the key words / phrases:
Cara structure description key words:
I thought it would be interesting to try and translate this via drawing or model with the limited characteristics described. As an artist, I draw in a sketchbook very quickly (and poorly) and generally utilize 3D modeling as a means to realize what larger projects will ultimately look like. Below is a model (I had no idea how to render the top so I did not attempt that yet). I started with rendering out this “labyrinth type area” might look like by sketching it on the computer, extruding, and rendering it from there.
As Cara was describing her structure I began thinking of what materials are considered “scientific-like” to humans. They are generally plastics, clear, tubing, metal, things that are impenetrable, “leak” proof, escape proof, rectilinear. I began thinking about a small aluminum cast of an Ant colony structure that I have in my house which couldn't be more dissimilar from the way I have constructed habitats for insects in the past and how scientists build structures to look at insect habits. I wonder why we as humans have the urge to construct viewing containers that replicate structures that we inhabit? I wonder about the possibility of creating things that allow insects to inhabit in a way, a space that can be a mirror of both worlds. I described a piece to Cara that I have had in mind for a number of years where cities are constructed out of various materials (for example CNC wood block and termites) and insects will eat against their structure forming their own societal system in contrast with a human conceived design. We discussed drawing each others ideas for this week to see what happens when a verbal descriptions span the online and must be translated in some way.
Ant Colony cast example (not the one from my house):
Other notes / Ideas from our conversation:
- In terms of construction our conversation brought me back to thinking about artist Hubert Duprat, who collaborated with cadisflys by giving them human valued materials (gold, pearls, gem stones) to construct their cocoons
- Large excavation of ant colony filled with concrete
- Life inside a colony, my favorite!:
This week we talked about artistic visions that have followed us around for various lengths of time – that same way that some dreams seem to bubble up unwaveringly during waking hours. I decided to sketch Brittany’s World. I loved the idea of her milled wooden city being consumed by termites within a friendly snow globe setting.
We talked about how to make our final piece more palatable to a wider audience. I thought of how it might change the outcome if we pre-fabricated sound bytes, and created sketches for fun merchandise to be sold at Big Box stores. People buy this kind of thing after all:
These items are scorpion- or spider-shaped, but actual scorpions and spiders have exoskeletons; not skulls nor ribs.
Here is a time lapse of a spider shedding its exoskeleton:
A very different kind of renewal, eh?
Happy Diwali / Hallowe’en / All Saints & All Souls’ Days everyone!
This week Cara gave me a virtual tour of the University of Arizona Insect Collection. The walk throughs of each others spaces have been incredibly useful to not only understand how we each operate separately at two institutions but also to navigate the possibilities of what could come of our collaboration through support of our research spaces. I have visited a few insect collections, but admittedly, not as many as I would like. I used to spend a great deal of time at The Ohio State University Entomology lab (http://entomology.osu.edu) as a curious undergraduate observer and borrower of cockroaches for various installations. I have visited the Insectarium in New Orleans (http://audubonnatureinstitute.org/insectarium) which is a public and hands on space where you can get up front with several different types of insects. I began thinking about how differently each of these spaces is structured, organized, and offers different levels of interactions to visitors.
One thing that struck me initially about the University of Arizona Insect collection were the large blue stacks of movable collection cabinets organized like a library. I was struck by how active this seemingly quiet space was. Students were capturing microscopic images of insects in a small lab while others were working in their offices. There seemed to be a lot of energy there. Cara showed me a few collections of pinned insect. She showed me everything from what she referred to as the “oh wow collection” which included several large insects, insect architects like the potter wasp, and an incredibly small parasitic wasp that was nearly indistinguishable through the various lenses we were communicating through. Cara even tried to line up the laptop camera with a microscopic viewer for me to try and see this tiny specimen.
Next week, my students will be working through an exercise of designing a microscope attachment for their cell phones to be used for a future course exercise of capturing details of different natural surfaces. I couldn't help but laugh at all of the lenses we were were attempting to permeate to share these experiences with one another virtually- the lap top camera, the microscopes, etc. but I also thought about how much more our now ubiquitous cyborg tools (tablets, smart phones, laptops) could be used for if we sought out using them as observation tools beyond snapchat/texts/facebook. I was able to virtually visit a very substantial collection that I otherwise would not have been able to see, I am able to use these devices as a microscope, a tool for collection, and close(r) observations.
Cara and I have discussed how to slow down viewing experiences. The speed of consumption through digital platforms has arguably shortened the amount of time we spend viewing things that exist off screen. I feel like we have reached a point where are have both arrived at possibly designing something physical for our collaborative project- something that utilizes the organizational, architectural, and/or pheromonal structures of an (undetermined) insect species. We talked about illusionary installations, platforms that shift perspective as you move through space- I am looking forward to talking about this idea further next week.
For now I am left with thinking about a a few different artists -Peggy McNamara, who has been an artist in residence at the Field Museum in Chicago and has illustrated a number of their collections (http://www.peggymacnamara.com and http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/A/bo5757684.html).
Ken Rinaldo’s buzz: http://www.kenrinaldo.com/portfolio/buzz-video-installation/
And Amy Young’s Museum for Insects, a small scale exhibition space designed for a cricket with 3D printed and hand constructed components that had a live view of the cricket during the installation period:http://hypernatural.com/portfolio/museum-for-insects/. Amy is an artist who I admire for her work that shifts the viewing perspective / experiences / exchanges between humans and insects.
Until next week…
I (virtually) walked Brittany through the University of Arizona Insect Collection [http://www.uainsectcollection.com] this week. This is a core facility for the University and is integral for insect-based research and insect diagnostics for the state of Arizona. It is the most comprehensive collection of Sonoran Desert arthropods in the world with approximately 2M specimens housed within airtight cabinets.
I forgot to enlarge my screen during the call, but being in a tiny box in the corner trying to reach a much larger audience about this (mostly) miniature world seems completely appropriate! When I sped the final video up 20x (so that our half hour chat is manageable) our voices are sound like the quick chirps of insects hatching a complicated plan.
“Now it seems the possibilities are truly endless - we can make anything and insects can do everything!” Brittany said.
We talked again about ways of slowing down the consumption of our finished piece. I was reminded of the topology of this sculpture where a 90 degree shift offers a radically different viewpoint.
As Cara and I have been working together on brainstorming ways that we will collaborate on a project we thought it was important to get a sense of each others work/studio spaces. We arranged to do virtual tours of each others spaces and it was my turn to give the tour first this week. I work at California State University Long Beach. While I spent much of my time instructing students in Digital Fabrication Methods (3D printing, Laser cutting, and CNC machining) as well as Kinetics (circuitry and responsive micro controller coding), I also use these facilities for my own work. My office has an attached on-campus studio where I house all of my personal equipment and mini-workshop space. I often joke with students that I should keep a pair of sweatpants in my office for sleeping because this small space has become my second home. I gave Cara a tour through Google Chat while simultaneously carrying my laptop around trying to screen capture our conversation through quicktime (surely there is an easier way to do this that we didn't have time to figure out on our call). Needless to say while the video recorded the audio did not. The somewhat clumsy video is below.
Cara asked me if it is daunting to have tools that can help facilitate the creation of an infinite number of possible projects. I have lingered on this in the past few days since our conversation, and while it is sometimes daunting, it is mostly an exciting challenge.
I toured Brittany’s workspace this week (virtually) and it was dazzling - mills, lathes, drill presses, a circuit board printer, several 3D printers, the aforementioned sewing machine with conductive thread...
“We can make basically anything,” she said.
During the tour she showed me projects in progress and occasionally students wandered by and looked on with curiosity as Brittany explained the tools in her shop to her laptop (me). I waved at them when they peered in at me, her minecraftesque collaborator from 500 miles away.
I asked Brittany what she most wanted to communicate with her art.
“What does it mean that these things [gesturing to her lineup of 3D printers that she thinks will be ubiquitous in the coming years] exist now? And how does this reshape the spaces that we share [with other life on our planet]?”
I wondered whether we could create scaffolds for more positive interactions - using our knowledge of cockroaches’ preference to be in tight spaces to inexpensively print exit tubes out of our homes, for example. Tapping into ways of interacting with these species that are so distinct from us with Brittany’s specialized skills and my knowledge of their biology would make this collaboration really rewarding.
I looked into various insects we could readily order to inhabit a created space. (I would love it if they could be useful after the piece had been displayed, e.g. mason bees).
Over the week I saw a few adverts for expensive jewelry listing the wrong insects as parts of the pieces:
Its extremely common for insect IDs to be incorrect, but it just seemed particularly surprising that for nearly $4,000 USD no one might be interested in the verity of their insect corpse bauble. (Metallic Wood-boring beetle, at left, is the actual beetle “shell” used in the bracelet. Scarabs have much broader bodies, at right.):
I was reminded of Christopher Marley’s exquisite works where the beauty of certain showy insects can be quickly consumed, but with little information about which insects they are or what they do on our planet. (Note that the big, blue-winged damselfly at right is missing its head!):
Why do so many people want to memorize the order of out-of-reach distant planets, but the orders of insects here on Earth are considered arcane? We are reliant on insects for pollination, decomposition, and as natural controllers of pests, however, their widespread, silent labors garner scant little of our appreciation.
This week Cara and I spent a great deal of our time discussing our interests in insects, why we find insect structures fascinating and how we each access these small communities through our different research and creative practices. I spent some time familiarizing myself in Cara’s work with the Arizona Insect Festival (http://www.arizonainsectfestival.com).
Over the past week I have thought a lot about the distance between ourselves and the insect world. Physically our bodies are very dissimilar in scale, shape, number of appendages, our exoskeletons reversed; though we inhabit the same places, we access them at different levels. Humans above the surface and insects in the sky via flying, underground in tunnels, or between the cracks where we physically cannot go.
As I was reading through the descriptions for some of the activities for the Arizona Insect Festival I thought that while Cara and I both approach our engagement with insects differently, we are both trying to engage humans with insects through tactility. As I am writing this, my dog is sitting in my lap. As a dog she is familiar; she is a furry mammal, similar in size, and she has eyes that I can look into and connect with via gaze. Insects do not necessarily have these advantages. Their bodies seem alien to our own, their physical scale is shifted, they often exist in micro-worlds around us. Their eyes (sometimes two, sometimes many) are unable to connect with ours in the same way. Cara and I discussed the notions of beauty in insects. We can all agree that butterflies are lovely creatures. They are shimmery, colorful, and seem effortless in the way that they glide through the environment. They have arguably cute curly “tongues” (proboscis) that seem like something designed for eating candy with Willy Wonka and move slow enough for our eyes to track. They are accessible because they have qualities that we as humans can connect with. An american cockroach, while an important to the deconstruction of organic matter, we feel much less empathy and connectedness. I keep returning to this phrase that I scribbled in my notes:
“Pollinators v. Pests and Beauty v. Function”
In the last couple of years the importance of pollinators has been in national news headlines (as it should be). It is easy to identify with insects doing work that are “pretty” and insects that have been fictionalized in children’s books. The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Magic School Bus Inside a Beehive prepare humans early as to discern the cute and useful insects from those thought of as less desirable.
I discussed a few artists with Cara who are working with insects that I found to be inspiring in terms of giving those “less desirable” insects differing types of agency. David Bowen is someone who I very much admire for his work with the common housefly and presenting them in a way that allows them to do human-based activities like tweeting and firing a gun. See projects below:
Or another example is Ren Ri, who builds collaborative spaces for bees to construct beehives in different forms (though bees are not considered “less desirable”):
Much like these artists, I too work on ways to communicate through visibility and tactility of what an insect system has the potential to do in a very humanized world. But more importantly I think about how our own bodies, social structures, and systems really aren’t all that different from many of the pest based systems that humans have extreme aversion to. Arguably as humans, we are the largest pests of all.
One thing that Cara and I talked about was the notion of fictionalized boundaries and boxes. We started somehow in this discussion through the physical layout of facebook, its boundaries and boxes for which information is stored and squared off and how these boundaries are fictional. One could argue that the boundaries that we draw in our minds between insects that are beautiful v. grotesque are also fictional and fueled by our lack of tangibility and exchange. One thing that I hope to explore further through this collaboration are ways to break down these fictionalized boundaries of the hierarchy of insect important-ness and beauty. A beautiful, functioning, and necessary system could be (and are) made up of the most “grotesque” (looking) creatures.
I’m really thrilled to be working with Brittany! We both have interests in insects that run along similar lines; a love for the effectiveness of the largely-ignored critical yet undesirable ones. I’m hoping that our collaboration will produce some capacity for others to see the functional beauty that we find in them. We agreed that we’d like something that occupies physical space at the end of our collaboration.
Brittany shared her ‘The Sixth Element - DIY Cyborgs and the Hive Mind of Social Media’ essay from The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture. After reading it, I had some unusual interactions with insects. I had so wished that Brittany could have witnessed the whole thing too, so I made this kind of collage out of her essay, my responses in the margins, and some photographs as an attempt to try to share the whole thing. (Worthy of note is the my son prefers electricity to bugs by a long shot generally, but for whatever reason he was interested in “bug hunting” that day.)
In our last hangout, Brittany said, “I have a lot of gadgets… a mill, a sewing machine that stitches conductive thread… just a lot of stuff that I want you to see.” So I’m really looking forward to virtually touring her workspace and trying to share my love of mine so that we can think broadly about our possibilities. Stay tuned as we hope to try to record the experiences and share them here also.
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Brittany Ransom is an award-winning artist, technologist, and assistant professor of Sculpture and New Genres at California State University, Long Beach.
Cara Gibson is a graphic designer, director of Science Communications, and Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson.