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.
Visit our other residency group's blogs HERE
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.