(Thermotaxis. Close up of hibernation habitat monitored with thermal. Camera National Art Gallery, 2017, Vilnius)
(0hm1gas biomimetic stridulation environment. European Biennial of Contemporary Art, Genk, 2012)
Words by Ana Sancho
Humans have always been fascinated with ants and their social behaviour. These creatures have commonly been the focus of science fiction movies and comics, striking at that great human fear – the possibility of being dominated. The level of social organization of these animals, each of them with specialized roles and surviving as a collective organism, makes them one of the most extraordinary and inspiring creatures.
This fascination with ants is what led Ecuadorian artist Kuai Shen to start performing experiments with ant colonies. He had his first encounter with army ants in the Ecuadorian rainforest; since then these insects have become his source of inspiration and the subject around which his work revolves.
One of his first studies, 0h!m1gas, already revealed the complexity behind Shen’s installations. For this project, an ant colony dictated the movement of a needle on a vinyl record, so that the insects become the creators of sounds, resembling the stridulatory vibrations that ants use as communication signals. This responsive environment explores the phenomena of self-organization in ant societies, and fantasises about the possibility of interaction between humans and ants.
Shen drills down a little deeper to examine the phenomena of parasitism, both from a biological and technological point of view, in the interdisciplinary project Viral Ecologies: technological hypnotism and the zombie ants. A parasitic fungus that settles in the brains of certain species – controlling their minds with a chemical cocktail in its survival interest – lays the ground for further exploration of the social similarities between ants and humans. Perhaps the two organisms have more in common in terms of decision-making, problem-solving, and behavioural manipulation than we think.
His last installation is based on the social thermoregulation of red wood ants in the Baltic forests. Thermotaxis is a reactive soundscape that celebrates the crucial role that these organisms play in the preservation of ecosystems; interacting with other species, hibernating and changing the properties of the soil.
All Shen’s work outlines the importance of social networking and its biological implications, using ants as superorganism models. After all, if ants are key to the understanding of social dominance, perhaps they can shed light on that defining trait of human nature.
(Stridulation Amplified Electron Microscope of Stridulatory Organ of Acromyrmex octospinosus, 2016)
(Zombie Ant. Yasuni_Rainforest, 2013)
You work involves complex living systems (ants) that you associate to certain human behaviours and human-generated concepts (from games to cybernetics). How and when did the fascination with them come about?
It all started in the year 2000 when I was doing volunteering work for an indigenous community, a Quechua native tribe in Cuyabeno, located in the northern region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, as part of my bachelor studies. I stayed in an encampment one hour away by foot from the tribe’s settlement. I felt so lucky to had that experience. Everyday I walked the path towards there, I was confronted by the magic of “pacha mama” and by the most fascinating insects you could imagine. I became very aware of ants, as never before, that’s where I learned about the swarm. I observed so many different ants sharing space, tolerating each other, battling for territory at the same time.
The most exciting were the army ants, Eciton burchellii. They create living bridges with their bodies to cross over water ponds, they interconnect themselves to build a living architecture as a temporary nest, known as bivouac, which is guarded by the fierce and relentless soldiers. Back then I imagine them as the first aliens colonizing Earth. When they marched, an uncanny silence reigned in the forest. Birds started flying, spiders crawled away, every creature from the soil even reptiles and small mammals would try to hide or escape the marching swarm. I fell in love with them. I started writing science fiction stories about ants and other insects.
Even though I had seen ants crawling everywhere in my parents house in the city where I grew up, I never really payed close attention to them until that time in the rain forest. Funny though, ants were always in the houses where I was living and I move a lot in Ecuador. I felt they were following me, I didn’t know back then but they were appearing before my eyes for a reason. And that reason was revealed years later when I started a project about ants and holography at the academy of media arts in Cologne entitled, 1.ant.ity. Throughout my postgraduate studies there I focused on interconnecting media theories with ant-inspired audiovisual experiments.
Your projects are considerably complex. 0h!m1gas, for example, is a sound-reactive installation which is inspired by the functional resemblance of the turntable, as an artifact for sound production in human culture, with ants stridulatory organ. In it you use turntables and video cameras interfaced with a computer vision program. What were the biggest challenges you faced for its development?
There were two major challenges. Firstly, letting go of the idea of control. Secondly, trusting someone else to take care of your colony when you’re not around. Ants, particularly leaf-cutter ants are extremely malleable in terms of adapting to constrained spaces. Yet the colony perceived and cared for as a single living being keeps growing and growing as long as you provide them the right conditions and regular fresh leaves.
This means they always manage to find a way out from time to time, because the increasing number in ants tends to increase the need for spaces exponentially, which makes you reconsider keeping ants in captivity. Once you present ants within an artist context, then it becomes an issue to maintain and see the colony as a part of an artwork, because the unpredictability of ants running free in a gallery is quite problematic for curators and visitors as well.
As a biology student I was fascinated by ant how ant-infecting fungi where able to control the insect’s behaviour for their own reproduction purposes. In your project ´viral ecologies: technologic hypnotism and the zombie ants´. Could you tell us a bit about the intellectual process behind?
The idea originated as part of a project I created called, Ecologias Virales, for my residency at Universidad Nacional in Bogotá in 2014. I was reading at the time Tony D. Sampson’s book, Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks, which inspired me to start a new interdisciplinary experiment, including do-it-together workshops, on the transmission of viruses and the social contagion which affect both ants and humans. More importantly, his book introduced me for the first time to the writings of Gabriel Tarde, a fascinating French sociologist who described the importance of imitation in society. Maybe the following quote enlightens a bit the inspiration I drew from the book: »The inseparability of the ever-circulating repetitions of mechanical desires and the often illusory sense that our choices and decisions belong to us, as Tarde had already contended, make the social a hypnotic state: »a dream of command and a dream of action« in which the somnambulist is »possessed by the illusion that their ideas, all of which have been suggested to them, are spontaneous«.
Additionally, I always wanted to do something with the zombie ants; basically zombie ants are created by a parasitic fungus, Cordyceps unilateralis, which infects several tropical ants in South-American forests, including genera as Camponotus, Paraponera and Azteca. This is still an ongoing project and research by the way, which I’m developing with the aim to materialize as a multi-disciplinary project, i.e., installation/publication/workshop/performance. You can take a peek here (this took place as part of a series of online artistic residencies led by Tom Milnes.
What are the main observations regarding human behavior you’ve obtained by working with ants and reflecting on their interaction and mimicry with human culture?
It suits well to extend on my previous answer in order to answer this question. There’s a thing called the superorganism, which I like to relate to my work. In terms of myrmecology, the pioneer of this theory was William Morton Wheeler back in 1910 with his book, Ants: Their Structure, Development and Behavior. Now, I like chaos and the generation of apparent order from it as perceived and described by humans. When you see ants swarming out of their nest or Sufi rituals like this one, what exactly do you see?
That is where the first, second and third wave of cybernetics come into play. We cannot help but to seek order in the phenomena we observe. The subject, the affects, self-organization, networks, automated algorithms, artificial or organic emergence, they are all interconnected, and yet they do not necessarily have to be. Isolation help us understand that which originally is indescribable, we abstract and reconstruct in favor of that which is familiar to us. To this extent we have seen ants as this magnificent example of social life, but they can be bewildering, unpredictable, strangers to the analogies and gestalt imposed by our brains; in other words, ants are nonhumans. Exploring and revealing this duality is part of my quest, audiovisual experiences which demonstrate relation and conflict. It shows how the human brain works, like an ant colony: so many possibilities. If you fast forward to the nineties, and connect all these with the superorganism in ants described by E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldöbler, then you can embrace social behaviour as repetitions that create innovation based on the social contagion, forces which perpetually act upon us along evolutionary encounters between species.
What directions do you see taking your work into?
I definitely see my artistic research with ants crossing into other disciplines like anthropology, politics and particular game theory. I would go so far to suggest ant mimicry could hold the key for the understanding of social mimicry in the broader sense, as a model for individual behavior and the personal decisions taken based on context-specific rules of conduct in conflict situations.
Moreover what I would really like to seek, is for my ant research to be acknowledged as a form of holistic social model, which can be applied to the the understanding of any form of social behavior on the planet. If you contemplate a time-lapse of life on Earth, from single organisms to complex ones, we all end up getting together at one point or another, affecting and influencing each other, either as communities, groups, temporal organizations or colonies. At the end it is all about being or becoming social.
What is your chief enemy of creativity?
You couldn’t live without…
Ants and coffee.