The Original Social Network
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. The multimedia Leafcutters project is a collaboration with millions of wild ants. Focused on four supposedly unique human traits—language, ritual, war, and art—the narrative aims to blur the boundaries between culture and nature.
Leafcutter ant colonies have eerie parallels to human society, and this is the conceptual basis of the project. To quote the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson, these ants are “the most complex social creatures other than humans.” Their colonies are underground metropolises with millions of members, and they are farmers that skillfully raise their own food. As the principal herbivore of the forest, leafcutter ants are a dominant species and, like us, influence the grand structure of all other biological systems in their habitat. They also wage brutal wars against intruders.
Since the ants harvest from a wide variety of plants, I was given much latitude in what I could offer them to form the narratives. I watch the ants and respond and experiment and adjust. This project has taken shape through this back and forth process.
Over time, I came to feel that the real reward for lying countless hours on the forest floor was observing the dynamics of ant society. One of the principal characteristics humans and ants share is their socialness, and at the heart of a social species is communication.
Ants invented an interactive, networked form of communication that rivals the Internet and predates it by hundreds of millions of years. Without central command—antennae touches are like text messages—millions of ants coordinate their behavior. The accumulation of their small gestures produces enormous complexity.
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.
A direct engagement with the natural world is central to my artistic practice. Science is an integral part of my work, both in terms of research—providing the ability to successfully engage with my subjects—as well as influencing the inception of the underlying concepts.
I use the narrative possibilities of the visual arts to bridge the increasing rift between humanity and the ecosystem. My aim is to bring the nonhuman back into the human world and to creatively reengage with the systems that support life on earth. Our culture is far richer with the inclusion of other life forms.
CATHERINE CHALMERS is an artist based in New York.
Catherine Chalmers: We RuleBy Tom McGlynn
DEC 22–JAN 23 | ArtSeen
Catherine Chalmerss compelling multimedia exhibition We Rule has been culled from a ten-year commitment to interacting with over a dozen leafcutter ant colonies located in the Osa peninsula of Costa Rica. It includes high-resolution videos, drawings related to Costa Rican rainforest flora, and an intricate wall installation depicting a to-scale leafcutter colony wending its purposeful way through the basement floor galleries of the Drawing Center.
Signals: How Video Transformed the WorldBy Barbara London
APRIL 2023 | ArtSeen
Today we live at a moment of accelerated technological transformation, as smart phones and social media have become the means of both rapid audiovisual production and global communication. This is a good moment to look back at the video with fresh eyes.
Muse-ecology: on birds and other tuning forksBy John Paul Ricco
DEC 21-JAN 22 | Critics Page
Perhaps we can locate in the ancient Stoic conception of listening as an experience or competence and something other than a technique, a distinction like the one drawn by Nietzsche when, for the purpose of sounding out idols, he recommended using a hammer as if it were a tuning fork. Although this analogy does not align with the essential passivity central to Stoic listening, nonetheless, it does seem that correspondences can be drawn between the Stoic foregrounding of silence, immobility, and attention, and the tuning of idols.
Fox Maxy’s Gush and MaatBy Edward Frumkin
APRIL 2023 | Film
This 71-minute, free-associative collage analyzes the effects of mental health, social media, and sharing oneself with the world. Its mind-boggling structure makes Gushs time-traveling spectacle mundane and, instead, opens up conversations about how we function and perceive information, leaving little room for blanket statements.