Art, Science and the Bastardization of Nature

An installation view of "Artifix Mori" now on view at Eugene Lang College's Skybridge Art & Sound Space (all photos courtesy of Blue Barn Studios)

The Skybridge Art & Sound Space inside the Eugene Lang College currently has an installation on view until January 31,2012. Artifix Mori, by John Ensor Parker and Jason Krugman, who are both visiting artists in the visual arts program at Eugene Lang, is paradoxically whimsical and ominous in its collision of science, nature, art and technology. Experiencing it made me think of other art works that play with the line between these fields and attempt to animate nature using man-made technology.

Parker and Krugman activated natural silk cocoons of the Bombyx Mori, the silkworm of the mulberry tree and an economically important insect. This species of silkworm is used for commercial silk production and has been bred for at least 5,000 years. The cocoons are activated through motion sensors as you walk through the Skybridge Art & Sound Space. LED lights are inside them directly alongside the body of the dead worm and are suspended from actuators that convert electricity into movement and make a soft clicking noise.

Parker explains:

“The audio component was created by recording the sounds of the actuator, sped to the frequency of the Bombyx Mori as if it were allowed to escape the cocoon and fly. Then it was scaled from the life span of the moth to that of the human. The resulting sound is a low frequency only heard with a sub woofer system installed in the gallery. This sound is the basis for the accompanying score.”

Artifix Mori from John Ensor Parker on Vimeo.

The piece percolates. In the artists’ own words:

“In choosing the materials and subject-matter for this show, we sought to incorporate a modular design that is activated by the physical presence of the audience in attempt to imbue the work with an aspect of sentience and responsiveness.”

There is a poetry and an anthropomorphic nature to the piece similar to Arthur Ganson’s machines. It falls quiet when you stop moving with the exception of the sound emanating from the subwoofer, which one blogger described as simultaneously unpredictable and soothing. It is reminiscent of certain low rumblings in nature that can serve as warnings or are created as effects of storms. It made me think of reading about sounds known as “the voice of the sea.” These infrasonic sounds, called microbaroms, are oscillations in the atmosphere caused by standing waves. Parker and Krugman went on to say:

“We are growing increasingly adept at repurposing living organisms as tools for our own wants and needs, while also increasingly editing ourselves. The rich history of our co-opting this little worm, provides a great platform to explore these topics.”

French artist Hubert Duprat uses insects as a medium as well, although his are alive. He worked with a group of caddis fly larvae, small moth-like winged insects that live near streams and ponds. They have aquatic larvae that make cases to protect their developing bodies. The cases are spun from silk and other materials such as grains of sand or plant material, bits of bone and shell. Duprat collected the larvae from their normal environments, brought them to his studio, removed their own natural cases, and filled their aquariums with different materials from which they can begin to recreate their protective chambers. He inserted materials such as gold spangles and semi-precious and precious stones such as lapis lazuli, coral, pearls, turquoise, diamonds and opals. Duprat’s fancy insects also demonstrate his interest in productive interrelations between organic forms and technologized materials.

Artifix Mori‘s use of animating a lifeless creature brought to mind Bruce Cannon’s piece TreeTime, a computer-controlled robotic sculpture fabricated from parts of a downed tree. He discussed his thoughts as he created the piece:

This machine is I think equal parts meditation on slowness and bastardization of nature.  The obvious reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the lightning-struck tree, the garish reassembly, the electrification, the technological “improvement” upon the original organism, is intentional  TreeTime is a morality story about limits.

Artifix Mori also explores elements of bastardizing nature. The moths in the cocoons in Artifix Mori have not and will not hatch and have not been allowed to emerge, which is why it creates a pristine and whole cocoon with an undivided silk strand. The moth is the sacrifice and thus the piece edits nature for our own use. The silkworm also no longer exists in the wild, after centuries of inbreeding it is incapable of flight. It mates quickly and dies a day after laying eggs. (More on the entire silk process here)

Artifix Mori feels like some kind of mechanical sister to Bai Jiang Can, the herbal medicine made from white mummified silkworms used to extinguish wind and stop spasms and convulsions. Silkworms are not really performing a message with their cocoons, but the cocoons in this piece are performing a message that, like all work that affects me, I ingest.

A detail view of Artifix Mori

The relationship between art, science and technology is a prevalent theme in Parker and Krugman’s work and they have an extensive peer group and join a long history of artists. Leonardo, a journal of arts, sciences and technology has been in publication for a while, as well as emerging organizations such as The Clipperton Project that catalyze situations, ideas and materials (in this example, an isolated French atoll is the lab and the medium) to foster invention through the creative processes of art and science working together, both using the tools of our time. But also, many artists working with science and nature make a point to say they are not eco-warriors, they are just interested in invention and the end result.

David Rothenberg, author of books such as Why Birds Sing and Thousand Mile Song, recently published Survival of the Beautiful, an investigation of why nature is beautiful and how art has influenced science. Inspired by Darwin’s observations that animals have a natural aesthetic sense, the book probes into “the mysteries of why we create art, and why animals, humans included, have innate appreciation for beauty.” One of the scientists Rothenberg speaks of is Erich Jarvis, an unconventional neuroscientist who studied dance and choreography before focusing on science. One of Jarvis’s research projects revolved around the brain of a hummingbird. Even though that brain is very tiny (the North American ruby-throated hummingbird has a brain weighing less than a gram, but percentage wise, the hummingbird has the largest brain of all birds, 4.2% of its total body weight) it is a complex neural network that he discovered allows hummingbirds to teach each other to sing. There are many studies of hummingbird brains too that show they are capable of episodic memory. Our nerve signals travel slowly and require time to register a stimulus, but a hummingbird brain is capable of lighting-quick thoughts due to their size. Also if you measure life by counting heartbeats, their life span is comparable to ours. The ratio comparison reminded me of the sound of the actuators in Artifix Mori that is scaled from the life span of the moth to that of the human. Both examples are linking species.

The space of this installation, in a skybridge corridor that is a functional artery of the institution, extends an invitation to simply pass or pace and adds to the experience of Artifix Mori. Its appearance is subtle and playful, but upon exploration it begins to feel rather directive as it gently but consistently interacts with you in the narrow space. Despite if you want to just walk by. This experience would be very different if it were installed in a large room. Both the Skybridge and Artifix Mori call attention to the interconnectedness of simple individual actions and nature through various intermediaries. Our small movement affects a small organic form, halted in its process of becoming. Whereas philosophical thinking is explicitly concerned with the sense of being, the nature of becoming that I take away from this piece feels a bit more like the space of macabre poetry in the guise of its visual presentation. The cocoons wobbly movements feel like animated sound bites on not just editing nature and the tolls of production and consumption, but also the pace of thought. They ask the question on and through this new nature, what are we are all in the process of becoming?

Artifix Mori is on view at the Eugene Lang College Skybridge Art & Sound Space (65 West 11th street, 3rd floor, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through January 31, 2012.

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