Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Communicating with ants: Bridging art, science at Broad Art Museum

March 2, 2019
Communicating with Ants by Kuai Shen in the Broad Art Museum on Feb. 27, 2019.
Communicating with Ants by Kuai Shen in the Broad Art Museum on Feb. 27, 2019. —
Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

During its final week at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, Media Artist Kuai Shen’s “0h!m1gas: A Biomimetic Stridulation Environment” art installation took part in an “altered tour.” 

The "artistic research and audiovisual installation" explores the behavior of ants and how they mimic responses to different kinds of human technologies. It features a set of turntables that produce sounds similar to the noise ants makes when walking. Altered tours are used for many exhibits at the Broad Art Museum, giving scholars and experts across different disciplines a unique platform to present their work.

“By inviting people from different disciplines ... you get a chance to think about works of art from different (perspectives),” Michelle Word, the director of education at the museum, said.


For "0h!m1gas" — which contains a live colony of ants — two speakers attended and provided insight from their academic perspectives. Charlie Cooper, a musician and MSU alumnus, worked with the museum and Shen to develop an experimental music compilation for the installation. To mimic the stridulation sound, Cooper bowed a ukulele and guitar strings, creating a similar noise to that of the audio Shen created by recording the ants. The sound produced created an abrading timbre that was not exactly the same as the noise the ants produced, but worked in tandem with it.

“What attracts me to do something like this is that when I listen to this and when I read about ant communication, it sparks a lot of questions," Cooper said. "I want to dig into it and learn more about it. So by doing this, I hope that I can transfer that curiosity to people and they can ask themselves the same sorts of questions that I was when I first heard about it."

The other speaker of Thursday evening's tour was myrmecologist Adrian Smith from North Carolina State University. Myrmecology is a branch of entomology focusing on the study of ants. 

Smith’s work encompasses a wide array of ant-related topics, including how ants communicate, how ants defend themselves and how the hive-colony mindset works. His presence at the altered tour drew in a large crowd of students from various science disciplines who were curious about his work and the artistic approach he has taken with it. 

“I find a lot of inspiration in talking to artists and hearing from artists talk about their work and value their work, and how they derive value from what they do," Smith said. "And I see a lot of similarities in those sort of arguments or reasons that they have and I’ve adopted those for why I do what I do. I see aesthetic value in it, I see a cultural value in it and I see that stuff as equally important as practical value.”

Smith’s approach to science creates ways for audiences to easily engage with his work by creating video projects and stories. In many of the videos he presented, Smith bridged the gap by providing easy explanations and making the material fun to view. He encouraged his fellow scientists in attendance to be unafraid to share their observations with the world and try to engage in interesting ways.

“I decided to show you an individual observation and a tell you story based off of that," Smith said. "That’s where science starts — that’s where my science starts. That’s where I want to bring people to show them these individual things."

Many of the art pieces displayed alongside 0h!m1gas feature interactive aspect as well. Another popular installation at the Broad Art Museum is “SmellScape Detroit 18/2018” by Sissel Tolaas, which features 3-D printed cubes of synthesized smells found in Detroit. Both are a part of the “Matter Matters” collection.

The final day to view both the 0h!m1gas installation and SmellScape Detroit 18/2018 is Sunday. 

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