Thursday, November 29, 2012

Interspecies Collaborations: How Was it to Make Art with Worms?

Every time I mention to someone that I was on a residency making art with worms they ask me how it felt. As I've written in earlier posts I still have to unpack that experience from early September. There was too going when I got back from the Catskills to be able to process it in writing.
So here's a start.

The residency was with a small, rather informal group called the Andes Sprouts Society in Stamford, New York. They took care of my accommodations (an off-the grid cabin) with no electricity, heat, or running water (no outhouse either...I had to go down to the farmhouse, about a ten minute walk for any of the conveniences). I had a small flashlight but basically I was in bed as soon as it was dark (about 7:30 PM). And every morning I was down at the farm feeding and milking the goats.

Right away I saw it was an opportunity for inventiveness and a sort of adventure. Interestingly, I had been discovering what it means to invent using clay for the whole year before. As my friend Renato Riccioni mentioned a few weeks ago, clay allows you to do just about anything but it also requires that you concoct methods to support your ideas. A wonderful medium that prepared me for the sparse conditions in Stamford. Even though I barely did any work with clay at the residency I used the sensory tools I had developed with it. I found myself very much in touch with light, temperature, wind, sounds, and the phenomenon of being all alone for long periods of time. Exhilarating and exhausting are two words that come to mind.

My plan was to bring a bin of compost worms with me and experiment with them, what kinds of habitats, foods, and conditions they preferred. I was also hoping to experiment with them making art, which I think was the more successful experience.

For "painting" with worms I set up a sheet of polyurethane-coated paper and had an assortment of inks available. I pulled a dozen or so worms from the bin and kept them in a moist environment at my work table. I started by handling the worms with a tweezer but soon realized that the best way to do the job was to take them in my fingers.

I would put a worm on the paper and put the smallest drop of ink somewhere on its body. The worms have thin skins and I think the ink irritated them. Depending on the color of the ink (and its chemical makeup) the worms responded differently. In some cases (usually with purple ink) they just crawled ahead to get away from the ink. 

Sometimes they flayed around (this was the case with yellow and with the organic walnut-based ink I had bought in the hope that this would irritate them less). I think the "flaying" inks must have been pretty uncomfortable for them. 

Red ink, which seemed less caustic, caused them to lift up their frontal end and "search" for a way out. All of these different responses led to different patterns. So the ink was "put down" on paper differentially depending on the worms' behavior and movement.

The experience was amazing. In part because living closely with the worms I experienced their movement and life more closely. It was also remarkable to experience the immediacy of the worms' movement and its result, the not-so-random art we created together in an interspecies collaboration. 

When you look at some of the pictures I did with the worm you might get a feeling of chaos and confusion. Interesting to me is that the overall feeling was of great peace and sensitivity to the worms and our mutual environment during the time I spent with them.

1 comment:

  1. As a scientist, I find myself wondering about the chemical constituents of the inks you are using? With a bit of background reading you could begin to narrow down exactly which chemical is responsible for each behaviour. This would be important too for your composting study - different matter in the compost would influence the worms' movement in different ways. Do you think you could analyse these paintings in a mathematical way to gain some quantifiable conclusions about the worms' movements in response to different inks?

    You talk about this experience as that "of great peace and sensitivity", yet you also say that your research methods were causing obvious irritation to the worms. Could you comment on this? I've done some work with mice, and if any of the procedures we would want to do to the animals were to cause harm, pain or discomfort, we have to have a really good reason for doing them, e.g. the potential to cure a human disease. How do you feel about this with respect to your worms?

    In terms of art, in my opinion art should engage the viewer, be challenging, evoke a reaction and in some cases, a sense of uneasiness. In their own right, these paintings are beautiful and certainly achieve this goal.

    Interesting stuff!