Insects are an essential feature of the rural imaginary, but their role is not benign. From early British depictions of India 1 to 20th century portrayals of North Ontario, 2 perseverance against pernicious insects supports the colonial narrative of claiming the right to unceded territory by “taming” the land. These representations shape the social production of rural space 3 and sustain ongoing projects of settler-colonialism. Counter-portrayals of the insect outside of these tropes are difficult to achieve, since settler ontologies and listening practices do not readily support intersubjective encounters with non-human entities.4
In the face of this dilemma, this work uses biomimicry and a closed autopoietic interface to create the possibility for a human-insect experience of rural space outside of frontier narratives.
Two dimmable LED panels are placed in glass jars, some distance apart from each other, with a microphone and camera trained on each. A human participant beats a lightweight paddle modeled on the wing of a fly. The panels respond to analyses of both the insect activity on the panels and the frequency of the human participant’s wing beats in relationship to a target frequency, and adjusts the relative brightness of the two panels. The human participant attempts to keep both panels equally bright by adjusting the speed of their movements. Audio from all microphones is mixed and processed for a virtual audience, and is inaudible to both human and insect participants in the system.
Recent research that shows that fruit flies only exhibit positive phototaxis (attraction to light) when in flight. 5 This biomimicry imitates a physical-spatial dynamic, as well as a more basic tropism. Based on Roger Callois’ theory that the imitation of leaves and twigs constitutes an innate inclination to assimilate into one’s surroundings,6 Elizabeth Grosz describes “insect space” in which people “renounce their right to occupy a perspectival point, abandoning themselves to being located, for themselves, as others, from the point of view of others.”7
This rejection of human perspectival primacy is also aligned with Katherine Hayles analysis of autopoietic systems in which there is only the circular interplay of the processes as they continue to realize their autopoiesis, always operating in the present moment and always producing the organization that produces them.8
By creating an interface that sustains a shared orientation and embodied response to isolated units of artificial light, this piece produces a unique encounter between human, insect, and rural locality.
1 Mukherjee, N. (2020). Spatial Imaginings in the Age of Colonial Cartographic Reason: Maps, Landscapes, Travelogues in Britain and India. Taylor &Francis.
2 Acorn, J. (2014). Bug songs are rarely about bugs. American Entomologist, 60(1), 64–65.
3 Halfacree, K. (2006). Rural space: constructing a three-fold architecture. Handbook of Rural Studies, 44–62.
4 Robinson, D. (2020). Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. U of Minnesota Press.
5 Gorostiza, E. A., Colomb, J., & Brembs, B. (2016). A decision underlies phototaxis in an insect. Open Biology, 6(12), 160229.
6 Caillois, R., & Shepley, J. (1984). Mimicry and legendary psychasthenia. October, 31, 17–32.
7 Grosz, E. (2001). Architecture from the outside: Essays on virtual and real space. MIT press.
8 Hayles, N. K. (2008). How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. University of Chicago Press.