Insect Patterns: Julie Byers, Srishti Johari, Leah Willemin
Flying Insects is an experiential installation demonstrating the declining insect population, insect resilience despite environmental turmoil, feelings of entrapment, and feelings of tragic beauty. We tell the story of the insects we researched by engaging multiple senses in an immersive environment.
The members of this project have had a strong interest and love for flying insects for quite some time. Growing up, we heard warnings about how bees were disappearing, and how we should be concerned. However, some people have interpreted the decline positively, as fewer bugs interrupt picnics or smear windshields during a highway drive.
Though small in size, insects are crucial to the functioning of larger ecosystems, and insect populations have declined drastically in the last quarter century. Bees are beginning to forage for food sources in junk food due to natural sources of food declining. Paper wasps, given construction paper, use it to construct nests. These insects are showing strength through resilience. They are turning the resources that are available to them into the functional homes and food they require, and in the process, creating beautiful structures. Through this project we wanted to demonstrate the resilience of these creatures and the complicated beauty of the structures they create. Although we started with a focus on bees, our research led us to expand the project and include other flying insects in the project content.
Ideas we explored include mass consumption and population decline, ritual, entrapment, labor, decay, resilience, and the concept of terrible beauty. We wanted to express these ideas in their most minimal form, while still making sure the idea came across. Furthermore, we didn’t want to focus on “natural” vs “non-natural” but instead address the adaptation of insect species over time.
RESEARCH AND PRECEDENTS
The focus of the experience came from a German study in which insects are caught in “malaise traps”. After scientists noticed low insect numbers, they synthesized existing data to find that insect abundance has fallen by 75% over the last 27 years in their area. We were interested in the way that the population collapse was not immediately clear to researchers, and how that realization occurred late—after a huge mass was already lost. We were also inspired by the metaphor of a “malaise trap” and netting, and wanted to try to convey an experience of entrapment to the audience.
One original inspiration for the project was from some articles about colorful honey produced by bees. Beekeepers around the world, including one in Red Hook, Brooklyn, were seeing that their bees were producing hives and honey that deviated from their natural color, which is a dark brown. They found that these bees were returning to their hives with junk food such as maraschino cherry and M&M sugars, foraged from industrial food manufacture, instead of natural nectar. Eating junk food makes the bees less able to fight off toxic ingredients found in pesticides, leading to deaths. The fundamental tension was that this honey that they produced was formally beautiful, but was a result of an unfortunate and terrible truth about the scarcity of bee food sources. This tension is between the truth of ecological difficulties and the celebration of the resilience of the insects.
For the experience itself, we drew structural inspiration from Programmed Hive #7, by Hilary Berseth. This piece is part of a series where Berseth crafts a scaffold, then introduces bees to populate it and build honeycomb onto the structure. Thinking about labor, mass, and experience, we looked at Sunflower Seeds, by Ai Wei Wei, which was an installation of millions of handcrafted porcelain sunflower seeds installed across the floor of Turbine Hall. In the same theme, we looked at Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, which is a 175-pound pile of hard candies, from which visitors are permitted to take samples. The piece is designed to mirror Gonzalez-Torres’ late partner wasting away from AIDs, and challenge the complicity of viewers as they choose to take or leave candy. Lastly, for scent and medium inspiration, we looked to A Subtlety by Kara Walker, which was a massive installation of sugar sculptures in a retired Domino Sugar Factory, addressing the history of labor, race, industrial production, and the slave trade.
AUDIENCE AND EXPERIENCE
This project is intended for people in urban civilizations that may not notice, or sometimes may be thankful for, fewer flying insects being around. The core experience was simplified to show the most essential version of the story we wanted to tell. Users walk into a dark room, with a sole sculpture that is lit only by videos projected onto the sculpture. There is a low, vibrating noise, whose sub bass fluctuates slightly: enough to bring some comfort to the user while also maintaining a nervousness in the space. The juxtaposition of the concept of terrible beauty was portrayed by the contrast of the beautiful sugar facade with the sound intended to create a dead flat tone—to highlight the seriousness and sad reality of this situation. The sculpture is a large metal panel that resembles honeycombs, cages, nets, and stained glass windows found in churches. Holes in the sculpture are filled with melted Jolly Ranchers, which produce a smell of sugar and eventually decay as they heat up. Users are encouraged to touch, approach (and, if they are inclined, lick) the sculpture.
For the final version, we use a 4 feet x 4 feet CNC plasma cut steel to create a hexagonal bee-hive pattern. We then melted jolly ranchers on it using heat guns by placing wood and aluminum foil below it to protect the floor.
Installation was done by suspending the panel using steel wire on top of screws and brackets, and different videos of honey bees, monarch butterflies, cityscapes, abstract videos, etc were back-projected on the panel. The overflow was allowed to bleed onto the wall behind, creating an interesting prism effect interspersed with clear video projection.
PROTOTYPING AND USER TESTING
While we were melting the Jolly Ranchers onto the panel in the Making Center, many students who were passing by stopped to ask what we were doing. They commented that the smell is the first sense they noticed. They quite enjoyed the smell, and once they saw the panel, they thought it was very beautiful. They were interested in the technique of melting sugar in the spaces, and thought that it resembled stained glass in churches.
For the people who experienced the full installation, the main element we were curious in testing was the video and if it told the story we were hoping to put across. We found that the imagery of large flying insects, such as a video of a full beehive and another of monarch butterflies, were the two with the most impact. The effect of a large image spanning the panel, with areas missing where there were holes, created the most cohesive connection between our panel, the videos, and our concept. We tested a video of a city scape, and while people thought it was pretty, they didn’t always understand the purpose of the video. We also tested a more abstract video, but it was too dark to view on the panel or the wall.
People were most focused on the panel versus the projection that also displayed on the wall, and their first question was asking if they were allowed to touch it. All users ended up touching the piece, and treated it with delicacy. They intuited that it was fragile, but also expressed a desire to touch it. One user licked it.
Despite not using heat from a space heater or heat coil to melt the candy, we found that there were enough Jolly Ranchers that when users walked in they commented on the smell. They enjoyed the sweet scent, and usually smiled when they mentioned it. They were also intrigued with what the installation was about, and almost all of them inquired more about the project and showed interest and concern when we told them in detail about the reality of the declining population of insects and also the strength that insects show in their resilience, as they survive in this ever-urbanising world.