Bugs. No matter how hard we try, we simply can’t avoid them. Hence, “All Around Us,” the catchy titled of the exhibit at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust‘s Wood Street Galleries, Downtown.
Organized by Ali Momeni, an associate professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, the exhibit features works by eight artists from the United States, Canada and Europe who each use bugs to create art. And — fair warning — in most, cases the bugs in these artworks are all very much alive.
“They are in their natural habitat. They exhibit their natural behaviors,” Momeni says. “All of the artists have taken care to understand how these bugs like to be.”
Except, of course, for the first piece visitors will come to: “Justified by Love” by Canadian artist Jennifer Angus. Greeted with something they think they know, that is, patterned wallpaper that could be in anyone’s home, it takes a moment for people to realize what they are really seeing, Angus says, which is hundreds upon hundreds of dead bugs.
“People walk in and read the pattern, but then there is that ah-ha moment. … These are real,” Angus says.
For the past 10 years, Angus has been creating installations like this composed of insects pinned directly to a wall in repeating patterns that reference both textiles and wallpaper.
The emotions of those who confront her work for the first time range and rapidly fluctuate from fear to awe to distaste to wonder, she says. The attention to intricate detail, as well as the sheer number of insects comprising the work, is often overwhelming. There is beauty in the pattern; yet, the apprehension we feel toward insects creates a tension.
Beyond Angus’ installation, French artist Ivana Adaime Makac has set up “Le Banquet,” which is literally a banquet for farm-raised crickets to feast upon.
Here, in Plexiglas boxes, the insects nibble on sculptures composed of fruits, flowers, vegetables and different types of man-made foods, such as candied coconut and cookies.
The characteristics of the sculptures are the result of research and experiences related to crickets’ omnivorous diet and behaviors, as well as art history.
“In 17th-century still-life painting, insects are part of the detail,” Adaime Makac says. “Here, they become the main characters.”
Cockroaches are the main characters in Canadian designer Garnet Hertz’s “cockroach controlled mobile robot,” the “Roachbot.”
An experimental robotic system that translates the bodily movements of a living, organic insect into the physical locomotion of a three-wheeled robot, this piece can be seen, and heard, moving throughout the gallery as it is navigated by a single cockroach walking on a ping-pong ball.
The cockroach is harnessed above the ball and naturally walks on the ball, causing it to rotate. Sensors installed track the movement and relay it to the mechanics that move it.
Distance sensors at the front of the robot also provide navigation feedback to the cockroach, striving to create a pseudo-intelligent system with the cockroach as the CPU, or central processing unit.
Hertz says this project is motivated by three key concepts: biomimetics, the cyborg and the computational/biological. These three motivations are embodied in the mobile robot system, a platform that makes the intentions of the insect legible to a wide and diverse audience.
Although technically and conceptually complex, Hertz says the system is easily understood by young and old with little or no explanation.
“It’s a little bit like a flea circus,” he says. “Individuals tend to watch the robot for extended periods of time, empathizing with the insect, and trying to discern whether or not the organism is controlling or being controlled by the technology … and whether it is aware of, immersed in or pleased by its synthetic and mediated environment.”
Then, there is the work of Swiss artists Robin Meier and Andre Gwerder, whose piece “Synchronicity (Thailand)” is a video documentation of an experiment conducted in Thailand where live fireflies were made to synchronize their flashes to computer-controlled LEDs the artists strung on tree branches.
Here, the relationship between mathematical models of this complex group behavior are matched with their biological reality in the field.
“It’s really about all of these connections and underlying natural rules about self-organization in nature,” Meier says.
By influencing living fireflies with computer-controlled lights, these artists question the idea of free will and simultaneously transform a machine into a living actor inside a colony of insects.
For his part, Momeni not only organized the exhibit, but has set up cameras, with help from Benjamin Snell of Carnegie Mellon University’s Create Lab, to document a few of the works for the entire exhibit using an ECam. The Create Lab invention video-documents a subject every few seconds for long durations of time and produces a web-viewable interface for exploring all recorded footage.
Two observation beehives in the exhibition as well as Adaime Makac’s “Le Banquet” will evolve a great deal during the course of the exhibition and will be viewable as a time-lapse series at bug.show/timemachine.
Momeni, who has worked with bees before, says there is a lot to learn from studying the insects in this exhibition. “They beat us by hundreds of years of evolution,” he says. “There’s a humility in that.”
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at email@example.com.