Interview: Kuai Shen
0h!m1gas, 2011. Audiovisual installation with ant colony, variable dimensions. Supported by: NRW Kunststiftung, Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln. The construction of the habitat for the fungus garden was kindly sponsored by Evimed. © the artist.
Born 1978 in Guayaquil, Ecuador Kuai Shen lives and works in Cologne. Shen explores the relationship between human technology and the sociality of ants. The two turntables in his installation respond to movement within an ant colony; their sounds are registered via a needle on a vinyl record. He explains the idea of his work and how it mirrors the concept of the exhibition.
How did you discover that the populations of ants are an interesting model for your artistic research?
My interest in ants stems from a personal fascination and identification with these cybernetic micro-dwellers, because they are elemental organisers of the order of natural things, which can be better understood with the aid of cybernetics, that mean, animal communication regulated by local interactions. I consider myself a non-stop workaholic agent, I am like that ant you see running crazy to bring food back to her sisters. On top of this, I was born and raised in a highly diverse tropical region, where you find ants everywhere. The first time I saw the soldier ants of our rainforests, Eciton burchelli, I was completely charmed and started writing fictive stories about them at that time, we are talking 1999-2000. 7 years later, after secretly observing and wondering about the life of ants in every kitchen and garden of the houses I lived in, I came to Cologne, Germany, to undergo a postgraduate study based on this revealing connection between ants, emergence, self-organisation, cybernetics and phenomenology. Since then I have been working on scientific and artistic approaches that help me bring the message of post-humanism, highlighting the similarities and differences between us and ants, to challenge the foundations of our political and social systems.
I believe that by studying ants' behavior, a common ground for interspecies-communication may be established, which could help us understand emergent phenomena in nature and the biological relevance of social networking. I expect to be always surprised by my ants. Everything I've observed while living with ants have most of the time filled me with wonder and a strong desire for contemplation and research of what collectivity means. I do not see in my research and interdisciplinary work with ants a definitive solution to human social problems, but I do clearly see a reason for change, a portal that can help us become better humans and be ecologically responsible with nature.
The restructuring of the post-industrialised society (as a part of the concept of Manifesta 9) and the organised movements in your ant colony - can you explain the connection?
Effectively, the restructuring of our society has a lot to do with finding "other" models and systems we can mimic to induce local change, because everything needs to start from underneath, like the ants constructing little by little and emerging from the ground. By means of an amplified video-surveillance, the visually governed human beings are able to appreciate the aesthetics and metaphors of the usually hidden social system of ants, how important it is to share. The movements of ants represent a social movement, they can be compared to cells, to neurons, they are organs creating organisms: the nurse ants transporting the larvae ants from one chamber to another, the workers cutting vegetation to cultivate the fungus garden, and the workers managing the waste and garbage, maintaining the hygiene in the nest. All these actions are social in nature. Moreover, they are a form of locomotion portraying social meaning. The act of restructuring social labour has been a characteristic of human constructivism. The rebellious ideas and actions that have challenged older regimes have been present in every new social movement. Yet, all these movements and ideals were predominantly focused on restructuring human systems, for humans, and neglected the rest of nature, the animal and specially insects, which are an integral part of our environments. Bottom-up organizations characterized by division of labor are models, which have been around for centuries in different human cultures, yes, it is not something new. Nevertheless, the fair intention to organize un-hierarchically giving power to the people has failed; it had to recover over and over again from oppressing pyramidal models that have always corrupt their way to regain a powerful position against other legitimate competitive models. By following the organized movements of ants, you can see that there is no chance for corruption. It is more about collective regulation, self-organization, than individual profit.
Thus, concerning the meaning of restructuring, it is important to research the associations between the human obsession for control/order and the chaos producing order and beauty in natural systems, specially in the case of the flexible division of labour in leafcutter ants. This becomes a relevant condition to recognize the different perceptions and intensities of other beings and ecosystems. The bottom-up organisation in ants is a strong restless system, in constant movement, a great interconnected system to admire and to challenge our social notions.
What is your personal artistic experience working in the context of the former coal mining city of Genk whose history is still present in the building?
Well, I can fantasise a little bit. I feel like a humanoid-ant working like the miners did in the golden era of the Waterschei. I think I can connect with this rich historic environment in relation to the employed division of labour of that time, when miners from different nationalities worked hard together, supporting each other, in order to care for the family and loved ones. When you get to know the world of ants, you see how flexible and adaptable they have been, like the miners. They have managed to migrate to almost every continent and have succeeded in territorial domination: all in all, the fruit of hard work. Walking through the main building you can feel the remains of the hard work of the miners impregnated in the walls and ceilings. I even had the luck to talk to one of the ex-miners, a very old man who was in a state of shock by seeing ants in the former director's office. He could not really understand the idea behind my installation, but the conversation we had was nevertheless rewarding, because for me it was a unique occasion to confront the differences between old and new generations, and how we have to respect each other by engaging in conversations that bring the past into the future.