During contemplative moments my focus shifts from my interior thoughts to the humming network of my environment. Laying on my back in a grassy field I look up to see gnats swarming in currents overhead. Above them, sparrows swoop and dive, engulfing their far-off ghost clusters. When I close my eyes, I can hear insects crawling over blades of grass. I feel my clothes slowly dampen as the fabric absorbs droplets of dew. I breathe in the sweetness of grass mixed with the gas residue from the lawn mower. I hear cars approach and pass overhead, the rubber tires rumbling on the gravel road. A dog barks in the distance just as my phone vibrates in my pocket.
In trying to understand systems of surveillance, I began to look at these overlapping systems, the networked and mingled layers of our environment, of which we figure into. With growing concerns for the environment, theorists and scientists from all fields are urging us to look beyond mono systems and begin looking at systems as a whole. Everything is interconnected and interrelated.
What Ueküll constantly underlined was the need to see nature and its actors not as structures and predefined categories (species or genus) but as becoming that are dynamically intertwined with their surroundings (not static). In other words, ‘machines, devices, and technologies of animal and human life, such as spectacles, telescopes, lathes and so on, are to be viewed as ‘perceptual tools’ and effector tools’ that are a constitutive feature of the ‘worlds’ or living things,’(Parikka 71).
I use the icon of insects to investigate digital technology because of their constant presence in our domestic, public, and natural surroundings. Although this presence often goes unseen or unnoticed, it is ubiquitous; humans are always sharing space with insects. This relationship, when noticed, often grants negative reactions as the cohabitants are seen as pests. For example, in Clarice Lispector’s novel, The Passion According to G.H. (1964), the protagonist experiences such a grotesque response when she discovers a cockroach in her maids' bedroom that she is thrown into an existential experience. She is conflicted with her own being and morals while physically responding to the presence of the cockroach:
Brazenly, stirred by my surrender to what is evil, brazenly, stirred, grateful, for the first time I was being the unknown person I was – except that not knowing myself would no longer keep me back, the truth had already surpassed me; I lifted my hand as if to swear an oath, and a single blow slammed the door on the half-emerged body of the cockroach -----
As I did, I had also closed my eyes. And that’s how I remained, trembling all over. What had I done? (46)
Similarly, in Metamorphosis (1915), by Franz Kafka, the main character is transformed into an insect overnight. Through his transformation, he loses his job, becomes a burden to his family and is rejected as their son, eventually dying of starvation due to neglect and being unable to adjust to his new body. Here the transformation into large insect, "monstrous vermin" (Kafka 3), is viewed as an unescapable demise. Although insects are an essential aspect of our natural environment, their reputation for being unwanted and unappealing vermin precedes them. With this understanding, I am interested in the question: how are insects related to the growing developments of digital technology and location-aware devices?
Through my investigation of insects and digital technology, I found it surprising how interconnected these themes are in our society. For example, insect terminology persists in high-tech developments such as the use of terms buzz, web, swarm, hive-mind, worm, and bug. These terms are especially prominent with surveillance practices such as bugged, fly on the wall, and drone behavior. In Jussi Parikka’s book, Insect Media, he analyzes how media technology is structured in relation to insect social organization and non-human facets of media, communication, and intelligence. Parikka explains,
the tick and its cultural status are perfect examples of the work of translation and mediation, of how an insect and studies of insects can be transformed into a whole other discourse or a territory of thought, de-territorialized from its strict confines as exemplary of animal behavior to a mode of thought. But this mode of thought can also do things – and act as a vector from one mode of experience and perception to another scale and layer (63).
Insects are used to gain new perspectives and better understand the development of media and surrounding systems. In addition to being ubiquitous and growing at exponential rates, technology and insects are understood as entities with unattainable knowledge, beyond our human understanding and control.
I am interested in insects as a subject within the system of digital data collection and surveillance. I play with these ideas through multiple methods in my work to investigate overlapping systems and shared spaces with insects. For example, I collect video and photographic footage of insects I find on hiking trails in Nova Scotia and British Columbia, walks in public spaces in Halifax, and in my home and school. I pair the insect footage with images of indexical ‘drawings’ I find in public spaces, and screen captures of my desktop and google maps. I then manipulate the images in the form of collages, sketches, digital drawings, and prints, to connect them in a way that makes sense to the context I am speaking to.
For example, the works ClickClickSlither and TapSwipeCrawl, investigate how navigation and movement are entangled in the metamorphose of physical and digital space. The titles, ClickClickSlither and TapSwipeCrawl, are written in the coding style called camel text and refer to how insects move relative to the predominant finger of screen navigation. Created on Instagram, the original recorded duration of each video reflects the time constraints of this application and our new systems of experiential narrative creation. The morphing and looping of these records illustrate the illusion of preserved time in digital space. Moreover, the act of digitally sharing video clips obscures and synchronizes our experience of physical environments. The videos are sourced from hiking trails paired with animated GIFs (graphics interchange format), created through the Instagram sticker application. The GIFs were selected from trending images associated with the hashtags, #technology #digital #click and #code. The overlap of these concepts aims to draw a connection to the coexisting systems.
Equivalently, I take data walks, where I track my walking route in urban public spaces and collect dead insects from the sidewalk. This procedure began when I was attending a residency in Berlin. While I was exploring the city, I found myself constantly on my phone, using google maps as a safety net to confirm my surroundings. At the same time, the application was tracking my every movement and search term. I began to play with this and exaggerate my walks through the city, attempting to trace and document every street in my vicinity. This also brought my visual attention regularly downward. In doing so, I noticed an extraordinary number of dead bees on the sidewalks. This was especially curious, due to Berlin’s project, “More Bees for Berlin.” The German government has implemented laws in public spaces to increase wild honey bee populations (Schmid-Egger); “according to the Federal Nature Conservation Act, it is forbidden to re-enact, catch, injure or kill wild bees, or to take, damage or destroy their forms of development, nesting, brood, living or refuge areas in nature” (German Wildlife Foundation).
I began to collect the dead bees to further investigate the overlapping occurrence of unmeasurable location-based-data collection and an influx of dead bees on these routes. The dead bees in this case, represented a vulnerable species at the demise of its human-shared environment. Additionally, by including them in my work there was an extension of ethics, repulsion, confusion and overall oddity added to the dialogue of environmental and digital systems. On a micro level, I was collecting data on dead bees, while on the macro level, I was unable to determine who was collecting data on me. Similarity, forger and worker bees are programed to collect pollen and find new sources of nectar, then return to their hive to relay the information in the form of a dance (Halter 37). As living entities, humans and insects are understood to be intimately connected to their physical environment. If digital tools are extensions of bodies and digital spaces are interlinked with the understanding of our physical surroundings, is there any distinction between these environments?
I continue to push these questions in my work through creating digital scans of collected insects inserting them into digital space, questioning the power relationship of the scientific gaze and specimen. The scientific gaze is another form of deep observation, similar to artistic practices involving a power relationship. Additionally, this form of observation is often executed for the benefit of the observer rather than the observed. Comparatively, this changes the role of the insect as an ever-present pest to an object in our control. Similarly, this is the role we find ourselves in through digital surveillance – we are simultaneously vulnerable to, repulsed by, and yet active participants and cogs in the machine.
Humans are as repulsed and frightened by insects as they are about developing technology and surveillance. The complicating factor of these digital developments is that we are also active and more or less willing participants.