I wanted to understand why I was told to fear who I was supposed to fear. I wanted to understand how even when not convinced that I was personally afraid of peoples there were actions carried out against them, I was told, in my name. What I was facing was a misunderstanding that the rhetoric described values instead of running parallel to the values as a means to an end of communicating and justifying actions.
Here is what I thought would happen and why: I thought that I could use images of bees as a mode of describing meditation on the confrontation with bodies that trigger fear responses, because generally I had seen people have a knee-jerk reaction of fear around bees. My thesis took the form of inspecting the confrontation between the bee and the human.
The unrecognizability of the bee in the photographs where it is flying describe more accurately the confrontation with a living bee. The human eye captures changes in light at about 1/30th of a second. A honey bee is just over half an inch long and moves 2 feet every second by beating its wings 230 times per second. The human eye isn’t able to see a honeybee fly.
Photography describes just how liquid a form can be when it is in motion. Distortion could be scary, the “scariness” feels a priori. It suggests that the fear comes from a place deep within the id.
The sound and unpredictability of a bee’s flight, the prospect of a sting or bite, and an nonexistence of the value system of such an animal I believe is what compels people to be afraid in that moment.
These photographs of bees failed in my intial goal of translating a feeling of fear. Maybe it is because they are “poor photographs”. But it is very likely because of the cloud of connotations surrounding the bee as a symbol of a diligent worker or the recent changes to the cultural significance of a bee.
The bee has taken the place of endangered cetaceans like North Atlantic Right Whales or the panda in being a group of species that needs to be protected. The ecological value of these animals had been commonly acknowledged.
The endangered species list acknowledges a certain amount of guilt in the destruction of habitats for these animals. Which made a more direct parallel to how indigenous populations that have been exiled and oppressed are spoken of.
It became apparent that there were aspects of the bee that I wanted to isolate and explore in order to unlock a greater understanding of what I had been calling an illegitimate but present fear.
To make the photographs of the bees I needed to find them. There could have been more forethought in how I located my subjects. I could have gotten in contact with bee farms. Instead I looked locally. It was a matter of finding flowers. I’m tempted to say that I was acting as a bee on the hunt was. This was a much more disorganized practice of moving about the world in the way that I would if I were independent of a project.
In this time of casual walkaboutwithcamera the project came to me. It interrupted my walks as detritus and bees, it came into my house as moths and houseflies. Most of the people in my BFA program tried to or were encouraged to make work that was personal to them, special to their circumstances. But these are pests, their images can be collected so immediately from the environment. The world crawls with life. Yet their bodies read as invaders and disruptors of my space.
I was thinking while speaking about these photographs that I need a new word for “pest”. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives three definitions for pest.
The first definition and supplemented synonym came as a surprise to me. The word pest originates from the Latin “pestis” which was the origin for the Middle French “peste” used to refer to the bubonic plague in France. The origin point of the word “pest” seems dramatic for what I hold it to commonly mean, somethin closer to the third definition in Merriam Webster.
The third definition indicates a connection between the word pest and pester. Overall the connotation of the word pest is that a pest is anything that causes symptoms which through repeated proximity to the pest cause harm.
The third definition the association between pest and pester in the third definition is . The word “pester” originates from the Middle French “empestrer” which means to overcrowd. It is not because the plague or the plagued crowded the streets of France. Empestrer’s root is from the latin “impastoriare”, a verb meaning to hobble. The latin can be split into its morphemes to find the root “pastorius” which is the latin noun for shepherd.
The two words “pester” and “pest” bumped into each other in English from completely different roots, becoming associated with each other by phonetic and alphabetical proximity. This feels poetic in two ways; the first that the words used in engagement with one another is in fact a poetic usage of the words as it is the usage of words for phonetic aesthetic pleasure, and that the words met and intermingled in a romantic way as if partnered by some similarities and then sharing those more different aspects between each other eventually being associated as something of a couple.
To consider someone a pest is to have their presence be abject and contact referred to as harmful. There is a very strong economically minded flavor to what kind of harm makes something considered generally as a pest. The destruction of pests is an investment in the isolation of (profitable) resources. The definition of pest is in fact due to their harm on economical growth. The sickness “pest” referred to in Middle-French may have been the bubonic plague, but in English pests are defined as a sickness of a corporation and the symptom is a harm to the product in the form of an invalidation of profits.
The fear that investments were going to be spoiled wasn’t the impetus for my interrogation with these subjects. Certainly the bee, an economically productive animal escapes this definition, the fear comes from the potential of a sting. The locality and immediacy of that harm seems “un-pest-like”. That a bee can sting you in the arm as opposed to ruining your garden was I suppose a point of initial focusing on the bee. Other animals described and treated as pests such as jellyfish and houseflies might engage with the ruination of resources (jellyfish for example continually clog the cooling systems of power plants globally because the heat is ideal for their passive lifestyle), but their interactions with people in personal spaces engages specifically with the same “quick” fear as with the bee. Humans flail away and towards these animals in certain fear of uncertain contact.
The name “housefly” indicates that this animal occupies human spaces by its very nature, it flies in a house. Musca Domestica was given its taxonomical name and categorization by Carl Linnaeus, I mention this because it describes how certain the setting was to the animal. But the housefly is rejected. It is abject to the ideal home, yet it’s very existence is qualified by its presence in the house.
The first curious viewers of your artwork and visitors to your studio are these houseflies which experience your work on such a grand scale that it fills the bottom half of their field of vision. “Half” of their vision is not meant to be a diminutive fraction. Thousands of lenses see the surface that it lands on in a new kind of detail which surrounds the viewer.
In Louis Pasteur’s address on spontaneous generation delivered in 1864 he describes the absurdity of the 17th century alchemist Van Helmont’s beliefs on the spontaneous generation of animals.
When water from the purest spring is placed in a flask steeped in leavening fumes, it putrefies, engendering maggots. The fumes which rise from the bottom of a swamp produce frogs, ants, leeches, and vegetation. . .Carve an indentation in a brick, fill it with crushed basil, and cover the brick with another, so that the indentation is completely sealed. Expose the two bricks to sunlight, and you will find that within a few days, fumes from the basil, acting as a leavening agent, will have transformed the vegetable matter into veritable scorpions. Or take the following passage, bearing in mind that Van Helmont affirms having conducted the experiment described therein (thus furnishing me with my first proof in this lecture that, though it is easy enough to conduct experiments, it is far from easy to conduct irreproachable ones): If a soiled shirt is placed in the opening of a vessel containing grains of wheat, the reaction of the leaven in the shirt with fumes from the wheat will, after approximately twenty-one days, transform the wheat into mice.
Pasteur did this in order to show the very clear scaling of the same belief to microscopic creatures had pervaded regardless of how absurd. The confusion being in how and where life occurs. “House”flies do not exist because of houses.
Pests in the sense that they are invaders have only become categorized as pests due to the borders of a structure. Most organisms are pre-historical. The scaling of my analogies are more complicated than Pasteur’s because they cross species barriers and they are about the very borders that they walk across.
I felt that the jellyfish held a close place to my heart, morphologically and metaphorically. Heart tissue, when suspended in fluid will begin to pump automatically. The first time I saw an example of this I was a child watching a discovery channel special on the promise of 3d printed tissue. What this and the jellyfish translated to me was that the body runs on its own. The jellyfish, acts as a large oversized piece of atrial muscle tissue tied to a stomach with neocyte lined strings dragging after it.
A jellyfish conducts the bare minimum to be alive. It has very poor propulsive and navigational ability, it has no organ systems (no true organs including a brain), and regardless of it resembling a heart it has no vascular system. The jellyfish, I thought, sat messily on the border between animalia and other kingdoms.
Throughout the evolutionary timeline of cnidaria photoreceptive areas and eyes have developed at least 8 times. The box jellyfish, the most poisonous animal on the planet, has 24 eyes. Species that would logically be the most evolved cnidarians don’t have eyes. To imagine being a jellyfish with sight was to imagine the inability to shift perspectives or to do anything with the input. It is also imagining the inability to process visual information, as I mentioned before, the nervous system of the jellyfish is a sprinkling of neurons throughout the body. There is no central processing unit where the information from these visual organs would go.
In a way the mind boggling jellyfish gives us an example of a body that is in defiance of norms by existing without any ability to choose, anything. The jellyfish is in defiance of hierarchical ways of thinking without a decentralized nervous system, through asexual reproduction it is in defiance of normative reproductive systems, it is in defiance of psychological argument that the evolution of more advanced and complex systems are the key to survival of an organism. The jellyfish becomes the ultimate nihilistic anarchist and Sartre’s nightmare through being what is referred to as a “basic” organism. The Jellyfish crosses the wires of every belief system; religious, scientific or empirical. While other animals suffer from the changes in temperature and the shifting of ecosystems jellyfishes are reproducing at a rate higher than ever before. All that this proves is that the systems of organization will naturally be the downfall of those systems.
Even disregarding any of this for the lack of a brain, I have at least found comfort in the survival of a jellyfish despite an absence of ability.
Revisiting The Bee
All three hives under the joint care of the Brown Beekeeping Society and the RISD Beekeeping Club collapsed over the winter. Based on what the member I was with said, the hives could have collapsed for a number of reasons; the queen died, parasites made their way into the hive, there was too much honey and the bees had no where to go, too many corpses blocked the entrance.
Still troubled by how attracted I was to the failed icon of a bee as my subject I invested in the corpses of two Malaysian blue carpenter bees from bicsbugs.com, a website that ships preserved arthropods sourced from all over the world. Just far enough away from the familiar visual icon of bee I think that looking at a bee of another color may be enough to make a viewer look at an image twice and finally wonder, “why is that a bee to me?” The fur of the bee is blue, and yet the body without the color is still identifiable as a bee body.
I used this corpse in the recreation of a photograph that I had made two years ago. This photograph (the original) became an obsession of mine when I saw it. I had taken the photograph on an autofocus yashica camera. The camera’s “brain” did not bring anything within the frame into focus, I believe that the focus fell behind the surface of the classroom window that the bee in the picture was flying against in an attempt to escape. The device had processed the subject into a less recognizable field of contrasting auras arranged on a field of pixels or grains. The entire negative slid into a cooler range, in photoshop I differentiated the colors and made sure to bump the yellow hue of the bee to at least give the viewer an overt hint at what might be in front of the camera.
More coming soon.