Building a hive mind through immersive art

Lily Hunter Green, Birkbeck’s next Artist in Residence, discusses the project she will be undertaking during her tenure: Bee Composed Live. The residency supports collaboration between academics and artists and will culminate in May with an exhibition of Lily’s work and a symposium.

I first began my work with honey bees in 2014. At the time I was working as a Sound Artist, exploring resonant and sustained sounds within different structures and spaces. As a pianist, I was anatomising the inner workings of my piano. By chance, a bee flew inside. The sound produced was resounding and alveolated, unlike anything I had heard before. I immediately began researching the bees. I was surprised that I didn’t know more about the pollination crisis, especially given the severity of the problem.

My previous piece, Bee Composed (2014), involved transforming a piano into a working beehive in which bees dwelled while an installed audio-visual recording device captured the harmonics of their interaction with the piano strings. One of the central aims of Bee Composed was to raise awareness about the human-caused threat to the honey bees and, as a result, to us too, if we don’t do something to stop their decline. I have since begun to develop Bee Composed Live, the work that my residency at Birkbeck will be focused on: that is, a live performance piece that combines music, dance and original audio-visual compositions in a bid to explore the ways in which we can artistically and critically draw attention to our rapidly changing ecology, and our role within it.

I believe that the role of the artist is to present an alternative way of experiencing the subject. One that provokes new ways of thinking, feeling and responding. Art as a creative transformer, as a catalyst for change, if you like. My primary objective in terms of Bee Composed Live is to present audiences with an alternative way of experiencing and interacting with nature via a series of immersive creative strategies. This will include the creation of a simulacrum ‘hive mind’, a unique microcosmic space, or ‘super-organism’, that enables audience members to experience the inner dynamics and scientific happenings of the hive. The concept of the ‘collective consciousness’ or ‘hive mind’ is itself an appropriation of how the worker bees administrate the hive.

As such, Bee Composed Live is dynamic collaboration. It represents togetherness, the power of collective thinking and action, and the importance of community.

This residency provides a unique opportunity for me to develop my creative thinking and practice within a new and challenging environment. To develop Bee Composed Live, I will work closely with the Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre, a space in which theatre makers, critics and audiences gather to share knowledge, ideas and practices.  I also hope to explore collaborative opportunities with other academic departments that intersect with my work, such as the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies and Birkbeck Research in Aesthetics of Kinship and Community. As someone who usually works in isolation, I am hugely excited at the prospect of working with such a range of creative practitioners and academics.

Most of the 10-month residency will be spent within The Centre for Contemporary Theatre. During this time students will have the opportunity to engage with a range of creative activities extending from inter-disciplinary workshops, digital screenings and seminars, through to the final performance and exhibition. My ambition is to inspire students and academics of all ages and disciplines to think ‘outside of the box’ and consider new ways of working with artists and creative forms, potentially creating new opportunities and collaborations across a range of disciplines, and thereby transforming complicated, often ‘dry’ scientific fact and theory, into a more accessible, digestible and dynamic form.

Another dimension of the residency will be to involve local communities and the wider public in Bee Composed Live: whether as active participants or as passive observers. Diversity is at the heart of my creative practice. As such, I am keen to ensure that as many people as possible are able to engage with this project in some way. As a consequence, every effort will be made to create a piece of work that can eventually go out into the community, by physically in a touring capacity, and/or, via a digital platform.

Collaboration and participation will be key to the success of this residency. I hope as many people as possible will become part of this creative hive mind.



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Why looking for aliens is good for society (even if there aren’t any)

Professor Ian Crawford from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences writes on the significance of astrobiology for the benefit of society. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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The search for life elsewhere in the universe is one of the most compelling aspects of modern science. Given its scientific importance, significant resources are devoted to this young science of astrobiology, ranging from rovers on Mars to telescopic observations of planets orbiting other stars.

The holy grail of all this activity would be the actual discovery of alien life, and such a discovery would likely have profound scientific and philosophical implications. But extraterrestrial life has not yet been discovered, and for all we know may not even exist. Fortunately, even if alien life is never discovered, all is not lost: simply searching for it will yield valuable benefits for society.

Why is this the case?

First, astrobiology is inherently multidisciplinary. To search for aliens requires a grasp of, at least, astronomy, biology, geology, and planetary science. Undergraduate courses in astrobiology need to cover elements of all these different disciplines, and postgraduate and postdoctoral astrobiology researchers likewise need to be familiar with most or all of them.

By forcing multiple scientific disciplines to interact, astrobiology is stimulating a partial reunification of the sciences. It is helping to move 21st-century science away from the extreme specialisation of today and back towards the more interdisciplinary outlook that prevailed in earlier times.

Earth rising above the surface of the moon, as seen from Apollo 8 in December 1968.

By producing broadminded scientists, familiar with multiple aspects of the natural world, the study of astrobiology therefore enriches the whole scientific enterprise. It is from this cross-fertilization of ideas that future discoveries may be expected, and such discoveries will comprise a permanent legacy of astrobiology, even if they do not include the discovery of alien life.

It is also important to recognise that astrobiology is an incredibly open-ended endeavour. Searching for life in the universe takes us from extreme environments on Earth, to the plains and sub-surface of Mars, the icy satellites of the giant planets, and on to the all-but-infinite variety of planets orbiting other stars. And this search will continue regardless of whether life is actually discovered in any of these environments or not. The range of entirely novel environments opened to investigation will be essentially limitless, and so has the potential to be a never-ending source of scientific and intellectual stimulation.

Sand dunes near to Mars’ South Pole.

The cosmic perspective

Beyond the more narrowly intellectual benefits of astrobiology are a range of wider societal benefits. These arise from the kinds of perspectives – cosmic in scale – that the study of astrobiology naturally promotes.

It is simply not possible to consider searching for life on Mars, or on a planet orbiting a distant star, without moving away from the narrow Earth-centric perspectives that dominate the social and political lives of most people most of the time. Today, the Earth is faced with global challenges that can only be met by increased international cooperation. Yet around the world, nationalistic and religious ideologies are acting to fragment humanity. At such a time, the growth of a unifying cosmic perspective is potentially of enormous importance.

In the early years of the space age, the then US ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, said of the world: “We can never again be a squabbling band of nations before the awful majesty of outer space.” Unfortunately, this perspective is yet to sink deeply into the popular consciousness. On the other hand, the wide public interest in the search for life elsewhere means that astrobiology can act as a powerful educational vehicle for the popularisation of this perspective.

Indeed, it is only by sending spacecraft out to explore the solar system, in large part for astrobiological purposes, that we can obtain images of our own planet that show it in its true cosmic setting.

The Earth photographed from the surface of Mars by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, March 2004.
NASA/JPL/Cornell/Texas A&M

In addition, astrobiology provides an important evolutionary perspective on human affairs. It demands a sense of deep, or big, history. Because of this, many undergraduate astrobiology courses begin with an overview of the history of the universe. This begins with the Big Bang and moves successively through the origin of the chemical elements, the evolution of stars, galaxies, and planetary systems, the origin of life, and evolutionary history from the first cells to complex animals such as ourselves. Deep history like this helps us locate human affairs in the vastness of time, and therefore complements the cosmic perspective provided by space exploration.

Political implications

Alexander von Humboldt, 1843.

There is a well-known aphorism, widely attributed to the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to the effect that “the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world”. Humboldt was presumably thinking about the mind-broadening potential of international travel. But familiarity with the cosmic and evolutionary perspectives provided by astrobiology, powerfully reinforced by actual views of the Earth from space, can surely also act to broaden minds in such a way as to make the world less fragmented and dangerous.

I think there is an important political implication inherent in this perspective: as an intelligent technological species, that now dominates the only known inhabited planet in the universe, humanity has a responsibility to develop international social and political institutions appropriate to managing the situation in which we find ourselves.

The ConversationIn concluding his monumental Outline of History in 1925, HG Wells famously observed: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Such an observation appears especially germane to the geopolitical situation today, where apparently irrational decisions, often made by governments (and indeed by entire populations) seemingly ignorant of broader perspectives, may indeed lead our planet to catastrophe.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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