SurveillAnts is an interactive, biological installation that explores the unseen world of ants. The project aims to provoke the audience's curiosity about non-human life and touches on themes of emergent intelligence, biological algorithms, systemic pattern making, and creation.
Our work is motivated by a deep fascination with the natural, living world. In particular, we explore the reflections and self-discoveries that occur when life itself is examined through the lens of non-human creatures. Taking inspiration from scientific research, our work is investigative, beginning with a question. In the case of SurveillAnts, we ask – Is it possible to decipher the biological algorithm behind a collective action? How can one ant behave at random, yet at scale a colony functions as a self-interested whole? The process we choose to study them is visual, interactive, and open-ended, allowing viewers to arrive at their own conclusions.
SurveillAnts is a window into the unseen world of ants, mediated through technology. Using computer vision and tracking algorithms, we capture the movements of individual ants in real time, visualizing them as colorful line drawings that follow the ant on its journey. Over time, the movements of the colony are captured and stored. Viewers can interact with controls to redraw the ants’ history over time, revealing the colony movement as a whole. While the results of these emergent patterns are up for interpretation, visual correlations can be drawn between the paths and the pattern structure of neurons at a micro scale, or the way galaxies organize at a macro scale.
Using the context of a gallery to physically and metaphorically elevate live ants to eye level, and framing them within a seemingly scientific structure, we engage people’s interest who might otherwise never take time to examine ants. Through this work, we aim to provoke people’s curiosity about the non-human, living world that surrounds and supports us, even in urban ecosystems.
Living in a city, it’s easy to forget that we inhabit an ecosystem, one we share with a variety of animals that have made it their niche. These animals are routinely viewed as intruders, categorized as “pests,” and are met with reactions of disgust and fear. Ants are such creatures, which is why we chose to work with them for our project SurveillAnts.
It’s likely that the last time you remember observing ants yourself, you were a child playing outside in the dirt. Using the context of a gallery to physically and metaphorically elevate live ants to eye level, we frame them within a seemingly scientific structure. This engages people’s interest, allowing them to observe the ant colony’s collective behaviors with the aid of surveillance tools. As people explore the patterns and interactions of the ants over time, they are invited to reflect on themes of patterns that repeat throughout nature.
By inviting people to explore ants in this new dynamic, we hope that viewers might reevaluate their preconceptions of nature and non-human beings. Through playful engagement, the work raises questions about our ecological role and responsibility as the dominant species on this planet.
“But there is no estimating the wit and wisdom concealed and latent in our lower fellow mortals until made manifest by profound experiences.” - John Muir, American Naturalist and Conservationist.