Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sure, they’re only ants, but…is it art?

I’m not of those folks who couldn’t hurt a fly.

I hurt flies all the time.

If there’s one buzzing around me, I will stalk it and crush it. No mercy!

I swat mosquitoes. Smush silverfish up with a piece of Kleenex and flush them. Step on ants and/or set out those little Raid disks that do something to get rid of them – which is either ward them off (the St. Francis of Assisi approach) or kill them (the not-so St. Francis of Assisi approach).

So, no, I’m not one of those folks who tends to treat every form of life as sacred and the equivalent of a human. (That said, I don’t like my chickens to come from factories where they have their beaks snapped off and their eyes plucked out, or my veal to be torture-penned. If I thought about it, I’d probably be a vegetarian.)

And I especially don’t worry a lot about insect life, which, I suspect, is not quite as sentient as say, your average puppy or bonobo.

Still, I found myself a bit unsettled by the story in The NY Times the other day about an art installation in which Elizabeth Demaray has set up an ant farm full of red harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex badius – or Pogos). And is feeding them fast food:

For one month, the ants, which usually thrive on seeds, are being fed a steady diet of McDonald’s Happy Meals. They even get the toys.

Of course, there are thousands of types of ants, and they tend to thrive on different things, and the Pogos are “desert seed harvesters”, not the sort of omnivore ant that’d be all that attracted to brownies, watermelon or a Big Mac.

Whether they’d actually like the steady diet of Mickey D or not is beside the point. Sure, they’re only ants, but nobody but nobody, nothing but nothing, should be subjected to a month’s worth of Happy Meals.  Didn’t that guy who lived on fast food for a month destroy all his organs or something? Even though, with two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun, they’ve at least got the seed thing going. But all the rest of that stuff? For a whole month?

Not that this an exercise in animal sadismo or anything:

Ms. Demaray worked hand in hand with Dr. Christine Johnson, a scientific assistant at the American Museum of Natural History who specializes in ant research.

This assumes that Ms. D and Dr. J aren’t in cahoots on a way to torture ants, which I’m guessing they’re not.

Ms. Demaray’s goal is to stage a commentary on the effects of the American diet on the creatures that depend on us for food.

I guess I never thought about ants – other than picnic ants – depending on us all that much for food. They eat lots of stuff, including other insects. And I guess I have to ask just what the commentary is. Ants die eating this stuff, what do you think it’s doing to us? We’re all ants, killing ourselves on Whoppers and KFC? Look how obese these Pogos are growing? (I’ll be in NYC next weekend, maybe I should drop by and see for myself.)

At the gallery last week, many of the ants were dead. A few looked disoriented. This exhibit lacks a queen and brood, so the workers are leading a life devoid of its fundamental purpose.

And who among us who’s ever worked (especially in a large corporation) has never felt that devoid of fundamental purpose kind of feeling – so I’m kind of identifying with the little critters there. No one in charge and bad food in the caf. Been there/done that.

Not to mention that – and here I feel I’m betraying my inner philistine – this installation sounds more like agit-prop than art. (Not that you can’t have both.) I mean, I’m not saying that art has to be Rembrandt or Andrew Wyeth. Still….

By the way, the Pogos like the chicken nuggets.

1 comment:

Rick said...

The fact that there is no queen will doom all the ants, even if the artist were hand feeding them the ant equivalent of caviar (which may be Chicken McNuggets for all I know). Many, many years ago (I think I was about 12) I bought one of those Uncle Miltie's Ant Farms at the local Woolworth's and mailed in the coupon to get my free supply of about 50 ants, which arrived in a small test tube like thing. As instructed I dumped them into the "farm," which was a lot of tiny white pellets filling up about three quarters of the space in between two sheets of glass perhaps a quarter inch apart, so one could see what one's new pets were doing underground. Once fed the accompanying ant food, the ants went to work digging a network of tunnels and chambers, piling the removed pellets on the surface at the top.

So it started out with an impressive show of ant energy and team work. Then, a few of them started dying, and the others placed their bodies in one of the deeper chambers and filled in the paths to the chamber. Then more ants started dying, and the efforts of the remaining ones switched entirely to burying them and reducing the size of the tunnel and chamber system to something I presume deemed more fitting for a downsized workforce. I followed the feeding instructions, and they ate, so I know that wasn't the problem. Within a week or so the last one died, presumably burying himself as the last thing on his to-do list.

As I subsequently learned, an ant colony with no queen will always die out, just as in humans, no matter how often you work out, your arms and legs will stop when your heart stops working. Uncle Miltie Enterprises would sell replacement ants, but the novelty had worn off so I didn't order any; plus I was afraid that a new batch would get discouraged even sooner when it started digging and ran into the bodies of its predecessor colony.

I consider McDonald's to be a corporate malefactor, not for its food, but for the way it thinks it owns the letters "Mc" in front of any other word, suing for example someone trying to set up a chain of cheap motels called "McSleep". Nevertheless, in this case it is the artist killing off the ants, not fast food.