Creating Sculpture with a Termite Sweatshop

Agnieszka Kurant talks about her piece A.A.I. (Artificial Artificial Intelligence).

A.A.I., 2014, mounds built by termite colonies with colored sand, gold, glitter, and crystals, 25½ × 16 × 13 inches. Photo by Jean Vong. Courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

They are assisted readymades, but assisted in a hybrid way. Termite colonies, which often consist of up to a few million specimen, build mounds resembling monuments of ancient civilizations like pyramids, ziggurats, or temples. I also thought of the analogy to other monuments created by people, like the Bible or the Koran, or myths and sagas, which are all products of collective efforts of entire societies. I decided to apply the same method to my sculptures and I wanted to outsource them not only to another country, but to another species. Termites are among a few species that create complex worker societies with clear class divisions. They have soldiers, farmers (they are farming mushrooms inside their mounds!), foragers, nurses, etcetera. I imagined an entire factory of completely unaware termites.

Many contemporary artists no longer produce their works themselves. For example, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, or Damien Hirst operate factories with numerous workers. Often, art production is being bureaucratized and outsourced, even offshore. So A.A.I. was created by a kind of mild sweatshop — in this case, a colony of oblivious termites.

The entomologists I work with indicate that different colonies of termites develop “dispersed cognition” and have distinguished “personalities” as if they were constituting a single organism or a person. Some colonies are more sluggish, others more dynamic or adventurous. Some entomologists even analyze the physical features of different mounds as if they were separate characters that express a given collective personality. Like some abstract forms of characters in a story. I thought of creating an actual character operated by micro-workers around the world.

I’m referring to yet another ghostly mechanism at play in contemporary capitalism, which is digital labor, or playbour. We are all unwillingly performing it using the Google browser or Facebook, for example. An average user of Facebook brings this corporation around $36 a year through the sale of our personal data to advertising firms that target us back with profiled advertising. I used the termite colonies as critical models of crowdsourcing through playbour and “digital sweatshops.”

Read more about Kurant’s work in her BOMB interview with Sabine Russ.