Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of our time with global industrial farming, habitat loss, global warming, deforestation, and synthetic pesticide use is the recent realization we are in the middle of an insect apocalypse.
Animal agriculture resulting in deforestation, ocean dead zones, biodiversity loss, and pesticide pollution are all contributing to this dangerous extinction. It is estimated by one recent study that insect populations have declined by 40% since scientists have been tracking populations.
In 2017, a 27-year long population monitoring study revealed a 76% decline in flying insects alone and this will provoke cascading effects on food webs and jeopardize ecosystems.
As insects are at the base of the food chain critical to pollination, this is a truly global tragedy with implications to the environment beyond human food systems. For example, 80% of wild plants depend on insects for pollination, while 60% of birds rely on insects as a primary food source.
The Opera of Dying Insects’ sound and video work wishes to address this issue, with an opera that is auto-composed by insects eating a moist log. Opera was chosen as a language of communication to simulate human emotion, while images of colorful and morphologically fascinating, and nearly extinct insects, are featured with the video channel that is part of this work.
In this work, the pillbugs (Armadillidium Vulgare) live and eat in a constructed paradise of green mosses, microgreens within a moist environment as they slowly eat and deconstruct a wet log. They co-exist in this constructed ecosystem with domestic insects such as leafhoppers, species of lichens, fungi, and bacteria.
These “bugs” are not insects, though are crustaceans closely resembling crabs and shrimp. The characteristic behavior of these crustaceans is they are able to roll up into a ball, when they feel threatened, or if the environment is too dry.
They are important to the ecosystem as they return organic matter to the soil, so it may be digested further by fungi, protozoans, and bacteria. This process produces a natural supply of nitrates, phosphates, and other vital nutrients that plants need to thrive.
Their ancestors lived in the ocean, however, ancient pill bugs crawled out of the sea, millions of years ago to carve a life for themselves on dry land. Like their ocean ancestors, pill bugs have gills that work great in the water or in moist environments. Their gills are basically exposed mucous membranes that absorb oxygen into the blood that feeds the rest of the body.
For installation of this work in foreign lands, as woodlice (pillbugs) are on every continent of earth, the natural insects and soil to construct the ecosystem are always sourced locally.
In the installation, cameras connected to artificial intelligence software views the inside of the constructed ecosystem. Bright projectors project to the walls of the installation large-scale views of this micro-world when the software senses the pillbugs eating or moving about. These inside images are mixed with video images, also projected to the walls of the installation with current insect species that are already extinct, or threatened with extinction.
The musical and operatic parts are mixed and remixed from current and past tragic operas and they are triggered through MAX MSP and Jitter software playing through amplified computer speakers.
Soil: As part of the work, a transplanted cube of the earth is harvested from a local natural forest.
I will perform a “soil transplant,” where I take a small 40 centimeters x 40 centimeters x 23-centimeter-deep cube of soil, with branch and pill bugs, and transplant that into the glass vitrine with moist mosses. When the exhibition is complete, the cube of the earth is placed back into a local arboreal forest.
As the insects eat and mate in the glass vitrine, their movements are sensed with video cameras and analyzed with artificial intelligence software to determine their location and speed. The data derived from these movements trigger portions of these AI-generated auto-scripted operas, that have been partially composed using the AI software.
To generate the opera, we use existing and custom recordings of insects and the recordings of opera, and use the software, allowing one sound to morph into the other seamlessly.
As people observe the large projected images of the pill bugs and other insect cast members in this work to view their micro-world at a scale of their own. This allows humans to notice their subtlety, and beauty and come to a realization that we must cease to dismiss the importance of insects in our ecosystems.
In many ways, pillbugs are miraculous creatures as they cleanse the soils of heavy metals and are considered hyperaccumulators pulling lead and heavy metals from the soil. Their ability to safely remove heavy metals from soil can be important for cleaning up soil pollutants such as cadmium, and arsenic. In coal, spoils for example, as well as slag heaps pill bugs can survive and prosper. When they take in heavy metals they crystallize these ions in their guts, which become spherical deposits in their midgut. With this ability, pillbugs can survive in the most contaminated sites where most creatures can’t.
In 2015, a study by Yale and other universities found that pill bugs play an important real role in controlling global climate. by consuming fungus pillbugs are responsible for breaking down organic matter in the soil. This is a process that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As our atmosphere warms, fungal activity may increase, which then results in more carbon being released.
However, when pill bugs were present, they are able to reduce the effects of increased temperatures by consuming more of that fungus.
Still, we must not contaminate the soils and feel these ancient arthropods while crawling from the sea are the best conductors of this opera for dying insects meant to awaken humans irresponsible relationship to our delicate ecosystems,
Below are 3D visuals of the original idea. To date, the Legs have been cut in steel and await a physical exhibition for full construction of the original concept with the hairy “insect” legs.
Cutting the legs in 1/4 inch plate steel on a plasma cutter. Thanks, Andrew Newbold.
COSI SCIENCE FESTIVAL Columbus, Ohio, May 8, 2021
Opera of Dying Insects giving voice to dying insect populations. Invited by curators COSI Science Festival Project Team; Stephen, Allie, and Josh.
DECAMERON ROW New York, NY, Ongoing 2020
Invites The Opera for Dying Insects video works curated by Sherry Huss
ISEA INTERNATIONAL Montreal, Canada, OCT 2020
Present a paper Symbiotic Intertwining from Parasites for Symbionts as part of the Conference Why Sentience? Opera for Dying Insects and Scatter Surge video works Invited by Elizabeth Demaray.
Ken Rinaldo; Concept, 3D modeling, sound, rendering, and direction
TradeMark Gunderson; sound engineering, video programming, Max MSP
Andrew Newbold: Plasma Cutting at The Ohio State University