In wrapping up my 2013 field season, I challenged my partner Peter Marting to express his research as a performative love story. In just a week, we managed to put together a 30-minute play featuring dozens of actors and audience collaborators, costumes, and an 18 foot long Leaf Cutter ant puppet.
For my second “Digital Naturalist” collaborator, Toni, we met up late one night to discuss which famous work of performance art she wanted to reenact in the jungle. We discussed Joe Beuys, Yoko Ono, (she brought up Abramovich’s piece with the gun), and more of Kaprow’s happenings. She really enjoyed reading about the piece for “Raining” where various objects in the world were painted and then waited on for the rain to wash away (pictures of boats along gutters, trunks of trees painted red, people’s naked bodies). She eventually chose an adapted, and condensed version of Kaprow’s “Soap” to perform where we would cover our bodies in Jam and wash them in the river.
(video documentation of the entire performance)
My goal with these performance art re-enactions was to expose my scientists to different modes of experiencing the strange worlds they encounter everyday in the jungle. Our perception and learning is not absolute but rather state based. The things we pay attention to and the way we comprehend these interactions are steered by our physical and mental states. The insects you notice while walking through a jungle may be different when walking through that same jungle naked and covered in jam.
Another reason for these happenings is to provide and opportunity for the scientists to stand back and reflect on their own practices as these strange performances with animals. Casting this frame of “performance” around the scientist’s work allows him or her to sort of see their own methodologies with new eyes, and pay attention to aspects of their interactions with animals which may have been taken for granted, or simply adopted flatly from standardized ways of experimentation.
For Toni, she saw the performance as a way to explore the irrational in order to clean out the logic machine operating within the everyday scientist. This “logic vacation” let the scientists attempt to let down their guard of incessant meaning-making. It was a way to wash the mind and restore its logical gates to their proper functioning. I argued along with this that too many scientists were always worried about the “meaning” behind doing certain actions, when in fact, meaning making is the core-automatic process of our brains. Our brains find meaning and connections between all the random bits of stimuli we receive, whether these connections make sense or not. We find faces in rocks on cliffsides, and claim instances of Deja Vu when two events from of all the sensory data we happen to take in during our lives intersect. Instead I argue that novel action, not meaning is what’s rare to find in the world. Borrowing from Robert Crease’s work in his book “The Play of Nature” I claimed that the way to discover interesting new behaviors is by performing new behaviors in the world itself. The phenomena we then call forth will be then put under the lens of our brain’s semantic scrutiny.
Like all the performances, I first created engaging posters to hang up around the Smithsonian. This served several purposes:
It prompted curiosity about our research.
It let us reflect and abstract upon the core principles of our performance to be.
It kept my scientists committed to their performance. In this tumultuous world where daily routines are shattered and driven by the weather or wills of the animals, these posters served as temporal staples; locking in their commitment to the strange or odd act they had agreed to.
Tienda guy’s wife had an accident on Friday and the shop shut down. Not only were we worried about her health, but to a lesser extent, we also realized that there was no other source of large amounts of jam within miles.
So I got up early on the day of the performance and showed up at the little shop as it opened to make sure that if it was not going to open, we might still have enough time to find a ride into the city and secure the jelly. Luckily everyone was fine back at the Tienda, and I bought ALL of their jelly. (After buying all their ice another day, the Tienda guy is starting to get a bit weirded out).
Toni and I prepped before heading out. We finalized our performative script for the day. She wanted us to:
Cover our bodies in Jelly
Hike through the woods down to the waterfall on Mendoza River
Bathe ourselves in the waterfall and pool
So that’s the invented ritual we aimed to follow. Like how Schechner defines a performance as “ritual modulated by play”, -how we would adapt this theoretical model of action to the real time and place became the actual performance.
It rained a ton, which made the normal way of walking up to the waterfall (along the edge of the river), quite impossible (especially if we wanted to keep our jelly on). The rain also kept the insects at a minimum which we had anticipated being one of the main experiences of our journey. Instead one of the main things we noticed were about how a body, unencumbered by backpacks and clothes, can move through a jungle. Peter noted that he was able to sneak up on a deer due to his ability to move ultra-silently. The jelly served as a way to highlight all our intereactions and brushings against different insects, dirt and vegetation.
Sometimes the steepness, or thickness, of the terrain would force us to walk through the river, and the jelly made you perpetually conscious of exactly how deep you had entered this fast-flowing flooded river.
The sweetness of the jelly came as sudden suprises. During the trek, little bits would drip with your sweat and land in your mouth, causing quick explosions of rare flavor to take precedent over your focus.
I also took the opportunity to physically emulate the actions of the primary hero of my research, Niko Tinbergen. Here’s a candid shot of him doing fieldwork out in the Netherlands paired up with a shot of the fieldwork of my own.
Doing any performance is much harder than you ever think. Our plans were set and Peter and I joined up to gather morning coolers before La Tienda Opened. 7am Grab the super nice volunteer Dallas along the way. It is crazy early for a bat person.
To give my digital naturalists some practice at alternative forms of performance, I am having them recreate famous performance works in the jungle with their creatures. The first one to go was Peter, who from a list of famous works of performance art chose to reenact Alan Kaprow’s piece, “Fluids.” In “Fluids,” Kaprow built large structures of ice around LA and left them to melt. We were going to try out the same thing in the Neotropical rainforest. A place where ice scultpure art is not only uncommon, it actually introduces a whole new state of matter to the animals that typically only live in the thick sweltering heat of the jungle.
Scene from Kaprow’s Original “Fluids” work.
We noticed the gas levels in the truck were dropping rapidly though. Suspected a leak. Needed to drive into the city to the nearest gas station (20 miles away). Caught in Traffic, gauges still dropping. Pulled into station with needle bottoming out. Fill it all the way to the brim with diesel, but it only takes 5 gallons. Gauge must be faulty. Hurdle 1 done.
Get to La Tienda. Guy seems a little weirded out that we actually came for the “mucho mucho mucho hielo” I requested earlier in the week. 60 bags total. Loaded 40 into coolers and my newly emptied out pelican cases. Wrapped the remaining bags in a white tarp (that Peter used for harvesting Aztecas from Cecropias). KC saw us loading ice and decided she was game to join the crew.
Loaded first installation at the gate to Pipeline road. Met Sunshine’s group there with us. Explain concept and move a fallen tree a bit. They seem to actually like the concept.
Get to our first cecropia tree. It cannot be one for Peter’s official research, because that would screw up his longer term experiments. Pile the ice around for installation #2 and freak those ants THE FUCK OUT. Peter and I have never seen them so angry, and come down so far from their nest near the top of the tree. They seem to be sustaining the anger longer than with flicking or tapping the tree also. Want to get some gorgeous dolly footage of the installation, and realize the dolly is gone. Maybe left it at the Tienda?
Drive back to town, setting up installations along the way. This time around a foraging leaf-cutter trail. Drop off KC, cannot find dolly. Maybe it bounced out of the truck? Drive back to dallas who has been performing a manual time-lapse for us and guarding the tree from the rain. No sign of camera dolly. Bring him lunch. Eat and discuss, and suddenly he has a batmeeting he needs to go to. Peter leaves me at the cecropia ice installation, whose inhabitants are still attacking full force (for over 3 hours by now).Time passes trying to get aesthetically pleasing macro shots of Azteca performing unseen behavior where they shake or pull their frozen compatriots from the icy depths. They are able to revive many. The ice is taking much longer to melt than thought.
After an hour, Peter pulls up in truck. He saw my weird, large mammalian body sprawled in the road and thought I was a tapir. He now has Marc Seid with him and three interns. They are happy to report that they found my dolly! They pull out a brown metally mess. After having driven over it 4 times ourselves, and with at least 3 other run overs by other trucks, it had peeked itself out of the deepest puddle on pipeline. Nothing was bent, only one simple screw had come off, and after I rinsed off the mud and re-lubed it, it worked good as new!
Marc became fascinated with our ice installations. He gave me the high compliment I had been looking for with all this craziness: “This is …. not stupid!” We studied the deformations and restructuring of the foraging leaf cutters in close detail as they responded to this strange stimuli.
One installation, near the river, revealed to us, the vastly different heating and cooling properties of the leaf littler and hard rocky surfaces.
Didn’t wrap up until around 7pm. A good solid 12 hours out in the field. The azteca and the ice were still battling as we left.
Peter and I have hiked out to his secondary field site down old Gamboa Road. Unlike pipeline, this old road is barricaded, so we cannot drive our equipment down to his trees, and instead have to take his cameras, tripods, and full sized ladder through the jungle and up a creek. We set up the first of the days experiments around 8am. Howler monkeys lazily gaze down upon us. Probably resting after all the sunrise screaming. My second official day shadowing him, and he has already worked many of the kinks out of his process. All the cameras are charged, no tripod switching, timings are all down pat with additional buffers for recording ant movements.
Tested out my macro extension tubes on Peter’s 100mm canon macro lens. Makes for double mega macro that’s also super hard to use in the field. Managed to snag this pic however, resting the camera on the top of my boot.
Checking in with him about his journaling, and he reports that it is going well. In particular he liked one of my guidelines in the journal where I have him act out a portion of a performance that he had witnessed that day. “It always makes me think of new things when I actually perform. I think about specific parts about how the antennae move, or that person acted which I would not have otherwise noticed.
We packed up as the rain came down. Peter gave me my first lesson in driving stick. The jungle is a good place to learn to drive.