Abstract- Jussi Parikka

Insect Media of the Nineteenth Century

Recent decades of media design and media theory have embraced the notion of insects and other forms of “primitive life”. In robotics, network software design and in theoretical notions such as swarms and virality, insects and other forms of distributed agency are taken as powerful modes of intelligence of networks. Insects have been embraced due to their imaginative powers in sensing and moving, actualised in various experimental models of optics and robotics. In media art, insects have made their appearance for example in Toshio Iwai’s Music Insects (1990), the Sci-Art: Bio-Robotic Choreography project (2001, with Stelarc as one of the participators), Laura Beloff’s Spinne (2002), networked spider installation, working according to the web spider/ant/crawler technology, without forgetting a wide range of virallike art works pioneered by Tommaso Tozzi’s viral art code from 1989. For some, such as Kevin Murray writing in 1997, the insect becomes a crucial crossroad of questioning of late modern media, where “we can discern two opposing positions on entomorphosis. The utopianism of the small screen would have us lighten the load of individualism—to pool our creative resources and make the honey of collective art. In the more paranoid big screen, such assimilation represents a betrayal of self, with its fragile allegiances to friend, family and home.”
Yet, this theme of insect media can be traced to a much earlier period, namely the widespread birth of modern entomology since the middle of the nineteenth century. In the context of media history, we are familiar with especially E.J. Marey’s experiments with insects that were to give information on the movements and flight capacities of these simple forms of animal kingdom. In addition, insects were during the latter half of the century seen as uncanny but powerful forms of media in themselves, capable of weird sensory and kinaesthetic experiences. Examples range from popular newspaper discourse to scientific measurements and such early best-sellers as An Introduction to Entomology; or, Elements of the Natural History of Insects: Comprising an Account of Noxious and Useful Insects, of Their Metamorphoses, Hybernation, Instinct (1815–1826 ) by William Kirby and William Spence.
This presentation focuses on this early theme of insect media and the interfacing of such “dumb forms of intelligence” with technological systems. The nineteenth century insect media produce an interesting perspective towards the intertwining between biology (entomology), technology and art, where the basics of perception are radically detached from human-centred models towards the animal kingdom. In addition, this science-technology-art trio presents a challenge to rethink the forces which form what we habitually refer to as “media” as modes of perception. By expanding our notions of “media” from the technological apparatuses to the more comprehensive assemblages which connect issues biological, technological, social and aesthetic, we are able to bring forth novel contexts also for contemporary analysis and design of media systems.
Even though the theme of “naturalizing the media” has received its fair share of criticism, I argue that looking at the interfacing of biology and technology does not produce merely half-hearted metaphorics, but can be translated as a focus on the intensive capacities of biological agencies. Here, as in the nineteenth century awe towards insects, the focus is not so much on the form or substance of a certain animal, but on the intensity its expresses, its bodily capabilities (to use Deleuze-Spinozian ideas of ethology): an eco-ethology of media systems.