Hooks & Webs: Hover Above Void

Some fail to fall because they cling on tightly (with tiny hooks on their legs)

Even without legs, some cling on with leg-like features and tiny hooks
seeds suddenly seem like arthropods.

Spiky ‘leg’ hooks of seeds and arthropods. Excerpt from Legless Travel, 2018

Others fail to fall because they get stuck on their way down.
wasp in web — pine needles caught in resin of their own tree.

All there was left to do

was fall.

let go, drop down.

but it wasn’t as simple as that.

even when you fall you

can get stuck on your way down

caught in web, hover above void —

immobilised by sticky resin.

Do you fall or not?

is it because you get stuck on your way down, or because you have a crafty way of clinging on?

and which one is better? Sometimes it’s better to let go, even if it means you fall.

Music for Moss and Mushrooms

In a previous post I explored ways to tell ‘creaturely’ stories through music and moving image.

How would this work for creatures that do not move much to the human eye? Can mosses and mushrooms, who seem so static at first glance, inspire ideas about sound and image, flow and rhythm?

Various people have thought musically about these lives. Silence and the barely perceptible are important notions. Moss expert Robin Kimmerer wrote in her book Gathering Moss:

Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking. A cursory glance will not do it. Starting to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filtering of all the noise, to catch the music. Mosses are not elevator music; they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.

Artist/musician John Cage was very much inspired by mushrooms:

“I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom”

He explained this in the “Music Lovers’ Field Companion” (1954). The experience of finding hidden mushrooms, was for him similar to the experience of hearing quiet sounds. And of course, there is the amazing Czech mushroom composer Václav Hálek, who has transcribed thousands of melodies straight from mushrooms.

Knights Bush, near Clutha river, New Zealand

For me, it’s important to not isolate a mushroom or a moss, but notice them in interaction with others. In my audio/video experiments I look for ways to capture rhythms that can be perceived in real time, without speeding up time like in a time-lapse. I look for spontaneous and almost accidental encounters, not trying to establish a perfect match between audio and visual. Through improvisational music and multispecies interactions (a person touching a wobbly mushroom, a spidermite walking through moss), I found a way to express something about the dynamisms of a mushroom and a patch moss.

Music, visual narratives & creatures

Visual narratives are multisensory invitations.

I’m interested in a biological synaesthesia. How to create stories about insects, trees, mosses, mushrooms, that are not just a bunch of static images for eyes alone, but also blend with textures, movements, sounds — to convey something about their expressive and dynamic lives?

One way into this is through music. There is close affinity between sounds and visual narratives, eg. as discussed for comics here and here. Sequences of images can have a rhythmic quality, and music can be visualised in many ways. Can a sound be a comic? Maybe. Sounds can certainly tell a story. Looking at visual narratives broadly, nature documentaries often use sound to create interesting illusions. Sound effects are used as if they were the real sounds of insects munching (hugely exaggerated!), or to present a seamless harmony of a sneaky melody with a sneaky lion that slowly approaches their prey. It’s tempting to see nature that way. But it’s also important to remember that they are constructs.

I’ve started recording insects and spiders around the house, and made music for them. We might not understand each other very well but we do live together — to a degree, we might even process the same indoor sounds. These are synthesizer experiments; tiny stories through silence & sound, harmony & mismatch. Music and creatures were recorded indoors: both are part of the home environment.

Adventure of a jumping spider in the kitchen and on me.

It’s not so much about finding rhythms and sounds that are a perfect harmonious match with the images. It’s more about capturing something about their expressive mystery. A way to ‘give voice’ without speech and with plenty of imperfection. After all, what seems a neat harmonious match from a human perspective, how could I possibly know if it’s anything close to a harmony from a spider perspective? The point is not to claim to understand them; I can only hint at their experiences through my own expressions. In these micro compositions there is plenty of silence and mismatch.

a weak bumblebee consumes a drop of honey, but only barely.

Sound to give ‘voice’, video to give ‘face’. And they are rather cute, no?

These sound/image narratives only begin to approach an answer to nature sound illusions. How could we present an honesty about nature constructs, a self-awareness that takes responsibility for the fantasy*?

*Philosopher Timothy Morton discusses this issue in his book Ecology without Nature.

Note: I briefly touched upon biological synaesthesia through the paintings and notes of Hilma af Klint, whose observations of ‘moist moss’ and ‘cool trees’ led to colourful works of figurative shapes (plants, shells, flowers) in combination with abstract geometries. Music provides another angle for creating a sensory & visual language to express something about creatures and humans alike.

How dead is dead? (with synth soundtrack)

Log life.

Unseen worlds keep appearing when I closely scrutinise rocks and dead logs. Mosses, beetles, lichen, fungi, slime moulds, springtails, mites, spiders, webs, flies, all find their own perfect and ever-changing corners. My eyes can hardly keep up.

it echoes in my head: how dead is a dead log? How inanimate is a stone?

and so I wrote a little song about it:

A log dweller that deserves more attention is the slime mould. They’re into decaying matter: bacteria, fungi, leaves; the stuff on rotting logs…. they come in many shapes, colours and sizes (see pictures below). Slime moulds are well described as animal/fungus hybrids. Like a fungus, they produce spores. Like an animal, they move to hunt for food. Ever so slowly.

But sometimes I don’t even know what I’m seeing anymore. Today, I saw a perfect mushroom-shape covering the ground like a blanket. A decaying amanita. A big beetle and a few springtails seemed to have a good time in it. Texture: slime mould-esque.

More than dead, more than a mushroom.

Secret traditions: visit the flower before you die

I notice a lot of bumblebees resting or napping in flowers. They also seek out flowers as a resting place shortly before they die. A flower might give some food and shelter from the elements, but is it enough? Might the bees have additional reasons for choosing the flower as a resting place?

Could it be that they find some kind of peace, comfort, or pleasure in the soft, colourful, fragrant shapes of the flower?

Thinking along these lines, it almost sounds like a religious, spiritual or cultural tradition….

and so, she disappears into the light.

You might think all of this sounds crazy, but there is some serious research looking into questions of beauty and the sensory perceptions of nonhumans, including insects (eg. as discussed here). There is even research that asks if animals might have culture or folklore.

I’m fascinated by the idea that animals can have aesthetic preferences. That they know beauty. Not (or not only) because it serves some kind of function (like an indicator of health, vigour or nutrition), but just because there are things they feel attracted to — which are not always explicable. Why is something beautiful to you? Beauty is elusive to humans, too. 

a final drink

To me, it makes sense that we should no longer think of insects as automatons that just carry out tasks and respond mechanically to their surroundings. Instead, we can think of them as agents who experience the world in multi-sensory ways, and are attracted (or repulsed) to the smells, textures, colours and shapes around them.

Beauty, a dialogue between perceiver and perceived. 


My thoughts are inspired by feminist writers Hustak & Meijers — this is a good read:

Hustak, C. & Myers, N. (2012) Involutionary Momentum: Affective Ecologies and the Sciences of Plant/Insect Encounters. d i f f e r e n c e s: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 23 (3), doi 10.1215/10407391-1892907

Flower: an insect perspective

We often appreciate flowers as still life. But they're not still.
This video captures something that may be closer to an insect perspective: the flower on the move.
Flower and wind in real time. Blow your head, poppy.

Flowers are expressive and sway. I tried to capture this with music. Insects need to consider the movements of a flower when they plan to spend some time together. Hold on tight.
This is a landscape where I’d like to spend some time, even though it’s hectic. Inviting textures and shapes, intimate internal structures, deep colour.

Below is my discovery of the day: sunflower and dandelion have spiral shapes in common.

And this: a dandelion on its way out looks like it’s about to burst into flames.