For his much-anticipated first exhibition with Berlin gallery Esther Schipper, Tomás Saraceno has taken a rather organic jump from the biospheric installation and sculptures seen in his “Cloud Cities” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof. Long fascinated by spiders — which, unsurprisingly, are one of the roots of his web-like installation technique — Saraceno went directly to the source for “Social .. Quasi Social .. Solitary.. Spiders … On Hybrid Cosmic Webs,” examining the species-specific structures of the arachnids’s silky creations, especially from the mere handful of types of spiders who collaborate on building them.
Rather than just setting one group of to work, however, Saraceno set multiple species — all of the social, collaborative kind — loose in succession on webs (first removing the previous inhabitants) to literally sculpt with living creatures. Installed in darkness, the glass vitrines are lit from below to highlight the intricacy of the constructions. The resulting microcosms on view through April 13th at the gallery and this summer at Dusseldorf’s K21 are truly something to behold.
Alexander Forbes met Saraceno in his Berlin studio while the works were nearing completion to discuss the peculiar habits of this minute subsection of collaborative arachnids, the intricacies of creating hybrid webs, and their cooptation.
You’ve worked with spiders for years but never with the social species, is that correct?
Yes, this is the first time we have tried to mix species together too, where each final web is an instance of hybridity. We work very closely together with arachnologists. Yael Lubin from the Blaustein Institute in Israel brought us the Cyrtophora citricola spiders and is the leading scientist on social spiders. It’s a small group of researchers working with these, though. She has been working to determine the specific kind of sociability that each social species carries out. For example, one species has the particular characteristic of feeding its offspring as a community, like babysitters. They also share the web completely. They build some of the biggest webs, and then when prey gets caught in it, they commonly eat it as a group. It’s as if they live in a big house together, share the kitchen and share the garden, everything.
Some other species exist together but in separation. In that case, they build the web as a group but each maintains its own territory within the web that they are responsible for. They don’t eat together or share common space — it’s more like an apartment building. The vast majority of spiders are asocial. They don’t mingle. But I like the idea of many different species sharing the same web: even social and asocial species.
But will they actually cohabitate simultaneously or are they only social within their specific species?
What we are doing is building hybrid webs; we are weaving together different species and degrees of sociability among different species of spiders. The results are webs as have never existed before, since usually each spider will build his or her own corner or piece of land and never build or use another web to build on top her own web. In one particular hybrid there was first a web made by a Latrodectus mactans or Black Widow. We later took out the Latrodectus [commonly known as “Black Widow”], leaving the web in the box, and introduced a Tegenaria. She built her very specific web on top of another completely different type of web made by the Black Widow previously. After a while you could no longer recognize that there had been another web below. The Tegenaria had covered it over completely. But in many other boxes you can see perfectly how the two different webs merge one into each other as here with the Tegenaria on top of the Cytophora, or here with the Pholcus and Nephilia.
Do they naturally build their webs at all different angles like this?
No they don’t usually. We get them building for a while, then we turn the containing structure on its side or upside down so they will build in another way. The spider, even if pretty much blind, can orientate with her own body weight, recognize where the earth is, and build the nest parallel to the ground. So by changing the orientation of the box you get these strange configurations as if gravity was constantly shifting around. We are training them for the International Space Station. We want to see what they will do in the absence of gravity, building their webs in a completely weightless environment As you can see in the vitrine there is an ISS proposal signed by four scientists and one artist with this idea.
How did that idea come about?
One thing that still fascinates me, among many others, is how many scientists over the years have tried to use the spider web as an analogy for the structure of the universe – many times they talk about cosmic filaments of galaxies. The best comparison they have found is something like a three-dimensional spider web as in the Millennium Simulation.
The analogy seems to lend itself well to your installation work as well.
Well, yes, I am always interested in how we are affected by things we might not perceive or are unable to be conscious of. For example, the simplest way to differentiate between spider species is through their web, whether it is only one strand or is two or three-dimensional. During this process of comparison and analysis we realized that no one had ever scanned a three-dimensional spider web before. There was not even a machine on the planet that could do it. The filaments within the webs are actually too thin to be scanned by conventional methods. You would not see anything through any existing machine. We tried for years with MRIs, CT scanners, etc.
So, in collaboration with other institutions, I led in creating the mechanic possibility and scanning processes for the world’s first ever method to capture and digitize a real three-dimensional web. It reminded me that within the universe itself we can only detect very little of what actually exists. Ninety-six percent of everything is dark matter or dark energy. So it’s only appropriate that we have collectively chosen an analogy like the spider web that, on the one hand, is an everyday thing present in the corners of our homes, but on the other hand, is completely unknown.
But with this new scanning technique you can at least come to a physical understanding of the webs?
Yes, it plots out all the various points and puts out something similar to a blueprint showing how many lines need to attach to each point at whichever height in whatever place. We print all of that information into a sort of map, meticulously place it onto the floor and ceiling of the space and then slowly, through a series of processes, build up the web with the help of nylon string and elastic. I really like the idea of trying to create a universe within a universe. It’s both shrinking down the structure in which we live and magnifying that in which the spiders exist. We’re just hoping and working hard to make sense of it in some way.