About a year ago, Berlin-based multidisciplinary artist Tomás Saraceno began to assemble collaborators for his recent project, now on exhibit at the Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA). These talents include Nephila pilipes, Psechrus singaporensis and Heteropoda davidbowie, commonly known as the giant golden web spider, the Singapore lace-sheet weaver, and the distinctively shaggy David Bowie spider, respectively, each a member of Saraceno’s audacious “Arachnid Orchestra. Jam Sessions.”
Trained as an architect, Saraceno concocts powerful—and playfully insightful—works that fuse social, environmental and cultural theory together with architecture (real and imagined) and art. At NTU CCA Singapore, his investigations into “structure” embrace scientific and philosophical systems, music and sound—and spider webs. The spider web is considered not only as a laborious creation and shelter, but as an extension of the spider’s self: web density, color and pattern are all unique and dependent upon the environment and species of spider. As part of his ongoing explorations into spiders and web structure, Saraceno worked with scientists, musicians, sound engineers and arachnologists, among others, to create “Arachnid Orchestra” as a study in geometrics, nature and communication. The exhibition as a whole might more accurately be described as integrated scientific enquiry.
Visually, “Arachnid Orchestra” is a strange cabinet of wonders—half-dream, half-laboratory. The NTU CCA Singapore gallery is draped in black, lit only by spotlights that shine into suspended spider webs, which seem to hover in the darkened room like miniature galaxies. Four of these are glowing, complex formations, entitled “Artworks,” that are enclosed in glass; unexpected sheens of color can be glimpsed where light touches the webs. Each is rapturous, grounded only by ingenuous, expository titles. For sheer beauty and presence, one standout is Hybrid musical instrument Cygnus A: built by a solitary spider Nephila kenianensis and two semi-social spiders Cyrtophora citricola (2014). Saraceno revels in such hybrid web-works, where one species spins its web within a specific space and another species is later introduced to create an interlinking web that amends and reorients both structures. For the artist, these hybrid webs are organic metaphors for collective communication and social cooperation.
While the static “Artworks” are preserved examples of webs, the rest of the gallery is filled with six “Arachnid Music Instruments” that are in constant flux. Suspended in open metal frameworks, the “instruments” are alive with continuous destruction and regeneration, as they age and break down and are repaired again by spiders. The “Orchestra” comprises three distinct web- and spider-based “instruments”: strings, percussion and aeolian. Specially adapted laser vibrometers and microphones collect vibration amplitudes and frequencies produced by spider movement on the web surfaces. The suave forms of this equipment, placed discreetly alongside the web enclosures, add an unexpected sculptural dash to the ambiguous, gauzy webs.
The string instruments capture vibrations made by spider movement along the strands, as well as fluctuations of the creature’s own body. Saraceno listens for relationships between movement and sound, created by unpredictable interactions among individual spiders and their web structures. Vibration is transliterated as acoustic output, often distinguished by brisk, digitized clicks and scratches. Solitary monochord HH 46/47 (2015) comprises several stretched strands of spider silk that emit a tentative violin-like rasp when visitors stroke them directly.
The percussionists at NTU CCA Singapore include brawny wolf spiders, who use their legs to drum (as part of their mating behavior). Saraceno places them upon tympanic membranes, some of which are ingeniously made from bamboo dim-sum baskets. These are titled Drum-set M33, NGC 598 for a vibrational ensemble (2015), where vibrometers, piezo audio elements and amplifiers reconfigure spider “drumming” as impatient sonic beats.
Any air current or indirect movement in the gallery affects all the web instruments, particularly the aeolian configuration, whimsically entitled Aeolic instrument for a lighter-than-air ensemble (2015). Saraceno based its design on balloon spiders, which disperse on gossamer threads and ride on air currents. The aeolian web-instrument is mesmerizing: several silvery strands, visibly powdered with dust particles, flutter and glimmer against the dark, and undulate in waves caused by warmth generated by spotlights beneath them. Their fluctuations are modulated to produce Theremin-like sound inflections that fill the gallery.
The spidery “Artworks” and “Arachnid Instruments” recollect previous Saraceno works that integrate web-based structure and form, including “On Space Time Foam,” shown at Milan’s HangarBicocca in 2012. Visitors were introduced into a layered structure of floating, transparent film, where movement and reaction generated unintentional choreographies of feedback. In “Time Foam,” as with his hybrid webs, Saraceno induces new spaces and planes to appear and morph as intentional metaphors for social interaction; at NTU CCA Singapore, the artist extends this conceit to embrace the realm of “interspecies communication” in his “Jam Sessions.”
“Arachnid Orchestra” incorporated three live “Jam Sessions” with local guest performers. In one, musician Brian O’Reilly engaged the spiders with direct acoustic interaction, wherein spider noise directly modulated sounds he produced with an “integrated electro-acoustic ecosystem,” involving synthesizer, gongs and cymbals. Composer and multidisciplinary artist Joyce Beetuan Koh used the web itself as a “sonic canvas” to map and reassign spider movements as data, with which she created a musical score.
In variations on hello, artist Bani Haykal concentrated on direct spider feedback, engaging eight “percussionists” and three web-suspended spiders (acting as “string instruments”), one of which included Hybrid solitary semi-social musical instrument HDF 4-473.0: built by one Nephila clavipes, four weeks and a pair of Cyrtophora citricola, seven weeks (2015), a sizeable hybrid web complex. Haykal transmitted six sound variations to his “orchestra,” including using a vibrometer to emulate the frequency of spider movement, and their corresponding reactions were amplified into acoustic signals. Haykal accompanied his sonic input with typed messages of intention, which were projected onto the wall. For instance, his greeting “hello spiders” triggered the sound of the spiders’ agitated taps and scuffles; while “the spider right in front of me moved for awhile / it stopped and broke my heart / again” was the artist’s rejoinder to dissonant clucks, followed by silence.
Saraceno’s absorbing, witty and altogether enlightening “Arachnid Orchestra” is accompanied by a fascinating online platform (or website) that includes aesthetic, scientific and philosophical ruminations about the “Orchestra,” spiders and webs. The nature of webs—as structures of social interaction, communication, music and art—is that behind apparent tangle and disorder can be found deliberation and purpose. Saraceno’s practice proposes that such clarity may not only be imagined, but made tangible.
“Arachnid Orchestra. Jam Sessions” is on view at Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore until December 20, 2015.