Ento-musings from the University of Kentucky Department of Entomology

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Arts & Sciences

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

A few months ago, New York-based artist Janine Antoni asked us for some help. She was working on a multi-media project, and she needed a live spider for the piece. She was looking specifically for a spider that would build a web inside a three-dimensional installation... an installation that would include the artist herself. The final product would be a photograph of the installation (live animals... the artist... photography... now that's multi-media!). She had a lot of questions for us. Would a spider build a web next to a living person? What kind of spider would be be most likely to cooperate? Where does one find such a spider? How would one keep the spider alive and happy? This was an interesting challenge, but we were ready to help.

The first step was to determine the type of spider. Janine was looking for a circular, symmetrical spider web--not a messy cobweb. In other words, she wanted a "classic" spider web. This narrowed our search down quite a bit: the only commonly occurring spiders in the U.S. that build these types of webs are orb weavers. There are many species of orb weavers in the U.S., and none of them are dangerous. Great! So... how does one acquire an orb-weaver spider? While it is possible to buy tarantulas and other types of spiders from pet stores and online suppliers, this is usually not the case for orb-weaver spiders: most orb weavers live for only a few months, so it is impractical to raise and sell them as pets. We suggested that she find one locally, and that's what she did. She found an orb weaver in her backyard last summer (it had made a web between the ropes on a swing-set).

So Janine and her crew moved the spider into the artwork, where it proceeded to build a web. This is a piece called Lattice (2009):

The spider was also a part of this larger piece called Inhabit (2009):

A quote from Janine in a 2009 article from Art in America:
"As I started to research the process of actualizing this image, things became complicated. Would a spider actually cooperate? How would I remain still in order to facilitate its weaving? After speaking with several entomologists, and learning about the extreme sensitivity of spiders to motion, I looked into getting a harness that would immobilize me. That led me to the world of harnesses, where I found a particular design that enabled me to be attached to a structure from many points on my torso. I realized that my body could be suspended in a way similar to a spider in its web. But I would need to build a cage around my legs in order to keep the spider in that particular area of my body. And it also became apparent that the spider would be too sensitive to build directly on my body due to body heat."

I think that art and science do not overlap often enough, so it was great to work with Janine and to have a small impact on contemporary art!

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