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Rotational Rider: WHERE DO THE ANTS GO? Phase 1

Still from multi-media installation in progress by Afrah Shafiq, courtesy of the artist

Under its collaborative framework, the To-Gather project Rotational Rider has selected the artwork WHERE DO THE ANTS GO?  by Afrah Shafiq. WHERE DO THE ANTS GO? is an interactive sculpture of an ant hill where the behaviors and outcomes of the colony are determined by those present within it. It is imagined as a multi-lingual, interactive experience that is shaped in response to pre-programmed algorithms and real time inputs. Built in the imagination of web 3.0 and speculative futures of the internet, it attempts to bring together the natural world, the human mind and tech to offer a possibility to step back, observe patterns and perhaps even re-set.

Here is the statement by the artist Afrah Shafiq:

I’ve always been in interested in working with digital forms and philosophies of tech – exploring themes such as the idea of a system mutiny when a software update fails, the meaning of “bugs”, the links between weaving and coding, cross stich and dot per matrix or the figure of mother mary and the AI, in my past work. I’ve also been working largely with digital forms, building interactive websites and narrative fiction. When I was approached for a project called ‘rotational rider’ – it felt both familiar and new. I was already working with other collaborators outside of the logic of physical time and space for a while. I have made digital work that is set in a physical space and travels without physically moving. But in addition to this, the idea at its core also involved making a work that is adaptable and responsive to different geographies and contexts.

At around this time, I was dealing with a heavy ant infestation in my house and I had begun observing them as a way to step away from the screen. You know, that pull of the algorithm that sucks you into pre-programmed scrolling. The ants were always going somewhere, but how did they know where to go and besides, where did the ants go? I of course googled it and discovered a rich tradition of the parallels between ants and programming well underway. An experiment called Langton’s Ant in the 80’s (based on Conway’s game of life) where very simple rules lead to emergent complex behavior. Many pre-programmed ant colonies in C++ that not only regulated themselves but even created their own systems. Actual algorithms that build solutions using principles of ant behavior as in the case of the travelling salesman problem. And a more popular recent field of study dubbed the “anternet” that discovered how data control protocols on the web are directly reflected in the way ants are deployed in their search for food.

I found myself building on these parallels and wondering about the connections of pheromone trails to data loops inside the echo chamber. To the role of the queen ant and how it relates to the algorithm. The connections between the site of the anthill and other immersive environments that provide a shared synchronous experience.

If the ant hill is the internet (or the brain)
and each individual ant is a single byte of data (or a neuron)
what place does the individual ant/data point/thought have
on the outcome of the colony/fabric of the internet/workings of the brain?

Rotational Rider and WHERE DO THE ANTS GO? were developed through a curatorial dialogue with Fernanda Brenner (Pivô, São Paulo), Chus Martinez (FHNW, Basel), Diana Campbell (Dhaka Art Summit, Dhaka), Iaroslav Volovod (formerly of Garage Museum of Contemporary Art), Daniel Baumann (Kunsthalle Zurich, Zurich). Afrah’s project will develop across a wide range of geographies and social contexts, engaging new players and changing the game with new cultural perspectives and curatorial input as the work develops from its debut at Dhaka Art Summit until the end of 2024 through the To-Gather platform catalyzed by Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia.

Rotational Rider: Where Do the Ants Go? came out of a To-Gather collaboration grant. See all “To-gather” International Collaboration supported projects here.