Artist of the Month: Catherine Chalmers

Image Credit: Catherine Chalmers, OFFERINGS, HIBISCUS, pigment print, 30”x45”

That spatial intelligence cuts across species comes as no surprise to robotics researchers Robert Full or art / science observer Catherine Chalmers.  For those familiar with Full’s gecko research (brought to light on the TED stage), insects offer the scientist / inventor unique mechanical perspective into artificial intelligence and exploration advancing NASA, computer modeling and biomimicry materials.  In Chalmer’s research (reviewed by Wired online) insects and their display of resilience, spatial learning and social organizing become objects of curiosity illuminated by high drama and allegory. 

Chance brought me to Chalmer’s multi-media practice, just in time to use for a GGI4Kids summer project dedicated to exploring “cockroach brains” with high school age art / science olympiads!  While in her text, Chalmers acquiesces the visionary power attributed to the artist, I invite you, the reader, to stop and consider if all of the images seen on Facebook or blogs derive from the absorbing observational focus Chalmers brings to her practice.  And less you think Chalmers is caught up in a 19th century time warp of Darwinian observation, look again at the swift 21st century moves made in her video and photographic essays.

“The Leafcutters”  by Catherine Chalmers   10/4/12


Image Credit;  Catherine Chalmers, ANTWORKS IN PROGRESS, PINK LEAF, pigment print, 30” X 45”

I started working with leafcutter ants simply because I found their parade through the forest, with flickering bits of leaves and flowers in their mandibles, to be like a glorious ballet of moving color.  But it was their eerie parallels to Homo sapiens that engaged my imagination: like us they are a sophisticated social species who wage war, are skilled agriculturalists, master chemists and accomplished architects. They are also rapacious defoliators harvesting nearly 20% of the plants where they live. The analogy to the deforestation humans are causing was not lost on me.

But as the project developed, I came to feel the real reward for lying countless hours on the ground was observing the ant’s social structure. Over the same five years, as social networking took root, I also witnessed our own patterns of communication become more like theirs.  Ant conversation is not top down, but bottom up, not command and control, but connect and collaborate.

Image Credit: Catherine Chalmers, WAR, video still

Even in art making the old paradigm of the solo artist as individual genius is changing. Now everyone is a photographer, a videomaker, a writer. With no questions asked if it’s art, it’s exhibited online for the world to see. The Internet is allowing people to produce culture collectively.

Leafcutter ants have selected leaves, cut shapes, and formed live drawings that crisscross the forest floor for millions of years. The accumulation of their small gestures produces great complexity. Ants are hyperaware of what their millions of  colony mates are doing. Plant preferences come and go like trends in the art world. Some days I see mostly green, other days a lot of red flowers. One day they carried leaves with brightly colored spots. In the end it is always multiple decisions made by multiple minds and therein lies their power.

Image Credit: Chalmers, WE RULE, video still

For more info on Chalmer’s research and images go to


Posted on October 21st, 2012
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