"Secrets of the Beehive:
Jane Prophet's SWARM"

by Steven Bode

A distinctive feature of Jane Prophet's steadily accumulating series of electronic art works, whether for the Internet, on CD Rom or as gallery installations, is a fascination with emerging points of connection between the realm of nature and the world of technology - and it is this increasingly blurring relationship between the made and the born, between the artificially created and the biologically inherited, which, again, distinguishes her most recent project, produced for the gallery space at Prema.

'Swarm' is a multi-faceted interactive installation which draws much of its inspiration from ideas currently gaining ground within the scientific community regarding the 'emergent' behavioural properties exhibited by complex natural systems. One such example is the intricate enigma of the beehive: an apparently haphazard hubbub of activity which, on fuller inspection, reveals a remarkable unity of purpose. When bees swarm, such as when re-locating from one hive to another, they do so with a collective logic which emerges spontaneously from the ostensibly autonomous actions of thousands of individual organisms. This phenomenon, which scientists have dubbed 'hive mind', and which can equally be observed in the shoaling of fish or the flocking of birds, has also been increasingly noted in the field of artificial-life research, where computer-generated a-life programmes, played out over long-running simulations, reproduce strikingly similar 'emergent' characteristics. Through these studies, a mathematical 'flocking' algorithm has been discovered which exactly emulates, on computer, the intricate interdependent patterns of a flock of birds in flight - an application of technology which, even as it renders one of the mysteries of nature as a string of predictable and programmable events, vividly reminds us of the extraordinary subtlety and complexity of the physical world.

Prophet's installation grounds these speculative, sometimes specialist, enquiries in a setting that is as immediately familiar as it is precisely articulated. In the middle of the gallery, she has installed three life-size beehives, made not of wood but, instead, vaguely resembling the plastic housings of computers. In all three, at the core of the hive, is a cluster of electronic images. In the first, video footage from the inside of a beehive combines with fleeting images of correspondingly frenetic human activity (teeming rush-hour traffic, market-place jostling etc), linking the swarm activity of the bees with some of the more chaotic manifestations of human social behaviour. A second hive further along the gallery continues this theme, yielding its store of digitally treated images and related texts in a particularly involving and evocative way. This hive is constructed so that a small number of wooden slats resembling honeycomb racks are on display. As the viewer lifts each one up (the way a beekeeper would extract honeycomb from a hive), the action triggers a short image or text sequence to be projected onto the lifted slat or 'screen'. This subtle patchwork effect is echoed on an adjoining wall of the gallery where shelves of softly illuminated honey jars, each containing a small image or inserted fragment of text, can be seen.

The interactive dimension of the installation is completed by the third hive. Here, a computer-generated simulation of an a-life 'swarm algorithm' is projected, in real time, out of the hive and onto the ceiling. This ghostly emanation locks on to selected viewers whose movements cause the 'swarm-image' to follow them across the gallery space, its continually shifting centre of gravity reinforced by sampled sounds and other audio effects, courtesy of composer Justin Bennett, which similarly seem to drift and hover across the gallery walls. Situating the viewer, dramatically and dynamically, at the 'eye of the swarm', this roving interactive perspective also encourages them to make their own imaginative connections between the various constituent elements of the work, criss-crossing between the organic and the artificial to piece together clearly evident parallels linking our new technological mind-set to age-old biological processes.

'Swarm' also matches form to content by being unequivocally more than the sum of its parts. From a simple array of familiar and esoteric elements, all deftly assembled in a wonderfully atmospheric setting in the heart of the English countryside, Prophet has fashioned a provocative meditation on the increasing cross-pollination of ideas from the spheres of nature and technology that is as visually arresting as it is intellectually resonant. As contemporary society places more and more of its faith in technology, we are discovering that rationalist notions of cause and effect, or of central control, are faltering as new models (e.g complex distributed networks like the Internet) appear to take their place. What's more, this awareness seems to mesh with findings from biology and the cognitive sciences which indicate how complex behaviour (such as swarming or thinking) actually emerges from a mass of apparently decentralised and uncoordinated activities. Whether any comparable guiding logic will 'emerge' from our wired-up world of increasingly proliferating technology remains to be seen. But, as Prophet's installation illustrates, the world of the beehive, as it yields up its secrets, may provide us with some of our most compelling clues.

Copyright Steven Bode 1996

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