'Cricket Call, Communications between Insects and Humans' is an interview with Amy Youngs by Giovanni Aloi.
Cricket Call is a technologically-enhanced nature experience attempting to facilitate communication between crickets and humans. Why did you set out to work with live house crickets?
I kept crickets as pets when I lived in an industrial loft in Chicago. Their sounds were comforting and their behaviours quite fascinating to me so I spent some with them, observing their stages of life from eggs to adults. When I would show them to my friends they did not see the crickets as interesting at all, in fact, they would often make rude comments about how they were ugly and looked like cockroaches. I could not convince anyone to look closer, so this became an artistic challenge for me; to make a piece that displays the crickets in such a way as to help humans appreciate them.
I decided to “technologically-enhance” this piece because I felt it would attract people, seduce them to spend some more time with it and help put them into a mindset to experience something new. Technology is an arena in which we are accustomed to confronting the new and improved. Though crickets themselves are not new, the technology in the piece provides a frame for asking questions and considering the possibility for improved communications between humans and insects.
This work involves the use of a telephone interface receiving and sending sound information. Do you believe that interspecies communication could effectively be established through technology?
Yes, I believe that technology can be used as a tool to facilitate communication between different species. It has been used as a kind of language translator that has allowed humans to communicate with a Bonobo chimpanzee named Kanzi. Researchers developed an iconographic keyboard that Kanzi presses to communicate 348 words, each of which are electronically vocalized in English. He is able to understand thousands of spoken words and he can respond and converse in basic sentences by using the keyboard. Knowing this is possible – and the confirmation that some creatures do have a desire to communicate with humans – means we can also imagine developing technologies that would allow us to decode what they are saying to us in their “native tongue”.
This idea of a techno-translator, is something I was building on with the Cricket Call piece, though it is meant more as speculative device than as a scientific tool. The telephone definitely amplifies the sounds of the crickets into the earpiece for human listener and an electronic chirp is emitted into the cricket house when the mouthpiece is spoken into, but I do not believe that a real vocal translation is occurring. Ultimately, my tool is much too crude. One can imagine however, refining the electronic chirp to match the particular species of cricket and even using computers to “watch” and “listen” to crickets with the goal of reproducing meaningful gestures and/or vocalizations that could be activated by human communicators.
The tiny television in the cricket house serves as a possible method for communicating human body language to crickets by shrinking the live, closed-circuit video image of the human participant to cricket size. I think it is most effective as a tool to help the human participant “see” themselves at cricket scale and in the same room with them. The technology used in the piece works to seduce humans into watching themselves watch, listen and speak to crickets. I have noticed that people enjoy seeing themselves reflected in technology.
Did you design and craft the interior environment for Cricket Call? Why this specific design?
Yes. My overall goal for the design of the cricket house was to create an environment focused on helping human viewers relate to them. Instead of making a “naturallooking” home with dirt and leaves, I created a cricket-sized, ostentatious living room with furniture and plush amenities such as velvet rug and a metallic grand piano. I chose the colors of the interior items based on how the crickets would look to us. We are used to seeing them on brown dirt and leaves, but they certainly present themselves more nicely, and visibly, on a royal purple rug.
Originally, I thought I would be able to purchase dollhouse furnishings for the cricket house, but I found them to be too large in scale for the crickets, so I fabricated the furniture objects in wax and then used the technique of copper electroplating to give them a shiny copper shell.
How difficult is to maintain the piece ‘alive’?
The maintenance is fairly simple, but most galleries not accustomed to nurturing artwork. A dozen crickets take about as much maintenance as a guinea pig; water every couple of days, fill the food bowl every week and clean the droppings up. In Cricket Call, the food bowl is hidden inside the crickets’ grand piano and the water is inside the pot containing the tiny houseplant. A piece of sticky tape works well to vacuum up the cricket droppings and dead crickets every few weeks. Living crickets can be purchased at most local pet supply stores, as they are a staple food for pet lizards and snakes. When I purchase the crickets I try to select mostly males because they chirp, while the females are silent. I’ve also noticed that the females tend to chew on the furniture, which might be because they are in search of moist places to lay eggs.
How did people react to the piece?
People really seemed to enjoy saying hello to the crickets and they often giggled. They also asked me many questions about crickets, concerning their care, lifespan and behaviour, which made me feel that the project was successful. Some of the criticism I received was that I had anthropomorphized the crickets. I certainly can’t argue with that, in fact, I have decided to embrace it. Attributing human characteristics to crickets might not be scientifically accurate, but it can help us relate to them, empathize and even consider the possibilities of what has not been discovered yet by science. It was once thought that language and tool use were uniquely human characteristics, but that notion has certainly been challenged by research being done with animals such as Kanzi the Bonobo chimp.
Holodeck for House Crickets brings the insects back to a less-humanised dimension enabling the crickets to have control over their surroundings.
How did the idea for this work come about?
This newer project presents crickets in an artificial natural environment, which includes a chirp-activated video projection. It began with a desire to construct an experience for crickets that would be exciting and interactive for them; kind of like a Disney-land vacation. I considered that the pet store cricket variety, the common house cricket (Acheta Domesticus), is adapted to living indoors. It is possible that they would enjoy a trip to the outdoors, but they might also not survive such a dangerous adventure. So the video projected into their environment is designed to simulate the feeling of travelling through a prairie grassland. Human viewers of this scene can watch, but cannot participate in the interactive element. The sensor is tuned to listen activate the video only when it detects audio frequencies between 4,000 and 5,000 hertz, which are impossible for us to produce with our voices.
Do you think the crickets developed an awareness of their interaction with the projection?
I really wish I knew. I don’t see any indication that they understand their chirping has an effect on the video. However, I do see the crickets attempting to leap onto specific blades of grass in the video, so they are seeing something in it.
Ultimately, the environment I constructed may not be an ideal one for these crickets and I am very interested in this quandary. Wouldn’t House Crickets prefer to be left alone? This would mean leaving them to their fate of being purchased from pet stores to be fed to lizards. In the installation of this art piece I included several products that relate to the typical “care” of this variety of crickets, such as food that is designed to make crickets more nutritious for the pets who eat them and a “Kricket Keeper” house designed for easy dispensing into the aquariums of hungry reptiles. Perhaps House Crickets would rather be let out into their natural environment of people’s houses? This might also lead to their rapid death - either by poisons or by a well-meaning human who captures them and releases them to the outdoors, where they will freeze. Living in a warm glass bubble with artificial rocks, plants and water, an ever-changing video projection and plenty of food and water might a happy medium for them.