Art review: Arachnid Orchestra. Jam Sessions

Tomas Saraceno's Hybrid musical instrument Cygnus A: built by a solitary spider Nephila kenianensis and two semi-social spiders Cyrtophora citricola. Photo: NTU CCA Singapore
Tomas Saraceno's Hybrid semi-social solitary musical instrument NGC 613: built by a pair of Cyrtophora moluccensis, one day, one Cyrtophora cirticola, three weeks and one Agelena labirintica, six weeks. Photo: NTU CCA Singapore.
Tomas Saraceno's Hybrid solitary semi-social semi-social musical instrument Indus: built by one Nephila clavipes, three weeks, a small colony of Linyphiidae frontinellina, four months and six Cyrtophora citricola spiderlings, four weeks. Photo: NTU CCA Singapore.
Tomas Saraceno weaves an artful reflection of the complexities of structure and communication
Published: 4:19 AM, October 31, 2015

SINGAPORE — For most of us, spiders are a scurrying pest to be shooed gently out the door, or something to recoil from on a nature trail. (We may even feel a little guilty; they eat bugs and that is a good thing, right?) For artist Tomas Saraceno, though, spiders — and their webs, in particular — have much to teach us about utopian architecture, social communication, and even the structure of the cosmos itself, reflected in his show Arachnid Orchestra. Jam Sessions, which is now on at the Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (CCA).

Saraceno jokes that he thinks of himself as a facilitator for the real artists of the show: The spiders themselves — and it is not too much of a stretch, with much of the work on show consisting of actual, inhabited webs. These are largely collaborative in a fashion highly unlikely to exist in the wild with successive web structures built by different species of spider; some more social, some less, in a sort of haptic inter-species communication. Adding a further layer of fascination is the fact that these interactions may not be merely additive — a given spider might, for instance, eat part of an old web and build something else.

Warmly spot-lit in a darkened exhibition space, some of the webs form scintillating, dizzyingly complex structures in a sort of counterpoint to the bare, cuboid frames that house them. It is a humbling comparison which we could expand to architecture — the fashion for globular facades aside, most of our architectural history could be crudely summed up as “lots of boxes stacked up in a way that tends not to fall over”.

A number of these structures are, in a manner suggestive of an experiment in progress, probed and penetrated by a variety of instruments, which sound almost as exotic as they look — contact microphones and a laser-Doppler vibrometer. These translate subtle movements in the webs into sound — stringed instruments, basically, built and played by spiders — resulting in the gallery being awash in strangely alien aural textures. Continuing the orchestral theme is an Aeolian wind harp, a wind instrument in which the wafting of long strands of spider-silk is similarly sonified. There is a curious sense of fine-grained participation and immersion when one realises that actions as simple as walking past these instruments, or just breathing, disturbs the air around them, integrating human movement and existence into their sonic tapestry.

The percussion section is staffed by a number of spiders — the golden-furred heteropoda davidbowie among them — in small, miked-up enclosures, translating their movements into percussive sound. If you are one for gawking at spiders, or running screaming from them, this instrument affords the clearest view of the spiders. This percussive theme continues with a short video, which emphasises the fact that this percussion is not merely incidental — spiders may deliberately “drum” to communicate with their kind, with their webs functioning as a prosthetic sensory network.

Rather than some sort of freak show for us superior humans to gawk at the curious behaviours of lesser species, Saraceno’s Arachnid Orchestra. Jam Sessions exerts a sort of humbling fascination with the complexities of structure and communication possible for a creature so frequently disregarded. And in another bit of underlying speculation, it asks: If and when spiders organise orchestras of their own accord, what would their music be like?

Arachnid Orchestra. Jam Sessions runs from Oct 23 to Dec 20, noon to 7pm Tuesdays to Sundays, noon to 9pm Fridays, at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, 43 Malan Road.