Beetle Wrestler (Natalie Jeremijenko & Chris Woebken)
From the curators: An update on the metaphor for empathy that suggests walking a mile in the shoes of another, Beetle Wrestler designs “an architecture of reciprocity” that allows humans to better understand the heightened state of combat in the insect world. The rhinoceros beetle is one of the animal kingdom’s strongest members; males of the species are able to lift 850 times their own weight with their sharp, two-inch-long horns. This ability is used to win female mates and control access to them once secured. Beetle Wrestler pits a Hercules Beetle (Dynastus Hercules)—the largest in the rhino beetle family—against a human, who clips her head into a helmet device scaled to allow her to imitate the range of movements and strength of her insect opponent. Beetle wrestling matches have long been a popular past-time for elementary school students in Japan, where the insects are kept as pets, and celebrated in festivals, video games, and cartoons. This interactive design environment turns a spectator sport into a participatory exercise while also cleverly flagging the present-day technological hubris that allows humans seemingly unfettered access to experience. The design brings into confluence the fields of art, design, performance, science, and ethics, asking whether design can ever allow us to understand the experience of another living creature, insect or otherwise. Natalie Jeremijenko is the director of the Environmental Health Clinic at New York University, where she developed Beetle Wrestler in collaboration with Chris Woebken, Lee von Kraus, and Leigha Dennis.
Imagine for a moment that you are the beetle. Not the woman in the loft with the low-tech gadgets and the trippy helmet and the exotic pet and the minimalist website and the starring role in the multispecies art project. Imagine instead that you are the beetle.
Maybe you raised beetles like this when you were growing up in Japan. Maybe you trained them to fight in your village in Thailand. Or, maybe, wherever you’re from, you’ve had other reasons to spend time observing and interacting with them. Maybe you worked in a zoo or a pet store. Maybe you’re one of those people for whom sympathy with other creatures comes easily.
You’re here on the table, though you don’t know why. The table lacks features, there’s nowhere to hide. The table lacks contours, there’s nowhere to climb. The surface is unstable so it’s hard to get traction. The room lacks shade and the light is relentless.
And this thing that’s coming at you. It’s huge and powerful, lunging at your head. It grapples. It wants to fight; though you don’t know why.
Try to imagine that you are the beetle. It’s not possible. You can try to imagine it, but you can’t get close. You’re physically too different. Your sensoria don’t correspond. You occupy an entirely different world, not only in temporal and spatial scale and experience but in texture and chemistry. The signals you receive are not the same; the signals you send don’t translate. Even if you could somehow build a body of similar sophistication—you couldn’t—it would provide no insight into the qualities and forms of the animal’s perception. There is no reciprocity, architectural or otherwise; there is only contact. There is no prosthetic to bridge difference; there is only what departs one side as a philosophical game and arrives on the other as…well, we’ll never know.
Dive into the ocean and shimmy a little fish-like. Take off in a plane and soar part-bird. Enter a tunnel and feel the mole stir inside you. Stand still in the forest until the fluids rise in your veins.
Lie on the summer grass and let your skin rustle in the breeze.