World of webs: artworks woven by thousands of South American spiders

Philip Ball in Nature:

WebThe famous warning never to work with animals or children seems not to have reached Tomás Saraceno. The Argentina-born, Berlin-based artist embraces the unpredictability and scene-stealing capacity of orb-weaving spiders. Thousands of the arachnids are his collaborators in a forthcoming exhibition at the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art. Visitors will wander amid more than 190 square metres of webs woven by Parawixia bistriata, an orb-weaving spider native to several South American countries. A second space hosts an “arachno concert”. For this, the web of another indigenous orb-weaver, Nephila clavipes, is connected to sensors that pick up the movements of plucked threads. These vibrations are broadcast through loudspeakers, stimulating the spiders' movements in a feedback loop. Meanwhile, acoustic waves from the loudspeakers propel “cosmic dust” — fine particles of chondrite meteorites — into the air, their dancing motions picked out by beams of light. Saraceno wants to suggest a conceptual link between spider webs and the “cosmic web” of matter — galaxies, nebulae, dust and dark matter — that permeates the Universe, a topic he has discussed with astrophysicists.

The social behaviour of P. bistriata is complex. The spiders live in a colony; during the day, they build a communal hive-like nest. At dusk, they add individual webs linked into a network, for capturing prey. As they mature, the spiders start to hunt alone. Thus Saraceno's installation is very much a group project, built from an estimated 40 million or so individual threads. He calls each a “trace in the air”, like the trajectory of a grain of dust. As he explains, visitors first see “only faint details”. Then, “as they navigate through interlacing, glittering web fibres, harbours of nebulae and hybrid clusters of galaxies appear, introducing microcosms of cooperation”. Visitors are encouraged to lie down and look up at this silken cosmos.

The N. clavipes installation, meanwhile, is an elaborate symphony. The tiny meteoritic particles — sourced in cooperation with the Berlin Museum for Natural History — mingle with dust in the air to become part of the sonic landscape. Their movements are tracked by video and magnified on a screen, while a custom-built algorithm translates the trajectories into low-frequency sound, sent through 24 loudspeakers. Dust, webs, spiders and visitors' incidental sounds are woven into an acoustic tapestry.

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