The Original Social Network

Since 2008 I have been filming, photographing, and following the fates of more than a dozen colonies of leafcutter ants on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. The multimedia Leafcutters project is a collaboration with millions of wild ants.  Focused on four supposedly unique human traits—language, ritual, war, and art—the narrative aims to blur the boundaries between culture and nature.

Leafcutter ant colonies have eerie parallels to human society, and this is the conceptual basis of the project. To quote the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson, these ants are “the most complex social creatures other than humans.” Their colonies are underground metropolises with millions of members, and they are farmers that skillfully raise their own food. As the principal herbivore of the forest, leafcutter ants are a dominant species and, like us, influence the grand structure of all other biological systems in their habitat. They also wage brutal wars against intruders.

Since the ants harvest from a wide variety of plants, I was given much latitude in what I could offer them to form the narratives.  I watch the ants and respond and experiment and adjust. This project has taken shape through this back and forth process.

Over time, I came to feel that the real reward for lying countless hours on the forest floor was observing the dynamics of ant society. One of the principal characteristics humans and ants share is their socialness, and at the heart of a social species is communication. 

Ants invented an interactive, networked form of communication that rivals the Internet and predates it by hundreds of millions of years. Without central command—antennae touches are like text messages—millions of ants coordinate their behavior. The accumulation of their small gestures produces enormous complexity. 

With the rise of social media over the last decade, I’ve seen our own patterns of communication become more participatory and efficient like theirs—which is not top down, but bottom up, and not command and control, but connect and collaborate. With ants, it’s always multiple decisions made by multiple minds; therein lies their power and perhaps ours as well.

A direct engagement with the natural world is central to my artistic practice. Science is an integral part of my work, both in terms of research—providing the ability to successfully engage with my subjects—as well as influencing the inception of the underlying concepts.

I use the narrative possibilities of the visual arts to bridge the increasing rift between humanity and the ecosystem. My aim is to bring the nonhuman back into the human world and to creatively reengage with the systems that support life on earth. Our culture is far richer with the inclusion of other life forms.


Catherine Chalmers

CATHERINE CHALMERS is an artist based in New York.