Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sculptures and Superorganisms

The word murmuration typically refers to a soft, indistinct sound, but in the more rare sense of the word, it refers to a flock of starlings. The first and only time I ever witnessed a starling murmuration was through a laptop screen – yet I was spellbound. The amoeba-like conglomeration of birds seemed to float through space, both fluid and structured at the same time. The dying hues of the setting sun illuminated the gaps between each bird like light through a mesh screen. When I saw this phenomenon, the first thing that came to mind was a term I’d heard about recently: superorganism.
A biologist coined that word for our great African ant colonies, claiming that consciousness and intelligence resided not in the individual ant but in the collective ant mind. Essentially, the superorganism is an organism consisting of many organisms. But I don’t think the concept is reserved solely for animals – I see it in the cars humming by on the highway and the people bustling in the Times Square subway station.

Another biologist – Ian Couzin – has been doing similar work at Princeton University and has found, through computer simulations and mathematical algorithms, that there are indeed many similarities between different levels of organization in nature. It is essentially a biological criticality: when a neighbor moves, so do you. It’s a system that is poised to tip, to be almost instantly and completely transformed.

Something else that surfaced in my mind while watching the murmurations was the work of an artist named Ruth Asawa, whose work I’d recently seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Asawa is an artist who learned to draw in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II and later earned renown weaving wire into intricate, flowing, fanciful abstract sculptures. She started using wire after a trip to Mexico in 1947, and used the craftsmanship she had learned from Mexican basket makers as well as her ambition to extend line drawings into a third dimension. In 1958, The New York Times wrote of her sculptures’ “gossamer lightness” and the way “the circular and oval shapes seem like magic lanterns, one within the other.” In a way, I think these adjectives perfectly describe the starling murmurations as well.

Thus whether we are looking at birds or humans, sculptures or superorganisms, there are some elements which remain undeniably the same – organization, fluctuation, and variability, to name a few. And by viewing Asawa’s hanging mobiles and the starling murmurations side by side, I think it becomes clear that the dichotomy between art and science may not be as rigid as it seems.

Guest blogger: K.S. Mediratta