10:41 p.m. 6.Sep.99

Insect Bytes
Marisa Newman on Micro Friendship and bugrace99

Had lunch today with a would-be aspiring entomologist. He described his love of the preying mantis and their mutual affinity for him. During the meal, yellow-jacket wasps swarmed around our table. At that moment I understood why he was a "would-be" and not an actual entomologist.

All this talk about insects had me wondering about the installations and performances here at Ars Electronica that involved these creatures. The first work is Yasushi Matoba and Hiroshi Matoba's "Micro Friendship." bugrace99 It is a complex set-up: a colony of insects that are contained on a disc-shaped platform, a microscopic video camera attached to it, a monitor that rest on top of a table, a joystick and a pointer. The monitor shows the bugs in their environment, while the viewer may move the joystick to see different areas of the colony along the x-axis and y-axis. The pointer attached to the monitor is a virtual pointer that is linked to an actual pointer, which is subsequently attached to the colony. The actual pointer is proportionate in size to that of the insects. One may simultaneously move the joystick and see the insect while pushing the pointer to interact with them.

The banner description of this installation states that the work allows for us to "communicate and interact with creatures whom we might otherwise not even notice." The piece seems interesting and I attempt this specialized mode of communication. I poke at some large black and yellow critters, then move obstacles before tiny transparent crabs. All in all, I feel dissatisfied. The work is visually and technically appealing, yet the communication seems false and contrived. One feels more intrusive than communicative. The term communication is often used to describe a dialogue that entails mutual respect between the two or more parties. This piece does not respect the inhabitants, but rather plays with them as in a video game.

The next project is "bugrace99 - the world's fastest bug." bugrace99 Created by the Linz-based art group, Stadtwerkstatt, this piece is a theatrical sports event. The races take place in Stadtwerkstatt's eponymous residence. Winding through a narrow hall, up a wooden stoop, one arrives to the spectacle. A large bright orange case (approximately 6' x 6') contains four separate runways. At the head of the box are four sets of control panels or "joy consoles" from which the jockey's control their insect. This control is based on jolts of mechanical-electric stimulation. Carpeted bleachers surround the track on three sides. An eloquent MC banters in German engaging his audience and building up the excitement level in the room. He introduces the contestants - four cockroaches: Muff Dive, Jimmy Ringo, Sporty James and Mr. Perfekt. Now the betting begins. The MC continues to talks about each roach. He makes each one sound so superior that it is hard to speculate who might be the winner.

Finally, the announcement is made that the bets are closed and the races will commence. Two women in strapless zebra skin dresses, cowboy hats and "plastinated" roach brooches bring out the cockroaches and place them before the starting gate, the human jockeys are behind the consoles and they're off...

This betting den and cockfight ambience might sound distasteful, yet the whole experience was intriguing and exciting. bugrace99 With no creature injured, why not place glamour upon the most detested bug. Stadtwerkstatt explains: "a cockroach race is staged for the public in which the most hated animal in the world becomes the star of the arena." Jimmy Ringo won the race, but he has a long way to go to claim the Ars Electronica title. At the end of the four nights of racing the roach with best record will be given a prize at a special bugrace99 Awards ceremony. I, too, am squeamish when in contact with roaches, but after last nights activities I have a newfound fondness for our parasitical friends.