The story of Studio Tomás Saraceno’s research into spider/webs is a story of entanglements: between different species, bodies of thought, and research methodologies. The inquiries underpinning this approach to the spider/web stretch across disciplinary boundaries, blurring the kinds of questions and research methods that such disciplines traditionally enrol, and proposing new, hybrid modes of working. Over more than a decade, Saraceno has developed close collaborative relationships with different scientific research groups, inspired by the possibilities of interspecies dialogue and the technological feats exercised by Studio Saraceno’s spider/web research and methods, including the Spider Web Scan. From astrophysics to the study of animal group behaviour, biomateriomics to biotremology, arachnology to architecture, and social science to network science, these collaborations have provoked new concepts and generated a suite of innovations across science, art and the humanities.
As we share and grow our spider/web archives with a broader Arachnophilia community, we hope to generate new applications, new entanglements, new lines of thought, and new perspectives on spider/web ecologies, and what it means to imagine shared, multispecies and more than human futures. Can we re-think the Anthropocene through the possibilities of an Arachnocene?
Forming at a height of more than 25 m above the atrium of K21 is the surreal landscape of In Orbit, a grand installation by the artist Tomás Saraceno. The physically accessible work, reminiscent of a sea of clouds or floating planetary bodies, is constructed from virtually transparent steel that interlaces three levels spanning across the massive glass dome. Five ‘spheres’ open the layers of the net structure, encompassing an area of 2500 m².
Conceived of by Saraceno together with engineers, architects, and biologists, In Orbit is one of the artist’s most elaborated installations, echoing his research into new hybrid forms of communication and cohabitation. The network construction alone weighs three tons, and the largest of the spheres 300kg, yet the work, created with meticulous site-specific precision, is remarkably light: its fineness and stability hints to the structure of a spider‘s web.
Visitors are invited to negotiate its internal space, incorporating themselves into an expansive ecosystem wherein every participant is equally influential. Set into motion, the tension of the steel cables and distances between the levels of the interlaced net alter in consonance with the reverberatory energy of presence. Like a spider in a web, visitors perceive the presence of others through vibrations.
Codependent sociability is enacted by the milieu itself, which shapes and is shaped by the encounters happening within, establishing different social beings through embodied experience.
The suspended web-architecture thus provides a model for aerial dwelling, reverberating Saraceno’s Cloud Cities and Aerocene visions, two long-term projects imagining new elemental futures, in which the atmosphere becomes the medium of a post-fossil fuel epoch, a new interplanetary ecology of practice.
Considering the web as an extension of the spider’s sensorial and cognitive system, here sensory worlds and lines of communication merge and connect as an apparatus of extended cognition, in which ordinary perception is displaced and enhanced. From this perspective, the spider/web provides a model to move simultaneously between the microcosmic to macrocosmic in a non-scalar way. In the vibratory continuum of the installation, bodies move akin to molecules, planets, and black holes, recalling the invisible structure of the cosmic web, theorized by astrophysicists.
The suspended web-architecture typifies Saraceno’s ambition to realize imaginaries and interdisciplinary practices informed by new environmental, social and psychological ecologies. As in the case of K21, what is implicit in this methodology is the attempt to achieve an ethical sensitivity to the phenomena that shape our being in the world and our role in it, making them perceivable through a synesthetic experience.
Through its research collaborative network, the Spider/Web Research Group also approaches the study of the properties and mechanics of spider silk, including longevity, integrity, and its possible applications in architectural and structural design. This information not only provides important information in silk integrity and care - vital for the maintenance of the Research Group’s extensive spider web archive, but also affords insights into web behaviour that inform and drive experiments in arachnosonics, and architectural applications of spider silk.
This strand of research involves current collaborative research projects with Markus Buehler at MIT and Jonas Wolff at Macquarie University, Sydney, and previous collaborations with Martin Ramirez (Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales) and Ansgar Greshake (Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin).
Inspired by Studio Tomás Saraceno’s extensive collection of three-dimensional spider/webs—the largest in existence—and by the possibilities of the Spider Web Scan, in 2016 the studio was approached by Iain Couzin and Alex Jordan from the Max Planck Institute (Konstanz) to begin a collaborative research endeavour using the Spider Web Scan method developed by the studio. Sharing these resources and methods offers the potential to generate new insights into the collective behaviour of social and semi-social spider species, and the relationship of group behaviour to the materiality and signaling properties of the spider web. In 2017, postdoctoral researcher from the Jordan Lab, Matthew Lutz, joined the studio for a one-year research residency to study the relationship between web structure and sociality, using Saraceno’s Spider Web Scan technique to scan the complex spider/webs of semi-social Cyrtophora citricola spiders.
Over thousands of years of cohabitation, spider/webs have figured differently in the collective human imaginary—sometimes as tricksters or oracles, but seldom as companion species whose futures are interconnected with our own. Our images and representations matter: they condition our affective relations to other species, influencing what we value—what we depend upon and consider worth caring for. If we rewrite our images of spider/webs as kin, what new forms of interspecies relations and practices of care might emerge?
Through close attention to arachnid ecologies—via biological, ethological and anthropological perspectives—a new image emerges: spider/webs as living species-habitat assemblages, held together in endless movements of tension and revision. This web is not only an extension of the spider’s senses, but of its cognitive apparatus: a floating attentional system of threads whose tensions and vibrations connect the spider/web to worlds beyond its own. As a sensory network on air, the tensed threads within the web suggest where the spider/web is paying attention. In turn, we speculate about the threads that link us—materially, sensorially, cognitively—to worlds seen and unseen.
Anthropocenic ecologies are multiple: enfolding myriad species and forces, and the numerous temporal rhythms at which ‘life’ can be lived. The spider/web is a model of such ecological dynamics; a living trace of bodies, movements and temporalities in tension. Like the particles of cosmic dust from which Earth emerged, spider/webs are sticky: holding the genetic material of every body ever touched—microbe, insect, leaf—a network of bioinformatics, expressed in rhythms fast and slow. A material conjunction of pasts, futures and presents, the construction of this web confuses linear conceptions of time. Whereas the first floating threads of the web are forays into an imagined future, the tensioned threads of the assembled web mark the axes along which the spider has already travelled, and the lines connecting it with the present milieu. This network of threads is also an architecture of sociality that conditions the kinds of cooperative behaviours that are possible, within and across species boundaries.
A network of entanglements is not limited to the spider/web it models. We also contain multitudes, and are entangled with myriad more. By tracing threads of connectivity in more-than-human worlds, we open up new possibilities of thought; recasting our ideas about hybridity, sociality, and species ‘relatedness’.
Different stories, rituals, practices—each with their own socio-political and cultural histories—can help us move beyond ideas of human exceptionalism, in which knowledge is something bound to a human subject, rather than something that emerges in and through our relations with the world. Stories are acts of making worlds.
Spider/webs are the mouths through which the spider eats and the oracle speaks. The oracle is a messenger between perceptive worlds, transcending the reciprocal blindness between spiders and humans,creating a zone of interspecific resonance with the vibrations running through the web. Spider/webs can equally be encountered among the leaves of a myrtle bush or in the corner of a window frame. They may appear when you are paying attention to something else - a garden lamp that draws the mosquitos they like to eat, or when you detect the resinous scent of a rosemary plant, whose thick branches provide an ideal architecture between which their threads are woven. Spider/webs can announce clear skies, or unite in strength to bind a lion; they can propose both a shelter, and a trap. Studio Tomás Saraceno has developed a deck of arachnomancy cards to meet our sympoetic future, and guide you in encountering the spider/web oracles that surround you.
In early 2009, Saraceno attended the International Space Studies Program at NASA Ames in 2009, which fomented thoughts about the possible relations between spiders and cosmos. One of the early motivations for Saraceno’s development of the Spider Web Scan was the purported parallels between complex, three-dimensional spider webs and the cosmic web - as used by astronomers to describe the early structure of the universe. On the advice of Peter Jaeger, a Latrodectus mactans (black widow) spider web was initially chosen for the first deployment of the spider web scan, primarily because of its complex, three-dimensional structure and thus parallels with the described cosmic web.
To trace in more depth the linkages between spider and cosmic webs, in early 2009 Tomás Saraceno initiated a conversation with astrophysicist Volker Springel, Director at the Max-Planck-Institute for Astrophysics in Munich. Springel was a lead researcher in the 2005 Millennium Simulation project, the largest “N-body” simulation carried out thus far, which investigated the evolution of the distribution of matter in the universe over time, focussing on the formation of observable galaxies. It simulated a region of space approximately 2 billion light years in length, with a volume of 20 million galaxies - what Springel called ‘a brief history of the universe in fast motion’. In this conversation, the researchers discussed the filament-like structures of the universe along which galaxies are arranged ‘like pearls on a string’, and the possibility of exploring Voronoi tesselations as a structural model for imagining the cosmic web.
From this early exploration of this analogy between the cosmic and spider web unfolded a deeper inquiry into the connections between spiders, webs and space. Following the development of the original Spider Web Scan, Saraceno developed a collaborative proposal to the European Space Agency (ESA) to send a black widow spider to the International Space Station (ISS) to study the building of 3D spider webs in microgravity. This proposal was developed with Professor Gilles Clement (Professor of Space Life Sciences, International Space University, France) Dr Peter Jaeger (Head of Arachnology, Senckenberg Research Institute, Frankfurt am Main), Dr Rolf-Dieter Dueppe (Photogrammetric Institute, TU Darmstadt) and Professor Samuel Zschokke (Arachnologist, University of Basel). This proposal was then presented at the 2010 International Congress of Arachnology in Poland.
Future research aims to explore and better understand the astronomical and gravitational cues used by some spiders in navigation and orientation. Research published by others has indicated that some spiders use the position of the moon to be able to understand in which direction they are walking, or other astronomical cues including patterns formed by polarization of light in the sky.
"… The cosmic web, that’s how we astronomers talk about the big picture, how the universe as a whole presents itself and how galaxies are arranged on large scales. I can show you a flight through the universe. As we think it is. The stuff that is colorful here is actually matter which you can’t really see. On the computer we can paint it and we can illuminate it. What is visible a little bit here is that the backbone of structure of the universe consists of these filament-like structures, which are part of the cosmic web, and along these we find galaxies that are arranged like pearls on a string…We hope to find evidence for unknown elementary particles that we think make up most of the matter in the universe. All of this stuff that is red and yellow here are particles we have not discovered yet on earth."
Another strand of research pursued by Saraceno’s Spider/Web Research Group is in understanding the relationship between web material structure/architecture and ‘social’ or collective behaviour in spiders. While sociality is rare in spiders (of the ca. 47,500 known spider species, fewer than 25 species exhibit social behaviour), spiders’ collective behaviour can have fascinating material and architectural implications - from the construction of gigantic communal spider webs, to the phenomenon of mass aerial dispersal by ‘ballooning’ of social Stegodyphus spiders.
In the Spider/Web Research Group, this research strand has led to collaborative research projects with Iain Couzin and Alex Jordan (Department of Collective Behaviour, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Konstanz) in combining Saraceno’s Spider Web Scan (3D web-scanning technique) with tracking of the spider's’ movements, to better understand how spiders build their webs, and the relationship of collective behaviours to web architectures. The Spider/Web Research Group also has ongoing dialogues with Yael Lubin (Ben-Gurion University, Israel) and Jutta Schneider (University of Hamburg) on social and semi-social behaviours in spiders, including spider ballooning behaviour. Future research in this area will explore the relationship between sociality and vibrational signalling, including signal propagation in ‘colonial’ spider webs and other social spider architectures.
Collaboration with the Max Planck Institute, Konstanz
Inspired by Studio Tomás Saraceno’s extensive collection of three-dimensional spider/webs—the largest in existence—and by the possibilities of the Spider Web Scan, in 2016 the studio was approached by Iain Couzin and Alex Jordan from the Max Planck Institute (Konstanz) to begin a collaborative research endeavour. Sharing these resources and methods offers the potential to generate new insights into the collective behaviour of social and semi-social spider species, and the relationship of group behaviour to the materiality and signaling properties of the spider/web.
In 2017, postdoctoral researcher from the Max Planck Institute, Dr Matthew Lutz, joined the Spider/Web Research Group for a one-year research residency to study the structural properties of spider webs as carriers of vibrational communication. During this time, Lutz used Saraceno’s Spider Web Scan technique to scan the complex webs of semi-social (colonial-living) Cyrtophora citricola spiders. Bridge spiders (Larinioides) were also collected for planned observational experiments on prey scarcity, web density and social behaviour. Future research could combine real-time behavioural tracking with 3D scanning to better understand web-building behaviours in social spiders.
Studio Tomás Saraceno’s collaboration with MIT’s Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics (LAMM, led by Professor Markus Buehler) and Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST, led by Professor Evan Ziporyn) began in 2012.Brief history of collaboration: In 2012, Saraceno was invited by MIT’s Leila Kinney as the Inaugural Visiting Artist at the newly established MIT Centre for Art, Science and Technology (CAST), led by Professor Evan Ziporyn. From this invitation, Saraceno was introduced to Buehler, and the work of his lab into the biomateriomics of spider/webs and spider silk. After several productive, stimulating and invigorating discussions, a long-term collaboration was borne - which tests the boundaries of scientific disciplines, toward new ways of thinking together to address the emergent and multifaceted issues arising from the entanglements between human and nonhuman worlds in the Anthropocenic era.In a continuing collaboration with the MIT LAMM (led by Professor Markus Buehler), the Spider Web Scan apparatus and method has been refined, automated, and used to study the functional dynamics of web architectures. Inspired by the potential insights into material engineering that could be generated by Studio Tomás Saraceno’s Spider Web Scan apparatus and method, this team of MIT researchers have used the Spider Web Scan technique to generate novel data about the material properties of complex spider/webs for possible application across art, architecture, engineering and material science, while working collaboratively with the studio to optimize the scanning system. This collaborative research uses the spider/web as an entry point for reflecting on the role of biomimicry—the creative application of natural systems and processes towards solutions for anthropogenic environments—and biomateriomics—the holistic study of biological material systems. Saraceno and Buehler have presented the outputs of their collaboration in a number of formats, including public symposia at MIT and scientific publications.Recently, and on the invitation of Saraceno to realise a musical performance for his ON AIR exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, our collaborators at MIT (including researchers from both LAMM and CAST) used a 3D model of a scanned, quasi-social Cyrtophora citricola web to generate a 3D digital spider web musical instrument. This instrument generates a navigable soundscape by using data sonification to transform the web’s spatial topology into audio signals, and data visualisation to create an immersive encounter. The 3D spider web instrument and interface - designed by Markus Buehler, Evan Ziporyn and MIT researchers Isabelle Su and Ian Hatwick was generated via the most recent collaborative refinement of Saraceno’s Spider Web Scan. It then formed the basis of a musical score realised by Ziporyn in collaboration with Su and musician Christine Southworth. This work, The Spider’s Canvas, premiered at an immersive concert hosted during Saraceno’s ON AIR exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in November 2018, and supported by Festival dÀutomne, Paris . This concert emerged from myriad interactions between different disciplines, in an effort to work together - and extend the boundaries of disciplinary knowledge and practices - toward new understandings of emergent human and non-human entanglements.
Originally developed for exhibition at the Museo de Arte Buenos Aires in 2016 and refined for exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in 2018 , Particular Matter(s) is a complex and entangled system, enrolling both biotic and abiotic agents and forces. Fundamental to this system is a specialised dust behavioural tracking system developed by Saraceno in collaboration with LoopBio, and modeled on animal behavioural tracking systems.
This system seeks to imagine ways of representing and attuning to the movements that are happening on air. A cubic inch of air holds 25 billion molecules, colliding and dispersing faster than the speed of sound. Through this experiment, we consider the question of how we might listen to the fluid aerial trajectories of particulate matter.
At the centre of this installation is a sonified hybrid web containing a live spider—usually a Nephila, which is a solitary but tolerant species. In an otherwise darkened room, a spotlight illuminates the web, creating a chiaroscuro image on the opposite wall, through which spider and web are reflected. In turn, this light beam illuminates and makes visible the particles of dust that animate the different atmospheric trajectories and dynamics active in the room: breath, heat, the movement of visiting bodies - all agents of intra-active force.
The sensitive piezo devices within the sonified hybrid spider/web allow us to listen in to the vibrations travelling along and through the threads of the web—whether signals created by the spider, or atmospheric tremors which move through the web. These vibrations are then played back through a central speaker as low frequency sounds, which create a feedback stimulus: the acoustic reverberations of the speaker causing the dust particles above to move with more force and rapidity.
A responsive tracking system further mediates and multiplies the interactions between the dust and the web. The movements of the dust particles in the illuminated beam (diagram, no. 9) are tracked by a set of four cameras (diagram, no. 17), which are positioned directly above the speaker. These cameras record the movement of the dust particles in real-time and in three dimensions. These movements can then be followed on-screen, and the data recorded for analysis.
An acoustic tone was then assigned to moving dust particles, which was determined according to the position and speed of the particles within the tracked space, allowing a sonification of the movements of these dust particles in real-time. These sounds are played back into the space via the central speaker (diagram, no. 15), and also spatialized via a set of 24 speakers and 2 subwoofers, configured around the room (diagram, no. X)—which allow visitors to experience the sounds of the moving dust as if they are travelling across and through the room itself.
First developed in 2015 as the speculative ‘wind instrument’ in Saraceno’s Arachnid Orchestra. Jam Sessions exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore, a refined iteration of the Aeolian Instrument, Sounding the Air, was recently exhibited at Saraceno’s ON AIR exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris.
The Sounding the Air instrument is composed of five long threads of Nephila spider silk—loosely tethered between two structures—that float, undulate and resound in the room, like musical strings resonating on air. These threads become airborne on currents of warm air generated by dedo lamps positioned underneath. A camera optically capture the dynamic and continuous movements of these floating threads of spider silk in real time, transforming these movements into fluctuating sound frequencies.
This instrument is ‘played’ by a more-than-human ensemble of forces and bodies, the vibration of its silken strings activated by differentials in air currents and thermodynamics of the room: the radiant heat of human and nonhuman bodies, or the flurries and tremors created by the flux and breath of visitors to the room. The continuous intra-actions of different elements and invisible agencies—dust, silk, heat, wind, spider, breath, electrostatic force—create a cascade of influences that alter the dynamic rhythms of the fluctuating silk threads: shifting tensions, creating different tones, translating vibration into music. In this immersive sonic environment, every subtle movement alters the compositional whole.
The Aeolian instrument draws inspiration from the phenomenon of spider ‘ballooning’ or ‘kiting’, where spiders travel long distances on aerial kites of gossamer silk, buoyed by updrafts (thermal currents or vertical wind-velocity gradients) and electrostatic force. Ballooning allows spiders to travel long distances and colonize new areas—sometimes in response to local natural pressures, such as floods. Typically, young spiders (spiderlings) will climb to an elevated location, perform a ‘tiptoeing’ behaviour (raising themselves up on the tips of their eight tarsi) and release gossamer silk into the air, until the silk, wind and air/thermal currents have generated enough drag and lift for the spiders to become airborne, transforming their gossamer threads into aerial balloons or kites. In particular, this instrument was inspired by the ballooning behaviour of the larger, social Stegodyphus species, capable of achieving aerial lift by releasing multiple gossamer strands in mass dispersal events.
The Aeolian harp—from which this instrument draws its name—produces harmonic frequencies solely through the motion of wind across its strings. Sound theorist Doug Kahn draws from this image of the Aeolian harp to describe what he calls aelectrosonic sounds: sounds produced by ‘nature’, and parsed through natural or man-made instruments such that they are understood as music by human ears—for example, the musical sound of wind through telegraph poles. Saraceno’s Aeolian Instrument draws on these twinned histories of spiders ballooning on threads buoyed by the wind, and of those same wind drafts and air currents as being capable of transforming the spider threads into a musical instrument that allows us to hear arachnid or aelectrosonic vibrations as music. This instrument also draws technical inspiration from early electronic theremin instruments, which use proximity sensors and aerial gestures to generate musical sounds.
An experiment in interspecific communication, the Arachnid Orchestra. Jam Sessions exhibited in 2015 drew upon and extended Saraceno’s earlier research into arachnosonics, undertaken for the exhibition Cosmic Jive in Genoa in 2014. For this project, Saraceno and his studio team drew inspiration from the acoustic properties of the web—and the different signalling behaviours of the spiders themselves—to create a series of musical instruments for playfully communicating with spiders: for both listening to the substrate-borne vibrations they produce, and playing vibrational signals back into the web, in response.
The instruments created for the Arachnid Orchestra incorporate special sensory devices – transducers, piezoelectric pickups and laser Doppler vibrometers to capture, translate and voice these subtle vibrations, as they travel along the threads of the web, or across a percussive surface. These instruments were conceived and arranged with reference to the sections of a classical orchestra, including instruments from the string, percussion, and wind families. These instruments are also envisioned as recording devices for capturing different bioacoustic signals, thus offering the potential for contributing to the research group’s biotremological archive.