In the context of the global decline in invertebrate (insect and spider) populations and species diversity, we invite you to join us in a collaborative mapping exercise: to notice and become sensitive to spider/web eccologies. Through this shared activity, we hope to map spider/web species richness and diversity within the multispecies ecologies that we share.
Recognising the history of mapping practices in establishing geopolitical divisions and boundaries that exclude and reinforce hierarchical distributions of power and claims to land and natural resources, we imagine these as spider/web counter-cartographies, an attempt to tell the neglected histories of spider/webs. In these counter-cartographies, mapping is engaged as a means of visualising and raising awareness of spider/web habitats as constitutive elements of broader, more-than-human ecologies. Collective mapping allows us to access new scales and new points of view through which to collaboratively think through concepts of multispecies care, extinction, and the possibilities for living together in catastrophic times.
Insect life far outweighs human life: insects make up half of the 2 gigatons of animal life on this planet. It is often hard to reconcile the idea of extinction with creatures that seem so abundant. However, according to recent data, insect populations are declining at a rate of 2.5% per year - suggesting that they might be extinct by the end of the century. A number of scientists have argued that we are now bearing witness to the dawn of a sixth mass extinction. An insect armageddon would be catastrophic for human and other forms of life. Invertebrate animals (insects and spiders) are critical elements of our shared and entangled ecologies: among other things, insects are responsible for pollination of mainstay crops, decomposition of organic material (creating the humus that is an essential component of fungal, bacterial and life cycles), and also providing a critical food source for birds and other higher order animals.
Essentially - the death of insects would trigger a catastrophic ripple effect in the ecologies and systems that support life on Earth; what scientists have called a “bottom-up trophic cascade”, whose knock-on effects would be disastrous for both plant and animal life.
On a mapping exercise undertaken by Tomás Saraceno and members of the Spider/Web Research Group in early 2019, we encountered a number of spider/web typologies in the grounds of the Venice Biennale, as marked in the map below.
Spider/Web map of Venice. Each Spider/Web that appears on the map is a Pavilion, an encounter with an oracle, an opportunity to practice Arachnomancy - to attempt to divine some measure of our collective, multispecies futures. Like the web the spider weaves, this map is not complete. As different spiders build new webs in unnoticed spaces, we invite you to contribute to the map, by adding images of the spider/webs you encounter. A map is not a territory, but an invitation to explore.
Venice has one of the lowest proportions of public green space (parklands, etc.) of any European city, with only roughly 1,59 m2 green space per person. In comparison, Stockholm has 15-20m2 green space per person, and London has up to 40m2 per person (Marzi, 1986).
Many species of spider are synanthropes, which means that over millions of years of cohabitation with humans, have adapted to anthropogenic environments, and can thrive in man-made structures. Despite the relatively small number of green areas within the city of Venice, many spider/webs make their home there amongst the plants and bushes of Venice’s gardens. This includes the Biennale Gardens (Giardini Napoleonici e Biennale), which is 19,000 m2. Connected to this garden is the Pineta di Santa Elena (34,000 m2), home to many conifers interspersed by grasslands. These two green spaces are home to several species of spider, some of whom also build webs. Of the web-building spiders, those that build orb webs - 2-dimensional spiral web structures - need more anchoring structures between which to build their webs, and can be found in taller shrubs and trees. The lower shrubs and grasslands are more likely to house sheet-web building spiders, such as Lepthyphantes tenuis. Stones and rock walls of these gardens, as well as holes and recesses in tree trunks - provide the ideal scaffold for space web-building spiders, such as Steatoda phalerata.
“If you choose to believe me, good. Now I will tell how Octavia, the spiderweb city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm's bed. This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope-ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes- hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children's games, cable-cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants. Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia's inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long."
There are myriad stories of spiders and webs entangled in the literature, cultural history and folklore of Italy. From Calvino’s rhizomatic suspended spiderweb city to the infectious hysteria of Tarantism in southern Italy - the spider/web is a figure of entanglement, of precarity, and of the affective relations linking human and nonhuman bodies and forces. We understand stories - and the images that tell them - as ways of proliferating new knowledges about, and dispositions toward, the spider/webs with which we are entangled.
Hanging in Venice’s Palazzo Ducale is the allegorical painting Arachne or Dialectics (Aracne o la Dialettica), by Paolo Veronese (1575 - 1577). In this image, the young figure of Arachne presents us with a spider’s web, woven between her hands, like string figures.
In the Greco-Roman myth as recounted by Ovid in his Metamorphosis, Arachne (which translates as ‘spider’) was a human figure with a particular talent for weaving. Eventually, Arachne’s boasting reached the ears of Athena, goddess of wisdom and crafts, who Arachne challenged to a weaving contest. Although Arachne’s work was much more beautiful than Athena’s, this only served to anger the goddess - who destroyed Arachne’s tapestry, and transformed Arachne into a spider. The taxonomic class name Arachnida, and the general name for spiders in many of the romance languages are derived from Arachne.
TARANTISM AND THE TARANTELLA
Tarantism is a pathological condition first described in the middle ages. According to this phenomenon, the bite of a spider - the “tarantola” - provoked a complex series of psycho-physical and neurological symptoms, including agitation, anxiety, fatigue, loss of balance, hysteria. This condition could only be alleviated through a kind of ritualistic, cathartic performance of dance and music, the Tarantella.
Outbreaks of tarantism often occurred in the dry heat of summer, during the harvesting period. Often, those presenting with symptoms of tarantism showed no obvious sign of having been bitten by the “tarantola” - which some imagine may have been the wolf spider, Lycosa tarantula. Another possible candidate for the “tarantola” spider is the Mediterranean black widow spider, Latrodectus tredecimguttatus.
“The spider hides in the cracks, in the tobacco leaves, in the faggots, in the cracks of the parched ground, in the dry stonewalls of rural houses, but predominantly in the labyrinth of the mind. It bites at midday, like a meridian demon, arousing senses and unleashing unavowed desires.”
The Tarantella was the salve for this condition: a musical performance staged publicly, in which the musicians would play for those afflicted with Tarantism, attempting a number of musical variations until they found, through a process of attunement, the curative melody that matched patient and spider. When the right rhythm was struck, the patient would respond bodily, dancing ecstatically until they collapsed and fell into a deep and restorative sleep.
Humans have a long and studied history of seeking wisdom or knowledge about things that are outside the scope of human understanding, or not able to be gleaned via empirical observations or deductions, via figures or phenomena from the nonhuman world: whether through the movements of air (aeromancy), trees (dendromancy), lightning (electromancy) minerals (oryctomancy), or the howling of dogs (ololygmancy), to name but a few. In these practices,
Arachnomancy - or divination through the figures of both spider and web - has existed in various forms and across numerous cultures and moments in time.
There are references in classical Chinese texts to a practice of spider divination. According to this custom, on the seventh moon of the seventh month, female members of the court would catch spiders and place them in small lidded boxes, for the purpose of divination. The box containing the spider would be opened on the following morning, and the nature of the web would foretell a certain future: if the spider had spun a tightly-woven web during the night, it was a positive omen - and read as a reflection of the skills of the woman who had captured the spider. If the web was sparse or unbuilt, the opposite was true.
There are also descriptions of spider divination (paccharícuc) being practiced by the Incas, who would divine something of the future from the movements of a spider. Following on from this tradition, in late pre-Hispanic times (and perhaps even still, in parts of modern highland Peru) spiders were used to predict rainfall, and other movements related to agriculture.
In Cameroon and Nigeria, the practice of ngam describes a type of divination which interprets the movements of a ground-dwelling spider, using a complex set of symbolic/ideographic cards, which aid the diviner’s interpretation.
In Venice, we offer up a platform by which we might consult the spider oracle, and read the collective, multispecies futures that are written in the spider/web. Summoning a community of arachnophilic friends - from material scientists to philosophers, biologists to seismologists - each will interrogate the geometries of the spider/web according to their own empirical and situated knowledges.