Termites formed the earliest societies on Earth 200 million years ago. Today, humans match their communal legacy by spitting out content on what could be considered the most contemporary iteration of the social superorganism: the internet.
This article is an online prosthesis to a 225 kg ceramic sculpture of the same title. The sculpture, which borrows the form of a termite mound, supports a five-channel video installation that is viewable by looking down its ventilation towers. As a digital expansion of that object, this article can be experienced through a similar process. Navigate it whichever way you’d like: fall down etymological rabbit holes, or be led by the numerically increasing dots below the icons for a more linear narrative. Both versions of the work aim to expand our understandings of the queer community to one day, include nonhuman species. If queerness is marked by the ability to restructure definitions of family, community, and kin, how can we restructure the human/nonhuman binary with this survival tactic in mind?
I. Fungus Garden
The sky above hums a darkened periwinkle color, as a field of low white flowers speckle the ground, each rising from the loamy soil no more than 10 centimeters. The sea of plant matter opens up to a clearing, where red soil has been rolled upwards, stacked by generations of insects to form a mound. Termite mounds jut up from the Earth across continents, contributing to landscapes and ecologies throughout Africa, Australia, Asia and Central and South America. Mound-building termites exist in some of the most complex social formations on the planet. Externally, a mound yields very few opportunities for an outsider to comprehend what’s going on inside. Yet, if you were to bisect one of the structures built by any Old World termite species, the most notable part of their architecture would likely be their extensive subterranean fungus garden.
Many species of ants and termites cultivate fungus in their nests by foraging leafy material, sequestering it inside the mound, and introducing a fungus to overtake it, converting nitrogen-poor plant material into a more digestible food source. The fungus is then harvested to feed the colony. Old World termites evolved this agricultural practice some 25-30 million years ago, and have since perfected it. The symbiotic relationship between termite species and Termitomyces fungi has been traced back to an origin in African rainforests, where the white-rot fungi would have enjoyed favorable growing conditions. Termites have since migrated out of the African rainforests and into the savannahs relatively recently in the evolutionary timescale, bringing Termitomyces with them.
The existence of these fungal gardens determine the entire architecture of the mound; the anatomy of a living structure. Termitomyces fungi require temperature-buffered environments with high humidity to grow, and the structure of a termite mound provides just that. Even in the African savannah, the mound’s interior sustains a warm moist climate more akin to the ancestral forests where this symbiosis originated. In the belly of the mound, this garden is cultivated constantly. As the fungi grow and release CO2, the gas is expelled through ventilation chimneys in the mound. In this way, the mound operates like an “external lung,” breathing in during the day as the air warms and breathing out at night as the temperature drops. Termites can tolerate higher levels of CO2, but the fungus grows better in low levels. This passive ventilation system has emerged as a result.
In fact, the development of agriculture has supported the evolution of more complex social relationships in three different insect lineages. Old World termites, New World ants, and ambrosia beetles each have their own farming practices that have been evolving for tens of millions of years. Termites have succeeded in developing a sustainable mono-crop farming practice that is resistant to pests, disease, and drought. With one crop, they have established a society that spans continents, with networks of large mounds supporting tens of millions of inhabitants, population sizes comparable to our largest cities.
In contrast, human agriculture, whether it began 12,000 years ago or possibly 23,000 years ago, is a considerably more recent phenomenon. Our agricultural practice has evolved rapidly in the last 10,000 years, having now reached levels of industrialization. But in comparison to the practices developed by the bugs, it has become tragically inefficient to feed a population that is growing exponentially. Some researchers are now looking towards how insects farm for potential models.
II. Shooting at the Swarm
E.O. Wilson, speaking of Marxism in 1994, famously quipped “Good ideology, wrong species.” Wilson, the world’s preeminent expert on ants, has retained a prominent position on the academic world stage for nearly half a century, igniting fierce debates as he advances the field he’s personally popularized: sociobiology. Starting his career as a myrmecologist, Wilson has focused on the social lives of ants, taking what he learned about insect behavior and applying it to other organisms, most notably humans, in his groundbreaking book Sociobiology: the New Synthesis. According to Wilson, sociobiology aims to explain animal behavior by looking at genetic predispositions. When Wilson speaks of communism as better suited for insect societies, he is referring to his belief that humans have an evolutionary lineage that renders them more selfish and more independent than the most social, altruistic insects.
Eusociality is considered the highest level of organization amongst animal societies. For a society to be considered eusocial, it must exhibit the following criteria:
Cooperative Rearing of Young: Daycare as emergent behavior.
Overlapping Generations: In ant societies, elderly females get sent to war.
Philopatry: Inhabiting the same plot of Earth for the majority of one’s life.
Reproductive Altruism: In contrast to heteronormative reproductive futurity.
Termites, ants, bees, and wasps are all eusocial. In modern culture, the existence of their highly complex societies, seemingly alien to our own, have become clear influences for several science fiction tropes. Arthropod bots, alien queens, hiveminds; All get exaggerated and demonized as some kind of invading force ready to take over humanity. The aggressive othering of these alternative ways to live communally can be viewed as a systematic attack on variant social hierarchies. While most conversations of eusociality revolve around insects, the phenomenon has arisen on multiple occasions across the animal kingdom. Meerkats, naked mole rats, and even coral reef shrimp have also been considered eusocial in the scientific arena, and all happen to make their homes in systems of tunnels and burrows.
Yet even the cutest of mammals is not immune to society's othering. The eusocial mole rat has been misconstrued and transformed into the legend of the subterranean Mole Person. The Mole People (1956), a black and white horror film produced by Universal, presents a subterranean society that performs a lot of eusocial behavior. The human/mole hybrids harvest fungi for consumption and the society sacrifices its elders in an attempt to control overpopulation. These actions harken back to termite fungus gardens and ants that fight wars with their eldest members, preserving the colony’s young for future use.
More importantly, there actually are real “Mole People” living among us, members of our urban environments who have been disenfranchised by surface dwellers for a number of reasons. Homeless people have historically taken refuge below ground in places like New York City, Boston, and Las Vegas, which currently has the largest number of subterranean citizens in the country. Las Vegas, a shiny city of consumerism has a population of between 400 and 500 homeless people living in the tunnel network of storm drains. Meanwhile, 40 percent of homeless youth in the United States identify as LGBTQ+, and many are homeless as a result of their birth families refusing to accept their queerness. The world above first casts them out, then spins their existence into a campy horror Hollywood narrative.
A final example of the historic relationship between science fiction and anti-Communist sentiments is "The Blob" (1958), released two years after "The Mole People" and at the height of the Cold War. "The Blob," while not eusocial (or even animal), is comparable to slime molds, organic creatures that frequent dark places and are little understood, but according to recent research, are incredibly social beings. While they exist as individual cells, slime molds join to form a collective body in order acquire resources when environmental conditions aren’t favorable. The same sort of cooperative model was realized by humans in the hippie communes of the 1960s and '70s and continues to inspire the structure of many alternative art spaces today. Mark Allen, who started Machine Projects in LA and ran it until it closed this year, includes the following anecdote about blobs against social hierarchy in a reflective guide about Starting Your Own Artspace:
“Machine Project’s founding board member Jason Brown describes a cooperative collective as The Parable of the Invincible Blob. The blob moves slowly, because one part of it tries to go this way, and another part tries to go a different way," Allen writes. "The blob moves slowly because decisions are made collaboratively through a group process. But if a bird comes down and eats a part of the blob, the rest of it keeps moving. If someone leaves the blob, another person can easily take over.”
The bug, the mole, and the primordial oozing blob all present the possibility of expansions of community in contrast to the isolating nature of capitalism. Perhaps because of that, each has been mutated by pop culture and reflected back to mainstream society as something lying between myth and nightmare — a means of reinforcing the status quo.
III. Alien Nation
Etymologists often talk about the termite mound as a superorganism. This is because the termite, each acting individually, follows its genetic drives without any real understanding of what it’s accomplishing. The insect has been genetically predisposed to act in a way that benefits the group rather than itself. In a super-community, the individual is accomplishing a fraction of what the group is doing together. The society is dividing labor in a way that it collectively accomplishes tasks as if it was one larger individual.
Which is precisely why the superorganism is not our savior. It’s a re-articulation of individuality. In nature, ants still go to war. In California, a supercolony of a trillion Linepithema humile ants has been waging conflict against 3 other colonies for a century now, with millions of them dying along a front that spans several kilometers around the city of San Diego. One could argue that the nation-state is a superorganism. All communities define themselves through an in-group and an out-group; Each mound seems to have a distinct border. If that border is breached, the superorganism may die.
The termite mound is almost never discussed as a “holobiont.” Partially because the word hasn’t gained nearly as much traction as the “super-anything.” Lynn Margulis, evolutionary biologist, and symbiosis soothsayer, initially coined the term "holobiont" to describe any multispecies symbiotic assemblage that forms an ecological unit — symbiosis, here meaning any relationship between two species that remains intact for the majority of their lives. A coral reef is a noteworthy holobiont, with the coral polyp and zooxanthellae algae forming an ecological unit that remains in place for a lifetime. An Old World termite and Termitomyces fungi would also constitute a holobiont. And while we assume termite mounds to be single-species dwellings, they are actually stages of spectacular biodiversity.
In Brazil, a single termite mound in the Cerrado (an ecoregion similar to the savannahs of Africa) may contain as many as 14 termite species living inside it simultaneously. Some reptiles and amphibians live within the mounds, even reproducing within them. Other residents include scorpions, roaches, beetles, Opiliones, spiders, mites, and ant colonies. The most fabulous resident of the mound may be the predatory larvae of the click beetle, which cover the exteriors of the termite mounds and exude a bright bioluminescent blue light, designed to attract other insects to their death.
Our gut flora also constitutes holobiotic classification and a cell count yields us all as queer holobiotic hybrids: Half human, half microbe. It is a kind of queer hybridity because it blurs the very definition of the human. What am I and what aren’t I, when half of me isn’t actually human?
Am I to agree with queer theorist Mel Y. Chen and question if I, as a queer person, have ever been considered human? If the hu(Man) is assumed straight, white, male, what are we if we aren’t? While I do meet two of those identity markers, I position my queerness as an opportunity. An invitation. If queerness is marked by the ability to restructure definitions of family, community, and kin, I propose that we can we restructure the human/nonhuman binary with this survival tactic in mind. The resulting expansion of the queer community should seek to include other organisms that need protection. After all, we are all considered subhuman, (some more so than others), we are all invisible laborers. In the mound, in the club, we’re all pests (threats even) — and exterminators abound.
The School of Theory and Activism Bishkek (STAB) is a Kazakhstan-based art initiative, responsible for writing the Queer Communist Manifesto. Translated from Russian, it has a line that states “Queer and communism are mutually dependent and inevitable concepts, the names of the process overcoming alienation.” Despite being a parable for communism, a termite mound still has caste systems, as well as a king and queen. In an experiment involving homosexual termite pairs, two competing insect colonies were introduced into a controlled environment. One colony would be started by a king and a queen, the other, two kings. Researchers discovered that termites will form same-sex arrangements if they don’t have the opportunity to pair with a member of the opposite sex. The goal of these experiments, however, was to see what happens at the moment of colony fusion, when these two competing colonies overlapped. When the opportunity presented itself, which it did during 3 out of 7 colony fusions, the same-sex couples invaded the hetero throne room, committed regicide, and one of the murderers mated with the widowed queen — effectively taking over the new colony.
Superorganisms can't be the model past alienation; they lack diversity. A superorganism is a kind of assimilation, one that breeds nationalism. But the holobiont gets us closer to some queer kind of planetary mutualism than a superorganism model ever could.
IIII. From Nest to Web
The rapid evolution of technology has evolved us with it, in a transhumanist, cyborgian sense. In this moment, we are all connected, not by wafting pheromones but wifi signals. We’ve only just become super.
Termite societies are the oldest established societies on the planet, while online communities are some of the most contemporary.
If we’re looking for a stage that's set for a kind of radical coming together (as "Holobiotic Dance Floor" proposes), we need not look any further than the browser window; For what species isn’t caught in this 'Net?
Online, we exist in a post-internet biosphere that allows for all kinds of thinking with and through the eyes of non-human entities.
One such interface is the live stream. Over the past few years, many zoos have implemented cameras that broadcast a live feed of an animal's nest or enclosure. The San Diego Zoo even has a comment section open on their “Condor Cam” which gets a little action from very energized and excited viewers tuning in for the Condor breeding season. Edith M. Hoage commented just now as I write this:
“Thanks for the opportunity to watch another chick grow on the Condor Cam. I’ve watched all of them since Saticoy. I trust he is doing well and enjoying flying free. I’ve seen them flying along the coast south of Big Sur. You folks have performed a miracle, starting to bring them back from the brink of extinction. I remember the argument about capturing the remaining birds in an attempt to breed them in captivity. That decision was certainly the right one. I watch the condors instead of TV. — A 91-year-old fan.”
Does this friendly voyeurism allow for noninvasive birdwatching? Possibly even more accessible birdwatching for a 91-year-old? The live feed is a captivating medium, especially when something wonderful is happening on the other side of the screen.
I remember back when I was in high school, my brother and I once watched a fish play Pokémon. In 2014, two students at NYU set up a camera that filmed their fish, Grayson, as he moved around his tank. They assigned areas of the tank to act as buttons on a Gameboy so that when Grayson swam to a certain area of his environment, he triggered his avatar to walk in the game. Grayson, totally unaware of his new ability, or the 20,000 people tuning in to watch, was somehow transformed from a household fish to a character, as real as any celebrity on a screen. He was gifted a new level of animism and when his life was mediated through the live stream and achieved a kind of humanness by seeming to perform an action the 20,000 viewers were hyper-familiar with. At the time, my brother and I just kind of zoned out and checked in on Grayson every now and then, but looking back at the video now with a heightened interest, the project was actually really affecting.
There are also plenty of options online to see as a creature, instead of just looking at one. In the information age, humans can get a quick answer for something simple like “How do Termites See?” There are also sites that are a bit more interactive, simulating a variety of animal visions with sliding graphics. YouTube videos from the perspective of animals with GoPro cameras on their backs also abound. There are even options for approximating animal sounds, with the duet of whales and synthesizers being a notable example. On an early Greenpeace voyage, William E. Jackson brought a synthesizer out to sea, in an attempt to communicate with the whales Greenpeace was passionately working to save. That early experiment influenced the creation of Whale Synth, an interface that allows you to play with and produce artificial whale sounds. The website, on closer inspection, is actually part of an ad campaign from MailChimp, a discovery that starts to challenge my hypothesis that the internet can still form some form of utopia and not just a paradise lost to surveillance agencies, multinational corporations and prying government entities.
Chris Novello, an artist putting his faith in computer utopias, brings two bionts together in a critical way on nonhumans.net — bringing together patrons and a game monster from Zelda. Novello provides an interface allowing Zelda's enemies to map their movements into line drawings, which are in turn produced as pen-plotted drawings on cardstock. Their invisible labor is rendered visible and viewers are able to support the project by purchasing their work and paying in bitcoin. The bitcoin then gets placed into a multi-signature bitcoin account for the game monsters and one day, when the world grants nonhumans the right to own property, the bitcoin will transfer to the bots. In this way, Novello proposes we think of these bots as human in some way, with as much agency as Grayson the fish at least. It feels ridiculous at times to imagine an extension of personhood to something like a monster from the Zelda games when so many people are still denied basic human rights daily across the world — but I think that’s the strength of these kinds of projects. They demand a stretch of the imagination; In this scenario that proposes a character in a game is worthy of payment for barely existing, how can we not be more concerned about the people overseas that produce the parts for gaming consoles or the people who are playing it?
The most remarkable digital interface for bringing together a human and nonhuman player, however, has to be Pig Chase. Pig Chase is a speculative design for an app that allows you to cooperatively play a game with live pigs in a factory farm. Developed by researchers and designers at the Utrecht School of the Arts and Wageningen University, Pig Chase was built in response to a mandate that farmers in the Netherlands provide pigs with a form of entertainment to keep them from getting bored in their pens. Pigs, being very intelligent, get bored easily. The strength of the game is that it seems to really entertain and engage both bionts, the person, and the pig, into a meaningful lasting interaction. It is a true example of inter-species mutualism, where both parties are happily participating and benefitting. Today, almost all artworks and artist-led interactions that involve a person and another organism feel one-sided, with the organism gaining about as much as the Condor on camera in San Diego. At their worst, these projects may harm the animal involved. So it’s refreshing to see something as crisp and simple as Pig Chase amongst that noise.
Pig Chase is as an interspecific translator of sorts, presenting a new way to interact with something humans can’t easily communicate with. And opening lines of communication are critical at this moment in time. Industrialization and globalization have wreaked havoc on natural systems and environments, but out of that we have metamorphosed, emerging as interconnected as primal insect societies. With this interconnectivity, we may one day be offered a digital lifesaver as we surf the net.
Can we restructure our priorities around the vulnerable communities now being made visible? Can we reinvent representation through this interface, and give agency to the disenfranchised? Can we give a voice to the termites we tent, the mole people we’ve run underground, and everyone/thing that was not born with the same opportunities we were born with?
Lee Pivnik is a Miami-based artist. Working primarily in sculpture and video, he uses his studio practice to position himself in a period of global environmental degradation. He also runs The Institute of Queer Ecology, which broadens discussions around environmental issues by synthesizing queer, feminist and postcolonial studies into exhibitions and publications. His favorite animal is the swallow-tailed kite.