[NB: This article was originally written in German. Thanks to Flavia Cahn for helping with translation.]
The highly complex web construction of the tropical spider Cyrtophora cirtricola is astonishing. This particular species hangs her web up like a tent. Individual threads anchor and hold the web, which can stretch across entire tree crowns (see image above). For her whole life, the web is the spider’s mouth, her home, and her communication system. The vibrations caused by the movements of her prey, stuck and struggling in the web, help her to locate the day’s meal. In this way, she keeps in contact not only with her prey but also the other members of her species. Hundreds of her kind inhabit the overlaying collective webs – they are social creatures, living together in massive networks which resemble high-rise apartment blocks or entire cities. Their collective way of life is mutually advantageous to all, as shown by their cooperation in capturing prey, constructing webs, and raising their young.
This peek into the world of spiders is not traced out of scientific literature. Rather, it comes from direct observation of a Cyrtophora during the construction of her web in the studio of the Argentinian architect and artist Tomás Saraceno (b. 1973). Since discovering this entangled universe of spun threads twelve years ago, the characteristics of spider webs have found their way into Saraceno’s working and thinking process. Under Saraceno’s guidance, and thanks to their subsequent exhibition and monumentalisation, the eight-legged animal and her delicate environment have made the transition into objects of great aesthetic value. The spider web, previously an unwelcome presence, a target for the broom, now enjoys a new position as a precious and admirable work, on equal footing with other art pieces circulating in the art market.
Alongside the themes of Universe and Air, Spiders and their environment are a recurring motif in Tomás Saraceno’s work. Above all, it is the capacity to which their web acts as an extension of the spider’s sensory organs which captures Saraceno’s interest: sound, touch, and sight are all magnified through the web. In order to study the structure, function and architectural features of spider webs, Saraceno founded the Arachnid Research Laboratory (ARL) in his Berlin studio in 2012. The Laboratory, parallel to the arachnid world, is a complex interwoven network of creative potential and scientific discovery.
Since its conception, the ARL has been home to multiple spider species from across the world, from solitary spiders to those who live in colonies – like the Cyrtophora citricola. In the Laboratory, working in an artificially tropical climate, a Biologist from Basel and a handful of young “Spinnendompteure” take care of the spiders and assist in the production process. No walls separate the open living spaces of the spiders from the workplace of the “Spider Team”; they work among the webs. The spiders spin their webs in fragile carbon fibre cube-shaped frames designed for Saraceno by arachnologist Peter Jäger of the Senckenberg Research Institute. Frames in different sizes are organised in shelves surrounded by water, which maintains the humidity levels of the environment and attempts to dissuade the spiders from escaping – with varying degrees of success.
At this point we have to distinguish between where the webs are being displayed – in the ARL or in art galleries. Depending on the location, the function and aesthetic value of the web is changing. The webs which will participate in the art market must be treated like all other artworks and therefore must follow the same standards of value. The most important step to achieve this is to remedy the ephemeral nature of the webs. If the webs are still in the process of construction and change in the ARL, still inhabited by the spiders creating them, then all fly carcasses, traces of dust, the spider-landlady herself are removed before covering the frames with acrylic lids. The webs are now preserved and ready for exhibition, although it is still unclear how long they will maintain their form, even in a vacuum. Moreover, efforts at preservation put an abrupt end to the living function of the web as the spider’s mouth, home, and communication system.
The spider web transcends its original function and becomes a piece of art, a transition which is amplified by the dramatic lighting used in their exhibition. Carefully positioned spotlights pick out the webs in darkened exhibition spaces, revealing the subtler connecting lines not immediately visible and the refracting rainbow light of the spun threads. These artistic interventions significantly lift the aesthetic value of an object often considered a nuisance. The unspectacular is made spectacular, a shift which asks us to revise our relationship to non-human animals and thus the possibilities of a shared environment. I argue Saraceno’s oeuvre can widening even changing our viewing and behaviour habits. The webs created in the frames in Saraceno’s ARL are unlike any found in nature. In Hybrid Webs, multiple spider species take turns to spin their webs in the same frame, while the frame itself is rotated with each new spider introduced. In the case above (see image), once Cyrtophora citricola has completed her tent web, Nephila keniensis replaces her and weaves a web of an entirely different structure on the top of it. This process allows to study the spiders’ skills in spatial orientation and results in Hybrid Webs of fascinating construction complexity and artistic quality.
In the current debate about the meaning of a connected world, his exploration of the boundaries between humankind and the environment, nature, and culture coincide with the concepts of philosophers and sociologists like Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour. Saraceno argues that by engaging in direct observations of the natural world, as takes place in the ARL, we can re-examine our accustomed ways of thinking in order to develop new strategies for a species-spanning coexistence. Art is the medium between nature and culture, and this debate is a focal point of Saraceno’s work which recurs through all of the art pieces in the studio.
A three-storey megalithic industrial building houses the ARL, together with the Architecture, Aerocene, Press and New Media departments of Saraceno’s studio. Around fifty assistants are active here. All departments, though located on different floors of the building, work together to realise Saraceno’s utopian projects. Discoveries in the Laboratory are passed on to the neighbouring departments, who use the newly gained knowledge to produce new creations. The unique architectural structure of the spider webs, for example, are the basis for surreal suspended urban landscapes developed in the Aerocene department (see for e.g. in orbit, exhibited at K21 Ständehaus, Düsseldorf).
Tomás Saraceno’s success is thanks to his own curiosity and his global network. His collaborations with scientists, artists, musicians, and engineers have enabled him to accomplish his visions and weave an even stronger network. Just like the webs of multiple spider species which overlap in the Hybrid Webs, Saraceno’s Team builds hybrid structures where knowledge from multiple fields can come together and enter into dialogue. The spider web brings us full circle: in its sophisticated intricacy, it stands as a metaphor for Tomás Saraceno’s growing studio.
More than the average art studio, the ARL invites artistic and scientific practices to play side-by-side. Through this interdisciplinary approach, Saraceno brings the arachnid world closer to us. His conception of new and hybrid forms of life pushes phenomena previously thought to belong to the realm of science into the art world.