Speaking about Ants, Superman and Centaurs
This text was read out loud on the 21st November, as part of the Volatile Dispersal: Festival of Art-Writing, held at The Whitechapel Gallery. An audio recording of the event can be found here.
Thanks must go to Maria Fusco and Francesco Pedraglio for asking me to take part…
In one of the most uncanny revelations in science fiction, the protagonist of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine awakes from his anthropic slumber: the museum is filled with artefacts not from his past, but from his future.
Like the Time Traveller it is easy to forget, that however hard we try to walk beyond a given path, we will always tend to inscribe another in our wake.
I discovered the ants trailing like gunpowder across my kitchen floor. Before I had time to think I had vacuumed up a thousand. Yet they kept coming, tending to resurge where last I had punished them; coursing like a rainless cloud on the exact same trajectory each time.
The French tourist attraction Lascaux II is like the 1980 family movie Superman II because:
1. It’s a translation of archetypes, a kind of ode to idealism.
2. Some people claim that it is better than the original.
3. The special effects are dated, but they still pack a punch.
4. It cost millions to produce.
5. All it is is editing.
In 1963 Lascaux cave, a network of subterranean tunnels scrawled with some of the earliest known Upper Palaeolithic human art, was closed to public scrutiny. Since its discovery in 1940 around a thousand visitors had trampled through the site per day, bringing with them a toxic mix of exhaled CO2 and greasy, groping fingers. In 1983 the Lascaux II replica was opened to the public. The tourist attraction contains a faithful recreation of the textured surface of the original cave upon which 75% of the precious art has been meticulously copied.
In the late 1970s Richard Donner, a talented director best known for his earlier film The Omen, was fired by the producers of the Superman franchise. Donner’s attempt to craft and create two Superman movies back to back had become hampered by production disagreements. A new director, Richard Lester, was drafted in to piece together the unfinished second film from remnants that Richard Donner had left scattered on the cutting-room floor. Lester’s Superman II was released in 1980. Richard Donner’s name was absent from the credits.
The original Lascaux cave rests in darkness again now, killing the time its simulation has reclaimed from toxic breath and greasy, groping fingers. The addition of a ‘state-of-the-art’ air conditioning system to the Lascaux complex is thought to be responsible for a virulent, black fungus now invading the site. Experts are looking for a solution to the new problem they helped introduce.
Richard Donner finally released a ‘faithful’ version of Superman II in late 2006, a version for which Richard Lester received no credit. The two films contain around 75% of the same material, in vaguely different orders.
Somewhere unseen to me a billowing sack of protoplasm with the head of a Queen was giving birth to its hundredth clone of the day. But unlike its brethren this clone would never grow towards the daylight. A dark shroud of worker ants would drag poison into its womb: a deadly meal upon which the nest would feast.
Most fire ant bait is an insecticide and an attractive ant food combination made up of processed corn grits coated with soybean oil. Baits are taken into the colony by ants searching for food. The bait is distributed to other members of the colony through the exchange of food known as trophallaxis.
Although several fire ant baits are available, there are two main types: insect growth regulators and actual toxins. Hydramethylnon bait is a toxin that disrupts the ant’s ability to convert food to energy. Spinosad bait is a biorational toxin derived through the fermentation of a soil dwelling bacteria. Abamectin, the toxin in Raid® Fire Ant Bait is also the result of the fermentation of soil dwelling bacteria. Fipronil bait disrupts the insect’s nervous system through contact and stomach action. Fenoxycarb, or methoprene, and pyriproxyfen are all insect growth regulators that prevent queens from producing new workers.
One key to the efficiency of baits is that the insecticide gets to the queen. 1
In my local supermarket was an aisle devoted to domestic murder. Sticky traps infused with cockroach friendly aromas; circular baiting baths filled with a saccharine mosquito-drowning dew. Tablets for prevention, sprays for elimination and piles of bug-nets, bug-bats, bug-bombs and bug-poisons.
In a central scene from the 1991 film, Terminator II, Sarah Conner attempts escape from the high-security asylum in which she has been incarcerated. For a patient, deemed to be dangerously unstable, an asylum is a rigid tangle of limits, barriers, locked-doors and screeching alarms. Sarah Conner’s escape is notable because of its affirmation of the paths of the asylum. Far from moving beyond it, Conner uses the rigidity of the system to aid her movement through the building. From the very beginning of the scene Conner’s dancing feet, her balletic violence, inscribe into the constraints of the asylum a pattern of the purest desire. A paper-clip, a broom and a container of bleach – all systematic of order and closure – become in turn a lock-pick, a weapon and a kidnapping ploy. A key, usually a symbol of access and movement between limits, is snapped in its lock and instantly becomes a barrier. Only upon the arrival of The Terminator and her son, John, does Sarah’s freedom over the asylum finally ebb back towards the traditional limits of fear and isolation.
I bought a box of Raid ant bait. The compound eyes and hideous mandibles of a cartoon ant stared back at me from the package. This caricature, designed to demonise the ants, instead expressed their human-like determination. A determination that I would use against them. A determination bound up and offered to them like a spoonful of Trojan horses.
Though the radiation from kryptonite is detrimental to all life, it is especially harmful to Kryptonians such as Superman.
Kryptonite is the ore of kryptonium, and usually has a green hue. Although, in its red form, kryptonite is perhaps at its most unpredictable.
Red kryptonite turned Superman into a powerless giant and a dwarf. Turned him into a terrifying Kryptonian dragon.
Red kryptonite drove Superman insane for a period of forty-eight hours. Made Superman unable to see anything green; grow incredibly long hair, nails, and beard. Grow fat; gain the ability to read thoughts; grow a third eye in the back of his head. Lose his invulnerability along the left side of his body. Split into an evil Superman and a good Clark Kent. Become apathetic. Be rendered unable to speak or write anything but Kryptonese. Grow an extra set of arms. Become clumsy. Swap bodies with the person nearest him. Transfer his powers. Rapidly age. Go through multiple personality changes. And have his skin rendered transparent overloading him with solar power.
Red kryptonite made flames shoot out of Superman’s mouth and endowed him with the power to make his wishes come true. Red kryptonite transformed Superman into an infant with the mind of an adult. Robbed Superman of his super powers and afflicted him with total amnesia.
Red kryptonite once endowed Superman with the head and antennae of a giant ant.2
I set down the bait, causing the trail of ants to divert and invert. After a few moments of disorder the nest plotted a new trajectory: the black cloud bleeding into yellow poison.
Ants never anticipate. They only creep onwards, solving each problem as it comes to them. Surviving because survival is what ants do.
It is written that when the Maya people of The New World were first set upon by the Spanish cavalry it was spiritual confusion that hastened their demise. To their eyes the seething onslaught of man and horse was made of but one, new and terrifying, species of creature. In the West we might call these creatures Centaurs: liminal entities fused of two distinct species. To the Maya the border between God and beast was breached by the Spanish invaders, truly alien beings who in all but one generation would subsume the Maya under a wave of technology, disease and colonial ascent.
At the time these stories first made their way across the Atlantic ocean the Mayan Centaurs would have been seen as examples of a primitive world view. Today we tend to believe we have a clearer conception of history, one not marred by colonial aspirations or archaic stereotypes. And yet, like Edwin Hubble, staring out at an ever expanding universe, the more we examine these events the more they seem to accelerate away from us.
Like the Maya we are constrained by our perceiving eye, by the cultural reservoir within which our imaginations swim. It is as though the very fidelity of reality is determined at its point of viewing, that in some sense we will always see Centaurs where really there sit men on their horses.
By morning the upturned plastic mushroom was empty of its poison, as piece by piece the ant bait had been dragged, carried and manoeuvred into the nest. In places a fine yellow dust now stained the kitchen’s cracked linoleum. A dust composed of corn grits soaked with delicious, deadly poison.
1 Extracted from University of Arkansas web archive: http://tinyurl.com/6xzob2
2 Dialogue text compiled from online sources: wiki.superman.nu/wiki/index.php/Red_Kryptonite, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kryptonite & supermanhomepage.com/comics/comics.php?topic=comics-sfaq#Q34