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Monday 29 July 2013

Part One: Designing 'Metainsectivore' - an imaginary creature in the 'Metainsecta' series carved from found and recycled wood and inspired by the HI-MEMS project

This piece was carved to show in the 'Inspired' exhibition, but there really isn't enough space there to  talk about why it looks the way that it does.

Metainsectivore is part of a series that I've been working on for several years based around the 'HI-MEMS' project. This is funded by DARPA, the US defence department's research and development division. The project seeks to implant control devices into insects in the pupal phase, when the juvenile (the caterpillar or maggot etc.) breaks down inside its casing and reassembles as the adult (also called the imago).

Instead of individually implanting control mechanisms into each pupa (especially given the number of potential offspring of insects), it would seem more logical to implant a nanofactory instead. This would be some kind of nanotechnology that could not only create the devices desired inside the host creature, but could also recreate itself to be passed on to offspring of that creature.

Of course, once such hybrids were in the world, it could perhaps be hard to recall them. Particularly when the rapid process of reproduction in host and technology could give the opportunity in both for mutation, variation and so evolution. Genetically modified crops are already commonplace in the US and in a future time of war, perhaps modified animals would be released without too much thought.

What would these creatures become? Being that other living things would also adapt to take advantage of them as a food source, what would their predators and other animals in their environment come to look like? These are the themes that I've been exploring. There is some artistic licence of course; for example, I don't think that adapted pupae would have external electronic-looking boards. I have also used features of insects that don't have a metamorphic stage inside a pupa.

I've also tried not to give an obvious strong value judgement on the project that inspired it in the series, although I have my own opinions which probably come through. This series is as much about the potential for strange beauty that could arise, even if it is also unsettling. 

One piece is inspired by record players and by the genetic engineering in the film 'Bladerunner'. It is a weevil that walks around and plays a record through mouthparts shaped like stylus, in a future where fragile vinyl discs are rare and valuable commodities and genetic engineering is commonplace. Such a creature would be unable to feed so could not live for long.

All of the sculptures are carved entirely from wood, occasionally powdered and fixed in resin (even the 'vinyl' record above is charcoal dust in resin). This is partly for the technical challenge as a woodcarver and partly because I like the idea of using quite a few traditional carving methods and tools with more modern techniques to create these strange, futuristic creatures. That's why the pieces also have a feel of the Victorian naturalist's preserved specimens. Maybe the detachment of those 'collectors' relates closely to that of the scientist involved in the HI-MEMS programme.

The Metainsectivore is a mammal that would feed on the new insects. It is loosely based on a number of existing creatures, including quolls, cats, tarsiers and aye-ayes. Its adaptations to its lifestyle include:

Large eyes and ears suited to nocturnal hunting
A beak-like snout covered in tough hair (like a rhino's horn) to protect its face from dangerous prey
Small, sharp teeth
A relatively long, flexible neck to allow its head to grab food or to get out of the way quickly
Hands and feet adapted to move quickly through undergrowth in pursuit of food and to be able to pick apart food to remove inedible parts
One long claw on each hand to pick out indigestible pieces from prey or to prise them out of crevices.

The timbers used include;
Cherry from a local tree surgeon
English walnut from an offcut given by a friend
Boxwood from Gloucestershire
South American mahogany from a bookcase taken out during a school renovation in Exeter and due to be thrown away
An ebony offcut given by a cabinet-maker friend who was going to get rid of it
Pau Amarello from a pile of waste offcuts of bowl blanks at a timber yard
Apple from a garden in Birmingham, UK
Holly from the local area
Yellow Box Gum from ann offcut of a didgeridoo
An offcut of brown English oak from a friend who was building a bed
Plum from Gloucestershire

... and whiskers made of bamboo fibres from an old skewer! 

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