The Future is a Cockroach

Can we imagine a future in which humans won’t be the center anymore, but cockroaches play a major role in the ecosystem? This is exactly what Indonesian artist Natasha Tontey proposed in her science-fiction-related project From Pest to Power for the web residencies by Solitude & ZKM on the topic Planetary Glitch curated by Mary Maggic. The artist asks how to build a sustainable future for multispecies interaction, and speculates on the future of cockroaches and humans by asking what can we learn from them, and by creating and sharing a recipe for making a healing cockroach essential oil. Read an interview with the artist, in which she claims that love between human and cockroach is possible.

Schlosspost: From Pest to Power is the title of your current web residencies project, in which cockroaches play a major part in the future of humans – but in which humans are not the center of the world anymore. What is the science-fiction-related concept about?

Natasha Tontey: If we reflect on today’s condition, the human is still considered the subject. Or in other words, the center in the ecosystem. However, through my current work, I would like to propose a fiction (or maybe some kind of a thought-provoking practice), in which the notion of human is revisited using the agency of cockroaches. I offer an idea: what kind of knowledge can humans generate from the cockroach’s world-building and its historicity? How do we build a sustainable future for multispecies interaction? Here I attempt to see the cockroach as a case study, turning what is considered a pest into powerful knowledge in a form of novel approach to science-fictioning. Less science, more fiction.

This project might relate to my past work Almanak (2018), point 0.9 of Manifesto of Tactile and Fanciful Tactics on How to Build a Speculative Future Through 1.0, List of an Alternative and Plausible Cosmic Solution:

0.9 On behalf of the whole universe of absurdity, narration and potentiality of speculative thinking through imagination, I declare war on rational thinking!

Schlosspost: The artistic realization of the story will be the presentation of an exegesis of texts – in the form of theory-fiction, recipes, and codes – and web-based images. Could you explain how the work is composed and put together?

NT: The work is basically composed of the writing and images derived from my research on cockroach activities; whether it was literature that I found on the internet and books or my communication with the colony of cockroaches in my studio and home. The artistic realization is then a gesture of how these mixtures of knowledge are compiled and narrated. Fiction for me is a platform on which to narrate the story and the findings, as well as a method to project my speculation. Through a fictional approach, I can produce a recipe and codes (in a form of language) as a practice of world-building. The theory I implemented on this artistic practice is used to enriched my speculation and aesthetic preference. However, I realize that the writing and images are fragmented and all over. For me, it is a fascinating experience to see the work in a fragmented manner, therefore it feels like a puzzle. To get the whole idea you don’t have to see the whole story, a small fragment is already enough to experience my speculation on cockroaches and humans. However, it is more fun to experience the artistic journey by reading and seeing the whole story.

»Fiction for me is a platform on which to narrate the story and the findings, as well as a method to project my speculation. Through a fictional approach, I can produce a recipe and codes (in a form of language) as a practice of world-building.«

Schlosspost: What are the open-source codes and recipes about? How should I use them?

NT: At first I thought to translate cockroach languages through code-based technology; however, I find this idea too ambitious. In the end, it is more interesting to actually share a recipe for making cockroach essential oil. The recipe posted on the website is semi-calculated on the research I conducted on the chemical content in the cockroach’s body. The research is developed by mutual conversations with bioentomologists and Javanese local healers. From a scientific/entomologist perspective, it is possible to make cockroach oil in proper lab facilities. On the other hand, the local healer, who was really into homeopathic medicine, suggested collecting at least 100 cockroach corpses and storing them in a container of carrier oil for months to get the cockroach essence. Different discipline, different approach. In the end both perspectives give a suggestion that is very speculative. The recipe is of course speculation, but now you can always try to make your own cockroach essential oil (without hurting cockroaches).

When the website is done, I want all of this information to be open source, so people can learn more about this through my work.

Schlosspost: Cockroaches have existed for millions of years and can tolerate a wide range of environments from Arctic cold to tropical heat, yet humans marginalize them. Referring to Donna Haraway’s thoughts on how interspecies engagement: what is the story of the relationships of humans and cockroaches you tell in your work?

»The relationship between cockroaches and humans is supposed to be a symbiotic mutualism, otherwise we develop the world as a place only for human beings.«

NT: I could say that what we need to build is collaborative survival, meaning interspecies relationships need to be built on the consensus that we will work together for a better future which focuses more on an ecocentric approach. This is the foundation of this work; to see if there is a possibility of interspecies connection that actually mutual and how knowledge is shared by multispecies not for one-sided gratification (which is usually human). Though cockroaches are also blessed by the abundant plastic that humans produce as their source of food, I think this is not the way we imagine a sustainable future. The relationship is supposed to be a symbiotic mutualism, otherwise we develop the world as a place only for human beings. In my practice, I try to look from the case study of the cockroach and raise the question of what we can learn from them.

Anyway, there is a new article on the declining insect population – I think this is a grim era for interspecies relationships.

Schlosspost: Humans have speculated on the possibility of crossbreeding human beings and nonhuman animals for a long time, not only in fictional works. A rather frightening thought … how could this subject be addressed in a more positive way?

NT: I wanted to capture the idea of an impossible love, platonic love and love that nourishes and remains despite the impossibility. The idea of crossbreeding is indeed a frightening thought, however, there is a possibility of love story between a human and a cockroach. On a personal note, my parents are hoarders. There are piles of objects and stuff stacked everywhere, which attracted the cockroach colony. As a result, I have been familiar with cockroach behavior since I was a child, meeting them almost everyday while they are hanging out in my house. I don’t see them as a menacing creature, and often question why my peers are often terrified by them. Furthermore, I seldom encountered fiction that tells a story of the relationship between humans and cockroaches in pop culture. There was an Animorph series on cockroaches and Gregor Samsa of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but most them portrayed cockroaches in an anthropomorphic manner. I am interested in speculating on this platonic relationship. This platonic relationship is a metaphor to develop mutual understanding.

Schlosspost: You tell the story from the perspective of humans as well as the cockroaches. What do cockroaches think of us humans?

NT: It is hard to imagine the cockroaches’ perspective on humans, however, I am trying to find something that relates to the notion of unity and gathering. In fiction, the cockroach said it is better to be friends with everyone and everything because pest repellent is nothing for them but harmful for nature (pesticide, chemicals, etc). In the video Revolution of Cockroach Society the script is an adaptation and appropriation of the speech of Yasser Arafat’s UN General Assembly 1974 and Soekarno’s Asian-African Conference, also known as Bandung Conference.

I use the method of text-assembling in this heavily fictional work. This might look tacky and personal, but mixing Yasser Arafat’s – we share the same Primal Astrology, Jellyfish – and Soekarno’s speech while appropriating as the basic script for the video work Revolution of Cockroach Society is an apt method to consider the fiction with which the Leader of Blattodea wants to build a peaceful communal society. In addition, Arafat’s speech regarding the need to build a liberated society due to the world crisis of unnecessary energies that have been wasted for war and Soekarno’s take on Bandung Conference to unify non-partisan countries reflected the fiction that I want to build – a collaborative survival.

»I wanted to capture the idea of an impossible love, platonic love and love that nourishes and remains despite the impossibility. The idea of crossbreeding is indeed a frightening thought, however, there is a possibility of love story between a human and a cockroach.«

»What do cockroaches think of us humans?« I’m not sure I can answer that question. But we can start to imagine, »do cockroaches find humans useful for their lives?« For thousands of years, cockroach have been sustained and survived without the presence of humans. So now I am wondering that maybe cockroach don’t need humans. Maybe humans think they are important for cockroaches.

Schlosspost: What is the presence and meaning of cockroaches in Net culture? Are there any projects you are referring to in your work?

NT: There is a pun intended – the term »bug« in the computer world. In biology, both bug and cockroach are in the same class of insects. I currently doing research on the Dark Web, and I refer to the cockroach as the other, as a bug is an error or glitch in the software. Most of my work builds a narrative fiction in an attempt to create another future or alternate timeline. I am influenced by children’s literature like Roald Dahl’s or Edward Lear’s work. That is the reason why I often write nonsensical poems, like »Beware of Cockroach of the Internet or Beware of the Internet Bugs.« Perhaps the cockroach does not have any particular relation in the Net culture nowadays, except in meme culture: people share a story about cockroaches and it easily goes viral. However, in the future there might be a possibility of something related to cockroaches emerging in Net culture vocabulary.

Schlosspost: How does this work for the web residencies relate to your artistic practice and interests in general?

NT: I come from a graphic design background. Having a chance to do a web residency is somehow fun, yet very challenging. It is a challenge for me to expand the idea onto a net-based work. It is also interesting to think about the new embodiment of this web residency. A web residency is obviously different from the traditional/classical artist residency. It pushes me to rethink my connection with the digital world and how it resonates with my daily life. The most important thing is, the web residency makes me reconfigure the distinction between labor and leisure in front of my computer – in a condition with practices moving beyond the analogue and the digital. I don’t have a studio, my studio is in my laptop and my phone. I think I am online most of the time so it is a fascinating experience and process for me to actually participate in the web residency. Also, the name Solitude represents the residency very well (at least for me).

Schlosspost: Next to storytelling, you also use poems in your work. How do you use this medium and what layer does it add to your art?

NT: Poems help me to write some ideas that hard to transcribe in a proper textual form. In a way, poems are a medium for me to go pastiche; an instrument for me to appropriate anything that I find intriguing – be it a passage or ideas – relating to cockroach from pop-culture to religious textbook. I imagine what kind of poem a cockroach poet would write? If there is a cockroach language, how is this poem conveyed and expresses the life of an ordinary cockroach family? Though, I’m not sure if this medium adds a layer to my practice or not, as I try to be more flexible in terms of art-making.

Schlosspost: The judgments toward cockroaches as you write in your concept text are symptomatic for the hypersterilized semiocapitalism/biopolitics idea of »proper lifestyle.« Could you elaborate on this thought?

NT: For me, our kinship with our surroundings is shaped by the construction and relation built by the capitalist system. If we see the relation between cockroaches and, let say, indigenous hunter-gatherers in deep forest of Sumatra, we can detect the collaborative effort build by two species: cockroaches give knowledge to the indigenous people that the soil is fertile thus easier for the people to find certain mushrooms to eat, while the mushroom is picked by human it created a new space for the cockroach to breed. In the age of biopolitics, we see our relationship with our surrounding in reverse, the cockroach informs us that our place is »dirty.« Although it is a form of knowledge-making, in the end the tendency is to sterilize our space, which at the same time exterminates the cockroach. It is rather sad that the one who informs us about filthiness is also the one we consider filthy. Perhaps too speculative, but it is worth rethinking the position and existence of the cockroach in this sense.

Schlosspost: Your concept is also influenced by the Xenofeminist manifesto, which seeks to strategically deploy existing technologies to reengineer the world. How could we think and build positive technologies for the future? And what can artists do here?

»For me, our kinship with our surroundings is shaped by the construction and relation built by the capitalist system.«

NT: I think the most important thing that artists can do is imagine the future by reflecting their cultural upbringing and political struggles. Technology has been centralized since the Industrial Revolution, and we need to see more alternative technology-making that comes from the periphery. In my understanding, technology is not necessarily understood as universal form – by universal I mean that everyone, every being, has the same objective in regard to how we implement technology. I think we need a decentralized type of technology-making, in which it is shaped and thought determined by the situation and condition of a certain community, beliefs and needs. For example, in the Indonesian tribe of Bugis in South of Sulawesi, gender is not constituted as a dichotomy of male and female. Five genders exist in the community. Ever since the precolonial period, they are trying to develop some kind of scientific development and technological apparatus to allow them to reproduce and bear children from any gender and sex. However, this attempt has been diminished by the moral standard that came in the colonial period. Therefore, in order to build positive technologies we also need to be familiar with the trouble faced by other beings; human or nonhuman. The question we need to ask and push is; how could technology function as a platform for collaborative survival?


Interview by Clara Herrmann


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