From 10-16 October, Somerset House’s Utopian Treasury will host a contemporary art installation ‘powered’ by live data from a naked mole-rat colony by Julie Freeman, an artist at Queen Mary University of London.
© Dr Chris Faulkes
A Naked Mole-Rat Eutopia is part of UTOPIA 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility, Somerset House’s year-long celebration marking the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s seminal book that imagined what an ideal society could be like. Naked mole-rats (NMRs) are ‘eusocial’ mammals, whose social behaviour is akin to bees or ants, in that a single female is responsible for breeding with one or two males while all the other animals work to care for the young, provide food, and protect the nest.
“What would our society look like if it was eusocial?” asks Julie Freeman, artist and PhD student of Media and Arts Technology at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). “For instance, would a focus on cooperative living have changed the result of the Brexit referendum?”
These and other questions will be addressed in a series of events that accompany the installation about these fascinating creatures.
Dr Chris Faulkes, Reader in Evolutionary Ecology at SBCS, is an international expert on NMRs. He and Julie have teamed up to track in real time the activities of these unusual animals. As the NMRs scurry around their colony from their home in SBCS, the real-time data is streamed over the internet and captured by Julie to create a number of original artworks and projects. These include:
This is the first time that real-time NMR colony data has been collected and used in this way. Chris is hoping to explore patterns in the data to discover more about the animals’ circadian rhythms, how the community splits into roles, when / if these roles change, and how changes in the environment affect their behaviours.
Research about NMRs could also shed light on human health. They can live to over 30 years old – ten times longer than a mouse and more than five times longer than expected for its body size. Not only do they almost never get cancer, but they also resist the normal signs of ageing.
Chris says: “The naked mole-rat is a unique and fascinating mammal that has excited biologists since the discovery of its ‘insect-like’ behaviour. While these animals have many unusual adaptations to their lifestyle, the discovery of their apparent resistance to cancer and the exceptional longevity for a small rodent has opened up new and important avenues of research that have implications for understanding these processes in humans and improving human health.”
Julie says: "Not only are we are using this data to help us understand more about naked mole-rats, we are using the data as an art material to create real-time artwork. I view this work as a translation of the technological relationship between human and animal, enabling us a new perspective on the natural world."
‘A Naked Mole-Rat Eutopia’ runs from October 10-16. Events include: