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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

A Naked Mole-Rat Eutopia at Somerset House

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.

Naked mole-rats (copyright - Chris Faulkes)

© 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:

  • Abstract silicone sculptures which move, or dance, in an organic way in response to the real-time data from the NMR colony. Julie has been working with soft robotics expert Professor Kaspar Althoefer from QMUL to develop the technology that manipulates the sculptures through data fluctuation;
  • A screen-based audio visual artwork using live data (also available as a free downloadable app;
  • A real-time data visualisation of the colony with access to educational information;
  • A number of street art-style animal drawing workshops for young people hosted by artist Sonia Blair (featuring live NMRs for participants to draw).

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:

  • Thursday 13th October 2016: lunchtime talk by expert Dr Chris Faulkes on the lifestyle and behaviours of the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber);
  • Thursday 13th October 2016, 7-9pm: Chaotic comedy cabaret hosted by science comedian and naked mole-rat aficionado Steve Cross;
  • Friday 14th October 2016: lunchtime artist talk on ‘A Naked Mole-Rat Eutopia’ by Julie Freeman. Julie will talk about how her work is inspired by these curious animals and her use of their data as an art material;
  • Saturday 15th October 2016, 12 noon and 2.30pm: Chris Faulkes will visit Somerset House with the NMRs in a purpose-built portable burrow system so that visitors can draw them with the street artist, Sonia Blair.



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