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Dhaka Tribune

'Where Do the Ants Go?' Finds Parallels in Human and Ant Behavior

When Dhaka Tribune visited the anthill the first day, no one had yet saved the anthill from destruction

Update : 05 Feb 2023, 12:22 PM

In the South Plaza (first floor) of Shilpakala's National Art Gallery, a Minecraft-inspired anthill rises 26-feet in the air. Where Do the Ants Go? was created by new media artist Afrah Shafiq as a meditation on the parallels between ant and human behavior. From the entrance on the right, visitors enter the anthill to encounter a giant sleeping ant queen, who wakes to lead them in an immersive video game. Players program a digital ant colony's mood through inputting likes or dislikes, with the goal of saving the anthill from flood or fire by balancing water emotions (gratitude, wonder, generosity, joy, trust, and hope) and fire emotions (anger, pain, sadness, anxiety, grief, and irritation). 

When Dhaka Tribune visited the anthill the first day, no one had yet saved the anthill from destruction. This reporter was also unsuccessful.

Shafiq says that the game emerged from her observations of online behavior during the Covid lockdown in India – including her own — and the ways that people would get stuck in repetitive “feeling loops.” After spending a lot of time of Twitter, she says she “kind of got addicted to that heightened sense of outrage there” and struggled to escape. 

“I think we're all aware of the quite powerful algorithms that design and shape the ways we interact with each other, create discourses, and shape our own thoughts. Yet, we do the dance that it asks us to do,” says Shafiq. “So much of our behavior on the internet gets stuck in loops.”

As a way to get de-addicted to her devices, Shafiq began to set aside time to watch ants in her house. “I live in Goa, so there are ants everywhere. For ten minutes, I would just watch the ants walking around. I would identify one of them and watch. ‘Where is it going? How is it thinking?'”

This led Shafiq into a research deep dive: “I discovered a whole realm of ant data that I wasn't aware of. It's a rich field of existing study. It turns out that a lot of algorithms were inspired by actual ant behaviors – like one called the traveling salesman problem. How does a delivery man who has to go to 20 locations every day optimize which locations he goes to? The algorithm is inspired by the ways that ants are able to find the shortest pathways.”

Shafiq was hooked. She says, “I've always been into drawing parallels between the digital world and our lived experiences, because I feel like there's so much poetry in that.”

With the support of Pro Helvetia, Swiss Arts Council, Shafiq worked with Swiss architect Jeremy Waterfield to bring to life a physical anthill that is a “metaphor for the brain or the internet, looking at each individual as if it was just a single byte of data, or a single tweet in a larger social network, or a single cell within the brain.” The goal, she says, is to see “how that individual unit's engagement with the whole amplifies, creates, reflects, engages with, influences, or transforms the functioning of the entire larger system.” 

She also worked with a team of animators and writers to create the script and the game design, coming up with the character of the queen, who Shafiq says represents one's “inner voice.” To play the game, 8-12 people can enter the anthill simultaneously, though only two people can control the mood of the colony at a time. By the end of the first day, only one team had managed to save the ant colony. Will your colony perish by fire or flood, or can you save it? Shafiq invites you to find out.

Curatorial support for Where Do the Ants Go? was provided by Diana Campbell, Fernanda Brenner, Chus Martinez, Daniel Baumann, and Iaroslav Volovo.

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