In 2008 an entomology unit of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), began to investigate the use of termites to locate rare earth minerals. In Termite Economics, an installation comprising archival footage overlaid with new narration, and sculptural works, Nicholas Mangan investigates the questions posed by this anecdote: ‘how might termites as miners, and world-builders, be employed to better understand human social and economic structures?’
Mangan considers termites as protagonists for decoding human behaviours; and the termite mound, a microcosm by which to reflect upon Neo-Liberalist class structures and labour divisions. This installation takes as its starting point two pieces of found documentation, each of which records the dissection of a termite mound: sawn horizontally through the middle, this act is viewed as a violent intrusion which disregards its termite subjects.
The first is a black and white photograph taken in 1923 by entomologist Anthony Musgrave, titled ‘Sawing A Termite Nest’, this image depicts a man hand-sawing through a mound, and a colleague filming this action. Here, the saw, termite mound, camera and human enact a set of relations that highlight the discord between humans and nature.
The second is a YouTube clip titled ‘Slice through of a Macrotermes mound’ (2014) which sees a termite colony in Namibia undergo endo-casting whereby the mound’s chambers are filled with plaster and cut into horizontal cross-sections. Sliced repeatedly at 2mm intervals until the mound is completely erased, this process results in thousands of slivers for analysis, each of which is displayed sequentially in a stop-frame animation, alluding to a human CT scan. With the artist viewing the mound as a superorganism, constructed from dirt and termite saliva, and highly receptive to environmental change, this film can be seen as a psychedelic insight into a collective brain.
Drawing upon these films, Termite Economics contemplates how termites might be coerced to follow human directives, through systems ranging from pheromone infused earth materials to 3D-modelled termite training centres.
Nicholas Mangan, born 1979 in Australia, lives and works in Melbourne.