15 Feb 2023  |   05:54am IST

Where do the ants go? Nobody knows for certain!

Goan artist Afrah Shafiq had two of her avant-garde works for the Dhaka Art Summit, ‘Where do the ants go?’ and ‘Nobody Knows for Certain’. She shares the thought process behind creating those out-of-the box exhibits
Where do the ants go? Nobody knows for certain!

Aalokshi Awade

The Dhaka Art Summit (DAS), an international, non-commercial research and exhibition platform for art and architecture is related to South Asia. The sixth edition of the Dhaka Art Summit was held at the National Art Gallery, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, for nine days this month. The theme of DAS 2023 was ‘Bonna’, the Bangla word referring to ‘flood’. The choice of words is quite tricky, as it also reflects the irony and reflects the desire for viewers to rethink their outlooks on certain words and phrases. For instance, heavy rains in Bangladesh point its significance toward a way of life.

‘Where do the ants go?’, a video game by a Goan artist, Afrah Shafiq, comprises a 26 feet tall Minecraft version of an anthill, in which the visitors can control a colony of digital ants living inside the large screen projection that encircles the inside of the structure. The five-minute game has a 180° projection for its interior, which deals with the co-dependent nature of ants. She worked along with Jeremy Waters, an architect, to get the Minecraft layout as its exterior.

She describes the game as, “I consider this game as a mixture of human emotions and the logic of ants which is represented through the digital platform.” She also adds, “It’s a thought experiment.” Her work can be considered as an attempt to understand an individual ant’s relationship with its colony, and how it can be related to the human relationship with the world.

After entering the anthill, the audience gets a set of questions based on human emotions, with their answers involving human emotions of fear, guilt, sadness, happiness, irritation, anxiety, anger, joy, etc. The Queen of ants is found sleeping after entering, while she lays eggs. These eggs hatch after every five minutes, giving a rise to the ant population inside the anthill. When the cursor is pointed at any ant inside the anthill, the thought answered by the audience appears, which represents each ant. The audience is then presented with three options, like, dislike, and neither, when followed raises thoughts resembling similar emotions. For instance, if the thought liked by the audience was a sad thought, the small interactive screen inside ant hill will start filling up with sad thoughts if more sad thoughts have constantly been ‘liked’ and vice-versa.

To put it in simple verse, an algorithm similar to the For You Page ‘FYP’ algorithm is followed which leads to the recurrence of the thoughts inside the anthill. To keep the game going, one needs to keep the balance between the thoughts being liked or disliked. The game also has a fascinating feature to end the game in order to maintain the balance between the emotions and thoughts taking place inside the game. Afrah describes it, “If there are too many negative thoughts, it generates a digitalized fire inside the game which burns the anthill down. Similarly, if there are too many positive thoughts, there will be digitalized water in the form of rain and the anthill will drown. This is just the way life should be, about balance!”

Waking occasionally, the Queen Ant will also utter phrases in Bengali that are subtitled in English like “A girl just can’t catch a break, can she?” Afrah also adds, “Ants are interesting. They are organized species that have a well-defined pattern of communication. There are also a few algorithms designed on the ants’ behavioral patterns or even their lifestyle. The Traveling Salesman Problem, for instance, that's based on the ants’ pattern of communication.”

The headlining exhibition by Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Delhi and the Samdani Art Foundation (SAF), ‘Very Small Feelings’ also exhibited ‘Nobody Knows for certain’, another work of the thirty-four-year-old artist at the Dhaka Art Summit 2023. Afrah observed that Soviet children’s stories and the accompanying illustrations reflect two different worlds that were straddled simultaneously. The world of the skazka, the fairy tale, featured illustrations drawing on a rich tradition of folk forms such as the lubok print, lacquer miniatures, the textile and decorative arts, and the Mir Isskustva (World of Art) and Art Nouveau movements. Afrah shares, “Nobody Knows for certain, is a work involving children’s books which started coming to India from the Soviet Union. I was interested in building an archive as soon as I got to know about it. I’ve been working on this since 2020, for three years!” These books when they started coming to India from the Soviet Union, they were translated into all native languages of India from Marathi, Telugu, Bengali, Kannada, etc. The artist feels that the literature should be preserved, hence she came up with the archive, ‘Nobody Knows for Certain’.


Idhar Udhar