Health of the HiveFebruary 29, 2012
Good stories take ordinary experiences and make them ecstatic and unfamiliar. They are products of imagination, the creators of new images despite everything seeable already existing.1 Though often considered an individual attribute, imagination is also collaborative, activated and verified by other people. The production of something mysterious relies on someone else to experience it as such. It hinges not only on another person’s ability to recognize a pattern in a set of signs, but also to invent new meaning. If imagination is a dependent capability, protecting the imaginations of others is a vital part of caring for oneself.
Warm in Winter
In 2007, I started to notice honeybees wobbling on my back stoop, disoriented and drained, uninterested in flowers. One would turn up every couple of weeks, stumbling in circles on the cement. I thought it might be a phenomenon unique to the microclimate just south of San Francisco’s Alamo Square Park; the clouds always broke over the hill, creating a warm patch of sky above the back door. Around the same time, worker bees all over the country were abandoning their hives, ignoring the flowers.
The first Haven (2011) hive sits atop a sixteen-foot-tall steel post anchored in a public park in Kansas City, Missouri. Jarett Mellenbruch undertook research to find a structure that would appeal to wild bees, one large enough to house a swarm but small enough to ensure that the bees would keep each other warm in winter. Three years later, he arrived at a box built from high-density polyethylene and wood, insulated like a hollow tree branch. His aim for Haven, which currently exists largely as a proposal, is to install one thousand of these elevated spaces in urban areas across the United States, challenging colony collapse and habitat loss by providing wild pollinators with new homes. In addition to making feral colonies available for study, the project also helps bees with their public relations. Mellenbruch’s structure looks like a birdhouse with an open gable roof, its white Corian exterior carved with false colonnades. A placard near the hive provides information about the bees, aping literature found in zoos and national parks. Quick Response (QR) codes on the plaques will link to more detail and to a page where visitors can offer up their observations of the hive.
When their hives get too crowded, bees relocate by sending out scouts. They collect information about a knot in a tree or a hole in a wall and return to convey this to the rest, wiggling a map that spells out where to find the site in relation to the sun. The intensity of a bee’s vibrations connotes its level of excitement, and each scout makes a case. Haven encourages this existing process by giving wild bees ideal places to dance about. It also uses the swarm as a metaphor for human activity; when enough hives are installed and the QR codes are in place, the project will create a network of amateur and expert beekeepers, park visitors, and ecologists. The project crowdsources on the bees’ behalf, mirroring the way they distribute responsibility to collect information. Years from now, the individual data points will accumulate into a narrative about wild pollinators, making it easier to monitor the health of the hive.
When You’re Strange
Members of the Charleens Cabaret Dance Troupe were covered in giant zits. At the end of their act the biggest one burst, hitting high school teens, severing their limbs, blasting open their bellies, and breaking their bones. Uniformed members of the National Guard emerged calmly from the wings and applied bandages and tourniquets. Children and parents in the audience of televised variety show Whoop Dee Doo cheered; lives had been saved.
Every episode of Whoop Dee Doo opens with a dance party. Children, drag queens, Christian mimes, and punk rockers dance together surrounded by tangled, bulging sets that many of them work together to build. The television show’s founders and hosts, Jaimie Warren and Matt Roche, respectively play a bubbly bag of movie popcorn and a flannel-wearing, introverted werewolf. They collaborate with existing acts in Kansas City and in cities where they are invited to perform, putting together groups that might not otherwise come into contact.2 For an episode taped at the Malmö Festivale in Sweden, they searched for a black-metal band to host a hugging contest. After they received a reproachful rejection letter from Denial of God, the band Pagan Rites agreed. Pairs of audience members shared the stage with the band, squeezing each other as the lead singer came unhinged. The hug-off was sandwiched between a performance by an award-winning troupe of Swedish folk dancers and a vegetable-eating contest for adults.
The variety show format enables illogic; wildly different performances take place one after another, united by the show’s low-budget, over-the-top, public access aesthetic. But the strangest, most exciting moments happen when acts find ways to integrate: citizen soldiers rescue students walloped by a flapper’s exploding pimple. The groups that perform with Whoop Dee Doo often have their own audiences and identities. Like Irish step dancers, metal rockers abide by a set of existing standards that make them recognizable to their public. But when those two sets of conventions inhabit the same story, they become unclassifiable. The mini-narratives between acts create a kind of logic that makes them depend on one another.
Say It with Me
A mannequin selects a self-help VHS tape from the shelf at a thrift boutique: Essentially You’s Guide to Becoming a Better Person Through Clothing Choice. She pushes play. A wrinkled data entry specialist with abundant tangerine hair appears on screen and congratulates her on her purchase: “You made the right choice and I’m proud of you... Come over here. I saved a seat for you.” They suddenly share the same wallpaper. The specialist asks questions intended to assess the model’s mental state and guide her to a sense of purpose.
You Live Here Too (2011) is a live performance coupled with a split-screen video projection. Julia Vering, the artist who plays the mannequin, is also a social worker at Kansas City Presbyterian Manor, a nonprofit retirement home. The Essentially You specialists are residents there. While Vering scripted some of the lines, others are open-ended prompts that invite improvisation. She used her own character’s search for self to unify the stories told by the seniors, adding a layer of fiction to their already ethereal accounts. The project creates a space for imagination outside of the stigma associated with dementia and memory loss. Erosion gives way to construction: “We are making memories together. Say it with me: I am changing my strategy. I am changing my mind. I am changing my life. I am changing what I think about my friends.”
In You Live Here Too, no distinction exists between fantasy and remembered events. Memories are integrated into the surreal storyline, whether accurate or invented. While You Live Here Too reveals collaborative storytelling to be a generative activity, it also points to its soft spots. The guides scold Vering, telling her she can’t be trusted and that she hasn’t accomplished much. The mannequin’s search for someone essentially herself becomes futile with the realization that her identity is reliant on other people, subject to unstable plots and invented characterizations.
Every Third Bite
Bees are dying in part because their productive potential is understood. Factory bees are fed high-fructose corn syrup in the winter and shipped to pollinate single crops during the summer, reducing the variety of species they consume and help sustain. Haven protects the bees’ productivity by refusing to channel it through these familiar routes, creating a framework within which they can work to nourish themselves. Whoop Dee Do and Vering’s You Live Here Too similarly work to cultivate and protect the productive potential of others. They sustain imagination by inventing structures that can hold divergent visions while preventing those narratives from being easily categorized. The interdependence of communities has become a commonplace observation: bees touch one-third of the human food supply. These projects take the ordinary material of interconnection and make it strange—less easily understood and more apt to ignite.