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FutureEverything: Ollie Palmer's 'Ant Ballet'

Our local city editor speaks to the artist exhibiting at the FutureEverything Festival in Manchester who explores communication in ant colonies and interactive digital architecture

A celebration of all things digital, the FutureEverything Festival in Manchester showcases work from new and established artists working in the field. Artist Ollie Palmer, an architecture tutor at UCL, plays with interactive digital architecture in his current work ‘Ant Ballet’. With the enigmatic project now in its nascent stages, Palmer discusses the future of ‘Ant Ballet’ and the disturbing prospect of international communication between live ant colonies.

Dazed Digital: What brings you to the FutureEverything festival in Manchester?
Ollie Palmer:
I got involved with FutureEverything a couple of years ago and because I was working on a project with a guy called Cesar Harada called ‘Open Sailing’. So I’ve kept in contact with everyone who runs the festival. It’s a really really nice festival to be involved with because everybody is so lovely which is kind of a rare thing in this world.

DD: Could you map out your plans with ‘Ant Ballet’, being that what you’re showing here is Phase 1 of 4?
Ollie Palmer:
What the fourth phase is I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’m sure it will kind of emerge. Naturally these projects tend to start out with an idea and you kind of have to be quite fluid in the way you work. But I’ve got a couple more things that I definitely want to do with it. For one, try to get ant colonies around the world talking to one another without the actual ants knowing that they’re talking.

DD: Would you really be able to tell if the ants were talking to each other?
Ollie Palmer:
Yes, we would. The ants themselves wouldn’t be able to tell, but we will! The essential thing I’m trying to tap into is the higher level of communication between colonies. They have these incredible emergent systems where they all kind of do things in synch or choose a new home together, but no individual ant is going to be in charge. That’s completely in contrast to our human perspective as to how things get done. So when the ants are following artificial pheromone trails we are essentially causing them to walk in phantom trails or follow phantom ants. The ants will be talking to each other through that higher level of emergent intelligence as opposed to an individual ant’s level. There’s something quite nice about them not knowing the part they play in the system.

DD: So what’s the final destination for ‘Ant Ballet’?
Ollie Palmer:
I’m going to be participating in Pestival, which is the most fantastic organisation. It’s a festival for insects: insects in art and the art of being an insect. They put on fantastically weird and brilliant events around the world. The next one’s going to be in Brazil, and that’s where ‘Ant Ballet’ is going next.

Palmer’s ‘Ant Ballet’ will be on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester as part of FutureEverything until 10 June 2012.