The ants have broken her morale

Monday 10th June, 2024 - Bruce Sterling

*It would take a heart of stone not to sympathize with Laura Kampf’s fit of exhaustion over her endless house “renovation” project on YouTube.

*This is not the first time that a YouTube influencer has burnt out from the exigencies of doing private digital television. I don’t doubt she’ll soon rally and get over it. But there’s another and deeper lesson here.

*Laura Kampf is all about retrofitting and upcycling junk. That’s always been the core of the Laura Kampf activist aesthetic. As an art director for Share Festival, I see a great deal of this. If you’re into “technology art,” you’re commonly dealing with art made and re-made with objects, products and services that aren’t conventionally used to make “art.” And, commonly, these objects, products and services are “junk” — they may well be shiny and in fine operational condition, but they’ve been detourned out of standard technological practice.

*For one reason or another, they have lost their conventional revenue stream, and that means that somebody can haul them out of the factory and relocate them in the atelier. As art objects. There’s nothing new about this; it’s standard behavior; it’s been going on at least since technology artists were artists-in-residence in corporate and government labs in the 1960s.

*I’m very used to seeing this process occurring, and the recycling doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I cheer it on. There are even movements and art schools, like “Arte Povera,” that make a deliberate virtue of using materials that are so degraded that they aren’t “repurposed” or “upcycled.” They’re just plain abject materials chosen for their expressive qualities, not “second-hand,” or re-used, but aesthetically elevated debris.

*However, there’s a physical and biological limit with this upcycling practice by artists. Humanity shares our material world with other beings, including ants. Termites, microbes, mushrooms and fungi, they’re all participants in biological reality. We humans can’t live without them and their entropic services, their vital creative-destruction. If they didn’t eat lumber, out planet would be nothing but mummified lumber.

*These wood-eating ants have become Laura Kampf’s bete noire. You can see her morale shatter on camera as she goes to salvage a nifty heap of abandoned lumber and she finds ants thriving inside it, and utterly destroying any economic value. Because of her fondness for junk, the ants are always alarming, surprising and depressing her. They’re her competitors.

*The lesson here is: if you’re a junk recycler, there are limits to your practice. Nothing material is free from entropy, but wood is organic material. It’s edible, not by us, but by others. There is a little bit of hundred-million-year-old wood around, but it’s no longer wood, it’s fossilized wood, it’s wood transmuted to stone.

*If you’re into “circular economies,” part of that “circle” will involve complex things being literally digested into elemental things. It’s the way of the world. It can be a source of grief. but you need a way to be at peace with the laws of nature.

*Those ants are a living menace to Laura Kampf’s creative efforts, but the ants are the hero of their own epic. They were here long before us and they’re mighty likely to be here long after us.