The spider’s world is one of vibration. Essentially blind, the web-building spider creates an image of the world through the vibrations it sends and receives through the web, which also functions as an organic and specialised instrument for transmitting these seismic signals. The spider/web is thus considered a material extension of the spider’s own senses, and—some argue—of its mind. The study of the seismic signals produced and received by the spider fall under the relatively new scientific discipline of biotremology: the study of vibrational communication in animals.
The Spider/Web Research Group’s research into biotremology extends Saraceno’s interest in exploring the possibilities for interspecific communication, and our capacity to communicate with our nonhuman kin, through practices of attuning to and producing vibrational signals. This strand of research is led by in-house Spider/Web Research Group researcher Roland Mühlethaler, and through collaborations with biotremology experts Hannelore Hoch and Andreas Wessel (Museum of Natural History, Berlin), as well as Peggy Hill (University of Tulsa).
This thread of biotremological research began in 2013 after Saraceno first came into contact with Mühlethaler (then a researcher at the Museum of Natural History Berlin), Hoch and Wessel ’s research into vibrational communications in insects - a meeting mediated by Saraceno’s visiting research colleague, arachnologist Yael Lubin. Following this, Hoch and Mühlethaler returned to Saraceno’s studio with a Laser Doppler Vibrometer (PDV-100), which they used to measure the vibrational signal propagation in a planar Nephila web and the bouncing signals produced by a Cyrtophora spider in its (modified orb) tent web. From this first visit, a mutual collaboration and interest in spider vibrational communication was born, which led to Mühlethaler eventually taking up a position within Saraceno’s Spider/Web Research Group, heading up the bioacoustic experimental research program.
In 2014 Saraceno initiated a series of experimental platforms for musical encounters between humans and spiders—interspecies jam sessions that experiment with vibration as a transductive force, capable of moving between the sensory Umwelten of anthropos and arachnid. Using the sonified spider/web as the core instrument, these jam sessions have fielded musical encounters between numerous human and arachnid performers.
These encounters became the basis for Tomás Saraceno’s evolving ensemble of musical instruments that experiment with the capacity of the spider/web to transmit acoustic signals in the form of vibrations. First exhibited in 2015 at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, this Arachnid Orchestra includes a range of spider silk instruments representing the different sections of a traditional orchestra: string, percussion and wind. These instruments incorporate the Studio’s customized piezo devices that translate web-based vibrations to audible frequencies in the human range, and, in turn, make human acoustic signals sensible to the spider/web. Presented here is an album of these musical interspecies encounters, featuring jam sessions between spiders and humans performed live in the exhibition, and recordings produced in Saraceno’s studio in Berlin.
These sounds - including one-off concerts, jams and scientific recordings, form part of a novel multispecies biotremological archive, including human and arachnid dialogues mediated by instruments Saraceno has created from spider/webs. A material resource for scientific research, this archive is also an invitation for further experimentation.
Through this relay of human-spider signalling, Studio Saraceno has composed a novel experimental platform for mediating interspecific communication: entangling the worlds of spider/webs and humans—but also multiple disciplines of thought and experimentation.
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Vibrational (biotremological) communication is ubiquitous; to paraphrase Einstein, “everything in life is vibration!” However, a large part of these biotremological signals are not something that we perceive. With respect to the spider, many of their vibrational signals are not ‘sounds’ - they are felt, rather than heard by the spider, who does not possess ears as we understand them. In contrast to cicada and cricket songs that we can easily hear without technical mediation, spider/web vibrations are largely inaudible to human ears; an imperceptible dialogue in patterns seemingly unknowable to us. These signals can only be recorded on the substrate on which they are borne.
Over the last decade, with the Spider/Web Research Group and extended team, Saraceno has developed specialised web sonification and signalling devices that unveil the hidden musicality of the spider/web.. Drawing from fields of biotremology (the study of animal vibrational communication) and biomateriomics (the functional studies of biological materials such as spider silk) and based on the principle of piezoelectric effects, the specialised devices developed by the studio—Feelers and Buzzers— allow us to participate in a previously inaudible vibrational dialogue with a high degree of sensitivity.
Each Feeler includes a customised electronic preamplifier and a modified piezo sensor that detects pressure variations produced by sound waves. The circuit board used in the preamps is designed to amplify very small pressure variations, providing greater sensitivity to the subtle vibrations travelling through the spider/web. To allow more intimate contact with the web with minimal disruption of its architecture, the piezo sensor element was extended using fishing wire, allowing greater proximity to the radial threads of the orb web along which vibrations are most ably transmitted.
The piezoelectric Buzzers developed by the studio are devices for audio signalling, driven by an oscillating electronic circuit or another audio signal source. A wire attached to the piezo device allows signals generated from the piezo-disc to be transmitted to another substrate (in this case, the spider/web). In effect, this device allows sounds—such as those produced by musicians—to be transformed into vibrational signals, which can then be translated back into the spider/web allowing us to ‘play’ and compose with spider musicians.
In December 2018, entomologist and specialist in biotremology at Studio Tomás Saraceno, Dr Roland Mühlethaler, held a public workshop at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, in the context of Tomás Saraceno’s carte blanche solo exhibition, ON AIR. In this workshop, participants learned how to make an invertebrate recording box - which would allow them to listen to the vibrational signals produced by spiders or other insects - using simple materials and a smartphone.
Using simple tools, you can build an Invertebrate Recording Box that allows you to listen to the substrate-borne vibrations produced by spiders, leafhoppers, or even snails. These are vibrations which are normally not audible to humans.
BiPi - Biotremology Pickup Device
Instructions and kit developed by Dr Roland Mühlethaler
Tin can (and plastic lid)
Sheet of cuttable foam
Cut out the bottom of an empty peanut can, and turn it upside down.
Cut out a piece of foam in a circular shape. The foam needs to fit inside the can, but doesn´t necessarily need to fill the whole space.
Glue the piece of foam on the inside part of the can’s plastic lid. This lid should now be attached to the bottom of the can, so that you close the can with the lid.
Cut out a circular piece of transparent drawing paper. This will be later glued inside the can, covering the foam, preamplifier and the piezo disc.
Glue the piezo disc to the drawing paper.
Poke or drill two holes in the lower half of the side of the can, which are large enough to accommodate the cable holder.
Place the cable holder and the recessed socket inside the holes.
Connect the unfixed end of the power cable with an USB plug.
Place the preamplifier on the foam inside the can.
Thread the power cable through the cable holder, so that it reaches inside the can.
Connect the recessed socket, the power cable and the piezo disc to the preamplifier. Make sure that the red cables connect to the parts marked with also with red:
Glue the drawing paper inside the can at mid height so it covers all that is inside.
Connect the power cable to the power bank.
Plug the audio cable into the recessed socket.
Connect the other end of the audio cable to the pink socket of the audio plug. Connect your headphones to the green socket of the audio plug. Then, connect the end of the audio plug to your phone.
To use your invertebrate recording box, carefully place your spider, insect (or snail!) on the drawing paper inside the can, and loosely cover the can with cling film. Now you are ready to tune in to the insect vibrations! Enjoy listening to the sounds of the spider and don’t forget to set it free afterwards.