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Cross-Pollination: Jessica Rath's 'A Better Nectar'

A dull roar of buzzing can be heard in a field where artist Jessica Rath is doing research for one of her many involved and obsessive projects. She looks around for the source of this roaring buzz, but sees no sign of a swarm or a hive. Curious by the subtle and signature music of these tiny beings, she searches around her and finds a gaggle of them, writhing on the ground, all together; twisting and turning over one another, like waves of an ocean. It was a little beyond chilly, so the bees stayed there, buzzing and swirling together on the ground for several days. The bees were cold-huddling in Rath's presence -- a technique that large groups of bees participate in, churning with their colony to keep warm in cold temperatures. Rath was intrigued by this seemingly strange phenomenon, and began observing and researching these creatures and their habits. After that encounter, she knew that she wanted to do a project on bees.

With all the buzz of bee colony collapse in the media over the past few years, and with a little push from curator Kristina Newhouse, Rath decided to explore this whole other world through "A Better Nectar." With the help of many interested parties, including researchers, scientists, composers, singers, artists, friends and assistants, Rath built a human-sized world emulating that of the enchanting and fuzzy winged creatures that fertilize more than 30 percent of all fruits, vegetables, and nuts we eat. Made specifically for this space, but not limited to, human-sized bumblebee nests -- made of polyester resin and fiberglass -- were placed in clusters in the main gallery of the California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) University Art Musuem. Translucent and goldish in color, the nest clusters are each embedded with speakers and play a moving score composed by Robert Hoehn and performed by a 40-person Chamber Choir from CSULB. The nests serve as resonant chambers for the bee music. The subtle and delicate songs change throughout the day, and are synced up with the National Weather Service, with six different songs that play according to temperature, time of day, and the viewers' proximity to the nest. Utilizing technology as a material in her process, Rath was able to create an independent art piece that moves and shifts sound and song on its own, according to its world.

Listen to "Cold Huddle" from "A Better Nectar."

"You can't even imagine their world, and it's the same world," Rath says. "I really like that in the work, really grasping that, and realizing that in my world, there is no truth. The human world is simply one among many."

She has created a life-sized world for us humans to explore and experience what a bee might see and feel, and how they might live. "I don't make this work for me," Rath says. "I am specifically making this for an audience who doesn't know this information, as an introduction to that information, but also as a different way of entering that whole other perspective or world--and using these mediums to shift the way my audience makes meaning."

Bumblebees on a wick in Dr. Anne Leonard's Leonard Bee Lab. | Image courtesy of Jessica Rath.
Bumblebees on a wick in Dr. Anne Leonard's Leonard Bee Lab. | Image courtesy of Jessica Rath.

Completely based in scientific research, "A Better Nectar" bridges science and art, finding fascinating ways to explore the perception and experience of bumble bees, through artistic interpretation and expression. The research and development of this project was heavily documented and its process and progress are on exhibit as well. Rath spent over a year going to visit entomologist Anne Leonard's Leonard Bee lab at University of Nevada in Reno, whom she heard on National Public Radio (NPR) back in 2013 talk about the pollinator-flower communication and the multi-sensory world of bumblebees. Leonard worked with Rath to help her not only understand the world of bumblebees, but also brainstorm how to translate how bees experience the world to humans through art.

Throughout the exhibition, Rath explores multiple vantages for these bees--blowing up the angiosperms' (flowering plants) stamens to be human-sized sculptures in "Staminal Evolution," recreating a bumblebee nest in "Resonant Nest," creating a light installation that is based on bee vision in "Bee Purple," and a thorough look at her processes and collaborations in research at the Research Station.

In Rath's past works, she focused on similar perspective-shifting notions, and finding a compelling way to explore those notions through creative expression. In Ripe, she created drawings, sculptures prints, and installations based on the current genetic manipulation of tomato plants. In "Take Me to the Apple Breeder" she made sculptures and photographs representing the untold stories of the apple breeding industry. In her work with "Song to Snore," Rath collaborated with Hoehn again to create a score for a gray and hypnotic labyrinth, guiding the viewers through an awakened version of sleep. The sounds for the score were taken from songbirds, human sleep sounds and Rath's baby's lyrical babbling.

"With the last couple projects, I've been interested in agriculture," Rath explains, "and how our subjective desire influences how we genetically manipulate fruits and vegetables, how our aesthetics of our own bodies get transferred on to vegetables and fruits, and then how that desire can make us see a problem in a particular way, like needing to 'save.'"

Fascinated by the communication different species have within their communities, she was drawn to try and understand the communication between the bees. Just as the bees communicate with the flowers through their specific buzz frequency, the recreated blown up stamens-like sculptures and the over-sized bumble nest sculptures also seem as though they are communicating--breathing, buzzing and humming toward one another, both in the key of A. "The sound and the object kind of move in and out and around each other, you don't differentiate the two. I'm happy that that is working in the show," Rath says.

Listen to "Languid Wander" from "A Better Nectar."

Rath embraced the colony/collective lifestyle of the bees through her creative process as well, relying on her collaborations and communal effort to create the many layered aspects of this exhibit--her collaborations with Robert Hoehn, Anne Leonard, and Ian Schneller being most notable (of the many many collaborations involved in this exhibit). A bee keeper himself, Hoehn has worked in sound and music composition in dozens of films and projects. Most of the sound was a direct collaboration between Rath and Hoehn, using real observational behavior over time. Finding the right frequencies and resonant sound for the nests and stamens were very difficult and particular. In most of her work, Rath is often fascinated with a concept but waits for a material to come to her and attach itself to her concept. A Better Nectar struggled at first because the only thing that was sticking to her concept was the auditory aspect. "The sound kept resonating with me, as a medium," Rath explains. "Usually it's something that resonates and refuses to leave, until it attaches to something that I find. Part of my brain must be looking to solve it."

Ian Schneller of Specimen Products and Jessica Rath with the plug mold 

Combining science and art is a difficult task, but if done properly, it is this kind of genre-crossing work that reaches audiences of all ages. Rath has even been working with the local school district to utilize this exhibit as a learning tool for observation, for scientific research, and as an expression of art. "I find it interesting that I can hit the 4th graders, I can hit the food world, the science world, academic and cultural world, and the art world."

For Rath, it is invigorating to jar viewers out of their naturally self-concerned existence and ponder another perspective within the same world, and helps her see the concept more fully as well, through fresh eyes. "I'm usually distilling things, so I can't compare this work as cutting edge media work, it's not about that. It's about a line between a human's perception and a bee's perception, and using these mediums to get you somewhere in between the two."

"Jessica Rath: A Better Nectar" at University Art Museum, CSU Long Beach, until April 12.

Further Reading on Jessica Rath's "Take Me to the Apple Breeder:"

Experimental Apples of Jessica Rath
L.A. based artist Jessica Rath speaks about what the fruit has to teach us about current food debates, diversity, and our relationship to nature and art.

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