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Bloom Explorations

If you are an insect in the superorder Endopterygota, you have the super ability to experience complete metamorphosis. You can transform from the four stages of life—egg, larva, pupa, adult—in a process called holometabolism. One such creature who can do this is the Darkling beetle, who emerges in the fourth stage with a thick protective exoskeleton, and another is the adaptable super-performer and co-creator Hilde I. Sandvold, in choreographer Tina Tarpgaard’s “MASS-bloom explorations.” For three days, Sandvold, as part of Recoil Performance Group’s “MASS-bloom explorations” installation at Dancehouse, recasts herself as a super-sized larva guardian, a super-worm with a vertebrate. Dressed head to toe in a latex costume the colour of her tiny co-performers, thousands of live mealworms in the larval or second stage of life, Sandvold and the mealworms have formed a symbiotic relationship that reads as a tale of regeneration. For mealworms, it has been unearthed, have another super power: the ability to eat and digest polystyrene, thanks to microorganisms in their guts which can biodegrade plastic.[1]

Performance

Recoil Performance Group: “MASS-bloom explorations” choreographed by Tina Tarpgaard

Place

Sylvia Staehli Theatre, Dancehouse, Melbourne, Victoria, November 17, 2023

 

Words

Gracia Haby

Hilde I. Sandvold in Recoil Performance Group’s “MASS-bloom explorations.” Photograph by SoŞren Meisner

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My prior relationship with mealworms is as a wildlife carer. Mealworms are what I feed to microbats and more recently a Dusky antechinus, a small carnivorous marsupial endemic to Australia. When the juvenile antechinus we’d named Bingo could hunt and kill his own mealworms and crickets in his enclosure, he was ready to be released back in the wild. The mealworms were indicative of his maturity. And now, in the darkness of the Sylvia Staehli Theatre, the mealworms I know as something to feed to another animal in care, and who reside in a sealed container in my fridge, I am in turn now watching feed on three days’ worth of polystyrene. As part of the Membrane Project, Copenhagen-based Recoil Performance Group’s “MASS-bloom explorations” beckons you “to come close to the perishability, decomposing and death that all living beings on the earth are confronted with and eventually become part of,”[2] and celebrate the container of mealworms in your fridge, the cycle of life, whether you are squeamish or otherwise. What nourishes the antechinus is also capable of cleaning up human detritus. 

Mealworms, like fungi, are voracious consumers, and as it seems unlikely we humans are going to clean up our act, why not hand the task of decomposition and environmental remediation to the plastic-eating mealworms and the brilliance of mycelial networks.[3] Because environmental remediation is what I see as I watch fifty-odd glossy mealworms nibble at and bore into a small chunk of polystyrene on a Friday afternoon. Of course, we cannot leave it all up to this “hypothetical alliance between human and a worm [to] break down our left-over plastic. But it is an artistic suggestion of how humanity as nature and culture must be willing to accept change in our relation to the fragile ecosystem we form together with the rest of the planet’s organisms.”[4]

Mealworms in Recoil Performance Group’s “MASS-bloom explorations.” Photograph by SoŞren Meisner

As I sit on one of two inflatable plastic couches arranged before a large illuminated dome, with a copy of Caitlin Dear’s zine made to accompany the three-day durational performance, “Thinking with Worms,” in my hands, it is like looking at compost in action from the comfort of a loungeroom setting. On a polystyrene tray by my feet, there is a printout of a written piece by Ida Marie Hede, which is also playing quietly over my shoulder, in a conversational atmosphere. “There’s not a lot of room here, but I’m careful and nimble”reads the narrator, and she could be talking about herself or on behalf of the mealworms.[5] As I observe Sandvold inside the dome, designed by Pei-Ying Lin, she moves with care so as not to tread on any of her co-inhabitants. “I turn my foot vertically, using it as a shovel”, recounts the narrator, and re-enacts the performer. “I quietly count to 100, flex a muscle, it takes me twenty-five minutes to take a step to the right without harming the mealworms. These hungry little creatures that I tend and feed polystyrene.”

The founder of Recoil Performance Group, Tarpgaard, who has been sitting on the other couch, heads into the dome with a polystyrene takeaway box in her hand. “I love [the worms] because they rewind everything. They turn me inside out in a bloom exploration,” enthuses Hede. “If you decide to step in here and spend time with me, you will be—like me—in a state of bloom exploration, bloom gravity, bloom mass, unruly lushness.” Tarpgaard invites me to take off my shoes and enter the dome. If before it was like looking at compost, now it is like hearing rich and healthy soil. The sound inside the dome is thrumming. Some people have said it sounds like the sizzle of cooking, others like popping candy, explains Tarpgaard.

Recoil Performance Group’s “MASS-bloom explorations.” Photograph by SoŞren Meisner

I watch Sandvold use her hand vertically to clear a path for her palm to land. As she carefully guides the mealworms to safety, the action and pace is hypnotic, fireside-like. I had not anticipated the ambience to be meditative. I had not expected the sound. Nor did I expect Sandvold to ask me, “Are you hungry?” and to motion towards the takeaway box Tarpgaard had brought in earlier. “No”, I replied, once I processed the experience of a super-sized larva guardian talking to me, “but I expect they may be” as I in turn used my hand to motion toward the 200,000 mealworms. Sandvold proceeded to eat one of the two fried chicken drumsticks inside the box, and it was then that I noticed the small opening in her latex mealworm suit for her mouth, in an unexpected Alice in Wonderland before the Caterpillar transformation moment.[6] As Sandvold appears to relish her lunch, Tarpgaard points out yesterday’s smooth chicken bone, and tells me about how mealworms can be used for skeletal preparations. As I watch them climb over the chicken bones of yesterday and today, alongside the polystyrene monuments, she also comments that they cannot chew through the latex, so Sandvold was not in any danger of ending up on the plate in a playful reversal of who’s eating who, and the ultimate “bloom me up”! Pipes Hede, “Just like spiders, which could, if they got organised, eat every human being on earth in very little time, the mealworms might one day eat me. They have this duality: a threat to humanity + a thousand tiny saviours.” Such is life.

Ultimately, for me, in this collaboration with mealworms, “MASS-bloom explorations” foregrounds the possibility of transformation when we are willing to alter our viewpoint, and the interconnectedness of all things.[7] The mealworms are not merely in “MASS-bloom explorations,” they are a part of it. Just like we are not in nature, but a part of nature. What can we learn from them, asks each gentle sweep of Sandvold’s hand. Sandvold’s moments and pace is determined by the mealworms, and the same could be said to apply to the mealworms, slowly nudged out of the way so they do not get squashed. Behind Sandvold, the remains of a polystyrene cup rolls under the shifting weight of several mealworms. A glorious extended ecological family; you, me, and mealworms.

Gracia Haby


Using an armoury of play and poetry as a lure, Gracia Haby is an artist besotted with paper. Her limited edition artists’ books, and other works hard to pin down, are often made collaboratively with fellow artist, Louise Jennison. Their work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and state libraries throughout Australia to the Tate (UK). Gracia Haby is known to collage with words as well as paper.

footnotes


  1. Rob Jordan, “Can mealworms help solve our plastic problem,” Stanford Earth Matters magazine, Stanford University, December 19, 2019, https://earth.stanford.edu/news/can-mealworms-help-solve-our-plastic-problem, accessed November 17, 2023.
  2. “MASS-bloom explorations”, Dancehouse website, https://www.dancehouse.com.au/whats-on/mass-bloom-events/, accessed November 17, 2023.
  3. “According to the Stanford study, 100 worms can eat 380mg in 30 days (12.7mg/day). That means each worm can eat 0.127mg per day – 46.36mg per year!”, “Think you can’t compost Styrofoam? Mealworms are the answer,” Living Earth Systems, October 12, 2016, https://www.livingearthsystems.com/blog/mealworms-compost-styrofoam, accessed November 17, 2023.
  4. “MASS-bloom explorations,” Dancehouse website, https://www.dancehouse.com.au/whats-on/mass-bloom-events/, accessed November 17, 2023.
  5. Ida Marie Hede, “MASS-bloom,” translated by Rene Lauritsen, Recoil Performace Group website, https://recoil-performance.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/MASS_EN_Printed.Version-3.pdf, accessed November 17, 2023.
  6. It occurred to me as I left the dome that I didn’t offer Sandvold her water bottle which was placed nearby, so I hope the next person who entered, remedied my rudeness the way the mealworms were busy remedying human waste in the Anthropocene.
  7. Tina Tarpgaard in interview with Oliver Coleman, “Choreographer Tina Tarpgaard on collaborating with mealworms,” Uncommon Sense, RRR radio, November 14, 2023, https://www.rrr.org.au/on-demand/segments/uncommon-sense-choreographer-tina-tarpgaard-on-collaborating-with-mealworms, accessed November 17, 2023.

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