ODI Art Associate Julie Freeman unveils a Naked Mole-Rat 'Eutopia' at Somerset House

ODI Art Associate Julie Freeman's latest exhibition 'A Naked Mole-Rat Eutopia' opens this week at Somerset House, featuring animations powered by live data from a naked mole-rat colony

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Naked Mole-Rat 20th Anniversary at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. CC BY 2.0, uploaded by Smithsonian's National Zoo.

Somerset House is soon to play host to possibly some of the strangest visitors it’s ever had. ODI Art Associate Julie Freeman's exhibition – featuring animations and artwork powered by live data from a naked mole-rat colony – opens on Monday 10 October.

‘A Naked Mole-Rat Eutopia’ is part of the year-long celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s book that imagined what an ideal society would be like. Naked mole-rats (NMRs) are altruistic ‘eusocial’ mammals. These sabre-toothed sausages have social behaviour akin to bees or ants, in which a single female is responsible for breeding with one or two males. Meanwhile all the other animals work cooperatively for the good of the colony as ‘workers’ or ‘soldiers’ to care for the young, provide food and protect the nest.

“What would our society look like if it was eusocial?” asks Julie Freeman, ODI Art Associate and PhD student at Media and Arts Technology at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). “For instance, would a focus on cooperative living have changed the result of the Brexit referendum?”

Dr Chris Faulkes, Reader in Evolutionary Ecology at QMUL, is an international expert on NMRs. He and Julie have teamed up to track in real time the activities of these unusual animals. As the NMRs scurry around their colony from their home in QMUL, the real-time data is streamed over the internet and captured by Julie to create a number of artworks and projects, which will form part of the exhibition.

This is the first time that real-time NMR colony data has been collected and used in this way. Chris is hoping to explore patterns in the data to discover more about the animals’ circadian rhythms, how the community splits into roles, if/when these roles change, and how changes in the environment affect their behaviours. Research about NMRs could also shed light on human health questions.

Julie says:

Not only are we are using this data to help us understand more about naked mole-rats, we are using the data as an art material to create real-time artwork. I view this work as a translation of the technological relationship between human and animal, enabling us a new perspective on the natural world.

‘A Naked Mole-Rat Eutopia’ runs from October 10-16. Events include:

  • Thursday, 13 October 2016: lunchtime talk by expert Dr Chris Faulkes on the lifestyle and behaviours of the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber)
  • Thursday, 13 October 2016, 7–9pm: Chaotic comedy cabaret hosted by science comedian and naked mole-rat aficionado Steve Cross
  • Friday, 14 October 2016: lunchtime artist talk on ‘A Naked Mole-Rat Eutopia’ by Julie Freeman. Julie will talk about how her work is inspired by these curious animals and her use of their data as an art material
  • Saturday, 15 October 2016, 12 noon and 2.30pm: Chris Faulkes will visit Somerset House with the NMRs in a purpose-built portable burrow system so that visitors can draw them with the street artist, Sonia Blair

For more information on the exhibition, and to book tickets to the above events, visit the Somerset House website here.