Gal Nissim – Sci-Art Encounters

Gal Nissim & Leslie Ruckman, SurveillAnts at Science Gallery Detroit, 2018, live ants, acrylic, sand, wood, electronics. 41.5 X 29 X 29 Inch. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Mark Sullivan.

Gal Nissim creates collaborative experiential multi media installations which stimulate the visitor to track and decode the behaviors of animals through audio-visual patterns, ranging from a colony of living ants in a gallery space to wild life in Central Park. Nissim shares with Art Spiel her fascination with the link between science and art, some insight into her elaborate collaborative process, and on her projects. Our interview process had been taking place before the pandemic and the artist was given an opportunity to bring her responses fairly up to date.

AS: Our interview was conducted a while before the Corona pandemic. Life has changed since. How are you coping these days and what are your thoughts about the road ahead? 

Gal Nissim: The current events reveal the unjust reality we all live in — our society is infected by racism and prejudice. I strongly support the demonstrations and the ideas they promote. Prejudice and misconceptions should be fought through education and discussions to make the world a better place to live in. I see art as a great channel to promote these ideas and challenge conceptions that have been long embedded in our societies.

The most exciting and fascinating phenomenon that occurred in the last couple of months for me is nature reclaiming. We got a remarkable pick on the drastic effect our human behavior has on other species, our non-human companions. Animals who were pushed from their habitats by urbanization are entering our cities, wandering around looking for food and shelter. I would like to emphasize that I do not think this is how life should be from now on, enclosed in our homes, but it gives hope that it is not too late for us to change behavior towards the environment and we have the power to rehabilitate our planet. This time has also revealed how much some species’ lives are intertwined with ours. Monkeys in India that their main source of food came from tourism have hungered. Rats who used to have an abundance of food from restaurants and bars are now starving. They have to fight for their lives by killing their kind, to get whatever food is available.

On a personal level I found it as a very confusing time full of uncertainty. At first, I was very distracted and found it hard to focus on creating new work. I think that after accepting this new situation and adjusting to my new environment I began adapting to a creative routine. I have also discovered some positive effects out of this new form of digital human communication – virtually connecting with people I haven’t seen or talked with for a long time, able to attend multiple places across NYC or even across the globe in a very short amount of time, participating in more artistic events and expanding my community. For instance, organizations like Eyebeam and Immigrant Artist program by NYFA hosted regular meetings that discussed urging issues of cooping. The Whitney museum has online events such as video art screenings and art history lectures. Currently, I’m working on Golden Jackals, even though it is a site-specific project, I am working on it remotely thanks to the extensive help from family and friends. They have been taking me on virtual scoutings in the park via video calls, and I have been using multiple 3d map databases that are helping me immerse into the parking space even from miles away.

AS: Your art intersects with science and from our conversation I understand that you have been fascinated by both disciplines from quite early on. Tell me a bit what drew you to each and what prompted this integration?

Gal Nissim: Since a very young age I was fascinated with both art and science. Although it seems at first glance as two contradicting disciplines, for me they are complementary. One of my most vivid memories is from the first day of biology class at Thelma Yellin, the national High School of the Arts in Israel, when the teacher asked, “What are the similarities between an artist and a scientist?” We were not prepared for such a question and, noticing our confusion, he smiled warmly and explained that both artists and scientists are inventors and are inspired by their observations of the world. Moreover, they share the need to create. What Dr. Friedlander expressed in words that day, I had only begun to discover, and have continued to experience throughout my life. Following that experience, I kept pursuing ways to combine these two greatest passions of mine: I studied biology and cognitive science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, while studying art and animation at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.

One such exploration occurs in my Cut & Paste sculpture series. While researching bats’ navigation abilities in flight at the Weizmann Institute of Science, I was exposed to many different animal testing methods. In order to better understand diseases like Alzheimer’s, researchers in one of the labs used pairs of live mice surgically conjoined to share a single blood cycle. On the one hand I understand the need for such testing, and I am fascinated by the advances it enables. On the other hand, I am shocked and pained by the suffering of these living beings. Art is my means of processing this inherent conflict.

The sculptures in Cut & Paste depict different stages of two mice imagined as one hybrid, a grotesque organism. Although this new bizarre organism may be regarded as a monster, I sculpted it in a way which evokes empathy. In so doing, I attempt to highlight our conflicting perception of animals—both as living beings and as research material.

My desire to dive deeper into the intersection of art, science, and technology brought me to New York for my graduate studies at NYU’s interactive telecommunications program (ITP) and that is where I started my exploration of our relationship as urban residents with animals that surround us.

Gal Nissim, Cut & Paste, 2014-2018, polymer clay, 6 X 5.5 X 4 inch, Image courtesy of the artist.

AS: Let’s start with SurveillAnts, which I had a chance to see at Made in NY Media Center in Brooklyn. This is a collaborative project with designer Leslie Ruckman. Please tell me about the nature of your collaboration and the origin story of this project.

Gal Nissim:SurveillAnts is an interactive art installation. It is tracking the behaviors of a colony of living ants, and visualizing their movement patterns over time. Therefore, the Media Gallery was the perfect place to show it. This exhibition was a wonderful way to end my year long fellowship there.

Leslie and I met during our first year at NYU and have been developing and showing SurveillAnts ever since. At first, we were not sure what form this project is going to take but we were certain it has to involve live ants. Through the use of computer vision algorithms and projection mapping, we visualized the paths of individual ants as colorful drawings in real time. Simultaneously, we gathered data on ant pathing and collective actions. Behavior data is revealed through interaction with the installation, presented as visual patterns that are reminiscent of neurons at the micro scale, or galaxies at the macro scale.

We combine our unique backgrounds and shared interest in ecology, biology, and animals to create interactive works that combine art, science, technology, and often living organisms. In SurveillAnts, we seek to inspire discussions about the role of the individual vs the collective, and the meta-level patterns that emerge only when you analyze collective action over individual behaviors. By elevating the ants above their label as pests, we make our subject approachable, enticing participants to take their time observing and reflecting.

Gal Nissim & Leslie Ruckman, SurveillAnts at Science Gallery Detroit, 2018, live ants, acrylic, sand, wood, electronics. 41.5 X 29 X 29 Inch. Image courtesy of the artist.

AS: I found the installation as a whole arresting conceptually and visually. Tell me more about the evolution of your ideas throughout this project and it would be interesting to get an idea on how you developed the relationship between the visual and scientific elements.

Gal Nissim:Through the development process, we were inspired by various scientific studies that were done on ants. Lior Baltiansky, a PHD candidate who studies ants at Weizmann institute of science, has been consulting us since the beginning of the project in 2015. Since then we exhibited its different innerations in Print Screen Israel, Detroit Science Gallery and brought it back to New York.

Receiving LMCC’s support, we were able to expand SurveillAnts as a visual exploration into a large scale installation, building multiple new components that were intended to bring audience members further into the unseen world of ants. Some of the new pieces included an interactive wall-mounted piece that tracks the tunneling behaviors of our ants, free standing 6 foot tall cylinders, filled with layers of colorful sand that becomes mixed into a gradient as the ants visibly work tunnel their way down moving sand from one layer to another. We were also intrigued by the collective behavior of the colony, so we decided to display two sets of experiments called Emergence and Divergence that show when ant colony behavior emerges and how ants diverge as individuals.

Research forms the foundation of our creative process. Each work starts with essential questions that lead our creative process. In SurveillAnts we were exploring the following questions – How might we visualize the relationship between an individual and a collective organism? What do the emerging patterns tell us? Can we understand biology and living things through algorithms and data?

While watching the ants tunneling over time using time-lapse technology I observed a fascinating phenomenon. I saw one ant digging down in one direction and another digging a separate tunnel a few inches above the other. Suddenly she stopped, covered that tunnel with sand and started digging towards the other tunnel, in order to connect them. How would she know? They must have been communicating in some way! When asking scientists from the ant lab they didn’t have a defined answer of how the ants sense each other through the sand. One thing I was sure about – we have to share this information and create a piece inspired by this discovery. We built a wall mount piece where we tracked the ants’ tunneling behavior, and projected their borrowing history to reveal all the different stages they went through. In another revealing moment, we heard the ants making noises for the first time. I checked with the experts and surprisingly discovered that ants also communicate through sound. This fact is not known to many people, and could become another piece in the next iteration of SurveillAnts.

Drawing on scientific methods, we seek to answer these questions through observations and interactions that are exploratory rather than explanatory. As we spent more time observing the ants we were eager to create an environment that will encourage our audience to observe these fascinating organisms. We provide our audience with a prompt and a platform but leave them to contemplate, drawing their own conclusions.

Gal Nissim & Leslie Ruckman, SurveillAnts: Descent pt.2, 2019-2020, live ants, colored sand, acrylic. 72 X 12 X 12 Inch. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Roy Rochlin.

Gal Nissim & Leslie Ruckman, SurveillAnts: The Foragers, 2019-2020, live ants, acrylic, sand, wood, electronics. 48 X 39 X 39 Inch. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Roy Rochlin.

AS: Can you elaborate on the interactive aspect?

Gal Nissim: I use interactivity as a creative medium. In my work I am fascinated by perception and how I can shift narratives and preconceptions. In order to create a perceptual change and to affect their point of view, I believe people need to spend a meaningful time with these themes. I combine cognitive elements in my work in order to hook my audience to be more receptive to new ideas.

While technology is often used to shield us from nature, I utilize it to bring people closer to nature, and to enhance the feeling of being present by creating intimate experiences of discovery that reveal overlooked and unseen moments in speculative environments, and by integrating digital layers in existing places. I invite participants to explore the dynamic relationship between nature, culture, and human-made environments and to raise questions about our ecological role and responsibility as the dominant species on this planet.

Gal Nissim & Jessica Scott-Dutcher, The Synanthrope Preserve: The Washing Bear (Raccoons), 2018, immersive audio walk at Central Park, New York. Duration: 35 min. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Roy Rochlin.

AS: Tell me about the premise of The Synanthrope Preserve and what would you like to share about a couple of its iterations

Gal Nissim: The Synanthrope Preserve is a collection of augmented reality and immersive audio experiences that explore urban wildlife throughout the world. Urban nature is a habitat for many animals that live and thrive close to humans, such as pigeons, raccoons and rats. Each experience focuses on a different synanthropic animal, presenting its habitat and inviting the audience to discover overlooked and unseen moments.

Cities reshape the evolutionary path of urban wildlife. Synanthropic animals evolve to thrive in hostile city habitats and are best adapted to climate change. Through The Synanthrope Preserve, I aim to provoke a social change regarding the way we perceive and treat animals who share our environment.

There are currently 3 completed experiences in New York. It all started from the Blue Pigeon experience at Washington Square Park that focuses on the rock dove. The participant is directed to different habitat locations in the park, while a narrator describes the history of the rock dove’s lost glory, how it became feral and how it survives in the city. The Washing Bear, the second experience, invites visitors to discover the urban wildlife of Central Park. Throughout the walk, participants explore the perceptions and realities of nature in cities, focusing on the story of raccoons, in particular, to acknowledge how their nature has adapted and changed through their relationship with humans. The third part,The First to Cross, at Tompkins Square Park in NYC, explores the intertwined story of humans and rats. It is a “Choose Your Own Adventure” experience. Each choice made by the participants affects the following stories that are revealed throughout the experience.

These animals are a reflection of our consumption behavior. We will never eliminate them, but we could change our relationship with them.

Gal Nissim, The Synanthrope Preserve: The First to Cross (Rats), 2019, immersive audio walk at Central Park, New York. Duration: 35 min. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo by Roy Rochlin.

AS: Now that we have covered some specific projects, I would like to move on to a wider overview. How do you see your work in context of contemporary sci-art and studies in disciplines like anthropology, urban studies, zoology – all seems to me central in your work.

Gal Nissim: My work is motivated by a deep fascination with humans’ relations with “lower hierarchy” animals. I examine these relations as instances of environmental harm and racism. My work is directly inspired by recently possible technologies, natural sciences and environmental justice. I utilize technology to employ joyful and social justice-oriented ways to bring people closer to nature. As an immigrant feminist, I’m eager to raise conversations across borders and to tell the stories of those who can’t advocate for themselves.

I do extensive research for each of my long-term, multimedia projects where I collaborate with scientists, scholars and advocates. I believe that collaborative work leads to meaningful creations especially when it crosses cultures and disciplines. I am fascinated by the liminal zone—between fiction and reality, beauty and ugliness, attraction and disgust, art and science.

AS: Would you like to share what project you are working on now?

Gal Nissim: I received a Grant to create a new Synanthrope Preserve experience in Israel. The Synanthrope Preserve: Golden Howls invites visitors to discover the urban wildlife of Yarkon Park, Tel Aviv. A 35-minute experience takes participants on a winding tour, participants are guided into the center of the Yarkon Park, stopping along the way to discover both natural and manmade features. Ultimately our paths will cross with the city dweller, who returned to the park, after years of exile – the Golden Jackal. The experience is assembled from the park’s sounds, narration and augmented reality (AR) that will allow participants to pick into the historical, Egyptian mythological and biblical past, and even to the speculative future. In addition, the AR experience will reveal unseen moments and hidden habitat locations that the audience would not have known about otherwise.

Gal Nissim, photo credit Silke Astrid

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: