November 12, 2014 | 4 Comments

Beetle Wrestler (Natalie Jeremijenko & Chris Woebken)

From the curators: An update on the metaphor for empathy that suggests walking a mile in the shoes of another, Beetle Wrestler designs “an architecture of reciprocity” that allows humans to better understand the heightened state of combat in the insect world. The rhinoceros beetle is one of the animal kingdom’s strongest members; males of the species are able to lift 850 times their own weight with their sharp, two-inch-long horns. This ability is used to win female mates and control access to them once secured. Beetle Wrestler pits a Hercules Beetle (Dynastus Hercules)—the largest in the rhino beetle family—against a human, who clips her head into a helmet device scaled to allow her to imitate the range of movements and strength of her insect opponent. Beetle wrestling matches have long been a popular past-time for elementary school students in Japan, where the insects are kept as pets, and celebrated in festivals, video games, and cartoons. This interactive design environment turns a spectator sport into a participatory exercise while also cleverly flagging the present-day technological hubris that allows humans seemingly unfettered access to experience. The design brings into confluence the fields of art, design, performance, science, and ethics, asking whether design can ever allow us to understand the experience of another living creature, insect or otherwise. Natalie Jeremijenko is the director of the Environmental Health Clinic at New York University, where she developed Beetle Wrestler in collaboration with Chris Woebken, Lee von Kraus, and Leigha Dennis.

Imagine for a moment that you are the beetle. Not the woman in the loft with the low-tech gadgets and the trippy helmet and the exotic pet and the minimalist website and the starring role in the multispecies art project. Imagine instead that you are the beetle.

Maybe you raised beetles like this when you were growing up in Japan. Maybe you trained them to fight in your village in Thailand. Or, maybe, wherever you’re from, you’ve had other reasons to spend time observing and interacting with them. Maybe you worked in a zoo or a pet store. Maybe you’re one of those people for whom sympathy with other creatures comes easily.

You’re here on the table, though you don’t know why. The table lacks features, there’s nowhere to hide. The table lacks contours, there’s nowhere to climb. The surface is unstable so it’s hard to get traction. The room lacks shade and the light is relentless.

And this thing that’s coming at you. It’s huge and powerful, lunging at your head. It grapples. It wants to fight; though you don’t know why.

Try to imagine that you are the beetle. It’s not possible. You can try to imagine it, but you can’t get close. You’re physically too different. Your sensoria don’t correspond. You occupy an entirely different world, not only in temporal and spatial scale and experience but in texture and chemistry. The signals you receive are not the same; the signals you send don’t translate. Even if you could somehow build a body of similar sophistication—you couldn’t—it would provide no insight into the qualities and forms of the animal’s perception. There is no reciprocity, architectural or otherwise; there is only contact. There is no prosthetic to bridge difference; there is only what departs one side as a philosophical game and arrives on the other as…well, we’ll never know.

Dive into the ocean and shimmy a little fish-like. Take off in a plane and soar part-bird. Enter a tunnel and feel the mole stir inside you. Stand still in the forest until the fluids rise in your veins.

Lie on the summer grass and let your skin rustle in the breeze.


Can design ever allow us to understand the intensity of the violence we humans bestow upon other living creatures?

  1. November 16, 2014, 9:19 pm

    […] Beetle Wrestler (Natalie Jeremijenko & Chris Woebken) – Design and Violence. […]

  2. November 27, 2014, 1:26 pm


    Beetle Wrestler

    I believe we can. At first this concept came across as abstract in notion and I questioned the basis for wanting an answer to such a question. But then the picture and concept of a robot came into my mind followed by the image of the Hollywood icon of a robotic invasion on Earth – Terminator.

    The beetle in the exhibition wrestling against an innanimate, powerful object which defies all laws of nature that the beetle is accustomed to battle against. Imagine a human having to do the same against a robot.

    So while we may not be able to simulate the physical, emotional and intellectual reaction of natural creatures to human invasion we can simulate the feeling of being overpowered (in every way), by something that defies all Earthly laws known to humans.

    I however find myself coming back to the question of why ask such a question. For every question is really a retrospective because a solution is already sitting dormant within the one asking. So curious to find out from the curators.

  3. December 6, 2014, 11:27 pm


    of planetary warrior cultures

    I’ve always imagined that one of the legendary warrior cultures of the insect world (a world rife with wondrous warrior cultures surely) is that of the beetle.
    Perhaps that all has something to do with having to share the planet with us.

    If design can do anything to get humans to even consider, never mind understand the intensity of the violence we humans bestow upon other living creatures it’s doing important work.

  4. December 11, 2014, 2:37 pm

    Isabella Brandalise

    Space for speculation

    Raffles argument makes sense – Jeremijenko and Woebken’s highly speculative project does not allow us to truly put ourselves in a beetle’s shoes. What it does instead is open a space for discussion and imagination. By creating the opportunity to perform as a kafkaesque dystopian figure, the project’s role becomes not only a trigger to begin multiple conversations concerning issues like violence and otherness, but also to discuss design as a player in facilitating these debates or even promoting aggressions. The absurdity of such a hybrid and disruptive living form (or rather artifact) makes us leave our comfort zones and enter a space of disquietude and questioning. No, we definitely can not understand our capability of violence. However, it may be a chance to speculate and envision alternative scenarios.