When Catherine Chalmers headed to Costa Rica for the third time this past January, she had a script in mind that told a very specific story: the stripping of nature. With a cast of hundreds, if not thousands, she would film a leafy branch being reduced to wood to represent the larger picture of clear-cutting taking place worldwide.

That wasn’t quite how things went, largely because her cast refused to follow her script. "Every narrative that I have planned, they always rewrite it," says Chalmers. But such problems are to be expected when your cast is made up of leafcutter ants.

Catherine Chalmers is an artist who is best known for her American Cockroach series of photographs, videos, and sculpture depicting the Western world’s most hated insect. With an exhibit that forced viewers to confront our discomfort, Chalmers gained renown as an artist working with nature in a most unusual way.

Her current multimedia project, funded in part through a Guggenheim Fellowship and tentatively titled The Leafcutters, depicts these Central American insects in drawing sculpture, photography and video, with the latter two shot on location, in a forest bordering Corcovado National Park, on the Osa Peninsula, in the south of the country. After her last trip, Chalmers reflected on the process and her goal of bringing nature back into our cultural experience.

"The natural world has been so sidelined in our cultural presence," says Chalmers. "Animals are marginalized as pets, pests, and cartoon characters." On the opposite side of the spectrum are the biologists doing hard science, but without much in between those two extremes. "When [was] the last time that nature figured prominently in the cultural artwork of a civilization?" she asks. "It was a long time ago."

Chalmers isn’t referring to, say, photographs of natural phenomena or the plethora of stunning nature shows we all have access to these days. Rather, she’s hoping to bring nature into our culture’s art. With The Leafcutters, the result is a wholly surprising look at these creatures of the forest—and at ourselves.

The process itself is a nature lover’s dream. Having found a few colonies of leafcutter ants within reach of a power source—Chalmers had a six-outlet, 100-yard extension cord specially made so that she could bring her lights and cameras to the action—Chalmers spent weeks in the forest filming and photographing ants.

At first, the going was slow. Chalmers would collect bits of leaves and flowers that she’d seen the ants taking, but again and again they would have no interest in her goods. "I tried twelve different plants that I knew the colonies were taking," says Chalmers, "and they would not touch [them]." Finally, she found a plant quite a distance away that she knew the ants hadn’t been exposed to before, and they flocked to it. They couldn’t get enough of it. Fortunately, there was enough of it to last for several days of shooting.

In the meantime, Chalmers had also been filming a war between two leafcutter ant colonies that were in close proximity to one another. That footage was going to help build a metaphor about the infighting that happens when resources become depleted.

The only hitch was that the plant was highly colored. And on film, that visual did not present the parable of stripping nature on which Chalmers had been planning. "The plant they chose to take looked like a Jackson Pollock painting," says Chalmers. "And the pieces they cut looked like pieces of abstract expressionism." She shot the film as she’d planned, but now instead of a story about war and destruction, she has one about making art.

That video will serve as the third in the series; the first is about hubris and the second, called "The Chosen," is about idol worship. The project is still very much in progress, and Chalmers does not yet know where it will eventually be exhibited. Chalmers wants to return at least once more to finish the war video, hopefully before the war between the colonies has reached its natural conclusion.

The photographs presented here are all from the forest. Simply, Chalmers slips a piece of white paper onto the forest floor, since otherwise the ants would disappear into the background, and the scene would look much more like a straightforward nature shot than artwork. She plays with size scales as a way to draw out meaning, rendering the ants larger than life so that we are forced to reconsider how we think about them and our own place in the world.

After spending so much time in their world, Chalmers sees strong parallels between leafcutter ants and humans. "As an individual, I can’t make an iPhone, or a jet airplane. Things I use on a regular basis I am incapable of doing myself," says Chalmers. "Leafcutter ants are the same way." As one example, Chalmers cites the fungus gardens that the ants cultivate underground from chewed-up leaves, a task accomplished by the entire colony. "This incredible power of a super organism is [far] greater than the sum of its parts.

Chalmers also marvels at the fact that the ants have no boss. Day after day, she would watch—while monkeys (squirrels, capuchins, and howlers) dropped mangoes onto her tarp from the tree overhead—as the decision to take whatever plant Chalmers had lain in their path would suddenly grab the colony. Some days the ants would take a red flower and not a purple one, other days they’d ignore red completely, devouring the purple one instead. "They have no authority," she says. "So how do you change what a million members all think they’re doing?"

Although the final pictures look like they could have been taken in a photo studio, the set was crawling with life. Land crabs, cicadas, grasshoppers, and lizards all seemed to adopt her tarp-covered area as their own (her set was in a clearing for solar panels that power an old eco-lodge nearby). A black hawk frequently hovered nearby watching the lizards, and at least once a monkey popped by to eat a golden orb spider that had been spinning a web among the equipment and plants nearby.

One particular creature still puzzles her. When a piece of fuzz on her light stand started to move, Chalmers realized that it was actually a tiny, transparent insect that had put debris on itself. The more she looked, the more she saw, gradually realizing that they were all around the set. She was never able to identify it.

Collaborating with ants might not be every artist’s—or even scientist’s—dream, but The Leafcutters is exactly that. "It’s not a top-down thing," says Chalmers. "It’s ‘what are we going to discover together.’" As it turns out, collaborating with the ants is a perfect way for Chalmers to capture her wishes as an artist. "If I had a hope, it would be to pull the animal world into the cultural arena in a meaningful way," she says. "The things we care about are the things we tend to take care of."

Photos: Catherine Chalmers

About the Author: Jessica Wapner writes about biomedical issues for Scientific American, Slate, Science,New York, Nature Medicine, Ode, and elsewhere. She also writes Work in Progress for the Public Library of Science's blog network.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.