Jessica Segall is a multidisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn who creates site-specific work that engages fragile ecological sites and their surrounding culture. Her work has been exhibited at the Havana Bienal, The National Gallery of Indonesia, The Queens Museum of Art, the Aldrich Museum, The Inside Out Museum, The National Modern Art Gallery of Mongolia and The Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina. Segall received grants from NYFA, NYSCA, Art Matters, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the Rema Hort Mann Foundation and attended residencies at Skowhegan, The MacDowell Colony, Kuenstledorf Schoppingen, The Van Eyck Academie and The Sharpe Walentas Space Program. Her work has been seen in Mousee Magazine, Sculpture Magazine, The New York Times and Art in America. She is a graduate of Bard College and received her MFA in 2010 from Columbia University.
In the final segment of his interviews with Claire Parnet, Abécédaire: A to Z, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze discusses “Z as in Zigzag.” In 1988-89, Pierre-André Boutang filmed the interviews, meant for posthumous broadcast. However, the year before he died in 1995, Deleuze changed his mind, allowing the Arte channel to air them sequentially. For viewers who made it to the last letter of this conceptual alphabet, Zed opened with a series of urgent connections: the zigzagging of the fly was no less consequential than the philosophies of Zen, LeibniZ, NietZsche, Zarathrustra, SpinoZa, and, of course, DeleuZe himself. The Zed is understood here as a transversal character, as the movement between two planes of existence, and as the lightning that makes the world of night visible, if only during its momentary flash of brilliance.
The zigzagging of bees comes immediately to mind for contemporary viewers, if only because the sound of their foraging is increasingly hard to hear. According to a scientific study that Caspar A. Hallmann led in 2017, insect populations in Germany have declined by more than 75% in just the last thirty years. The authors of this study speculate that entomofauna are suffering a similar fate around the world. Among them, the pollinators are in an especially terrifying state of decline. For the humans dependent on the collective labors of bees to survive, such studies are cause for alarm. In a 2016 report, the Environmental Protection Agency noted that imidacloprid—an insecticide used on a wide variety of crops throughout the United States—was a serious threat to bees and could be a key factor in the widespread collapse of commercial honey bee colonies over the past decade. The EPA also noted that bees, by pollinating food crops, contribute roughly USD$14 billion to the US agricultural economy. A global estimate of the value of pollination was not available.
Into this collapsing zigzag of nonhuman labor arrives Jessica Segall’s sited yet mobile intervention, Zzzzzzzz. Actually, the bees arrive first. Within the logic of so-called “ecosystem services,” these creatures are subjects of brokerage. That is, running a successful almond orchard that keeps up with the growing demand for non-diary milk products means managers now rely on the services of “on-demand” bees from other locations to ensure pollination of their crops. The growing need for such services globally, along with the acute, local problem of well-timed pollination upon which every harvest depends, has made bee brokerage—connecting orchards and farms with a legion of pollinating laborers—a new market for capitalism.
Like their exploited human-labor counterparts, bees have fixed biological limits: they too need sleep. Although hives are relatively resilient to an on-demand economy that ships them from site to site, bees require a home to return to after a long day of multi-kingdom sexual labor. Foraging all day is hard work, especially on the road, and any bees that don’t make it back to the hive to sleep may die for lack of social warmth. By sleeping with the nonhuman migrant laborers who return to the hive, Segall becomes (through the entangled work of sculpture and performance) a literal bedfellow of the underclass of colonized insects. She shares in the economy of their sleep cycles as bodies synchronize in the zigzag of human-nonhuman fidelities. Do exhausted bees snore? Does Segall? Does the proximity of their sleeping bodies smuggle rhythms of solidarity across stubbornly speciated lines?
Among the worlds of exploited labor, many artists have attempted to render vivid portraits of migrant workers and their struggles. It is the nonhuman activity of the migrant bees that Segall must bring into confounding focus. What becomes of a world where those who do the work of pollination face extermination? What becomes of a civilization that takes this labor for granted? In the almond orchards, any decrease in productivity—which is to say, any non-optimal outcome of the production cycle—provokes total destruction. Profit maximization or complete annihilation, those are California’s only options. In this toxic configuration of capital, we appreciate how Segall subverts the ruthless logic of maximum accumulation through her attentive intervention, that is, through her sleeping-with these exploited others. While most environmentalists would argue for a more thorough recognition of the work of the pollinators of our world, perhaps only an artist can sustain such generous vision of hospitality: to lie down with and dream alongside the bees, and thereby attend to their zigzagging futures, and, inevitably, to ours.
Etienne Turpin is a philosopher and founding director of anexact office, his design research practice based in Berlin and Jakarta. www.anexact.org
Jessica Segall lives in Brooklyn, NY, and completed her residency at Light Work in October, 2017.