Watch: The Abstract Beauty Of A Snail’s Slimy Tracks

The masters of translating basic animal behaviors into abstract art used a projector to trace the glowing path of 20 snails on plexiglass.

Snails don’t get no respect. When not being devoured by happy Frenchmen, the slimy buggers are typically considered pests–not to mention pretty gross to look at up close. But leave it to the fellas of Quiet Ensemble, maestros of mice and pineapples, to transform the spiral-shelled land mollusks into modern artists, elevating their squiggly routes into something beautiful.


Orienta was presented as part of last year’s Digitalife symposium in Rome, where the installation was set up thusly: 20 snails were placed on a suspended white plexiglass plate, free to meander wherever they chose. As an infrared camera system tracked the invertebrates, a video projector produced one pixel of white light immediately following the movement. Basically, their to-and-fro trails were illuminated in real time.

For a full month, Quiet Ensemble’s Bernardo Vercelli and Fabio Di Salvo would switch between two groups of 20 snails every evening; while one set made magic on the screen, the other relaxed in a terrarium backstage. High-res pictures were taken at the end of each day, resulting in 30 different “memory paths” or “past prints,” as Vercelli eloquently refers to them.

For viewers, understanding the exhibition required a distinct shift in their own mental pace. “The audience had to be patient because the light painting looks still,” Vercelli tells Co.Design. “Snails are really slow; the audience can notice life and changes only by giving their attention, observing and waiting, seeing and hearing.” In this way, he describes the whole endeavor as a tribute to the “apparent immobility of forms.”

Setting up the show, however, wasn’t as simple as snatching some specimens from the local garden and letting them loose. They ordered nine kilos–almost 20 pounds!–of crawlers from Sicily, fed them and “learned about their attitudes,” Vercelli says. “We observed them a lot; some would not walk enough, others would be so small that the camera would not recognize them.” Their research dipped into realms both technical and organic, developing new mathematical codes and understanding their subjects’ dietary preferences (carrots).  

Vercelli actually refers to Orienta as a “natural sequel” to the pair’s previous Biographie project, where they underwent the painstaking task of following creepy crawlies around with a pencil on a sheet of white paper for 50 minutes at a time. Silkworms, ants, spiders, even cockroaches produced strangely beautiful abstract artworks, simply by going about their regular business.

Both are a strangely touching look at the physical trace of a life on Earth. The group sums up the experience in a poetic description:


Our actions remain as source of a series of uncontrollable consequences that shape the world. What I remember from childhood ‘til now is a myriad of blurred images, dulled memories of experiences and paths that I could never rebuild or tell. Orienta wants to focus on the vital track that we, as living creatures leave during our time on Earth; our trails, our choices, moments at a crossroads, the decision to go back, to retrace the same steps, to continue together or alone, to stop for five minutes or a whole day, on randomness of a meeting or a separation, the decision to stop. For a lifetime. I’ve been on this road so many times that I have now decided to lose my way. I guess I would smile if at the end of my life I’d see my vital path drawn on the world.

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