Alibi V.26 No.35 • Aug 31-Sept 6, 2017 

Culture Shock

Fly By Night

The “Moth Migration Project” lands in downtown Albuquerque

A grizzly bear can eat as many as 40,000 moths everyday. That detail is a small one, but one that lingered in artist Hilary Lorenz' mind as she began to brainstorm a large-scale art project for 516 ARTS' Cross Pollination exhibition. Lorenz, who splits her time between Brooklyn (where she is a professor at Long Island University) and Abiquiu (where she owns a studio), had recently completed several large installation projects that investigated the intersections of nature and art. “I had been working with mammals and the wilderness,” Lorenz explained, “so there was that strong residual in my mind.”

Moth Migration Project
The “Moth Migration Project” is a crowdsourced art installation that asks participants to create paper moths endemic to their corner of the world
Suzanna Sbarge / 516 ARTS

Moths interested her for many reasons—they are pollinators, yes, but unlike many of the insects and birds that jump to mind right away, they do their work at night, “which adds a level of mystery.” Then there was that number—the 40,000 that a bear can eat in a single day. “I wanted volume, so I was thinking of that number, and then, how to do that.”

It quickly became apparent that crowdsourcing a project would underline themes of migration and cross pollination, as well as make the project hugely expansive. On a Sunday evening Lorenz put out a call on her Facebook page and website asking for individuals to make paper moths that live in their cities, towns or villages, and mail them to her to so she could arrange them together in a massive installation of 40,000 moths. By the time she woke up on Monday morning, 200 people had sent inquiries about participating in the concept that would become the “Moth Migration Project.”

That was January. On Feb. 1, she officially began collecting. So far, about 15,000 moths have flown to Lorenz from 24 different countries, whose regional colors and patterns vary tremendously. A fraction of those have come to rest across across the walls of 516 ARTS (516 Central SW) as part of Cross Pollination, an expansive show that opened at the Downtown gallery on Aug. 19. There, 4,500 moths create arches of fluttering paper wings over the ceiling and waves of pattern across the walls, their physiologies subtly distinguished by their geographic origins. This is the first time the exhibition has come together or been on display. “I was incredibly happy,” Lorenz said of finishing the installation of “Moth Migration Project” and seeing the eclipsing stream of moths across the gallery. “You walk down a little hallway, and the moths go over our head; you get the feeling of change in the environment, the feeling of being surrounded by these moths. Looking at all the different types of moths and the details, I would imagine that would instantly open up some questions. Some are really detailed and some are very simple. … You would realize that they are coming from a tremendous amount of people.”

Moth Migration Project
Suzanna Sbarge / 516 ARTS

Despite the omnipresence of digital contact which makes it possible to connect with others across huge distances, “sometimes our worlds seem really small,” as Lorenz said. A consistent bit of feedback she has heard from those who have contributed to the project has been that these individuals “really wanted to connect with each other” and in turn “be a part of something bigger than themselves.” That feeling of connection reaches a capstone when the paper moths physically congregate. “There's this physical, tangible object that we have exchanged from all over,” Lorenz said, adding: “In the mail! The actual mail!” Turning the moths over in her hands, Lorenz decided to acknowledge every contribution by sending a postcard in return—making it an exchange and underscoring the notion of connection.

Connections have been fostered in many ways since the project began accepting moths in February. Classrooms and community organizations have collaborated on workshops and Lorenz herself has hosted work parties, inviting strangers to her studio to make moths together (“10 people sitting around a table who don't know each other, getting to know one another, forming new relationships, that was incredibly satisfying”). Lorenz has also observed people connecting on the “Moth Migration Project” Facebook page, some of whom have begun to exchange their leftover moths, birthing what amounts to “a really cool mail art project happening around the world.”

“We have the moth, which is the symbol … and then by inviting people through crowdsourcing, there's the pollination of ideas, which creates connections between people, and then what happens is [the] creation of communities and relationships among people, which ultimately opens up the dialogue about different environmental issues,” Lorenz summarized. As such, the “Moth Migration Project” carries weight on a multitude of frequencies—articulating topics both particular and of wide impact. As the project has grown, Lorenz has made a definite effort to “let go of the project and let it take on a life of its own,” allowing each meaning to find its own expression through the work of others. “It's so much bigger than me. I initiated it, but what it’s about, what everyone else has brought to it,” Lorenz said, “it is very much alive and growing.”

“Moth Migration Project” will rest on the walls of 516 ARTS until Nov. 11, when it will begin a whole new migration to galleries in Canada, Australia and the UK. There are more than 40 types of moths in New Mexico, so if your visit to 516 inspires you, you can create and contribute your own hand-drawn, painted, or printed moth to the project, all the details of which are available at mothmigrationproject.net.