Los Angeles

Jeffrey Stuker, Mimicry and the Monte Carlo Predator, 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 10 minutes.

Jeffrey Stuker, Mimicry and the Monte Carlo Predator, 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 10 minutes.

Jeffrey Stuker

Like his show two years earlier at Full Haus in Los Angeles, Jeffrey Stuker’s recent solo exhibition was held in a residential venue. Garden is housed in the converted upstairs bedroom of a stately Victorian pile in Angelino Heights, overlooking the rapidly transforming cityscape below. Since it opened its doors at the end of 2016, this space seems to have consistently focused on work with botanical themes, thereby providing a perfectly heimlich context for Stuker’s decidedly unheimlich meditations on the fate of natural history in our current stage of technological reproduction—or postproduction, as some have termed it.

Stuker here again presented a single work: a brief looping video projected onto a wall, featuring tidy rows of butterfly specimens displayed as if in the study of an entomologist. Each immobile insect hovers just above a small strip of paper identifying its species in elegant cursive script alongside a stamped QR code. In a series of smoothly animated visualizations, the butterflies appear alternately in full frame and close-up; tracking shots gently guide our gaze within the grid, alighting on singular details of the patterning on the wings. One striking frame, gained at an oblique angle, gives the impression of the butterflies having been captured in flight, a dive-bombing squadron.

Yet nothing here has been captured; there are no shots, no cameras, and no actual butterflies. Everything is virtual, a product of ultra-precise and time-consuming digital rendering techniques. Over this imagery, a narrator with a well-bred British accent—here and there, the slightly clipped articulation of “his” words suggests the possibility that he too might be a simulation—recounts a succession of historical anecdotes and scientific facts circling around mimicry and predation. These unfold in a logical sequence that only begins to make sense at the end. A fifth-century Greek army is lured into an abandoned encampment where honeycombs, tainted with the poison of the oleander plant, have been left for them to feast on; a species of butterfly, the Euploea core, has thrived across the globe due to its capacity to ingest oleander without harm to itself, becoming poisonous to others; another species, the nontoxic Papilio clytia, mimics the markings on the Euploea’s wings to better the chances of its own survival; and, finally, a group of researchers, using the Monte Carlo method, which relies on random sampling to produce numerical results, simulates a kingfisher bird’s behavior to observe its feeding habits when it is only moderately hungry. This imagined creature turns out not to be confused by mimicry; it gorges its way through exponentially mounting numbers of nontoxic butterflies each day. “As computational power and memory capacities increased, the consumption of one thousand became ten thousand overnight,” intones the narrator in summation. This body count is the same as that of the Greek troops. That the Monte Carlo method—typically used to calculate probabilities and hence mitigate risk—also underwrites the digital-rendering programs at Stuker’s disposal ties up his project in a neat bow. Natural mimicry is allegorized to the workings of computer algorithms.

Nevertheless, we are left with a number of distressing questions. If mimicry as a survival strategy tends to work just as often as not (as the quasi-Surrealist theorist Roger Caillois noted in a 1934 essay, “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia”), then alternate interpretations of its purpose are necessary. Caillois describes mimicry as less a pragmatic technique than a “dangerous luxury,” thereby placing it firmly within an aesthetic register. Stuker carries this line of thinking into a present where the aesthetic itself can be a matter of survival as much as self-annihilation. In this regard, the fact that “moderate hunger” led to overconsumption sounds a note of alarm. Does the simulation describe those of us who rapaciously binge on online items of moderate interest? Or does it relate to these items themselves, which lure our attention and ultimately consume us while remaining free of any appetite themselves?

The care Stuker lavishes on his zoological subjects likens him to an Audubon painter, but, executed within the nonspace of the computer, this labor alerts viewers less to the depletion of our “first nature” than to the encroachments of the “second” one. The familiar beauty of this work is unsettled by its faint apocalyptic rumblings, carried on butterfly wings marked to look like a maw filled with sharp fangs.