A Selfless Society

Julie Freeman

Medium: Animation, Web Portal, and Website
Issues: Art+Science, Gender, and Research

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A Selfless Society prompts us to think about the role of gender and gender expectations in society. In an era when population increase, climate change, and the ideal of the nuclear family are putting pressure on the environment, on the affordability of everyday life, and human well-being, do we need to actively evolve our social structures? Naked mole-rats are altruistic eusocial and are mammals with an arguably utopian lifestyle. Like other eusocial organisms such as honeybees or ants, naked mole-rats’ society is structured around a single breeding female. Other community members help to raise the young, provide food and protect the home. A Selfless Society is an abstract animation influenced by real-time data from a live naked mole-rat colony. It uses data as an art material–exploring how we can take a quantified measurement and turn it into an experience, a moment of contemplation. Creating work with real-time data from living systems can stimulate a connection to nature in unpredictable ways. The technologies open a communication channel from the animal to us so that what we hear, see and feel is dynamically agitated by these non-human agents. Technology is not neutral in this process, it is designed, sculpted and scripted; the data translated by the artists’ hand. However tightly controlled the process, there is a gap–space for the animals to fill and a place that cannot be synthesized. It is this gap that the naked mole-rats featured in A Selfless Society gnaw on to create a work with an edge of vulnerability. As we observe the colony’s activity patterns, we are invited to consider what we might stand to gain or lose were we to restructure human society in this way. We may question whether we, like naked mole-rats, could become eusocial, and consider how this would alter the expectations of our own gender identities, actions, or motivations.

The work is a part of a collaborative project called Rodent Activity Transmission systems (http://RAT.systems), with Dr. Chris Faulkes, Marcin Ignac (variable.io), and Matt Jarvis.


Julie Freeman translates complex processes and data from natural sources into kinetic sculptures, physical objects, images, sound compositions and animations. Through her art practice, she explores relationships between science and the natural world; questioning the use of technology in how we translate and experience nature – whether it is through a swarm of zoomorphic butterflies responding to air pollution levels; a lake of fish composing sounds; a pair of mobile concrete speakers that lurk in galleries spewing sonic samples; by providing an interactive platform from which to view the flap, twitch and prick of dogs’ ears; enabling a colony of naked mole-rats to generate animation; or using a navigable soundscape inside virtual reality to understand binary pulsars. Freeman’s background and training are an equal mix of computer scientist and artist which she describes as a single discipline for her. She has had work shown at leading UK institutions including the V&A, the ICA, Kinetica, Open Data Institute, Barbican Centre, and the Science Museum, as well as internationally. Freeman is a TED senior fellow and Nesta arts fellow. Her work has been supported by the Wellcome Trust, Arts Council England, and EPSRC. In 2012 she established the Open Data Institute‘s Data as Culture art program. She holds a PhD from the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at the Queen Mary University of London, awarded for a thesis titled Defining Data as an Art Material.