Gateway Insects: In conversation with Sam T. Rees

Zoom conversation between Sam T. Rees and Jonathan Pfeffer that took place on November 30, 2023, condensed but minimally edited.

SR: I grew up in, in the middle of nowhere in the countryside. I was always kind of collecting bugs and flies. and things and my dad was obsessed with picking up roadkill and and taking it apart – he’d get the skeletons out and remount the skeletons. He would take the feathers and create individual displays. We’d cast footprints and stuff. So, I’ve always had this sort of amateur naturalist deeply embedded in me. Then the last few years, especially during COVID, I just went really, really deep into yeah, biological recording.

JP: I hear you’re really into flies right now?

SR: I feel a bit embarrassed to say it out loud. It feels like a taboo. It feels, it feels like flies are kind of taboo, I think. I mean, I think insects are taboo, and then flies are like next level taboo. Even though if you say butterflies then that’s like totally fine, even though they’re insects, obviously.

So yeah, people’s perceptions of what these things are, are really fucked up. But uhh yeah, winged…winged insects in general I’m particularly passionate about… particularly flies because I feel they’re totally misunderstood. The general public just has no idea what actually falls under the umbrella of true flies.

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[The perception is that] they’re annoying, that they bite and that they spread disease. But, for example, in the UK, we have maybe…100 families of flies, and 7000 species or whatever it is…then of those families…the biting ones are only horseflies, mosquitoes, midges, and…one kind of housefly so it’s like 4 of the 100 families. Then with the mosquitoes and horseflies, it’s only the females that bite too.

So, yeah, basically there are thousands of species out there that people just don’t realize exist and they’re all around them. Like hoverflies, you know, really beautiful, very fragile and pretty. In the, in the U.S. you call them flower flies I think, but in the UK we call them hoverflies.

Furry Dronefly from Vega Municipality, Norway on June 18, 2023

[There’s] an amazing range of creatures and most people, you know, when they look at them, they just think it’s a bee or a wasp. Many members of the general public don’t even realize flies can be so colourful. Meanwhile, you have this movement to save the bees, etc. even though the public can´t discern the difference between bees and flies…

JP: We have animal rescues and conservation groups here in the U.S., but I’m struck by how much England foregrounds the preservation of discrete species. I’m specifically thinking about the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. I wonder if there’s a Hoverfly Preservation Society.

SR: Haha, there should be a Hoverfly Preservation Society! But yeah, no, I mean, the, the history of biological recording in the UK goes back to the Victorian era or something. It’s one of the, I think, as I understand it, it’s one of the kind of oldest…most well-documented examples of an ecosystem globally because of our history of, of naturalists or something.

babies comic

JP: Is there a particular fly you’re excited about right now?

SR: I went to Norway this summer and I spent like a whole month on some islands in the north of Norway and in the Arctic Circle. And I was just recording every day, like some days I’d just be dropped off on this island, which was about to be…or is potentially going to be dynamited by this millionaire salmon farmer…

So I was just documenting the species there…and I was just on my own on this island recording everything there. Then after that I just haven’t really done much recording actually. I think I just kind of saturated myself out, I was just recording so much.

But previously at least I was in love with Mydas flies! They’re really amazing. Mydas flies can be up to 10 centimeters or so. There’s this video of a guy holding onto the leg of the Mydas fly and he rotates it around. The Mydas fly seems to get quite angry – it’s buzzing (although whether flies are capable of anger is another question).

But yeah, there’s always for me with flies…and with other invertebrates in general. (I like mesofauna a lot as well) …Looking at these kind of things…the question of scale, like, you know, you can get mammals that are the same size as this Mydas fly…so I’m interested in how that fucks with people’s perceptions of insects to see this Mydas Fly.

JP: I get the sense you’re interested in sound outside of your collaborations with Steini.

SR: Yeah, I have definitely like a relation, yeah, like a relationship to it, like using circuit-bending in the in the umm in the installations. It’s, it’s really important to me. I feel like I don’t shape the sound enough and I want to take more control over the…the soundscape, and I don’t know enough about that maybe, but yeah…and field recording…that´s super interesting.

I have a friend at the moment who just released an album that got to the top 10 Spotify best field recording albums this week or whatever. He’s recording with a biologist I think and they recorded like the full day of a pond. And they realized that there’s kind of a dawn chorus, but for the pond underwater and and he’s got the sound of photosynthesis, which is just crazy.

But yeah, with flies, there’s like, yeah, hoverflies, drone…drone flies. You can identify some flies, especially when you’re out now, when I’m out now, like I can identify flies before I see them by the sound.

JP: I think I told you about the spotted lantern fly invasion we’ve been dealing with here on the East Coast since the pandemic.

SR: Yeah, they look so beautiful.

JP: They are! There’s an ongoing “squash or spread” campaign because of how destructive they are to local plant life. It seems like if people admire insects, it’s usually from a distance.

SR: Yeah, I think also there’s like, yeah, there is some sort of like deep-set evolutionary compulsions to, you know, to hate insects. And when you start observing…like for me, I started observing bees and then wasps and then flies and beetles and bugs.

When I came back to it in, I don’t know, four years ago, whatever it was, I went deep into it…and bees are really easy, of course (to love) but when you start to move on, you start to test how comfortable you are with looking through a lens into the eyes of a wasp, or into the eyes of a fly, or handling a plant and have the wasp crawl onto your finger, this kind of thing…and then looking at spiders up close through lenses.


Downy jumping spider from Back of Museum of Anthropology, Central Cambridge, Cambridge, UK on July 16, 2022

For me, there was different thresholds I had to pass…so even though I have a history of like from a child of kind of loving the natural world, I still felt like there was stuff I had to get past…deep-set bias, prejudice within me towards different insect groups (or arthropod groups in the case of spiders).

But yeah, you can really, yeah, there’s definitely, I feel like there’s kind of like a gate…uhmm…a gateway, like with gateway drugs, there’s like gateway insects…and with spiders, if you look at jumping spiders they’re incredibly cute-looking and these are like the gateway drug for people to learn to accept and love spiders more generally…and with flies, there’s similar ones as well.

JP: How do you feel about cockroaches? I forget if you have cockroaches in the UK or Iceland.

SR: No, we don’t. No, this is, that’s what I forgot to say, but that’s where the whole thing actually came from, this time around. I was doing a project with a cockroach here in Iceland with one of the students. We made a Ouija board with a cockroach, like an interactive cockroach experience.

I remember looking into the eyes of a cockroach and just thinking this was like an incarnation of evil. It was the nastiest thing on the planet. I repeated this a few times to people over the year after that. I realized through repetition just how ridiculous it was that I had this perception of it as evil…and  I kind of went full circle and fell in love with cockroaches.

We don’t have cockroaches in the UK, but I love seeing cockroaches when I’ve traveled in Southeastern Europe. I have a friend in Greece though who was telling me, “You just have to kill them otherwise they’ll infest your house.”

I don’t know how much of it’s evolutionary stuff, and how much it’s just kind of like how Hollywood sort of uses insect aesthetics for kind of evil aliens and villains. I guess the first thing that comes to mind is Cronenberg’s “The Fly.” It was so horrifying and gross. I need to watch it again.

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For me, it all relates in terms of…it’s about outsiders. And people kind of like caught between, or like people that are…perceived differently by society than they should be maybe, and this all, somehow blurs together in my head.

I’ve always been really passionate about outsider artists, and also people who are more sort of transdisciplinary, like I work a lot with electronics and coding, and I don’t really fit.

I also do some sort of design work for Steini, but not really…and then I’m interested in comics which don’t sit really in the fine art world or the design world…and yeah, like hackers and makers who don’t sit in the computer science world or the electronics world, really…and flies kind of relate to me in this realm somehow. I don’t know if that makes sense.

JP: It does! Do you qualify as an “interdisciplinary” artist?

SR: I probably wouldn’t use interdisciplinary. I’d use transdisciplinary or anti-disciplinary.

JP: I like “anti-disciplinary.” You’re not disciplined?

SR: I’m definitely not disciplined.

JP: I appreciate how loose and raw your work gets, but you deal with control in a fascinating way, too. It seems barely controlled.

SR: I yearn to lose control more than I do to impose control.

JP: Is your tendency more toward control or less control?

SR: I’m trying to control the lack of control and failing. I want to lose control more. I reached a point in my early 20s where I was like, “Hang on a minute. I’m more interested in children’s drawings than I am in adult drawings.” But then I can’t draw like a child. You lose that ability to be able to have that lack of control. You’re like fighting to be naive in your drawing style, but it’s false.

JP: I love your drawing where it’s like an oblique joke involving Freud and a tapir. I think I like it in part because the “suck my balls” line is almost exactly what a patient screamed at another therapist a few months ago at my internship.

Your drawing has the impression of something that almost works, but the more you look at it, the less legible it becomes. It could almost be legible. It’s like a multi-layered failure, one failure after another.

Freuds Balls

SR: I relate to what you’re saying about multiple points of failure. I love that it fails at every level: I’m failing to draw like a child – it doesn’t look childlike exactly – I’m failing to draw like an adult. I’m failing to draw like bad enough that it becomes an interesting bad line like Mark DeLong – he’s one of my favorite sort of faux-naive artists.

The handwriting switches between caps and lowercase in a way that’s kind of forced, so it’s not “bad” handwriting when it’s just a bit kind of forced. I’m failing to do a comic – it’s meant to be like a comic set of panels I just can’t even draw like sequential images because I get so bored. I end up just drawing the same image over and over again, but I’m not capable really of drawing. I’m failing at the humor, failing at the composition. Yeah, it fails in so many levels.

JP: The scribble in the top-left corner makes me think you almost immediately made a mistake when you started the drawing. It also looks like you made the drawing on the back of a receipt. It’s like you failed before you even started, but then you kept going anyway.

SR: That might be a deliberate mistake. I’ll just kind of like do a scribble, just to have a mistake in there. I might have started with a certain kind of pen and then decided to switch pens.

JP: Is that supposed to be Freud’s face?

SR: Haha…I don’t think so. This is something from the Royal Art Lodge, this, Canadian drawing group of seven or eight people from the early 2000s I saw in New York at the Drawing Center. They would have suitcases of drawings, and it would be, like, finished drawings, unfinished drawings, part finished drawings, nearly finished drawings…

They’d load them into different suitcases when they’d have a meeting, then they’d get them out and they’d pass them on to someone else. They’d constantly switch back and forth between people. So what’s great about the Royal Art Lodge drawings is that you get these different energies from the different people. It’s like a juxtaposition of senses of humor and things.

Collaborative drawing with Nick White

I kind of try and do the same thing in my head, like I’d like to collaborate with someone else, but sadly I don’t have someone else I regularly collaborate with at the moment, even though I have in the past.

So, the tapir would have been drawn at one point, then the outline of the comic would have been drawn at another point, then the text. It’s like trying to get different energies as if I’m different people, but again, I’m failing because I’m one person. That’s another good example of one of the ways in which these drawings fail.

Sam T. Rees is a British artist based in Iceland, with a passion for DIY cultures. Sam creates interactive dioramas, mixing discarded, circuit bent toy robots with dense collages of found objects to form sequential narratives and absurd scenes. He has been teaching interactive media at the Iceland University of the Arts since 2014 and was a co-founder of the Fjúk residency in the Northeast of Iceland.

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