Moths must be moaning


The theatre is dark besides a few red lights. On one side of the stage there is a small fan, blowing at low speed. On the left we see two actors next to a rack filled with small plastic cups. In each of these a moth was bred. One of the actors opens the lid from a cup and takes out the moth. Gently she lets the moth acclimatize to its surroundings on the tip of her index finger. A very gentle draft from the pheromone lure flows in the direction of the moth. You can see the moth slowly flapping its wings. The flapping soon transforms into an elegant wing movement. In a very characteristic swerving motion, it glides and then perches on the pheromone lure. The simplicity of this pure act of nature is subliminal. Very soon there are ten moths on each fingertip. They all take off simultaneously, forming a complex synchronous flying pattern, landing together on the lure. The flying moths command the attention of the audience. It’s perfect.

Only this does not happen. It never did.

The decision to work with moths came from our research for the ongoing Birth of Cotton project, initiated by theatre maker and designer Agat Sharma in close collaboration with dramaturg Julia van der Putten. Here we explore the long-term history of cotton farming in India, the recent waves of farmer suicides and the emergence of new forms of nature, such as transgenic cotton and other developments in synthetic biology (Center for Human Rights and Global Justice 2011 and Sainath 2013). Cotton fabric and woven fabric in general has a high cultural significance in Indian history as Meena Menon and Uzramma note in their book A Frayed History: The journey of cotton in India:

Cotton, as Gandhi recognized, was a fabric of independence; you wear what you weave. The charkha, which was the mainstay of cloth production in pre-colonial times, was transformed into a symbol of resistance to British rule. There is a certain deeply emotional quotient between the fabric and Independence, and when you visit places like Ponduru, you can see some of that self-reliance, especially in the women who perform many tasks related to the cleaning of cotton. Cotton then cannot be wished away as a fabric. It has a memorable past, a present, and, definitely, a future (Menon and Uzramma 2017, 35).

The long-term history of woven cotton goes back to the Indus civilisation some 5 thousand years ago. Until British colonial rule there were many different varieties of cotton native to the region. However, when the British violently made India into a source of raw cotton instead of cotton fabric, many of these desi varieties were replaced with American cotton to supply the new cotton industry in the Lancashire mills. Now, under the influence of the global market and multinationals such as Monsanto (now Bayer), most of the cotton grown in India is hybrid and genetically modified Bt cotton.

This last big change was part of the Green Revolution of the twentieth century to combat one of the main villains of the cotton industry: the pink bollworm moth and its larva. Most moths are solely focused on sexual reproduction. As adults they have very short life cycles, and some don’t even develop mouths to feed themselves. Due to the push for monoculture, the pink bollworm moth became a major global pest. Bt cotton was presented as one of the solutions to the pest problems that the cotton farmers were facing. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a toxin that was put inside the cotton seed to kill the pink bollworm. This genetically modified (GM) cotton seed would reduce pesticide use and thus decrease costs. However, the restrictive patents on seeds and quick turnover of new Bt and hybrid seeds every year has led to the de-skilling of the farmer. Due to the fast-changing technology, it becomes harder and harder for farmers to make informed decisions. Farmers are now on a so-called pesticide and seed treadmill from which they can’t escape, which in part has led to ever-rising debts (Jishnu 2011). The amount of officially recorded farmer suicides since 1995 exceeded 400.000 in 2020. (Kishore Kannuri, 2021) Meena Menon and Uzramma state: ‘Though we do not know if all farmers who committed suicide were growing cotton, the fact is suicides are taking place in the rainfed cotton-growing areas to a large extent’ (2017, 28).

However, for this project we were interested in other ways in which the pink bollworm was combatted, such as sterilizing male moths in order to stop the moths from mating, and synthetic pheromone lures that trap the moths and exterminate them. We were fascinated by these interferences in the sexual behaviour of moths. This controlling scientific gaze seemed somewhat perverse to us: science as an ‘act against nature’. These moralising thoughts or tendencies prompted us to stay with it and examine them. So, we thought, what would happen if we approached the current cotton crisis in India by zooming in on the main ‘culprit’, the moth. What would happen if we shifted a human-centred framing of the crisis by looking at it through the moth's desire for mating, reproducing and multiplying without judging it? The strategy was thus twofold, we as makers and researchers both projected this humanizing frame of desire onto the moth, as well as embraced this ‘objective’ scientific method of observation. staging scientific ways of observation without rejecting it. To get close to this question we wanted to work with an entomologist and live moths. We wanted to create a performative experiment to find a different manner of understanding from inside a science experiment, to move closer and get inside this dominant view of the moth as pest by emulating it on stage, and instead of rejecting this view, to transform it, by letting something else emerge from it.

We got in touch with Dr Emily Burdfield-Steele, an assistant professor of Chemical Ecology at the University of Amsterdam, who from the first moment was very open and willing to show us around her lab. Her interest is in how intra- and inter-specific species communication shapes evolutionary processes. She studies the evolution of mating communication systems in response to reproductive interference, as well as the role of chemical and visual predator signals in aposematic insect populations, which are signals given by insects to the predator that they are harmful if eaten.

At our first meeting, we became particularly interested in one of the experiments in which a male moth is placed with an artificial pheromone lure in a wind tunnel. In nocturnal moths, it is the female that attracts the males by spreading pheromones. The male smells the female’s pheromone call and tracks her down by following the plume she’s emitting. In this wind-tunnel experiment, researchers study the efficiency of artificial lures, that is, their attractiveness to moths. After meeting Emily, we set the goal of transposing the science experiment to a theatre studio. During April, May and June of 2021 we worked several days in the studio and shared some of the outcomes of this artistic research during a presentation at the Spring Academy in Utrecht.

So, what actually happened was this: when Emily or Julia would hold a moth in their hands, they would have to wait for a long time before it would fly. Therefore, a large part of the performance involved the performers sitting very still with a moth on the tip of their fingers, observing its every little movement in anticipation of its take off. And even this hardly ever happened in expected ways.


  • Emily Burdfield-Steele
  • Julia van der Putten
  • Agat Sharma