On Tuesday, a swarm of 20,000 or so honeybees descended on Times Square, terrorizing tourists and costumed performers alike before settling on top of a hot dog vendor’s umbrella. Reuters began streaming the incident as the bees swarmed the large blue-and-yellow umbrella. In total, the livestream lasted 40 minutes. I watched every minute, rapt. It wasn’t just a livestream of bees; it may as well have been an avant-garde art film about the state of New York—and even the world—in 2018.
The livestream raises more questions than it answers, to be sure. Some viewers might be satisfied with “scientific” answers as to why the bees appeared, which according to “experts” is likely because a colony became overcrowded and a queen decided to find a new colony, by chance ending up in Times Square. More sophisticated viewers will surely be interested in the subjective interpretations and possibilities the film offers, however. It’s an extraordinary document that is part documentary, part tone poem for a metropolis in flux.
Unlike Andy Warhol’s Empire or a standard-issue panda cam, this livestream was directed. The stream opens with poignant intercutting. The camera operator shifts focus across the crowds of Times Square taking pictures, laughing, waving to the camera—and then sharply cuts back to the bees. This action—juxtaposing a humming mass of mindless drones with a swarm of honeybees on an umbrella—feels like an especially bold commentary, if a little on the nose.
As the video continues, more dramas unfold. A ladder arrives, and a mustachioed member of the NYPD is ceremonially dressed in a beeproof outfit to lead first contact. Again, cutting back and forth between members of an organization that has helped destabilize communities they are sworn to protect and a swarm of stinging, potentially deadly insects could be seen as too much, too clear a metaphor, but for this livestream, subtlety is a secondary concern due to the urgency of the subject matter. And then, the vacuuming begins.
The scene of the mustachioed bee wrangler humanely vacuuming up the bees from the umbrella is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the livestream, and wouldn’t feel out of place in one of Matthew Barney’s films. But instead of working with Vaseline, as Barney did in Drawing Restraint 9‚ or feces, as in River of Fundament—this time it’s bees. The insects form an almost fluid material upon the umbrella, suggesting a substance that must be removed by the authorities, lest it poison the rest of us, and the vacuum shots are deeply satisfying. The scene is long and meditative, as the umbrella is constantly shifted in order to get more and more bees into the snout of the vacuum. This cleansing is left to the viewer to interpret. Are we being cleansed of an unnatural substance, lest it poison us all? Or by cleansing this unwanted element, are we corroding the soul of America’s cultural center? Or are they just bees?
Over and over again, the viewer is asked to question the significance of the umbrella—why are the bees attracted to it in the first place? Did someone spill Mountain Dew on it? Do they think it looks like a giant flower? I think there might be clues in the colors of the umbrella—blue and yellow, which are also the colors of the University of Rochester’s mascot character, Rocky the Yellowjacket. Is this a nostalgic ode to the industrial upstate, or a condemnation of it?
As the bee vacuumer descends from the umbrella, we too return to earth. His work left unfinished, dozens of bees remain swarming the tip, the camera fixed in extreme close-up. The final shot pulls back to reveal the entirety of the hot dog stand umbrella—with the slogan “WE’RE ON A ROLL !!!” searing into the viewer’s mind. This phrase is stacked with meaning, suggesting that the hot dog is presented to the customer on a “roll” also known as a “bun,” but it can also be taken to mean that these bees cannot be stopped and that their plague is perhaps our future if we do not heed their warning, as impossible to comprehend as it is. The vacuumed bees have since been displaced to a farm on Long Island—a pastoral, bucolic ending to a chilling urban nightmare. Another small silver lining to this apian dystopia: The film is now available for anyone to stream.