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Anna Dumitriu: dirty work

Anna Dumitriu: dirty work

It has been a phenomenally busy year for Anna Dumitriu. With exhibitions and workshops taking place across the world, her work with both the biological and social impacts of disease has taken her work to a number of galleries across Europe, with a highlight perhaps being her receipt of the Society for Applied Microbiology's Communications Award in the summer.

 Dumitriu's last major UK exhibition, Normal Flora at Oxford's Barn Gallery, continued her exploration of bacteria in textiles, such as her well-known patchwork quilt stained with MRSA. Her focus has now shifted to Tuberculosis, where she has spent much of the second half of 2012 collecting historical materials and texts about the disease. This work has produced, as one might expect, a clutch of wildly different theories on how TB is caused and cured, although it remains the world's largest infectious killer. In 2011, just under 9 million people worldwide contracted it, and nearly 1.5 million of those died. As a child you may have been injected with a TB vaccine called Bacillus Calmette–Guérin, which is protective to most children in the UK but, strangely, becomes progressively weaker for recipients living closer to the equator.

Given the scale and impact of TB, it may be surprising to note that the Romantic Movement developed a phenomenon, Spes Phthisica, which is a state of euphoria caused by late-stage pulmonary TB. It was thought that TB actually caused "extreme creativity". This is but one of a world of naïve theories of the disease; medieval Hungarians assumed that it was caused by a demonic dog entering the body, with the sufferer barking from within. Within the same genus as the bacterium which causes TB is Mycobaterium Vaccae, which has been reported as not quite having the euphoric qualities as Spes Phthisica, but the ability make people simply feel happier and possess increased cognitive abilities. Mycobateria Vaccae live naturally in soil, leading to the simple equation that doing some gardening should make you feel happier. This is a theory that has at least been scientifically tested and proven, unlike the ancient "remedy" of using gold, one conjured up by alchemists.


Detail of embroidery from


Detail of embroidery from Normal Flora, featuring images of bacteria and communications networks using Chromobacterium Violaceum CV026, a strain which is white in its natural state but turns purple in the presence of "communication" from other bacteria within the colony


Unfortunately, as Dumitriu says, although some of the historical ideas seem far-fetched today, there remains a large amount of misunderstanding around the world as to what TB is and does. Dumitriu's forthcoming work with TB will bring these extremities together.

"When you work with new materials, you always get new results. I have been collecting these strange documents; from 1902, I have something that says that the main cause of TB is dust, so I'll be using dust. I'm also going to work with needlefelting which I have done before.

"I have been collecting patient information leaflets from the 30s, 40s and 50s. I want to incorporate these stories and narratives. The thing with TB is that there is the science, and then there is a creative, spiritual side. It was the fashion in the 1800s to dress as if you had TB - like a romantic poet. Women would do their makeup as if they had TB to look pallid, thin, and weak. Byron, because of the creativity associated with it, said 'I should like to die from consumption'. Keats died of TB and wrote Ode to a Nightingale whilst suffering nightsweats. You can bring in messages about the contemporary science, and you can bring in all of these other stories, objects, that can act as storytelling devices."


"Ode to a Nightingale" read by Benedict Cumberbatch


One of Dumitriu's more recent appearances in the UK was the Hypersymbiont Enhancement Salon, part of the Wellcome Trust's Superhuman exhibition, where she amusingly claims to have been a "beauty consultant from hell". Visitors would sit down with her for a biological enhancement consultation; they may want to be smarter, be more creative, and so on. This enabled her to start her TB work in a small way, as one of the "remedies" was to inhale dust in order to contract Tuberculosis in order to be more creative, as the Romantics assumed. TB is in, around, and with us, and continues to be with us – producing new ideas and theories all of the time.

"We have to look back at history to see how strange things are. The fact is that these organisms are so integrated into us, and they only make 10% of people ill, but affect a third of the world's population. It's not something external to what it is to be human; it's part of what it is to be human... to be contaminated with TB. It's been with us for so long. It would be wrong to call it a hypersymbiont or symbiont being, it's commensal bacteria. People always talk about things living symbiotically, but they often mean commensally."

Perhaps one of the most important points that Dumitriu expresses is that although many of these past remedies and theories seem ridiculous now, we still don't necessarily know exactly what's going on. Demon dogs and dust are clearly nothing to do with the science of TB contraction or alleviation, but contemporary DNA research might turn out to be, in the overall scheme of things, either the tip of something great, or simply something of a diversion in terms of our biological understanding. Humorism, a theory lasting from Hippocrates up to the nineteenth century, used bloodletting to expel surplus material from one of the four "humors" in the body. Although discredited by the advent of modern medicinal research, the theories of bloodletting have come back into style with cupping, a technique most famously associated with Gwyneth Paltrow, who sported cup marks at a film premiere.

It's clear that with this extraordinarily varied mix of gallery-based art, performance art, and workshops, all focused on specific yet universal topics, Dumitriu has something special here. She has a clear vision to continue the participatory work, as it reaches a wider audience, one that might not simply visit a gallery to appreciate the visual product, extraordinary though it may be. "I have always been fascinated by the history of medicine. That's something that I have worked with over many years. TB brings it together."

Anna Dumitriu's website features further information on her work, including recent and forthcoming exhibitions. She is @annadumitriu on Twitter.


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