For many of us, what we know about bacteria is dictated by marketing. Some products claim to have "good bacteria", while many are determined to stamp out the bacterium menace, as explained in TV spot ads where parents relieve their children of the potential to contract something horrific through the simple squirt of a transparent liquid.
There are bacteria all around us, all of the time. They are on your computer keyboard (or your phone), right now. We carry a whole ecosystem of the stuff within and on us. It's the location, type and number which determine whether they are infectious or symbiotic.
It's this potential that excites Anna Dumitriu. Trained in Fine Art but, from an early age, fascinated in the untold narratives behind science, she is unlocking the untold stories of bacteria, working with scientists to find new, artistic methods to show bacteria in new and different contexts.
Her recent work features textiles, stained with bacterial pigments. Their patterns are created using quorum-sensing processes and a mixture of natural and synthetic antibiotics. Her works also feature digital video mapping to augment the sculptures, resulting in time-lapse videos of bacterial communication in process. As Dumitriu suggests, bacterial communication is critical to her work, but also to human health. Quorum-sensing is used by bacteria to control things like virulence factors, sporulation and toxin production. The more in which we understand how bacteria communicates and behaves, the greater chance we have of developing new antibiotics.
Her work exposes new opportunities for the use of biomedia in artistic theory and practice. In doing so, there are unchartered territories in terms of how such work is curated, presented, and made available to the public. "It raises issues of health and safety and ethics (in particular medical ethics) that they [galleries] are unlikely to have [previously] come across." Dumitriu is quick to point out that she works closely with trained microbiologists to ensure that her works are safe for display. Her probing of the ethical issues which come out of her work has led her to the production of a forthcoming book with Bobbie Farsides, Professor of Medical Ethics at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, exploring the impacts of such transdisciplinary work.
Leading the Institute of Unnecessary Research, a collective of practitioners in art, science, and philosophy, a common thread of both the Institute and of Dumitriu's personal work is the creation of participatory audience experience and installations. As will be demonstrated at the V&A's forthcoming Digital Design Weekend, work is brought to the fore through a combination of practices and media: textiles, video, digital, even architecture are thrown into the pot, creating unique, stimulating work that also turns out to be highly accessible.
Dumitriu steadfastly maintains her aims for the Institute. "Many artists have now come to see the process as equal to, or even more important than the outcome, or the performance is more important than the documentation of it. So, the means of production of the artwork as a dialogical and collaborative process is also the outcome of the artwork in this model, which is what makes it so relevant to art / science practice. It is an analogue of the typical, natural relationship of the artist to the scientist, and vice versa; the journey rather than the destination. Some collectors and curators will perhaps need to transform their thinking. The work is made for the wider public."
It's tempting to place Dumitriu's practice within the growing transdisciplinary model of "art / science", but this is not where she sees it. "It's something that others seem to perceive and I spend most of my time ignoring. I think art has the possibility to act like a metadiscipline, a way of seeing the world that allows the scientific and the poetic to exist simultaneously rather than any reductionist strategy." What is being suggested here is, perhaps, a turning of the art / science model on its head: rather than look at it as a blend of two separate "ways of looking at the world", art is suggested as being a lens by which science can be viewed. It will be fascinating to see whether intended outcomes are different, if both methods are used in the production of new artwork.
Through plasmid transfer - the sharing of genes - bacteria operate on the basis of being a scale-free network. The web has this feature. It is also a principle of social media. Hubs within the network have more connections, and as a whole, the network has a power law distribution based on the number of links connecting to a node.
"Google, for example, is a major hub. Scale-free networks are extremely stable as they can withstand the destruction of many nodes without the network collapsing. However, if hubs are lost, then the network is at risk. With a social network, there are some popular members who know lots of people and can make links. If they leave the network, those links are no longer made. The links can be just as easily with friends in Australia or in Acton. Scale – distance - becomes irrelevant.
"The concept of Scale-free networks was first put forward by Albert-László Barabási in 1999. In 2010 I was lucky enough to visit his lab in Boston and give a talk about my art projects involving bacterial communication." The delicious irony: "We now keep in touch via Facebook!"
Being artist-in-residence at the University of Sussex Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics led Dumitriu to bolster her interest in the analogous processes between networks in computers, and those in nature. She now jointly holds the role of artist-in-residence at the University of Hertfordshire's Adaptive Systems Group, collaborating with fellow artist and video mapping specialist, Alex May. Together, they have made a number of collaborative works, including Bioreactor, an architecturally mapped piece for Kinetica. Their latest piece applies video to Dumitriu's work Communicating Bacteria – a bacteria-tainted dress - producing a time-lapse film of bacterial communication in progress, as it grows and spreads across the delicate Edwardian cloth. Dumitriu sees these collaborations as symptomatic of an interrogatory style which is as much to do with random occurrences as analytical processes.
"I think I see mine and my colleagues work as a expression of how different forms of 'knowledge' can be brought together. I'm inspired by Paul Feyerabend's Against Method, where he describes science as an anarchic enterprise; he calls it 'epistemological anarchism'. Feyerabend considered the idea that science operates according to universal and fixed rules as one which is unrealistic, and ultimately, detrimental to science."
A more recent phenomenon which is certainly detrimental to societal attempts to control bacteria, is the emergence of "superbugs": those such as MRSA, C.Diff and the Norovirus which remain in the public realm, too difficult to eliminate. Dumitriu reminds us of the fact that MRSA, though known as the "hospital superbug" can live unproblematically in the bodies of healthy people. The Modernising Medical Microbiology Project, where Dumitriu is artist-in-residence, aims to use near-real-time whole genome mapping in order to understand how these bacteria are transmitted. "What they are discovering is that the story is very different to the 'dirty hosptals' rhetoric that the press is so fond of. The genome sequencing of bacteria, as it becomes cheaper and easier to use, will revolutionise clinical microbiology over the next decade, rapidly speeding up diagnosis and choices of treatment." One of the artworks that Dumitriu will be exhibiting at the V&A's Weekend is a quilt created with fabric stained by actual MRSA bacteria (though sterilised), in interplay with the various tests and treatments for it.
As we know through the work of artists such as Damien Hirst, decay, disease and the hotelling of human tissue by bacterial matter is something which both artists and audiences are increasingly finding interesting and important, while raising pertinent and topical social questions. Although her art is fundamentally connected to a scientific intervention, Dumitriu concludes that what we are seeing is much more than just science at work: "The art that exists at the core of the work is what is really important."
Anna Dumitriu is Director of the Institute of Unnecessary Research; Vistiting Research Fellow: Artist in Residence at the University of Hertfordshire's Adaptive Systems Research Group; and Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residence on the UK Clinical Research Consortium Project "Modernising Medical Microbiology".
Digital Design Weekend runs from Sat 24 September 2011 – Sun 25 September at the V&A's Sackler Centre. It is part of London Design Festival 2011.