The challenges of working with bacteria as an artistic medium

Anna Dumitriu Where There's Dust There's Danger 2013. Photo: Anna Dumitriu
Anna Dumitriu Where There's Dust There's Danger 2013. Photo: Anna Dumitriu

Bacteria are a challenge to work with creatively. They are living things and do not always behave as expected. There are numerous and very well-founded restrictions as to what you can and cannot do with them, where you can work with them, and how you can gain access to the facilities you need. My artistic practice over the past ten years had been to intervene, as an artist, in the world of microbiology and to try to enable others to gain an understanding of the bacterial world.

My work focuses on the strange world of bacteria, their complex behaviours and their sublime qualities. To do this I work intensively with microbiologists in order to learn methods and techniques, and to think about what can and cannot be done outside the laboratory environment in spaces where 'ordinary' people can engage with the work, ask questions and discuss ideas. I have a fine art background and graduated with a Masters Degree in Painting in 1996, but since then I have worked mainly on installations, incorporating historical found objects which I alter, textiles impregnated with live or killed bacteria, antimicrobial dyes or substances, as well as technologies such as video mapping, animation or interactive media.

Collaboration and participation are important in my work, and sometimes the boundaries are quite blurred. When members of the public attend my events and workshops they bring their own forms of knowledge and diverse expertise to the work, telling stories about their own experiences that can lead to the development of new artworks or techniques. Similarly, chatting with scientists fires off all sorts of ideas and new connections. I have some very long-standing collaborations; in particular, with Dr John Paul who I have been working with for around ten years. He has a good understanding of the things that will feed in to the development of new works and often introduces me to emerging techniques or historical research that he knows will fascinate me and trigger new directions in the work.

Anna Dumitriu, Dr Simon Park and Alex May Communicating Bacteria Dress 2010
Anna Dumitriu, Dr Simon Park, and Alex May Communicating Bacteria Dress 2010. Photo: Alex May.

Through Dr Paul I became artist in residence in the Modernising Medical Microbiology (MMM) Project. It is a collaboration between the University of Oxford and Public Health England, which looks at the changing face of medical microbiology in light of the possibilities of (near) real-time whole genome mapping of bacteria and developments in bioinformatics. I was originally funded by a 2011 Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residence Award for one year but MMM asked me to continue in the role on an ongoing basis as the collaboration has been so successful and produced many new works, reaching out to some very diverse audiences internationally. Since 2012, the work has been funded on a project basis, primarily by the Wellcome Trust and Arts Council England, with contributions by the collaborating science partners. The artwork also gained interest from the scientific community and was awarded the 2012 Communication Award from the Society of Applied Microbiology and has been featured in The Lancet, one of the leading medical journals in the world, as well as attracting significant media coverage including BBC Global TV News.

In 2013 I was asked to create a new work for Posthumanist Desire at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei, Taiwan (23 November 2013 - 12 January 2014). For this exhibition curated by Dr Ming Turner I produced The Hypersymbiont Dress (2013) which is a dress stained with bacteria. It built on my previous performance work The Hypersymbiont Enhancement Salon (2013) which was performed as part of the Superhuman exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London in 2012. The works playfully draw attention to ways in which our own bacterial flora might possibly be enhanced in order to turn us into human superorganisms, with improved appearances, improved health and even improved personalities. The concept of these artworks came from new technologies, such as whole genome sequencing and synthetic biology, which allow humans to understand symbiotic bacteria and to find possible ways to drive our own evolution at a cellular level. Despite the advancements of these technologies, it is undeniable that there are still many potential risks. In the performance participants were ‘exposed’ to possible sources of ‘hypersymbionts’ and the risks were explained in glorious detail.

Rest, Rest, Rest 2014. Photo: Beatriz Rey.
Anna Dimitriu, Installation view: Rest, Rest, Rest! 2014. Photo: Beatriz Rey. 

The dress took this idea to a form of wearable art, although I never intend the dresses I have made to be worn. It was stained and tainted with normal environmental bacteria from a Winogradsky Column (a self-sustaining, self-regulating bacterial ecosystem), Mycobacterium vaccae (a soil bacterium that enhances cognitive function by increasing serotonin levels, tested in rats), MRSA (which can interface with the human nervous system and affect how we feel pain) and Bacillus Calmette Guerin (a form of attenuated bovine tuberculosis used now as a vaccine for tuberculosis), a bacterium strongly linked to creativity throughout history.

The embroidery silk used on the dress is stained with Chromobacterium violaceum, a purple bacterium that uses chemical communication signals to co-ordinate its behavior. Additional colours and patterns are created using natural and clinical antibiotics such as madder root, woad and Vancomycin. I tried to show potential ways we can shape the behaviour of bacteria, to consider the potential benefits and risks from a different perspective. The dress had to be completely sterilised before it could be shown in the exhibition. It was made in collaboration with Dr John Paul and MMM, Dr Rosie Sedgwick and Dr Simon Park, with advice from Sue Craig.

Anna Dumitriu Genius Germ 2014
Anna Dumitriu Genius Germ 2014. Photo: Anna Dumitriu.

I have made several works based on the form of the dress but I am not interested in being seen as a fashion designer. I am interested in the idea of fashion as metaphor for the clash of culture and microbiology. The links between fashion and disease are strong and complex, so much so that the Plague travelled the world on fashionable silks. Textiles and dyes also tell their own stories. Louis Pasteur’s first research was on the diseases of silk worms, Sergei Winogradsky obsessed about the role of bacteria in the production of linen. Many early dyes were used as treatments for disease. The first really viable treatment for bacterial infections sold commercially, predating the sale of Penicillin, was Prontosil. It was produced from a red chemical dye by Bayer, who were primarily dye manufacturers at the time, although nowadays they are know as pharmaceutical producers. Research into ways of killing bacteria through the use of dyes continues and may again prove very useful.

Fashion has played a strong role in tuberculosis too, and forms part of the story of my project and exhibition The Romantic Disease: An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis, supported by the Wellcome Trust and shown at the Watermans Art Centre in London (16 January – 24 March 2014). The exhibition took the form of an artistic investigation into our strange relationship with the so-called ‘Romantic Disease’ Tuberculosis (TB) from early superstitions about the disease, through the development of antibiotics, to the latest research into whole genome sequencing of bacteria. Through juxtapositions between historical artefacts and stories woven around our changing beliefs it cannot help but throw our idea of knowledge into question.

The work comprises altered historical objects and textiles combining ancient treatments for the disease, such as dyes made from madder root, safflower and walnut, and textiles created using various kinds of mycobacteria, including Bacillus Calmette Guerin (BCG) the vaccine for TB made from weakened bovine (cow) TB and the extracted DNA of killed TB. All of the material used in the exhibition was rendered sterile using validated processes.

Genius Germ (detail) 2014. Photo: Anna Dumitriu

Tuberculosis has been strongly linked to creativity due to its long association with art, literature and the Romantic Movement, and even became fashionable when Lord Byron famously declared: "How pale I look! – I should like, I think, to die of a consumption ... because then the women would all say, ‘see that poor Byron – how interesting he looks in dying!’"

It was through The Romantic Disease project that I became obsessed with collecting strange historical objects from flea markets and online auctions to use in my work, changing them and transforming them. The exhibition included an intricately carved Pneumothorax Machine, previously used to collapse the lungs of unfortunate patients in order to “give them a rest”, and an antique “pocket bottle for coughers”, called a Blue Henry, upon which I have inscribed a transmission map of TB produced by the Modernising Medical Microbiology and published in The Lancet in 2013. The map shows an example of a ‘super spreader’ of TB (someone who infects multiple people) but the map was produced using only the genomic data of the bacteria so it is possible to see who infected who, without knowing any details of the patients.

I am now commencing a new body of work as part of my long-term and very fruitful collaboration with Dr Paul and MMM in order to investigate the innovations that are now taking place in bioinformatics and whole genome sequencing. I will also be working with collaborators from the University of Hertfordshire including Bruce Christianson (Professor of Informatics) who is an expert in computer security and digital artist/programmer Alex May. The project has taken many years to develop as I have found the subject very challenging to understand both technically and aesthetically, but I think it is important to widen understanding of such new technologies that will impact all our bio-digital futures and art has a way of communicating ideas in new ways that other forms of communication are not able to.

Anna Dumitriu Pneumothorax Machine 2013-


Anna Dumitriu is Artist in Residence on the Modernising Medical Microbiology Project at the University of Oxford and a Visiting Research Fellow: Artist in Residence at the University of Hertfordshire, UK.

The work for this exhibition was made in collaboration with the Watermans Art Centre and MMM, with additional advisors Professor Melanie Newport and Professor Bobbie Farsides at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, Carole Reeves from University College London, and the charity Target Tuberculosis.