The Extended Self: visualizing the bacterial symbiont. Traditionally what we consider to be “self” is usually restricted to the collection of 10 trillion or so eukaryote cells that derive directly from our own genomes. However, the “omic” technologies of the 21st century are radically redefining this view, so that “self” can now be seen to extend beyond the traditional precinct of our visible form, and to include our resident bacterial community. In fact, these normally invisible cells outnumber what we consider to be our own cells, by a factor of ten and contain at least ten times more DNA than our own genome. The bacteria that reside on or in our bodies are not merely present as passengers, but they empower us with metabolic functions far beyond the range of our own physiological capabilities. They may even be able to influence our emotions. In this respect, the human body can now be considered to be a superorganism, that is, a “communal group of human and microbial cells (the bacterial symbiont) all working for the benefit of the collective”. I’ve developed a process that uniquely captures and reveals this normally invisible aspect of “self”.
When any part of the body comes into contact with bacteriological growth media, it leaves an invisible living residue which is derived from the bacterial symbiont. If this media is next given warmth, this residue multiples and soon develops into a visible bacterial community (First Growth). By applying a unique process, I am able to convert such an agar into a glassy state, and to fashion a thin transparent film (Lens 1, 2), in which the bacteria are preserved as translucent and coloured biological lenses. When I shine light through these organic lenses, it acquires characteristics derived from its interaction with the bacterial symbiont, allowing me to invert scientific practice, and to project what would normally only be visible under a microscope, into the world that we can see (Projections). Most importantly of all, the light becomes a portal, allowing observers to engage directly with a uniquely modified form of energy and to experience moments of intimacy with an aspect of self that is usually ignored, yet still a vital component of our being.