Traditionally, what we consider to be “self” is usually restricted to the collection of 40 trillion or so eukaryote cells that derive directly from the 22,000 genes of our own human genome. However, the “omic” technologies of the 21st century are radically redefining the view that we have of ourselves, 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, our bacterial aspect (the microbiome), containing 100 trillion normally invisible cells, and 2 million microbial genes, dwarfs our eukaryotic genetics and physiology. Recent studies are now beginning to reveal the huge impact of the microbiome on our health and even its ability to modulate our behaviour.
This new project stems from my thought that for every artist, either living today, or dead, that the body’s microbiome, its invisible hundreds of trillions of bacterial cells, would have made at least some contribution to the artist’s work. The inspiration and process, is from joint project that I had with watercolour artist Sarah Roberts to study the interaction of bacteria with traditional watercolours. When we mixed bacteria and watercolours together, we were astounded to discover that the bacteria picked up the pigments, and then moved the watercolours around, in the same way that an artist might paint. The same process is used here, but the bacteria are from my own microbiome, and thus the paintings are unique self-portraits, being direct manifestation of the power, activity and complexity of my other bacterial self. These microbiomal paintings are produced by the bacteria on my hand, and in my gut and mouth.
The video below is of the same paintings but viewed at 400x magnification. The coloured particles are from the paints and these dwarf the multitude of bacteria in the background. The paint particles are far larger than the individual bacteria and the only way they can be moved is if the bacteria collaborate and combine their efforts.