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 project stems from my thought that for every artist, either living today, or dead, that the body’s microbiome, that is its invisible hundreds of trillions of bacterial cells, would have made at least some contribution to the artist’s work, in terms of influencing the mood or health of the artist. Here, I gave this usually invisible aspect of ourselves the opportunity to paint for itself, away from my conscious intervention. Colourless bacteria from my own microbiome were mixed with traditional watercolours (red, blue and green) and left in a warm incubator to interact with these overnight. The following morning I discovered that the bacteria had picked up the paints, and then moved these watercolours around the medium, in the same way that an artist might paint. The paintings are thus unique self-portraits, being direct manifestation of the power, activity and complexity of my other bacterial self. These microbiomal paintings were produced by the bacteria from my hand, gut and mouth, and will soon be on display at The Eden Project’s groundbreaking exhibition on the microbiome.