Self Portraits: the microbiotic paintings

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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  microbiota and microbiome), containing maybe as many as 100 trillion normally invisible cells, and 2 million microbial genes, is at the very least equal to our eukaryotic genetics and activity.

The microbiota associated with the human body  is undoubtedly  vast in terms of numbers, but a number of recent studies  have begun to reveal its importance in for our health too. Bacteria in the gut, for example, have been shown to be capable of influencing the production of  neuroactive substances such as serotonin. Moreover in animal models, it has been shown that bacteria play a crucial role in inducing abnormal behaviours like   anxiety and depression. It seems very likely then that our microbiota, similarly, plays a role in modulating our own behaviour, and so this work stems  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, could have made at least some contribution to the artist’s work, in terms of influencing the mood or health of the artist. In response to this, I decided to give this usually invisible aspect of myself  the opportunity to paint, and to express itself, away from my conscious intervention. In order to do this, I isolated  bacteria from my own microbiota and mixed these with traditional watercolours (red, green and blue). Left overnight,  in a warm incubator set to human body temperature (37 C), the bacteria grow, travel, and  interact with the paints, and thus move the watercolours   around the medium, similar to the way that an artist might paint. The paintings are thus unique self-portraits, being a direct manifestation of the power, activity, the collective agency,  and complexity of my other bacterial self. These microbiomal paintings were produced by the bacteria from my hand, gut and mouth.

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