Self Portraits: the microbiomic paintings


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 non-human agency,  and complexity of my other bacterial self. These microbiomal paintings were produced by the bacteria from my gut.

After Judaism and Christianity rose to become the dominant religions in Western society, humanity soon became positioned outside of nature. For example, The Old Testament taught that God made humans in his own image and gave them dominion over the Earth. This anthropocentric theme has been further emphasized by various philosophers such as René Descartes, who saw humans, apparently the only rational beings, as wholly separate from and superior to nature and thought of other animals, which he considered to be just mindless entities, to be mastered and exploited at will. These values have laid the foundations of modern anthropocentrism, a system of beliefs that frames humans as separate from and superior to the nonhuman world. In this “modern” view of our place in the World, we see ourselves as being apart from nature, and perceive it as being “other”, and even perhaps a natural phenomenon that nowadays is just confined to specific reserves or wilderness areas. Viewing the natural world in this manner, as a separate system to ourselves, is not only ethically challenging but also empirically, and blatantly, incorrect. For example, the oxygen that sustains us and which is present in the air that we breath is generated by other photosynthetic lifeforms such as trees, but scientists now estimate that 50-80% of the oxygen production on Earth comes from the ocean, and in particular, from drifting plants, algae, and photosynthetic bacteria. In this context, our very existence, is entangled intimately with the natural world and we cannot, therefore, be simply excised from it and hope to live independently of it. 

When one begins to consider our relationship with the microbial world and in particular, the microbes with which we share our own bodies this entanglement becomes even more profound, and to such an extent, that it questions our own identity, and even freewill.  Albert Einstein once stated that “The true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he (sic) has attained liberation from the self”. In this respect, the human body is now considered to be a superorganism, that is, a communal group of both human and microbial cells all operating together for the benefit of the collective, a viewpoint which most certainly liberates us from our traditional and simple concept of the self.

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