Review of BioArt and Bacteria

BioArt and Bacteria
by Anna Dumitriu

Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford
28 September, 2017 – 18 March, 2018
Exhibition website:

Reviewed by
Charissa N. Terranova
November 2017

The work of Anna Dumitriu engages a scalar identity politics. It addresses ideas of the “self” at macrological and micrological levels. The work is about the identity of the human body bearing singular qualities identifiable by the naked eye and that very corpus as but a bag of protein humming with invisible bacteria and its microbiome. Her work crosses boundaries, uniting these two realms, inscribing self as I and other, the embodiment of one’s very own genomic code and the billions of DNA that constitute one’s oral, anal, dermal, and gut flora. Identity from the latter perspective, the view of the holobiome – the human as a totality of its genome and those of myriad bacteria in cohabitation with it – engages what Jacques Derrida called the “pharmakon,” a substance that is at once remedy and poison. [1] The good life is a matter of avoidance and welcoming; bacteria can be potentially deadly but also life enhancing. Humans must avoid injurious bacteria and harvest those that make our mortal coil work best, brain-gut axis most harmonious, and selves the happiest. That Dumitriu is able to address identity in these multiple ways is quite a feat, considering that it usually takes more than one artist to address such varied identity matters. Normally there is one or the other: either the art of identity politics pertaining to physical action on the streets or bioart, creative expression based on of molecular life and its varied triggers and responses. With Dumitriu you get it all – an identity politics of self, bacteria, and political agency.

Anna Dumitriu: BioArt and Bacteria at the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford is thus, on the whole, about the multiplicity of identity, that she is woman, scientist, artist, public citizen, organic whole, and biomass. Roiling with these manifold selves, the exhibition is located in the underground vault of the seventeenth-century museum space that, on its other floors, contains medical instruments from across the ages. The basement seems an appropriate location for the show, even while the subterranean can sometimes designate ancillary status for a body of objects. But, the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford is small, crowded, and full of tight squeezes. It is a democracy not so much of the ancillary, but of cozy closenesses within seventeenth-century baroque architecture. So, its placement there in the underground realm is more commendation than demotion, especially insomuch as the basement once housed the alchemy and practical anatomy labs, where on 10 April 1762 Parson Woodforde visited and afterward wrote: “Went under the Musaeum to see a Woman that is to be dissected for which I paid 0. 0. 6.” [2] Its historical uses for alchemy and practical anatomy classes combined with its heavy stone foundational walls make it both intimate and stalwart, and thus the perfect combination to exhibit Dumitriu’s bioart.

Out of the interconnection of the identity-valences – woman, scientist, artist, public citizen, organic whole, and biomass – comes what I call “morphogenic” form: art things and experiences that have emergent qualities. Morphogenic form is full of surprises coming from nonlinear vectors. The artist may never know exactly how or if her fusion of bacteria and textile will work or look, but dots, whorls, and branches take shape. Experiencers of Dumitriu’s bioart are never quite certain how they will feel or what they will come to understand about things such as a quilt infused with MRSA or tubercular art, but emotions and knowledge systems invariably unfold. Subjective responses bring to bear the question of disease transmission from the work. Is Dumitriu’s work safe for viewing? Not to worry: All the art in the exhibition is perfectly harmless. [3]

Dumitriu’s “MRSA Quilt” (2013) is a work of precisely such ambivalence, eliciting comfort by appearance and fear of MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant bacteria often contracted in hospitals. Made in conjunction with Dr. John Paul, Dr. James Price, and Kevin Cole, it hangs close to the center of the exhibition. The quilt consists of small squares of cotton calico of various shades of light blue carefully arranged into an overarching pattern of larger squares. Dumitriu placed the patches of fabric in Petri dishes, and grew them with Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, which turned blue on a special growth medium, as they were tested against popular natural antimicrobials such as garlic, turmeric, and cloves. As with the actual tradition of quilting, the final work was the result, in part, of a public exercise in art-and-science education, as it literally came to being during a participatory workshop on the rising problem of rapid bacterial evolution and antibiotic resistance. It is a public art form educating people about bacteria; it is also an artwork about traditional women’s work, quilt-making, having mutated and made inroads into a space of power historically dominated by men, namely the scientific laboratory. Needle becomes intellectual dagger, and the rest is history.

Dumitriu’s “Romantic Disease,” an exploration of tuberculosis through art, is installed further down the stone corridor. The source of death for scores over the centuries, TB is an infectious disease affecting the lungs caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis. In terms of the pharmakon, it is a bacterium that is far more poison than remedy. The pieces of “Romantic Disease” are made up of patches of stitched and stained fabrics, news clippings with drawings, and sculpture. A large vitrine contains a tripartite installation. “Where there’s dust, there’s danger” hangs on the wall at the center of this grouping, behind and atop a display of tiny hospital furniture.  Several small needle-felted lungs made from wool and household dust impregnated with the extracted DNA of TB are hung in the shape of a lung-like mandala to underscore old ideas about household dust being a transmission vector for the disease. “Blue Henry,” an altered and engraved sputum flask once carried by a TB patient, sits below to the left. The lid engraving shows a transmission network of TB patients revealed through whole genome sequencing. An antique toy hospital bed and screen titled “Rest, rest, rest!” is located at the center. The fabrics on the Lilliputian mattress and screen communicates its evermore Lilliputian internal and hidden microbiology, as Dumitriu has impregnated the fabric with tubercular DNA and dyed it with natural dyes. Off to the right in the glass case, there sits “Pneumothorax Machine,” an altered contraption originally used to collapse the lung of a tuberculosis patient. Dumitriu has transformed the object through intricate carving and engraving. Salmon-colored and pocked with shallow holes and indentations, the carved case represents the texture of the lung tissue as the immune system attempts to ‘wall off’ the ‘foreign’ TB bacteria that it cannot eliminate. It is based on the look of a lung under microscope. From this, viewers take away a thesis of “self” as distributed network of molecules, from bacteria to organ to body to complete political socius, including the healthcare industrial complex.

The linchpin of the interconnecting levels of action within such morphogenic form is collectivity – teeming teams of life that are diverse in scale and site-specific, ranging from bacteria, to the laboratory, to political group, to public realm. Collectivity here is at once chain-connecting torus and nested affiliation, insomuch as “person” here is gendered and part of a general feminist collectivity, while also receptacle of a diverse collective of bacterial relations. Then there is the larger scale that materializes in the collectivity of making, since it is the result of public interaction and art-and-science collaboration. Dumitriu frequently works with scientists to make her pieces. She is currently artist in residence on the Modernising Medical Microbiology Project at the University of Oxford, and has been artist in residence in the Department of Computer Science at The University of Hertfordshire, and is an honorary research fellow in the Wellcome Trust Brighton and Sussex Centre for Global Health at Brighton and Sussex Medical School.

Dumitriu’s art is most powerful for how it transforms the intangible. In addition to making physical the minutiae of biota, her works materialize what are otherwise abstract philosophies and scientific facts. Philosopher Gilbert Simondon’s theory of ontogenetic preindividuation, which famously influenced Gilles Deleuze, hypothesizes a material and biological plenum of process and becoming, not unlike the genetically mixed microbial self, that exists a priori the individual. He exhorts his reader to unravel the “entire unfolding of ontogenesis in all of its variety, and to understand the individual from the perspective of the process of individuation rather than the process of individuation by means of the individual.” [4] Anthropologists of science Stefan Helmreich and Sophia Roosth approach the identity politics of multiplicity similarly but from the bacterial realm, exploring a rethinking of homo sapiens as homo microbis. The latter, bacterial humankind, is based on the fact that the ratio of human to bacterial cells in any given body is one to ten. Or as Jo Handelsman explains, “we’re 90 percent bacteria.” [5] We are more microbe that human, more bacteria than individual. Accounting for life in all of its scales, bacteria to mammal, destabilizes standing modes of identity shaped by body parts and social grammars, such as pudenda, phalluses, dress codes, bathroom signs, universalizing binaries of male-female, and race based on skin colors. If we look to microbes for a sense of gendered self we will be left with singularities, or what Simondon and Deleuze after him called “haecceities.” [6]

Bacterial life brings a wholesale de-gendering to sexuality because diversification unfolds not by male-female sexuality but by way of symbiogenesis, through one bacteria overtaking and metabolizing another bacteria’s DNA, incorporating it into its manifold. [7] Based on this, popular science writer Dorion Sagan argues for diversity of selves at the molecular level. “Today it is widely recognized that the cells of animals were once a wild party of two if not three ancient beings,” Sagan argues, “the oxygen-poisoned archaeon host, the oxygen-using bacteria that became mitochondria, and perhaps wildly squirming spirochetes, which abound in anaerobic environments.” [8] Full of heterogeneous microbes, we are genetically almost the same. The mapping of the human genome in 2003 proved biological claims to a distinct sense of “race” to be false, showing that, from the perspective of the three billion base pairs of nucleotides (the adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine) that constitute the genomic ensemble of our DNA, we are 99.9% the same. [9]

Yet, science, culture and capitalism work together, each shaping and informing the other. It follows thus, that the facts of science have not kept scientists themselves from writing gender and race back into science at the molecular level. While scientists have long known that there is no sexuality in bacteria, that they are neither male nor female in the way mammals are, they nonetheless gave gender identity to bacteria. [10] Male biologists willfully (mis)identified bacteria in terms of sex, calling the donor cell “male” and the recipient cell a “female,” in writing about the process of bacterial conjugation, or lateral gene transfer, in biology textbooks mid last century. [11] Through the easy slide of language they transformed the prong-like plasmid injection of one bacteria’s DNA into another from a non-sexed act into a sexed act, a phallus penetrating a female vagina.

Binary gender is unfortunately engrained in the collective human psyche and is difficult to root out. Bonnie Spanier explains, “the tenacity of genderizing nongendered beings, reflected here in the natural sciences, suggests both the power and the function of gender beliefs in our culture. Genderized attributions, even while totally inappropriate, are consistent with the worldviews of those who have the power to name and to create knowledge: in this case, scientific knowledge.” [12] The fact that race is a biological myth does not keep Big Pharma from re-inscribing it, achieving what Duana Fullwiley has brilliantly called the “molecularization of race.” [13] Fullwiley shows how drug researchers re-inscribe racial difference when it does not actually exist in order to tease out profit from research based on the .01% that distinguishes all humans. She argues that “race, as an organizing principle, emerges as a natural choice referent for categorizing humans for many working in [the] field,” coming from within their habits of “framing explanations at the molecular level,” viz. in terms of DNA, in order to bring legitimacy to research. [14]

There is, thus, a scalar identity politics even at work here within science, though one more unwitting in nature. While within Dumitriu’s work, a scalar identity politics functions critically, as a conscious effort to set in relief a tension between the mammalian body-scale and bacterial life-scale, within the production of scientific knowledge, human bodies of specific creeds and colors haunt the processes of research sometimes without conscious effort. That is, scientists discern, calculate, and quantify molecules and then attribute them to human bodies with identities – both gendered and colored – without full recognition of the repercussions. Troy Duster explains that this is not so much a matter of human weakness, but perception. Duster describes easy and fast judgments made at the scale of the street, how race plays out through recognition of appearances from human to human. Race, like binary gender, is ready at hand, operating at a larger scale of identification, how things look outwardly rather than how they scientifically function at the molecular level. “When Scotland Yard or the Birmingham police for or the New York Police Department wants to narrow the list of suspects in a crime, they are not primarily concerned with tight taxonomic systems of classification with no overlapping categories,” he explains. [15] Molecular identity, Duster continues, “is the stuff of theoretical physics and philosophical logic, not the practical stuff of crime-solving … and all the messy overlapping categories that will inevitably be involved with such enterprises.” [16]

The scalar identity politics coursing through Dumitriu’s work at the Museum of the History of Science offers a conscious analysis of the many levels, sizes, and shapes of identity and life itself, indeed as these many vectors work within a single being. The message, simply put is, one is many; I am multiple. Two projects in the exhibition make this simultaneity of scales most explicit through elements that are human-body scaled and bacteria-scaled. “Make Do and Mend” and “Sequence Dress” use clothing, a vintage 1940s suit in the former and midcentury dress in the latter, and bacteria as prods for the thesis of the multiple self. “Make Do and Mend” combines war-time austerity and early antibiotic use, bringing together pamphlets about mending, clippings about penicillin, a suit with E coli-based embroidered patterns, and a toy sewing machine used by the artist’s mother during WWII. The word “mend” brings woven and patterned fabric seventy years old together with CRISPR, cutting-edge contemporary gene-editing technology which the artist has deployed, in order to play out resonant functions between the two technologies even while working at different scales. “Sequence Dress,” a collaborative project made with Alex May, Dr. Rosie Sedgwick, Dr. James Price, Kevin Cole, and Dr. John Paul, is a 1960s-dress made out of fabric impregnated with Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Striking a body-microbial holism, the raw visual data from the process of whole genome sequencing of the strain of the bacteria living on the artist’s own body flickers in cascades of moving, lettered form as it is projected onto the dress. Fitted at the top, cinched at the waste, pleated and roomy enough for a crinoline at the bottom, this 1960s-dress is brought to life in the present through gene sequencing. The As, Ts, Cs, and Gs of the bacteria’s nucleotides move along on the rounded surfaces of the dress, uniting selves from different time and space. And, so many identities of divergent magnitudes from across epochs converge as one unique whole in the exploration of scalar identity politics.


[1] See Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Dissemination (trans. Barbara Johnson. London: The Athlone Press, 1981), 61-172.

[2] Accessed October 22, 2017.

[3] Dumitriu takes great safety precautions in making the work public. She says, the MRSA and similar (category 2) organisms are autoclaved, which means they have been sterilized using high pressure steam in a professional autoclaving machine. The TB is the bacteria’s DNA rather than the actual organism, so it is noninfectious. This is a validated kill protocol used by scientists so they can sequence TB outside of a category 3 lab.

[4] Simondon, Gilbert, “The Genesis of the Individual,” Incorporations, eds. J. Crary and S. Kwinter (New York: Zone Books, 1992) 300. Emphasis of the original.

[5] Helmreich quoting Jo Handelsman, in “Homo Microbis: Species, Race, Sex, and the Human Microbiome,” in Stefan Helmreich and Sophia Roosth, eds., Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond (Princeton, NJ: University of Princeton Press, 2016) 62.

[6] Simondon, 299-300.

[7] Sagan, Dorion, Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press: 2013) 20.

[8] Sagan, 21.

[9] Fullwiley, Duana, “The Molecularization of Race: Institutionalizing Human Difference in Pharmacogenetics Practice,” Science as Culture, vol. 16, no. 1 (March, 2007) 3.

[10] Biophysicist Evelyn Fox Keller explained this to me at a conference celebrating the centenary of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form at the University of Dundee, October 13, 2017.

[11] Spanier, Bonnie B., Im/partial Science: Gender Ideology in Molecular Biology (Bloomington, ID: Indiana University Press, 1995) 56.

[12] Spanier, 58.

[13] Fullwiley, 4.

[14] Fullwiley, 4.

[15] Duster, Troy, “The Molecular Reinscription of Race: Unanticipated Issues in Biotechnology and Forensic Science,” Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 40, nos. 4-5 (2006) 435.

[16] Duster, 435.