The Bacterial Sublime and beyond

Following her multi-year project on bacteria and the bacterial sublime, Anna Dumitriu presented a well balanced panel where artists (Dumitriu, Adam Zaretsky and Tagny Duff) and scientists (Kevin Cole and James Price) dealt with news on looming epidemics, mutations and lab waste: the antibiotic-resistant superbugs plaguing many hospitals, or multidrug resistance TB that has a third of the world infected, or  the methicillin-resistant Staphilococcus aureus (MRSA), a bacterium that resides in many individuals without causing any damage, but a dangerous health threat for those with compromised immune systems are only a few examples illustrated with crystalline clarity by Cole and Price .

The stream description announced that

new developments in whole genome sequencing of bacteria and viruses offer us hope, potentially enabling doctors to diagnose and precisely treat diseases in a matter of hours…

I expected a panel focused on microscopic threats. While such details were abundant, I was fascinated by the way in which the topic had been  interpreted .

Speaking from Woodstock via Skype, Histrionic Adam Zaretsky delivered a surreal, yet very timely performance/presentation that made us all think about our attitude towards pandemics and alleged threats to our health and to our security. His point resounded loud and clear: how about changing the way we think of those occurrences? Drug resistant bugs are the products of mutations and transformations that are partially induced by human beings: then, maybe we should rethink why and the way in which we design our drugs. if  instead of designing the body for pharmaceutical why don’t we talk about mutation alone ? people transform themselves in the name of enhancement in many ways. Then how about  think of what the ecological effect of human mutants is? we make genetically modified humans fracking the human genome, we use reason as a ruler, but how can we turn command (generic modification, programmed mutations and predictions) into free play?

He concluded with the comment that

if we want to have uncertainty we have to understand control as drifting….we have to break the biopolitical walls, the rigor that have put handcuffs on us and on our imagination

A very different intervention was Tagny Duff’s, who unfortunately was not at the conference and delivered a very impersonal, yet very inspiring talk. Instead of focusing on how we can solve this or that pandemic she proposed to reuse (remediate) the very pest that we often fear (in this case an innocuous fungus, the Mycelium) towards different objectives.  today’s waste has created a friendly environment for certain microorganism : how about using them as media? By using Bolter and Grusin’s  concept of remediation (new media achieve their cultural significance by drawing from, and transforming earlier media…in turn a notion borrowed from McLuhan) Duff proposes a new term, bioremediation. rather than being limited to communication technologies, Bioremediation combines the former with biological and wet systems. Mycellium, she argues, can be used to challenge specific types of production practices such as the massive amount of waste produced by disposable lab instruments (pipettes, petri dishes etc..). If we can build such instruments using mycelium as an alternative to plastic, the entire lab process would be definitely revolutionized and we would turn a pervasive species that thrive on waste into a precious new material