"How Sublime is Your Ecosystem?": An Interview with Bioartist Anna Dumitriu

3 Jan 2014
Elyse Franko

Anna Dumitriu is a Brighton, UK-based bioartist whose work focuses on microbiology and the ethical issues raised by emerging technologies. Her exhibit "The Romantic Disease: An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis" opens January 15 in London. For more information on her work, visit www.normalflora.co.uk.

CDDEP: What led you to choose textiles as a medium for your installations?

ANNA DUMITRIU: There are a few reasons I chose textiles. A main reason is its connection to the domestic space. There is actually a UK TV show called “How Clean is Your House?” in which two cleaning ladies try to show how dirty people really are, bringing in microbiologists to tell people what bacteria is growing in their houses. It’s a load of rubbish because we are always living happily in coexistence with all sorts of normal flora and microbes.

But people are terrified of these sorts of things. After seeing this show, I decided the question is not "How clean is your house?" but "How sublime is your ecosystem?" I wanted to begin to unpack the microbes that I coexisted with, so I began to map all the molds and bacteria in my home. I started working with a microbiologist, Dr. John Paul, who's my main collaborator. A lot of the things I was culturing bacteria from lent itself to textile work – things like chairs, for example. I took bacteria from a chair in my house, then carved the images of the bacteria into the chair, and then reupholstered the chair with needlepoint images based on those bacterial images.

I’ve been learning these textiles as I go along, as I take on new projects. I eventually started to crochet a bedcover based on the bacteria I cultured from my bed, which was Staphylococcus epidermidis. On this project, I began to work with people in a participatory way. They were able to sit down with me and look at images of the bacteria I'd found and add to the crochet bedcover with me.

What I liked was that you could start conversations with people at the same time, so I could have discussions with them about microbes, what’s going on with bacteria, microbiology – we could have conversations about it as we made these things. As long as I fed it with people and fed it with wool, it would keep growing exponentially until it fills up the space and we run out of wool, we run out of people and we run out of space to exhibit it – so it becomes a metaphor for bacterial growth, really, that sort of exponential burst of growth. Every time I put that work in a show, it grows with the show. People continue to add to it and it grows with each show.

I liked the fact that different audiences could be reached. You can have bioart, but there’s often a barrier to communication with the audiences that you want to reach with your work. What I’ve found is that a lot of older people want to talk about these topics and things like superbugs, but bioart installations often don’t attract an older audience. They are much more willing to engage with textile art. It brings them into the story.


CDDEP: The exhibit you’re working on now, “The Romantic Disease”, focuses on tuberculosis. Why did you decide to concentrate on TB?

ANNA DUMITRIU: One-third of the world’s population is infected with [latent] TB and it’s the world’s largest infectious killer. Because of drug resistance and other diseases like HIV, it’s coming back in more developed countries. It’s the first disease to ever be found in human remains, really the oldest disease, but it remains a major challenge. If we become complacent with it, it could make a huge comeback in the Western world as these bacteria are taking on new drug resistances.

What fascinates me about it is the way it affected the world and how people lived in the past. It was nicknamed “The Romantic Disease” because it gave a kind of romantic death to people – they’d have plenty of time to slowly waste away and look pale. There was even a fashion at that time for ladies to look as pale as possible – they would use black make-up to make their cheeks look hollow and sometimes paint blue veins on their faces to make their skin appear more translucent.

In the beginning of the 20th century, it was thought that the primary cause of TB was household dust: “Where there’s dust there’s danger.” They used to think that the sputum people would cough up would dry into dust and spread the infection. But it would be very unlikely for that to happen as the particles are too large. And in ancient times, many natural dyes were antimicrobial, so it may be that the discovery of some natural dyes were born of attempts to make cures for infections such as TB. Some of these will be shown in the exhibit.

The exhibit also features lots of little lungs made out of felt and dust. They’re “contaminated”, you could say, with the extracted DNA of killed TB. They are non-infectious and have been through a very stringent sterilization protocol to allow them to be displayed. This is actually part of a process to do whole-genome sequencing of TB, so this exhibit really shows where we were and where we’re going to be [with regard to TB]. 


CDDEP: Some of your pieces (the Hypersymbiont Dress and the MRSA Quilt, for example) are stained with some very powerful and deadly live bacteria. How do you do that?

 ANNA DUMITRIU: I work [with the superbugs] in a Category 2 hospital lab and sterilize them before they leave the lab. With some of the environmental bacteria, we developed a protocol allowing me to work with them safely in gallery spaces. I’ve taken lots of advice on how to do this from microbiologists and even some people involved in national security connected to the military, who are quite open to bringing the public into the work and into the dialogue. What I would like to do is build a Category 2 lab in a gallery so the public can see the work and participate in it, but that’s a project that’s still in development.

 

CDDEP: Your pieces are sterilized after they’re made, but how do people react when they come to your shows and stand next to these textiles that are infected with deadly bacteria such as MRSA?

ANNA DUMITRIU: The funny thing is, most people are really fascinated and quite happy just knowing that I’ve sterilized it to the level it needs to be sterilized, with the help of expert advice. The only people I’ve had strange reactions from are actually bioinformaticians, who have said they’re quite uncomfortable with it. I think this is because they work closely with data around MRSA, but on quite a removed and abstract level – to be actually confronted with it could seem quite strange. But microbiologists and the general public all seem quite happy with the idea that the textiles have MRSA on them and that it’s dead. Generally people seem quite attracted to things that are a little bit scary.


CDDEP: When you do collaborative work with the public and have discussions, do you find they’re aware of issues surrounding bacterial resistance and superbugs?

ANNA DUMITRIU: We first had major news coverage of superbugs in the UK news more than eight years ago. Newspapers learned about MRSA and put out a lot of scare stories about it and the government here created a number of targets to combat MRSA (though initially they didn’t impose targets for reducing rates of any of the other superbugs). So the public became aware of this several years ago – and that’s probably something that largely inspired my work.

The thing is that the public thinks things are known, whereas many things aren’t known – the factors for MRSA transmission in hospitals, for example, aren’t 100% known, and more research needs to be done. But through the participatory activities I do, we can have conversations with the public about it, bringing members of the public in contact with scientists who have worked very closely with these bacteria.