Monika Bakke / Bio(con)fusions. Art for human-nonhuman entanglements

| Kategoria: Teksty

In the 21 century the question ‘What is it to be human?’ is being asked again and again in the context of biology and vis-à-vis biotechnological interventions. It was genomics that was expected to give us the answer in the year 2000 with the first sequencing of the human genome. However, while looking for the uniqueness of humans, hence for ‘human nature’, so anticipated to be reviled in relation to the Human Genome Project, we actually found out something quite the opposite: there are more similarities than differences between humans and nonhumans.

We should bear in mind that we share evolutionary history with all life and that the human body itself, prior to any human intervention, evolved as a mosaic of symbiotic organisms. Microbes, if discussed in a context other than science, they usually appear as pathogens which threaten health of individuals or societies. They are not limited to the natural history because the greatly influenced social history. Even now the dominant non-expert narrative related to microbes is hostile. One could even say that we live in a permanent war with microbes which as terrorists are already among us.
And indeed it is true as microbes are everywhere. They make up more or less half of a biomass on Earth. But we have only just started to explore our own body as their peaceful habitat.

Now biotechnologies allow interventions into living systems and creation of such forms of life which are impossible to occur – and in many cases sustain – outside of the lab frameworks. Nikolas Rose suggests that as a result of such a mobilized and modified vitality, ‘our somatic individuality has become opened up to choice, prudence, and responsibility, to experimentation, to contestation.’(1) Artists take up biotechnologies and conduct human-nonhuman fusions on the level of molecules, cells and whole organisms. Proposing interventions themselves but also pointing out and bringing to visibility the already existing symbolic environments.

Blood, identity & immune system

Blood as a source of DNA used for various identity queries such as criminal identification, inheritance claims and disputed paternity as well as being a traditional transcultural symbol of identity seems to be the ideal material for artists to use in species fusions.(2) Artists initiate fusions with nonhuman species, both transferring own genetic material to some other species as well as receiving the nonhuman proteins and cells. Some of the blood components are part of the immune system. Although the immune system has been traditionally linked with defensive functions, nowadays also cooperative functions are being attributed to the immune system. This is a shift from a body as a sealed vessel to body as ecology.

Mixing blood among the one species homo sapiens has been problematic but when it comes to mixing blood with nonhumans we are arriving at a taboo. A Key element of The Natural History of Enigma (2003-2009), a project by Edardo Kac, is a transgenic plant called Edunia. It comes into existence as a result of the artist’s peculiar and radical action of mixing human with a non-human other on the molecular level. In the art world, this has had an unprecedented result: the plant ‘being infected’ by human genetic material.

Symbolically significant is the fact that the protein transferred by the artist to the plant is immunoglobulin that is an antibody that in the human immune system plays an important role in detecting and neutralizing foreign bodies. Here, a human antibody that evolved to be hostile to strangers becomes integrated into a foreign body. Hence, this is not a case of competition between life forms, but of togetherness, as the gesture of transferring one’s own genetic material to be fused with a plant also triggers a change in the human partner. This does not happen on the molecular level, but rather on the level of attitudes and convictions about oneself and one’s relations with nonhuman others. It may be interpreted as a gesture that not only challenges the privileged human position, but also a rejection of the notion of the ‘ontological hygiene’3 that isolates us from the nonhuman environment. Hence, the model of the human ‘body-as-a-unity-to-be-preserved’(4) can no longer be sustained.

A project May the Horse Live in Me (2011) by Art Oriente Objet (Marion Laval-Jeantet & Benoît Mangin) makes the transfer of the nonhuman the other direction and pursues more than symbolic use of immune system. The goal of Marion Laval-Jeantet was to receive the blood of the nonhuman or more precisely horse blood plasma containing the entire spectrum of immunoglobulins. In the preparation for the reception of the foreign immunoglobulins the artists received number of injections of horse immunoglobulins of each kind, one at the time to built her tolerance.
The artists point out a thin boundary between human nonhuman animals but also point out to a an interest in feeling in other way than human. During the performance the blood was taken form Marion and then a horse plasma was injected.
Consequences could be severe – the worst among them would be an anaphylactic shock, but that didn’t happen. Artists reported of about two weeks lasting feeling of unrest, nervousness, tirdness but insomnia at the same time and fear. She confessed: ‘I had the feeling of being extra-human, I was not in my usual body. I was hyper-powerful, hyper-sensitive, hyper-nervous and very diffident. The emotionalism of an herbivore. I could not sleep. I probably felt a bit like a horse.’

Microbial self

Since 1890s the awareness that microbes caused diseases shaped our understanding of immunity as a set of defense mechanism. It was impossible to consider microbes outside of pathogen histories. Now however or perception of microbes of our bodies is changing as we start realizing that our bodies are actually human-nonhuman communities. In a biological perspective of the human-microbes entanglements human-nonhuman boundaries are very hard to determine as the microorganisms are vitally involved in our own metabolism. One cannot really survive without the other.

Human Microbiome Project was launched in 2008 and announced in the scientific journal Nature as ‘a logical conceptual & experimental extension of the Human Genome Project’.(5) The goal of the Human Microbiome Project is to determine what is the effect of the human microbiome on our health and disease in other words how the microbes coexist with us being their hosts. ‘To get their results, the team collected samples from 242 healthy adults aged 18 to 40.’ (6) Researchers sampled 15 specific „habitats” from men and 18 from women that is from oral, skin, gut, nasal/lung & in case of women the additional 3 samples came from vaginal areas. In June this year the team in the series of articles in Nature and the Public Library of Science journals announced establishing of the human microbiome reference database which can be used for further research. This is the largest microbial map of a human body serving as habitat showing that microbes play a vital role in our life.

In each person there may be hundred of thousands of species including organisms such as bacteria (majority), archea, eukaryotes, viruses, yeasts & parasites. This certainly calls for a shift from the traditional notion of body understood as a sealed one-species unity to the notion of human-nonhuman super-organism. Human-microbial continuity replaces the concern about human animal continuity, as the live of the microbes and our own life are so closely bound. An image of a host may replace our well protected self image as a predator. Such realization made the editors of the special issue of Nature dedicated to microbes in 2008, propose to rephrase the question ‘who am I’ and start asking ‘who are we?’

Donna Haraway makes a similar observation when stating that ‘we have never been human’ and emphasis the vital importance of contact zones and entangelments. In other words, Haraway would say, ‘we have never been alone’ as we ‘are ecosystems of genomes, consortia, communities, partly digested dinners, mortal boundary formations’;(7) Haraway: ‘To be one is always to become with many.”(8)

The microbes coevolved with us however on the individual level we first come to contact with the microbial companions at the very moment of birth that is while gaining independence form the maternal body. The journey through the birth canal provides the opportunity to come to contact with the first nonhuman companions or in case of cesarean section the first microbes come from skin. However, being in the world, living means to be not only human. The research reveals that biodiversity of microbiota is crucial for health. Although scientists managed to produce a microbe-free mouse in the lab – therefore stating that such life is possible – but such animal can survive only in a strictly controlled environment. As the ontological hygiene was artificial and operated on a mental level similarly biological super-hygiene is artificial and harmful on the biological level.

Our microbial self has been an interest not only to life scientists and the researchers in humanities and social sciences but also to artists. Art has been confronting this difficult issue and, as Susan Squire pointed out, it has been building maps, better or worse but at least some tools which help us orient ourselves as non-experts in the unfamiliar world which nonetheless is ours as well.

Stephen Willson’s work Intro Spection (2005) is a complex installation where
viewers play ‚games’ with cell samples taken from their own bodies and those of others. Willson is concerned with lack of public understanding of significance of the microbial research for health and profiling therefore his key question is: ‘How should non-scientists participate?’’(9) The artist postulated a deep literacy providing non-experts with an access to scientific and medical protocols, microbiological tools and concepts. Willson believed that these new worlds made accessible by science are actually very ‘alien, unfamiliar life forms (which are nonetheless intimately connected with our bodies)’.

Sabrina Raaf’s work Breath Cultures (1999-) plays with the double meaning of the world culture: science and social. She is making use of nose|mouth|loungs microbes sampled from 17 people of various nationalities and cultural histories. Each participant breathed on a petri dish containing nutrients and formed some kind of microbial fingerprint. How are we to maintain identity and integrity, exchanging microbes/mixing bodies and exchanging stories, thoughts, ideas. Openness of the body. Our microbial fingerprints are very complex and specific because as individuals we differ remarkably in the microbes that occupy habitat of our bodies. Much of this diversity is unexplained but we know that among the most important factors there are: diet, environment, host genetics, early microbial exposure. Identity question: ecology in a biological and social sense.

Sonja Baumel, Cartography of the human body, 2010/11
Making invisible life on us, skin microbial communities, visible in the one to one scale body map. Cartography of the human body – took sample of microbe from her skin, grew them in petri dishes and then reapplied on the body in order to produce prints on textiles. Once they start being visible their growth was terminated.
Expanded self, 2012, a full body size petri dish used as canvas forming a living and growing picture of microbes. Sonja Baumel proposes another use of body as a habitat for nonhumans. However her proposal belongs to the future.

Eleine Graham proposed a term ‘ontological hygiene’ by which for the past three hundred years Western culture has drawn the fault-lines that separate humans, nature and machines.’(10) Moreover ‘ontological hygiene’ produces ‘human nature’ which is as much a piece of human artifice as all the other things human beings have invented.’(11) Immune system: from defense to cooperation; from pathogenic to symbiotic relations.

Research related to human microbial communities calls for reconsideration of what is to be human and for a serious reevaluation of the status of the nonhuman agents. Our bodily identity seems to be process-based and graspable only through its current function in the web of trans-species dependencies. It may be no longer possible to discuss life as if belonging to individuals. Donna Harraway suggests that when she confesses: ‘I love that when “I” die, all these benign and dangerous symbionts will take over and use whatever is left of “my body”, if only for a while, since “we” are necessary to one another in real time.’(12) The life we identify as our own is only a specific temporary transpecies super-organism which reconfigures itself and undergoes a transsubstanciation in the continuous process of life as zoe.

1. Rose, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007), p.76.
2. Dorothy Nelkin, Blood and bioethics in the biotechnology age, p. 117.
3. The term ‘ontological hygiene’ is borrowed from Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/human. Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), p.11.
4. Dorion Sagan speaks of ‘body-as-unity-to-be-preserved’ as a model in classical medicine which needs to be radically reformulated; hence ‘[t]he body as seen by the new biology is chimerical. Instead of the tripartite division of that mythical creature of antiquity, the chimera, into lion, goat and snake, the animal cell is seen to be a hybrid of bacterial species.’ Dorion Sagan, ‘Metameatazoa. Biology and Multiplicity’, in: Incorporations, ed. Jonathan Crary and Stanford Kwinter (New York: Zone Books, 1992), p.363.
5. Feature the Human Microbiome Project
6. Katherine Harmon, Body Count: Taking Stock of All the Bugs That Call Humans Home, Scientific American, June 13, 2012.
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7. Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), p.31.
8. Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, p. 3-4.
10. Graham, p. 11.11 Graham, p. 37.12 Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, p. 4.


Monika Bakke writes on contemporary art and aesthetics, with a particular focus on posthumanist, gender and cross-cultural perspectives. She works in the Philosophy Department at the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland. The author of two books: „Open Body” (2000, in Polish) and „Bio-transfigurations: Art and Aesthetics of Posthumanism” (2010, in Polish), co-author of „Pleroma: Art in Search of Fullness” (1998), and editor of „Australian Aboriginal Aesthetics” (2004, in Polish), „Going Aerial: Air, Art, Architecture” (2006), „The Life od Air: Dwelling, Communicating, Manipulating” (2011) and „Vegetal Sensoria” (in preparation). Since 2001 she has been an editor of the Polish cultural journal „Time of Culture”.

Text on the basis of a presentation at ECOLOGIES conference. Full programme: