The Microbial Level: A Conversation at NeueHouse

Josh Kline: Share the Health (Assorted Probiotic Hand Gels), detail, 2011, various bacterial cultures in three plastic dispensers, 6¼ by 4½ by 4 inches each. Courtesy 47 Canal.



In A.i.A.’s September issue, Ruba Katrib discusses artists who incorporate chemical and biological processes in works that change over time. On September 6, NeueHouse in New York hosted a panel where Katrib was joined by artist Josh Kline and biologist Joseph Osmundson to further explore the questions raised in her essay, focusing on art made with bacteria and the social issues such work touches on. Highlights from the conversation are presented below.  

RUBA KATRIB  As a curator, I’m often working closely with artists through the process of making work for an exhibition, and this essay came from conversations with artists who are dealing with invisible factors. Working at SculptureCenter has provided the lens of thinking about sculpture in particular, and prompts questions like: what happens if you think about chemical composition on equal terms with volume and weight? I wanted to put artists like Josh Kline, Nina Canell, and Pierre Huyghe in conversation with historical figures like Marcel Duchamp, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Robert Smithson, because all them have engaged the molecular dimension. In contemporary work, the increasing awareness of bacteria and microbes is related not only to the scientific composition of the work itself but also to the cultural and social connotations it evokes. 

JOSH KLINE  Matta-Clark and Smithson were big influences for me when I started making this type of work. I’d been thinking a lot about the idea of sampling as a successor to the strategy of appropriation. In 2011, I was organizing a show and decided to make a piece called Share the Health. I cooked my own agar nutrient gel, which was like chicken broth that had been strained four times, and used it to grow bacteria swabbed from a pole on the G train, a Chase ATM, and—this was cheating—I just took some acidophilus from a probiotic from Whole Foods. I put them in the Purell dispensers that suddenly seemed to be everywhere. This is not necessarily the best way to work with bacteria, but I was interested more in the poetry of sampling these objects and seeing what happened. The G train one got really gnarly. At first it turned yellow, then it looked like steel wool was growing on it, with these little emerald flecks. 

This became a way for me to make portraits and landscapes. A friend of mine was organizing an artist-run project in Venice and asked me to contribute something so I told her she could sample immigrants that Europeans would find undesirable and grow the samples in the dispensers. Bacteria and germs are seen as disgusting, but the probiotics trend encourages us to embrace germs. There’s confusion about what’s good and what’s bad. But the disgust, the visceral reaction that gnarly-looking growths can evoke, is part of the work.  

JOSEPH OSMUNDSON  I’d like to say more about how we got to the point of confusion about what’s good and what’s bad. We’re going through a big transition. For almost all of the twentieth century, we viewed microbes as stuff we should get rid of. In pop culture, it was all about sterilizing and sanitizing and keeping a clean home. But in the last fifteen years, research has shown that was wrong. We’re basically incubators for bacteria cells, and those bacteria play a fundamental role in what it means to be human. Your organs and your immune system wouldn’t develop without them. The removal of microbes from early development can hinder the immune system and make it harder to fight infectious diseases later in life. 

In the last fifteen years, there has been an explosion of research into the microbiome. One field currently being explored is poop transplants, which are being studied as a treatment for obesity. The data remain controversial, but the idea is that you could take someone healthy, purify the bacteria in their poop, and make it into a little pill that goes in one of two ways. What we think of as the most dirty can be used for health. So science, like art, can problematize generalizations that have been held for hundreds of years. 

DROITCOUR  Matta-Clark was putting his cultures in generic trays but Josh, you’re using these dispensers that have very distinct associations, and you’re using them to grow samples from the G train and Uniqlo clothing stores. Ruba, this is something you wrote about. 

KATRIB  I think it’s another mode of representation. Artists are evoking very specific substances by sampling. What information is contained in bacteria? How important is bacteria within a particular regime of representation? There are a lot of question that are starting to emerge and haven’t been resolved yet. There’s an interesting overlap between new approaches to identity and representation and the emergent understanding of bacteria. 

KLINE  I’ve been interested in truth in materials in a lot of the work I’ve made. I don’t want to represent—I want to use the actual thing. You can’t exhibit people, but you can exhibit bacteria, or someone’s genetic information, or a 3D scan. I don’t believe that these ways to absorb and digitize people are good things, but they have social and political ramifications, so I think it’s worthwhile to bring those processes into art and see what they result in.

DROITCOUR  Joe, what do you think of a microbiome as a representation of a person as opposed to a genetic code, for instance? 

OSMUNDSON  Oh my god, I think so much. I’m a biologist who is critical of a lot of genetics and genomics. In general, scientists are poorly educated on aspects of identity. There is no biological race. Using genetic information from to understand identity is really wrong. Your microbiome has a lot to do with culture: your environment, the places you go, the things you touch, the people you’re around. It has a lot to do with poverty, nutrition, geography. So the politics are even more obvious in the microbiome than in the genome. 

DROITCOUR  Josh, have your ideas about environment and identity changed through the process of experimentation?

KLINE  I haven’t been making much of this work recently, but the idea of the site and non-site, or person and non-person, is still important to me. Ideas about class are expressed through concepts of uncleanliness, spiritual dirtiness, untouchables. When people are using Purell, are they using it because they’re afraid they might get sick, or because they were on the subway and came into contact with someone who’s poor? 

OSMUNDSON  Josh, have you ever rerun the same experiment from the same sample? That’s what I be interested in, if I were peer-reviewing your art.  

KLINE  No, there’s no rigorous laboratory practice. While installing an iteration of this work, I had a graphic designer come in and spit in a Ziploc bag. I just dumped the spit in the agar gel and threw the bag away. These works are not for sale—not that my gallery has even tried—because I don’t want to be responsible for reproducing them.

OSMUNDSON  Reproducibility is interesting to me, because results of samples taken from the same person at different times could be huge. For example, with race, the genetic differences within races are bigger than the differences between them, showing how useless race is as a biological construct. 

DROITCOUR  Ruba, in your essay you cite Jane Bennett, a philosopher who looks at interactions between microorganism and bodies as models for political or social organization. Could you talk about her understanding of personhood? 

KATRIB  Bennet is one of many theorists who are questioning the boundaries of human and non-humans, living and non-living matter. There’s a section of her book Vibrant Matter where she summons what she ate for breakfast, the particles in the air, and other entities as collaborators and co-authors of the text. We’re changing every day because of our changing environmental factors, and Bennett points to the role of these elements in the production of her intellectual work. The artists I’m interested in set up situations where many named and unnamed participants have an effect on the result. 

OSMUNDSON   Artists make the invisible visible. And it happens with microbiology naturally. Microorganisms are invisible, but they have real effects in our everyday life, and that’s what draws a lot of artists to thinking about them.