Interview with Anna Dumitriu

By Eva Kekou, 4Humanities International Correspondent

Today’s interview is with Anna Dumitriu, a British artist based in Brighton, UK.

Eva Kekou: “Anna Dumitriu’s work blurs the boundaries between art and science with a strong interest in the ethical issues raised by emerging technologies.” Could you elaborate on your artist’s statement it a bit more?

Anna Dumitriu: The majority of people observe disciplinary boundaries, for example putting Art, Science, History, or Philosophy etc. into different boxes, but I prefer to think of all these things as equally important ways of understanding the world. Unweaving the history of something is as important as knowing the scientific basis for it, or feeling its emotional impact viscerally. I think that under the name of Art I have found a meta-discipline that can allow me to bring all those things together and communicate them to others. I am particularly interested in the stories behind emerging technologies and how they will affect us, for instance the introduction of humanoid robots as companions, or the dramatic impact whole genome sequencing will have on infection control. People forget the historical foundations of these things and I like to remind them to give people a means of understanding cutting-edge technologies and have a voice in discussions about them; I try to do this by creating works that resonate aesthetically, at a visceral level.

EK: What is the contribution of multidisciplinarity in the arts, in your view?

AD: I am not interested in ‘justifying’ the ‘contribution’ of art as research in the present academic paradigm, which aims to monetise ‘impact’ etc. The contribution of art is art. It affects people in many different ways: it can inspire and it can fascinate.

I don’t like the idea of multidisciplinarity, as to me that is still too devisive; the term ‘transdisciplinary’ is better as it suggests a sharing of methods as well as disciplines, but as I said for me art can be metadiscipline. I guess my approach is similar to Paul Feyerabend’s idea of epistemological anarchism.

EK: What are the aims of the “Institute of Unnecessary Research?” Can you give us some information about some of your projects, etc.?

AD: “The Institute of Unnecessary Research” (IUR) presents a new paradigm in the way artists are engaging with the world through transdisciplinary practice and connective aesthetics. It brings together art, science and philosophy by creating participatory audience experiences, performances and installations. Sometimes humorous and sometimes grotesque, their work pushes the boundaries and critically questions the means of knowledge production in the 21st century. Artists are innovators; if a new piece of technology or a new medium becomes available, artists want to try it, to experiment with it – from microbiology to robotics, from tissue culture to neuroscience. Some artists take on the role of a scientist in almost a performative way and some scientists become artists themselves. Philosophy and ethics is always at its core and the work unpacks the instrumentalization of science for commercial and political ends. Forms of “connective aesthetics” are used to engage the audience in a participatory experience that extends and generates new outcomes throughout the exhibition and go beyond simple interactivity, throwing authorship into question, as members of the audience are inspired to become Unnecessary Researchers in their own rights.

The IUR is a hub for researchers and artists working experimentally who are deeply engaged with their specific research areas. We present our research through performative and experiential methods, engaging the public and new audiences in our ideas. We organise performance events in art galleries and other non-traditional settings (including universities, businesses and festivals) to engage the public in our research and meta-research. We also create participatory workshops, where participants become the researchers and learn about our work experientially. We are specialists in our specific research fields and deeply committed to making our work accessible.

But, I wouldn’t say we do ‘projects’ as such; what we do is work on our ongoing curiosity driven research, sometimes collaboratively. You can find out more here: http://www.unnecessaryresearch.org

EK: I know in your work you use a range of different things including interventions and performances; digital, biological and traditional media; robotics and interactive media. Why do you choose to have such diversity in your work and undertake these diverse roles as an artist? What is most challenging about the different means of expression you use in your work?

communicating bacteria
Communicating Bacteria

AD:I work with whatever media seems appropriate, and individual works often involve many of the above list; for instance, “The Communicating Bacteria Dress” comprises an embroidered antique whitework dress stained with pigmented bacteria killed in the process of sending chemical communication signals and a 3D video mapped with a timelapse image of this communication process. It was made in collaboration with the Head of Projective Geometry (Alex May) and the Head of Microbiological Systems (Simon Park) of the IUR to give an example of our collaborations. I’m not sure I understand what the difficulty of working in a variety of ways is; I don’t have a problem with it and it seems much of my audience doesn’t.

However, working with bacteria as a medium is always going to be challenging as there are a great deal of very important health and safety protocols to bear in mind, especially when working with pathogenic or genetically modified strains. I really enjoy understanding and working within those important constraints and take them very seriously, as you can see in this video: http://artscienceethics.tumblr.com/BacterialSublime

EK: I know some of the audience reading this interview is not familiar with bioart, or biological art. Could you please explain this term by giving us as an example of one your recent bioart projects?

AD: Well, the definitions are pretty broad and diverse, but essentially it is work that involves living organisms in the construction process or as a medium; for instance working with genetically modified organisms, living tissue, viruses or bacteria. Some purists suggest the work should remain alive for exhibition, but in the case of work involving dangerous organisms this is not always possible. I work with bacteria; I am obsessed with them as organisms and how they impact our world.

My “Communicating Bacteria” Project (with Dr Simon Park, Dr John Paul and Alex May) involves the development of a body of work, including textile designs, stained with dyes made from bacteria that change colour depending on the behaviour and communication of these bacteria, crochet patterns based on bacterial responses, interactive interventions that are modelled according to the behaviour and communication between the bacteria, and a series of hacked antique whitework embroidered pieces that are created using genetically modified bacteria.

Textile art has a long history of communicating difficult and complex stories and ideas, from the Bayeux Tapestry to the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The soft qualities of the fabric and the skills of the makers help to reach out to a wide audience of all ages. Dr. Simon Park had previously created a number of works involving the staining of cloth with bacterial pigments (and slime moulds) and his expertise and inspiration was integral in the development of this project. The antique whitework (white on white) embroideries are worked in by hand with delicately stitched images of bacteria and communications networks. My modern stitches are far more heavy handed than those of the original makers, creating an interesting juxtaposition. Additional patterns are created using a genetically modified strain of Chromobacterium violaceum calledCV026. Chromobacterium violaceum is white in its natural state but turns purple when it receives a communication, and since bacteria grow in colonies and individual bacteria are continually sending and receiving signals, it always appears purple. But the CV026 strain is effectively mute. It can receive a chemical communication signal but cannot send one, so it only turns purple in the presence of a communication from another bacterium. When exposed to unmodified Chromobacterium violaceum it slowly turns purple as the chemical signal spreads.

mrsa quilt
MRSA Quilt

Around the time of the enlightenment the perversely difficult practice of whitework embroidery was considered to be one of the highest levels of achievement for a woman. Women would sew in the evenings by candlelight straining their eyes to see the tiny stitches, hunched over their embroidery hoops, their bodies twisted and constricted by tight corsetry, one pinprick of blood meaning the whole piece would be ruined. This coincided with the period in which many of their male counterparts started to become ‘gentleman scientists,’ beginning to rigorously study the world around them ‘scientifically’. This was the time when the scientific method was developed and disciplinary boundaries were drawn between art and science. By juxtaposing whitework with my scientific practice, I consider these paradigmatic changes in the process of research and current moves towards transdisciplinarity, alongside a consideration of what ‘feminine’ approaches to science might mean.

Central to the installation is a stunning antique Edwardian whitework dress, with my additional stitching and a purple pattern created by the process of bacterial communication. The dress was laid out on a one metre square agar plate (a makeshift Petri dish from a DIY centre normally used for mixing concrete and sterilised with ethanol) and inoculated with CV026 and left to grow, be absorbed into the fibres and travel along the fine stitches. After a day or so of incubation the white CV026 was exposed to the Chromobacterium violaceum and the communication signal travelled across the fabric as the white bacteria turned purple. This process was filmed using time-lapse photography and the resulting film was projected using 3D video mapping technology (developed by Alex May) across the dress and related objects within the final installation. The dress was dried, sterilised and made safe.

The project continues to be developed and work is now being undertaken to develop methods to exhibit the process live and run participatory sessions working with the team. This entails the development of a modular Category Two bio-containment facility that can be constructed within art gallery settings while fully conforming to health and safety requirements. This facility enables a much deeper level of engagement and understanding of these complex microbiological processes through a powerful and experiential artistic approach. You can see that project here: http://annadumitriu.tumblr.com/CommunicatingBacteria

EK: I met you some years ago at the E-MobilArt workshop. I was fascinated by your work and your work with such an interdisciplinary collaborative project with artists from all around the world. It would be nice if you could give us some information about this project and why you think collaboration with artists from different backgrounds, countries and skills is (or is not) productive or significant?

AD: To quote the project’s website:

The European Mobile Lab for Interactive Media Artists (e-MobiLArt) is a project tailored around the process of collaboratively creating interactive installation artworks. Such mediated environments may involve the use of ubiquitous computing, communication networks and mobile or locative media technologies. Participants in this project will be artists and scientists who are active in creating interactive media art or pursuing innovative interdisciplinary research and wish to collaborate in order to create interactive media artworks.

The e-MobiLArt project aims to provide selected participants with a multicultural, interdisciplinary context, by supporting their travels, collaboration and the exhibition of their work. Selected participants will form groups and work together in order to develop their projects. During the project, three workshops will take place in three different European countries. In these workshops, participants will be provided with necessary technical, theoretical and curatorial support and will be aided in starting and developing their collaboration.

This project brought together around forty artists from around the world and facilitated collaborations in a number of ways (not always straightforward). It was fascinating to see how they tried to facilitate collaborations and I think I learned a lot from that. I am still in touch with many of the people I met there; some have been to stay with me in my home and I have stayed in others’ homes. I think the highlight for me was making the “KryoLab” project with Antii Tenetz and Dave Lawrence, which brought together performance, sound art, Arctic soil bacteria and ice sculpture. We also collaborated with scientists from the Arctic during the workshop in Rovaniemi, Finland, and with Dr John Paul in the UK. That collaboration is still ongoing and we are currently in the research stages of a new piece. See http://annadumitriu.tumblr.com/KryoLab

EK: Do you enjoy collaboration? Which are the difficulties one can encounter?

AD: I work collaboratively (to different degrees) almost all the time. It’s great as it allows my mind to run ahead with ideas and enables me to make new things and learn new skills. The thing to remember with collaboration is that it should be reciprocally beneficial in some way and that it is important to credit all those involved.

EK: Research plays a crucial role in your work as an artist. Could you please tell us more about the connection of research with art in your work?

AD: It’s just part of my process really – it’s a dialogue between making and ideas. I am very involved in public engagement around new research, allowing the wider public access to these ideas and giving them a way to discuss things and understand things beyond standard science communication strategies. For me it has a political importance: to facilitate people in having a voice, a means to participate in debates around emerging technologies as the stakeholders they are.

EK: I am aware of your work with normal flora. Can you give us some information about this and refer to your projects?

The “Normal Flora” Project offers a physical embodiment of the interconnectedness of life through a deep examination of the rarely noticed everyday world of microbial life: the bacteria, moulds and yeasts that surround us and live both on and inside our bodies.

So called “Normal flora” microbiology is the study of the ubiquitous bacteria, moulds and yeasts that form an absolutely key part of the complex ecosystems we live constantly with: our bodies, our homes and our everyday world, and, of course, the wider planet. We are so closely linked to these minute lifeforms that it is worth considering for a moment that more bacteria can be found on the end of an average fingertip than there are people actually living in the world. Several kilograms of our body weight are made up of bacterial symbionts. But these facts are not widely known. The word ‘bacterial’ is synonymous with dirt; the normal reaction to the suggestion that something is covered with bacteria is one of disgust, but in fact less than 1% of bacteria are harmful to us and many are actually beneficial.

My work “Bed and Chair Flora” comprises a carved and changed found chair; the seat cover (hand stitched needlepoint) and the carving represent images of the bacteria that were cultured from the object originally. The ongoing collaborative crochet is based on transmission electron microscope images of bacteria from my own bed. See http://annadumitriu.tumblr.com/NormalFlora.

EK: I find your work with textiles very interesting. Could you please give us more information about it, referring to one of your projects?

AD: I find that working with textile techniques seems very natural for me and for the audience/collaborators I often invite to participate in the making process. It’s quite a ‘geeky’ thing really; in many ways it uses the same parts of the brain as making a digital work. Hence the crossover nowadays between crafter/maker/hacker culture, I think.

My “MRSA Quilt” reveals the tools and techniques used in the treatment and diagnosis of MRSA bacteria, the famous so called ‘superbug’. The calico cotton quilt squares are patterned with natural and clinical antibiotics (many natural antibiotics double as natural dyes) or various diagnostic tools and are embedded in chromogenic agar, which turns blue in the presence of MRSA. They are inoculated with the bacteria, incubated so the bacteria grows on the calico and interacts with the antibiotics, and finally the squares are sterilized (autoclaved) and stitched together. See http://annadumitriu.tumblr.com/ModMedMicro

EK: How do you see your role as a performer? What is the challenging aspect of performance for you?

AD: My performances are quite low key, playful, and often performed on a one-to-one basis. It’s a way of bringing people into surreal conversations that can make them rethink beliefs. The challenge is to entice people to participate but it usually works surprisingly well.

EK: Can you tell us more about “The Hypersymbiont Enhancement Salon,” which the Wellcome Trust commissioned?

hypersymbiont salon
Hypersymbiont Enhancement Salon

AD: “The Hypersymbiont Enhancement Salon” was a performance created for the “Superhuman” exhibition at The Wellcome Trust Gallery in London. It used the format of a beauty consultation to demonstrate and discuss the potential ways in which our harmless bacterial flora could be enhanced to create human superorganisms (with better appearances, better health and even better personalities) through our active colonisation with hypersymbionts, bacteria that not only happily co-exist on and inside our bodies, but which actively improve us. It involved discussions around the complex relationship we have with bacteria (both pathogenic and non-pathogenic) including conversations that focussed on the (often discussed) relationship of Tuberculosis to creativity. You can find out more here: http://annadumitriu.tumblr.com/HypersymbiontSalon

EK: You are an artist in residence with the UK clinical research consortium project “Modernising Medical Microbiology” based at The University of Oxford. What is this residency about? What are the aims of the research consortium project? And how does this particular residency benefit you?

AD: The “Modernising Medical Microbiology” project is a major UK research project looking at whole genome sequencing of bacteria and how this new technology will be implemented across clinical services. The technology speeds up diagnosis and shows clinicians which antibiotics can be used to treat an infection; it will save lives and it will affect everyone. But it’s a complex subject and they asked me to work with them to create artworks, which engage the public in conversations about it. I received a 2011 Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residence Award to work with them and have since then continued in the role via other more ad hoc funding sources. It’s been a wonderful, fascinating experience for me and in 2012 I was awarded the Society for Applied Microbiology Communication Award. This was wonderful as it was recognition for my work from the microbiology community who has always been so supportive. See http://www.modmedmicro.ac.uk/.

EK: What are some of the ethical problems that arise when artists create artwork in laboratory settings?

AD: The ethical problems are as broad and diverse as the types of artists and projects that are out there. They range from health and safety issues around media, use of living organisms, genetically modified organisms, human tissue, use of data, and so on. When artists work in an embedded setting within institutions they become subject to those institutions’ ethics policies. In their studios they wouldn’t be subject to those ethical constraints but they also would not have the ability to make technically complex work in that way. My major project with Waag Society and University of Leiden, “Trust me, I’m an artist: towards an ethics of art and science collaboration,” investigates the problem and looks at a number of case studies; see http://artscienceethics.com. The forthcoming book will provide recommendations, and we hope to take the project further.

EK: What projects are you are working on now?

AD: Currently I am developing a new exhibition and series of workshops with “Modernising Medical Microbiology” that tells the story of Tuberculosis research., and I have a number of events planned for 2013-14 that will be posted on my website http://www.normalflora.co.uk in due course. I presented a paper on my work with this so far at the Mutamorphosis 2 Conference in Prague in December 2012 which will be published soon; see http://mutamorphosis.org/2012/confronting-the-bacterial-sublime-whole-genome-sequencing-microbiology-and-bioart/

I am also working on a robotics/art project “My (new) Robot Companion” with artist Alex May and the University of Hertfordshire Department of Computer Science where we are both Visiting Research Fellows/Artists In Residence. We received funding from Arts Council England last year to develop our previous robotic work “My Robot Companion,” which was commissioned by the Science Gallery in Dublin. That piece was very successful but we could see so many changes/improvements we wanted to make so we are incorporating them into the new work. See more about my digital projects here: http://www.annadumitriu.co.uk.

EK: What are some of your future projects and aims?

AD: I think my future aims are to continue developing the work I am doing now; it’s a slow incremental process to do what I do. I am not interested in going off at tangents, really, but I always compare my development to ‘chemotaxis’, which is the method bacteria use to detect a favourable environment. They tumble about looking for a better environment and when they find it they take what they can (and give what they can) from it and then tumble on somewhere else. For me my aim is to learn interesting things and make the kind of work that appeals to me. So, essentially, I am happy with how things are going and there’s no master plan beyond reaching new audiences and understanding how to better affect people through my work.

Biography

Anna Dumitriu’s work blurs the boundaries between art and science with a strong interest in the ethical issues raised by emerging technologies. Her installations, interventions and performances use a range of digital, biological and traditional media including live bacteria, robotics, interactive media, and textiles. Her work has a strong international exhibition profile and is held in several major public collections, including the Science Museum in London. Dumitriu is known for her work as founder and director of “The Institute of Unnecessary Research”, a group of artists and scientists whose work crosses disciplinary boundaries and critiques contemporary research practice. She recently completed a Wellcome Trust commission entitled “The Hypersymbiont Salon”, is collaborating as a Visiting Research Fellow: Artist in Residence with the Adaptive Systems Research Group at The University of Hertfordshire (focussing on social robotics) and (Leverhulme Trust 2011) Artist in Residence on the UK Clinical Research Consortium Project “Modernising Medical Microbiology” at The University of Oxford. Her major international project “Trust me I’m an artist, towards an ethics of art/science collaboration” (in collaboration with the Waag Society in Amsterdam and The University of Leiden) investigates the novel ethical problems that arise when artists create artwork in laboratory settings.

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