Microbial Identity: Art and biodiversity of self


Session Title:

  • Bio Art Session 1

Presentation Title:

  • Microbial Identity: Art and biodiversity of self




  • Knowing that nonhuman microorganisms outnumber our own cells, we are only just starting to understand the extent of the impact these organisms have on our physiology. Our microbial fingerprints are very complex and specific because as individuals we differ remarkably in the microbes that occupy the habitat of our bodies. Human Microbiome Project’s goal is to establish the largest microbial map of a human body serving as habitat, showing that microbes play a vital role in our lives. 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 ecology. Such a realisation made the editors of a special issue of Nature dedicated to microbes, in 2008, propose to rephrase the question “Who am I?” and start asking “Who are we?”

    Yet our microbial self is of interest not only to life sciences, but also to art and humanities. Artists such as Sabrina Raaf, Stephen Willson, Sonja Baumel, Stelarc and others consider microbes outside of pathogen histories, and work with microbial communities inhabiting human bodies. Examining their work, I am going to show various strategies employed to deal with both the prominent presence of microbes themselves and the impact the microbiological research has on us. Starting from an individual microbial cartography of a human body, I will move on to the serious practical consequences of microbial research, such as controlling our health and identity in medicine, forensics and other profiling practices. I will also elaborate on the ontological consequences of considering the human as a cellular minority. In this context our bodily identity seems to be process-based and graspable only through its current function in the web of trans-species dependencies; hence the life form we identify as our own is only a specific temporary trans-species ecology which constantly reconfigures itself.