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Living Deadwood: AND Festival 2015


Following on from previous work with AND and Lancaster University earlier in the year (Microbes as Material) I was invited to join artists, scientists, film makers and performers as part of AND Festival 2015's Night of the Living Deadwood lab in Grizedale Forest, Cumbria. A microcosm of creative activity where ideas were shared, exchanged, perhaps even borrowed or stolen, and new relationships (mutual, beneficial, symbiotic and parasitic) were formed. I can't help making comparisons between the subject of our lab and the wider event that we were a part of. Deadwood, as it turns out, is a misnomer. A 'snag' (a standing, yet dead tree) is in fact as alive, or possibly more alive, than one stood tall in full leafy bloom. That is, if you subscribe to the view (as I do) that we must consider ourselves in relation to the microcosm of life that exists on and within us, yet that we do not see.

My proposal for this event suggested that I might attempt to make something that related human forms of communication to microbial ones. I am often drawn to anthropomorphic connections as a method of explanation, a way of embodying and developing understanding. As conversations during the workshop developed, I realised that I wanted to focus instead on sensations and how they might bring us to a closer understanding of the microbial other.

The more time I spend exploring the microbiological, and working with others who do the same, the more I realise that our methods of understanding the microbial other are distorted through a visual lens. As a result of dancer/performer Rita Marcalo's improvised group exercise: 'microscope of the mind' and discussions with artist, Daksha Patel, whose practice explores the way we see (or don't see) in relation to medical imagery, I began to think about how important other senses are in understanding the microbial world. Marcalo's exercise, adapted from dance and sports training as a way to visualise and heal injury, led us into ourselves, sensing parts of our body from within. The experience of sensing my breath, organs, limbs and digits was powerful, yet when we attempted to use this technique to visualise microbial life within us, as if through a microscope, the experience failed for me because the connection (for me at least) is not visual. It is more palpable, it is a sensation of touch or perhaps even a more chemical, electrical sensation.

I realise that in my own work I am trying to get closer to this sensation of otherness by moving away from the visual and attempting to create scenarios where this sense is not dominant. Yet I am failing, as in order to document my work, the visual continues to be the main conduit. We are after all, only human. The week after AND Festival, I created a collaborative 'performance' with sound artist, Mark Reed and the living material in a flat within an empty Salford tower block (Natura naturans). In the darkened flat, Mark recorded the sounds of tiny organisms and I projected live images of the traces of yeast, mould, bacteria and other creatures that we found living there. The idea being to expose flaws in our anthropocentric view of life by allowing a seemingly inanimate space to 'perform'. Thanks to Dr Rod Dillon (Lancaster University) and Dr Alex Laude (Newcastle University) for the loan of microscopes. This was a group show, produced by Word of Warning as part of Domestic II, and included other sound based work, thus our own, shy creatures had to compete to be heard. Images were therefore an important means of making a connection to the subtle sounds. If we have the opportunity to perform this again in a different environment, I would be tempted to do so with no images, simply the sound in the space and perhaps bring in other, more chemical senses, such as smell, to help create a relationship to the microbial other.

Smell leads me to the image above, taken at the workshop using no less than four different visual aids (a point I will return to). It is Actinomycetes: a key organism in the decomposition / recomposition of dead wood and producer of geosmin, an organic compound with a distinct earthy aroma, bringing to mind the smell of rain on a forest floor. Chemical compounds are a key means of bacterial activity and seeing Dr Jackie Parry smile as she breathed in the aroma of the forest from a petri dish reminded me how powerfully evocative and relatively under-developed our own sense of smell is.

For now, let's call Actinomycetes micro-queer. They defiantly refuse to conform to categorisation, being neither bacteria, nor fungi. Perhaps we should say that we can never fully understand another being and therefore respectfully decline to label it, but we humans love labels and so we create a nebulous classification of hard-to-define micro-organisms that we can slot them into, known as Protists. My favourites, of course! Actinomycetes produce a chemical that is the equivalent of bacterial napalm. They have the same ecological role as fungi, yet also "keep the fungi in check" (quote: Jackie Parry, Bacterial Field Marshall, Lancaster University). This competitive relationship between species is known as amensalism: where one secretes a chemical that kills another, whilst remaining unharmed. It was the discovery of this relationship in penicillin, by Alexander Fleming, that led to the development of modern antibiotics. Actinomycetes are responsible for approximately 95% of commercially available antibiotics today. I'm fascinated by these micro-queer warriors that smell of the forest and serve to protect us from all manner of ills. I am sure I will return to them, but today they are a digression.

Returning to the image. To capture this image, which shows long, filamentous hyphae (a growth structure commonly associated with fungi), a microscope, camera, computer and then additional camera were used. Technically, the final camera was not necessary, but desire for instant consumption meant that I took a picture of a computer screen: a poor third hand appropriation by this point, with the pixellated screen clearly evident. This image, in all it's third grade quality sums up the issue we have in understanding the microbial world. We are so far removed from it, like the stars in the night sky, viewed through a lens it is easily distorted. Perhaps through using our other senses, we can begin to gain a more rounded perspective of the microbial other.

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