British artist Anna Dumitriu deals with a wide range of media, spanning from sculpture, installation to infective textiles and biology. She explores and questions our relationship to infectious diseases, synthetic biology and robotics. Such a diverse artistic spectrum has brought her to produce an extraordinary body of work, which has been presented and exhibited in major collections and museums worldwide (Picasso Museum in Barcelona, ZKMBOZARArs ElectronicaThe Science Gallery DublinThe Museum of Contemporary Art TaipeiThe Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, and The V & A Museum, the Science Museum London and Eden Project).

Her itinerant exhibition BioArt and Bacteria is now running until the 24th of November 2018 at The Esther Klein Gallery and the Science Center in Philadelphia, USA. The exhibition received fundings from the gallery and from an Artists International Development Fund Award from Arts Council England/British Council.

Anna is currently involved in several prestigious academic projects, holding visiting research fellowships at the University of Hertfordshire, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, and Waag Society. She is artist-in-residence with the Modernising Medical Microbiology Project at the University of Oxford, and with the National Collection of Type Cultures at Public Health England.

Anna is the 2018 President of the Science and the Arts section of the British Science Association (BSA), a charity that aims at transforming the diversity of science through its inclusion at the heart of culture and society. In addition to her groundbreaking career Anna is also the founder and director of The Institute of Unnecessary Research, an international hub for researchers and artists working experimentally and deeply engaged with their specific research areas. In the following interview Anna Dumitriu walks us through a fascinating journey into the world of bacteria, viruses and diseases, here seen under an atypical perspective, taking a whole new enchanting drift. 

Donata Marletta: Your ongoing research project The Romantic Disease: An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis explores the link between human beings and this infirmity throughout the centuries. To what extent a disease, which is normally seen as ‘the Evil’, can be defined as ‘Romantic’?

Anna Dumitriu: Something I love about art is that it’s possible to harness conflicting and contradictory ideas within it. The “Romantic Disease” is a name that has been historically given to tuberculosis (TB), of course it’s not at all romantic to die such a death but people create stories to help them cope with horrors. It is particularly related to the association with the romantic poets such as John Keats who wrote his “Ode to Nightingale” whist gasping for breath during a night sweat, and Lord Byron who was jealous of his ‘pale’ and ‘interesting’ friend, stating that he too wished he would “die of a consumption” (consumption is an old name for TB) but unfortunately he succumbed at the age of 36 to a different infection (probably sepsis). Notable symptoms of TB are weight loss, pale skin, coughing and coughing up blood, and night sweats, which are arguably more attractive symptoms than other infectious diseases such as disfiguring skin diseases like smallpox which were also common in those days.

The bad breath from the rotting lungs and phlegm tends not to be discussed. TB is a disease of poverty and a huge risk factor is living in cramped conditions (hence its impact nowadays in homeless communities) so impoverished writers and artists have always been affected. Some associations have also been made between the disease and the ability to write including the suggestion that the lack of breath and affects on the lipid membrane of the brain lead to highly imaginative thinking. It’s important to note here many of the famous writers who died from TB including Franz Kafka and George Orwell. It’s the oldest disease known to humanity, as old as humanity and still our biggest challenge – killing more than AIDS and Malaria put together. We still don’t fully understand it and it continuously finds ways around our strategies to combat it, so it’s no wonder we mythologise it. But to call a bacterium ‘evil’ isn’t really correct. They don’t aim to harm us, they are just trying to exist and reproduce.

Donata Marletta: You have founded The Institute of Unnecessary Research (IUR), a transdisciplinary platform that encourages the production and presentation of experimental projects. What is the common ground that brings together such a diverse group of scientists, researchers and artists from various disciplines?

Anna Dumitriu: The common ground is simple, it’s obsessive curiosity driven research that goes beyond what is considered a relevant study area. Often what the mainstream deems necessary research is easily accessible with the tools that are currently available. An example of this is my Normal Flora Project which was started in 2004 in collaboration with my long term collaborator microbiologist Professor John Paul. The project aimed to study the ubiquitous bacteria in and around us.

The project significantly pre-dates contemporary popular research into the massive growth area that has become known as the microbiome. In 2004 this area of microbiological study was considered to be of no commercial or medical interest and the project threw into question the ways in which our scientific understanding of the world is limited by finance (research funding), and how the limits of our understanding are drawn by what it is possible to study rather than the limits of our ability to understand or even to make new tools or methodologies.

 Additionally, we are committed to the view that anyone can understand anything if its presented in a way that promotes understanding – and that doesn’t mean simplified necessarily, it means using storytelling, explaining and not leaving out important information or aesthetic and emotional elements. Often we find it hard to understand because we only get part of the story and that half story doesn’t make sense.

Donata Marletta: It seems that behind the fascinating appearance of your works (e. g. Normal Flora, Antibiotic Resistance Quilt, Romantic Disease Dress, just to name a few) and the rather playful way you interact and treat bacteria, there is a hidden and obscure side that opens up a whole new key of interpretation. How do you ‘translate’ and convey microorganisms into your artistic and political message?

Anna Dumitriu: I try to weave together the scientific, cultural and personal implications of infectious diseases in my work. I work hands-on with the tools and techniques of microbiology and synthetic biology in the lab as much as in the studio to create artworks that aim to reveal the strange histories and emerging futures of biomedicine. I often alter historical objects such as medical and lab equipment and I use quite a bit of embroidery, as well as incorporating bacteria or bacterial DNA into textiles.

I’m fascinated in the concept of the sublime in terms of bacteria and this notion of a ‘bacterial sublime’, which I first spoke about in around 2004, has continued to inform my work ever since. There’s a kind of awe that can be felt when we strain to hold the concept of bacteria in our minds: these tiny, obscure organisms with their fascinating, complex and occasionally terror inducing abilities. I try to bring this into my work through the presence of traces of the actual organisms, though often sterilised in the case of dangerous pathogens the objects are still tainted with their memory. 

Donata Marletta: In the series of installations named Sequence Project you gathered together artists, microbiologists, bioinformaticians, computer scientists and ethicists in order to build a complex body of work based on the whole genome sequencing of bacteria. Could you trace an overview of this groundbreaking project?

Anna Dumitriu: Working with Staphylococcus Aureus in projects like The MRSA Quilt led me to hunt down the bug in my own body and I was excited to find that (at least) two species colonise me. As part of my Sequence Project, which involved collaboration with Professor John Paul, Kevin Cole, Dr James Price and Dr Rosie Sedgwick as well as digital artist Alex May, I was learned the entire process of whole genome sequencing from end to end, shadowing people involved at all stages of the ‘pipeline’, from sampling the bugs and DNA prep, to the application of bioinformatics techniques to assemble the bacterial genomes. We created two artworks which used the data from the sequencer both in its raw visual form and its assembled computational form. These were The Sequence Dress, which was impregnated with ‘myStaphylococcus Aureus (which is resistant to penicillin), MRSA and VRSA, and video mapped with the sequence data, and Sequence VR which is a virtual reality experience of whole genome sequencing of bacteria. Sequence was funded by Arts Council England.

Donata Marletta: From your experience as an insider and as founder and director of The Institute of Unnecessary Research, how would you explain this widening artistic urge in exploring the micro-world of bacteria? How far artists and researchers are going in pushing the limits of such an investigation? 

Anna Dumitriu: I think that the field is fascinating because of this notion of the sublime that I mentioned previously, and because nowadays new research tools like whole genome sequencing enable us to learn so much about their behaviour meaning new scientific discoveries are being talked about in the media all the time. It was relatively rare to work with bacteria when I first started to do so, and especially in terms of an artist working physically hands-on with dangerous pathogens. I think it’s a combination of my own tenacity and my collaborator Professor John Paul’s open-mindedness that made the work happen.

Nowadays it’s still difficult for artists to work directly with pathogens (and it seems not many want to) or to work seriously with technologies like CRISPR gene editing using homologous recombination, but I am perverse and I want to learn exactly how things work and do them myself, which is the only way I can see to be able to really understand how these processes work and reflect on them properly in my artwork. An example of this is my work Make Do and Mend, which references the 75th anniversary of the first use of penicillin in a human patient in 1941 and takes the form of an altered wartime women’s suit marked with the British Board of Trade’s utility logo CC41, which stands for ‘Controlled Commodity 1941’. I patched the holes and stains in the suit with silk that was stained with pink colonies of E. coli bacteria, grown on dye-containing agar.

I edited the genomes of these bacteria using called CRISPR, to remove an ampicillin antibiotic resistance gene and scarlessly patch the break in the genome using a technique called homologous recombination with a fragment of DNA encoding the WWII slogan “Make Do and Mend”. Ampicillin is part of the penicillin group of antibiotics so with this artistic genomic edit, me and my collaborator Dr Sarah Goldberg used today’s technology to return the organism to its pre-antibiotic era state, with an aim of reflecting on how we might in future control and protect such biotechnological advances. That work was made at Technion in collaboration with the EU FET Open MRG-Grammar Project, funded by the EU H2020 Support Action “Future Emerging Art and Technology” (FEAT).

 An exciting development for me is that I am now artist in residence with the National Collection of Type Cultures at Public Health England, the oldest and most historic collection of pathogenic bacteria in the world and this has opened up a whole new world for me to talk about and work physically with historically important organisms, such as in my very latest work Plague Dress which incorporates (completely safe but sublime) actual DNA that I extracted in the NCTC lab of killed Yersinia Pestis.

Donata Marletta: Your project series and in particular the book Trust Me I’m an Artist: Towards an Ethics of Art and Science Collaboration” (2014), co-written with Professor Bobbie Farsides, raises the theme of ethical issues, and the critical role played by artists and scientists within the field of bioart. What are the key outcomes of this important project?

Anna Dumitriu: “Trust me, I’m an Artist” investigates the new ethical issues arising from art and science collaboration and consider the roles and responsibilities of the artists, scientists and institutions involved. The original project “Trust me, I’m an Artist: Towards an Ethics of Art and Science Collaboration” comprised a series of public events, in international settings. At each event (before a live audience) an internationally known artist proposed an artwork to a specially formed ethics committee (following the rules and procedures typical for the host country), the ethics committee then debated the proposal and comes to a decision, the artist was then informed of the ethics committee’s decision and, alongside the audience, they entered into a discussion about the result. 

The proposals were selected as they raise interesting questions for science ethics committees and help reveal the mechanisms that drive this usually hidden process, enabling the wider public to understand the driving forces behind ethical decisions and the role of artists working in scientific settings more deeply. “Trust Me I’m an Artist: Towards an Ethics of Art/Science Collaboration” was led by me, in collaboration with Professor Bobbie Farsides (Chair of Ethics, Brighton and Sussex Medical School), Waag Society, Leiden University and BioSolar Cells. The book about the project was published in 2014.

A new project Trust Me, I’m an Artist: Developing Ethical Frameworks for Artists, Cultural Institutions and Audiences Engaged in the Challenges of Creating and Experiencing New Art Forms in Biotechnology and Biomedicine in Europe was supported by funding from Creative Europe and was a collaboration between myself and Professor Farsides as well as Waag Society, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, The Arts Catalyst, Kapelica Gallery, Medical Museion and Leonardo/Olats. This project also took the form of discussion events based on newly commissioned artworks selected by the host organisations and resulted in a series of videos of the events, publications in Leonardo, recommendations, new artworks and a DIY Trust Me, I’m an Artist pack for anyone to put on their own events.

Donata Marletta: During the latest edition of Ars Electronica Festival (Linz, Austria) you presented the work ArchaeaBot, a new collaboration with British artist Alex May. This robotic underwater installation focuses on the study of Archaea, considered the oldest organism on Earth, and imagines how life would be in a post climate change scenario. Could you tell us more about this highly compelling work? What is the role of artists within the climate change debate?

Anna Dumitriu: ArchaeaBot explores our future fears and what ‘life’ might mean in a post singularity, post climate change future. It’s based on new research about archaea which are thought to be the oldest life forms on Earth, but combined with the latest innovations in machine learning & artificial intelligence (AI). We had the aim of creating the ‘ultimate’ species for the end of the world as we know it. Our robot was based on the archaeon known as Sulfolobus acidocaldarius which lives in hot acidic environments and we hypothesised those places might be similar to the future hot, highly polluted world fed by acid rain we are potentially creating. We combined this with the idea of cutting edge machine learning and artificial life behaviours to explore our fears about AI.

I worked in an equal collaboration with digital artist Alex May. We have previously made several robotic works together but this was the first that really brought in microbial side of my work. The work was also made in collaboration with researcher/cryomicroscopist Amanda Wilson as part of the EU FET Open H2020 funded MARA project based in the Beeby Lab at Imperial College London, and with Professor Daniel Polani from the School of Computer Science at the University of Hertfordshire. The project was supported through an EMAP/EMARE artists’ residency at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial in Spain via funding from Creative Europe and with generous support from Arts Council England.