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Title: Re-Habilitating Bacteria
Authors: Hauser, Jens
Issue Date: 5-Jul-2016
Series/Report no.: Theories: Other Senses;07.11.2015 Session 6A
Abstract: Within the oscillation of art based research and research based art, bacteria today increasingly appear as a trans­historical trope of 1) how aesthetic strategies, knowledge production and the construction of metaphors have been intertwined, and 2) how agency ascribed to them oscillate between conceiving of bacteria as mere 13 programmable ‘workhorses’, and as complex functioning ecologies. This paper systematizes the relationships between knowledge about bacteria and aesthetics – from Hans Ch. Gram’s first bacteria staining technique, Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin as alleged side effect of his amateur art, Jules Guiart’s early cell cinematography, to today’s biobrick based synthetic biology on the one hand, and artistic explorations of microbiota networks, biofilms and patina, on the other. Being the oldest, smallest, most abundant and structurally simplest organisms, bacteria are ubiquitous, diverse, variant, and vital for all other life forms. However, when artists appropriated biotechnologies in the last 20 years, bacteria remained ontological blind spots. Cells, tissues or genetic sequences were considered more suitable to microscopically ‘embody’ or ‘encode’ individual organisms for which they stood in pars pro toto. Recently, the focus has shifted, and bacteria are being addressed as prolific in­between organisms, reflecting epistemological trends from ‘individual codes’ to ‘cellular cities and societies’ by taking bacterial forms of organization as role models: from phototactic bacteria as photographic media, ecologies that resemble Winogradsky columns, the fascination for extremophile bacteria and post­anthropocentric agency, to Gamification, amateur citizen science, including grassroots ‘hacktivist’ crowd­sourced research approaches to face the threat of antimicrobial resistance.
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