For Anna Dumitriu: Pioneering bio-artist and expressionist explorer of abstraction through representation.

 

“Bacteria, the first individuals, sensed their environments, found sources of energy and matter to maintain and expand their growth and synchronized with Earth’s great biogeochemical cycles.”-From Chimeras and Consciousness (Evolution of the Sensory Self)- The MIT Press

The Steam Revolution is a collection of expository essays that weave studies, theories, collaborations, applications and research in interdisciplinary fields that impact the world at large. The editors Armida De La Garza and Charles Travis have attempted to address the rather varied approaches to transdisciplinary science, engineering, technology, humanities, arts and mathematics. I started reading this collection mostly because I wanted to learn more about the works of UK based bio artist Anna Dumitriu whom I met via social media sometime back. Anna works with bio art, installation, sculpture, textiles, woodwork, and digital media through which she attempts to explore the alliance between infectious diseases, synthetic biology and robotics. She is obsessed as she says with bacteria and artistically investigates diseases such as tuberculosis where her art fuses the fragility of human existence with the structured and interloped layers of science and microbiology. I am absolutely enchanted by how she taints objects and textiles or fabric with bacteria dyed patterns using antibiotic resists, extracted DNA of TB, dust or medicines and how she fascinatingly weaves in cultural stories alongside the microbiological stories. On levels of both form and theme, her works lead me on to believe in her commitment to the interwoven energies of redefinition and change through the fusion of the arts and the sciences.

The 18th century Romantics believed that TB revealed the inner truth and that having tuberculosis was a “badge of passion and genius.” It is indeed strange how the Romantics believed that having inflamed cheeks and pale skin was symptomatic of an “inner artistic fire.” John Keats died of TB and P.B. Shelley wrote of him, “a pale flower of some sad maiden cherished” whilst Keats himself wrote fatalistically: “My spirit is too weak, mortality weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep, and each imagined pinnacle and steep of Godlike hardship tells me I must die…” Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, American poet Charles Bukowski, Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, German novelist Franz Kafka, English writer D.H Lawrence are among the many other notable writers/poets/artists whose creative souls blossomed despite the debilitating disease. Anna reminded me about English novelist and critic George Orwell, “who experienced many operations to remove parts of his lungs”. Orwell suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and his constant battle with tuberculosis and bronchiectasis is painfully depicted in his acclaimed novel titled 1984, especially in the depiction of the tortures and the haplessness that the protagonist Winston Smith had to undergo. I recall having read 1984 during my high school years and retain some fragmented memories of the strange character of O’Brien and his unusual relationship with Winston Smith. The ambiguous connection between rats and betrayal and torture is left open to interpretation but now when I think of it, I realize that these hallucinations were possibly a result of Orwell’s response to his disease, his dejected mindset and the medications that he was being administered. Winston Smith is possibly the most -long suffering of Orwell’s central figures and the novel itself is a dystopian nightmare possibly an outcome of the despair that settled in Orwell’s heart due to his long-drawn illnesses. This in turn makes me return to my reading of Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” (1930) which explores the notion that the body cannot be treated as merely “a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks.” Woolf writes about the language defying powers of illness and “how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing…” and reflects on why no great novel has been written on the subject of illnesses-“novels one would have thought would have been dedicated to influenza, epic poems to thyroid, odes to pneumonia, lyrics to toothache”. She strongly believes that to “hinder the description of illness in literature, there is the poverty of the language.” On the other hand, though, Woolf who was herself prone to mental illness equates illness with a delirious state of creativity–“this incessant making up of shapes and casting them down, the buffeting of clouds together…this incessant ringing up and down of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows…one should not let this gigantic cinema play perpetually to an empty house.” It is so obvious how Virginia Woolf was deeply influenced by the Romantics-especially Wordsworth and much like the esteemed poet, wondered where human beings find empathy and consolation for their anguish.

PneumothoraxMachine_1 credit Anna DumitriuSequence Dress credit Anna DumitriuThe Antibiotic Resistance Quilt_Anna Dumitriu1Where theres dust theres danger credit Anna DumitriuRest Rest andRest credit Anna Dumitriu

This brings me full circle to a paper written by Anna titled Confronting the Bacterial Sublime and in reality this paper persuaded me further to delve closely into her works. She explains why she chose “Bacterial Sublime” as the title of her work- inspired as it were by Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry of 1757 and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment of 1790. She delves into the “Cult of Romantic Terror” and acknowledges “We owe the value of terror as an aesthetic pleasure in art and nature to Burke’s enquiry.” Anna’s scientific-artistic journey is laden with deep insights into the cultural and literary worlds and she is able to translate her fascination with the terror and beauty of plague in words-

“ the modern procedures of the lab, the way my enquiry was structured did not allow room for me to experience the aesthetic sensation of the sublime I was seeking…but some sense of the ‘bacterial sublime’ is still within me every time I step inside a microbiology lab and it is an experience that I would like to be able to share, through my own art practice with others…”

For Edmund Burke, sublimity is in direct opposition with beauty and associated with the terrible and is a state that is achieved by the soul as a result of the astonishment of our senses. Anna’s works are also very intricately associated with sights, sounds, smells and touch and feelings that range from privation and power to magnificence, obscurity, pain, darkness, difficulty, diffidence and terror. There is a complete loss of boundaries between beauty and fear in her works as a mystical sensorial awareness prevails as one reflects upon her works. “Confronting the bacterial sublime” can be petrifying as she narrates how she confronted plague at first hand with the support of Novel and Dangerous Pathogens Training at HPA Porton. She says-“ And I held it in my hands, the most terrifying of all ills.” Anna’s complex emotions led her to create the Plague Dress (2018) in which she has successfully endeavored to help us understand the paradoxical experience of delight and terror. The 1665 style Plague Dress is made from “raw silk, hand dyed with walnut husks in reference to the famous herbalist Nicholas Culpeper who recommended walnuts as a treatment for plague.” According to Culpeper, dry walnuts along with other herbs and leaves “preserves from danger of poison and infection that day it is taken.” The dress is impregnated with Yesinia pestis bacteria (Plague) and appliqued with 17th century embroideries. The dress is also stuffed and surrounded with bunches lavender( which helped ward off plague during the Great Plague of London) and the roll under the dress contains a mixture of herbs and spices reminiscent of what the plague doctors would have worn inside their beak like masks. What Anna creates is sheer poetry. It reminds me of a song I wrote when I was a student at Berklee School of Music, titled “The Black Walnut Tree.” I recall my grandmother (who was from Kashmir in India) telling me stories about black walnut trees and how the husks were used to treat skin diseases or gastrointestinal problems. My grandmother was beautiful and very affectionate. When she died, I wasn’t around but her memories live on and whenever I feel estranged from the world around me, I feel I can lean against her metaphorical presence-

The Black Walnut Tree.

From petal to leaf just you and me,

And hand in hand we strangely sang,

Of one eternity-

Under the Walnut Tree.

Now hours have creaked through nascent feet,

There are thinking, tangling shadows in the deep-

Full of lichens-barnacled weeds.

But I still think of how I loved you through the leafy tongues

Of Time exploding slowly-

Loved you through the Divine Destruction,

Of that Black Walnut Tree.

(Oh that Black Walnut Tree,

Scattering constellations of pollen in the looming silence,

Billowing signs and portents-vernally,

That tree.)

I kneel at your rootsteps and weep-

Don’t blame me if I succumb under the green branches,

Of your cherished Sun.

The womb of night lies curled at your feet,

Fast asleep.

From the cauldron of your kiss,

I breathe-oh Black Walnut Tree.

All I seek is for me to weep,

At your tangled feet,

Let me be complete,

Black Walnut Tree.

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I remember having cried as I composed the song. The tears have dried over the years but Anna’s Plague Dress has brought all of those emotions back-like a rupture of all that has been suppressed- now intertwined with new painful, beautiful networks of experience-an affirmation that indeed- I am in the midst of the sublime.

Anna’s Sequence Project involves a series of artworks that cleverly fuses digital technology with bacterial bio art, traditional media and ‘altered historical artefacts to artistically investigate the emerging technology of whole genome sequencing of bacteria’ . The Sequence Dress takes data from 2.8 million base pairs of the sequenced DNA of the staphylococcus aureus bacteria cultured from Anna’s own body and sequenced meticulously by herself to investigate and pose an artistic and cultural voice to the global threat of pandemic outbreaks and the lack of new antibiotic treatments. There is also the Hypersymbiont Dress which is stained and video mapped with bacteria that could be “enhanced to turn us into human superorganisms with improved creativity, improved health and even improved personalities.” The video mapped version was created in collaboration with British artist Alex May whose digital works reflect a fine passing from light, air and water and thus the softly patterned and colored dress becomes like a poem with coded messages for us to perceive and transfuse in our own minds as we would. As I shut my eyes and ponder about the infinitely ethereal dress for some reason I think of blue horses and yellow water, of torn edges of scratched skies stuck hopelessly between twigs and pale flowers-of the sounds of the bassoon and the crackle of dry leaves falling from the birch tree. I am possibly being influenced by the audible-visual world of synesthetic artist George Sanen whose artworks visualize sound and where mathematics and intuition come together in multifold permutations. Anna’s works transport us to this multisensory domain which I believe helps me understand the world around me from an entirely different perspective and is extremely rewarding. This brings to mind a poem written by French poet Stéphane Mallarmé titled L’aprèsmidi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) which was impressionistically set to a beautiful composition by Debussy and when heard by Mallarmé himself heard the music he said: “I was not expecting anything of this kind. This music prolongs the emotion of my poem and sets the tone more vividly than color.” Anna’s multisensory installation creates a similar tone for the observers and through finesse, nostalgia, remembered and unremembered lights and shadows, rich and mellow colors and patterns makes me want to mimic Mallarmé and say what he told Debussy:

O forest God of breathing air,

                      If you have made your flute aright,

                     Now hear the way that Debussy breathes into it,

                    The broad daylight”

Dumitriu’s “The Romantic Disease: An Artistic investigation of Tuberculosis” is a solo exhibition contains “altered historical objects and textiles combining ancient treatments for the disease, such as dyes made from madder root, safflower and walnut and textiles created using various kinds of mycobacteria…” There is also a breathtakingly beautiful VRSA (Vancomycin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) dress which has been patterned with VRSA bacteria and sterilized antibiotics. The colors, the dyes, the fabrics are symbolically or literally incorporated into her installations or art objects-making them an expression in synthetically harnessed artistry that is uncovered by navigating the shifting realities of microbiology funneled through time, culture, beliefs, literature and other endless possibilities. Tuberculosis has been more than a disease-it has been an art over the years amongst poets, philosophers, artists and scholars but Edgar Allan Poe took it steps further by describing the disease as gentle and glorious: “ I would wish all I love to perish of that gentle disease. How glorious!” The visual poetry in Poe’s imagination is concretized in Anna’s works with pervasive energies almost like Tolkien’s animate woods brimming with sensorial impressions.

I have been working on the writerly expressionistic edges of interdisciplines for a while now and recently published a book cum musical project titled A Square and a Half-The Colors are Sounding which has a strong morphological relationship to weaving accomplished through coding the language of diverse research energies. The project is an outcome of almost 6 years of investigating connections between science, technology, art, music, architecture, time, space, perception, chaos, order and culture. Amongst some of the disassembled monologues, is my project based off the collaboration between MIT postdoc (2012) Tal Danino and visiting artist Vik Muniz who painted bacteria so to speak by manipulating these microorganisms. The project titled Colonies Series focused on the artist/scientist duo attempting to keep the cancer cells alive, moving, energized-all in dynamic aesthetic patterns. My own musical and metaphorical project that was inspired by the Colonies Series was titled Changeling and ever since I have been in the quest of other microbiology artworks that explore the ever expanding dimensions between science, art and life. And then I found Anna and Anna’s works which through which I would like to explore unresolved and fragmented harmonies and melodies and celebrate poetry and music strengthened surreptitiously by her mesmerizing works. Anna writes in The Steam Revolution: “…there has also been an element of serendipity which has been developed through meeting new people and making connections.” I couldn’t agree more. In a world where people are closed their minds to yielding to honest assemblages of thoughts, ideas and artistic or scientific endeavors, Anna comes across as someone who is inherently tied to the interconnectedness of disciplines, cultures and ideologies. Meeting her has been a complete act of serendipity for me as I am completely taken in by all her buccaneering works and relate closely with her investigative philosophies. Her research and experimentation suggest a whole new world of interpretative possibilities which I find deeply pervasive.

My father was a student in mathematics and philosophy and someone who introduced me very early to the interdisciplinary Fluxus artistic movement. With a profound emphasis on overlapping creative practices, the occasional study of the blurred territories between documentation, happenings—participation, especially in Fluxus performance art made me yearn time and again, to break free of the rigidity of theater and musical norms that I was taught in school/college. Besides John Cage, I followed the works of Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik and Tomas Schmit and their works acutely influenced me in my approach to writing and theater practices. My father wrote to me once, “Write some words or a melody or two and then let them sit like loose score leaves on the music stand. Let the fan blow away some or all of those sheets. Catch the shadows of what you remember. Go perform.”

I shall turn my entire attention to Anna’s The Antibiotic Resistance Quilt (2017) which was exhibited at the Science Gallery in Dublin October 2017 through February 2018. The project was an extension of her MRSA Quilt Project and the quilt was “impregnated with actual traces of the most significant drug resistant bacteria such as strains of klebsiella pneumoniae, E.coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Enterococcus faecalis, Enterobacter cloacae, Neisseria gonorrhoeae and MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus) grown on multicolored dye containing agar jelly normally used for diagnosis.” It is fascinating to note how the patterns that form on the silk fabric where the infectious bacteria has been allowed to spread unrestrained and in other parts of the fabric, the design becomes circular like polka dots, because the fabric contains antibiotics and thus prevents the bacteria to spread freely. This handsewn quilt symbolically heralds the grim facts of the global antimicrobial resistance crisis and at the same time draws attention to the effectiveness of gene editing technologies such as CRISPR which could help cure diseases. Much like a weaver who becomes part of the loom, Anna melds into the world of sensation and iteration-feeling the wool, the colors in the dyes and the biological processes-twisting her mind onto the microbiological processes and allowing it to spin powerful narrative metaphors.

Textile artist and printmaker Anni Albers asserted that all weaving traces back to the “event of a thread”, likewise Anna Dumitriu draws upon the world of microbiology to emphasize that patterns in weaving make us think, evolve and find solutions to serious world issues as the changing relationships between fabric and bacteria and thus reconfigure our alliance with infectious diseases. Her “threads” ignite memory, awaken the senses and help us understand the emerging practice of infective textiles in a deeply personal way-(the bacterial sublime as she herself calls it) and we are sewn as it were unto layers of material performance, tactility, visual eloquence and mnemonic experience.

As a narrative storyteller I am carried along with the MRSA Quilt and its layers of fabric and impregnated dyes and this bacteria project suspends my imagination in an ideological space invested with many lost voices and smells. I sense the poetic freedom, idling humming images shifting from the present to the blurry past- dull and radiant at the same time-like paint and light forms, coloring my imagination to create music and words that can be easily erased yet remembered all at once. Yet before the overlap from the arts and the sciences to my world of fantasy happens -rather a consilience spontaneously occurs, I step one more time into the Infinite Corridor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The cross-disciplinary presences in my narratives started here. To tell my new story, I must retrace and recursively pick up the threads of research here at the institute before I spin, loop or knit my own narrative yarn. Just by reading about the research in Fibers@MIT one can fathom that a piece of material fabric can increase our sensory awareness, allow us to smell, hear and see fibers that emit light or unfold stories that are overwhelming or evocative. There is an ongoing relationship between writing, music and textiles that are oftentimes fragmentary and rather abstract-yet if we stretch the filaments of our imagination-felt experiences and readings or images can be transcribed into never-ending narratives.

Anna’s bio art begins with a vision and continues thereafter to stir and overwhelm the imagination with structure and purpose as her artistic representation hovers between harmony and dissonance. The tension between the curves, abstract circular or rectilinear edges of the patches in the MRSA Quilt is carefully wrought with vibrant meaning between the folds of the changing hues in the dyed fabric. The secret to the beauty of the quilt lies in the multipigmented fabric that allows a formidable interplay between bacteria and antibiotics and yet comes together in a condition of simultaneity. In ways more than one, her artwork reminds me of the visual sensibility in the works of French artist Robert Delaunay. The unequal measures, movement of colors and the simple statement of forms makes me look at the MRSA Quilt as a textile installation that deserves to also be recognized as a charming poetic expressionistic painting.

{I shut my eyes for a moment, as a memory archivist would. I navigate between structure and piercing broken lines that eventually become a part of my body. I am wrapped in extreme cold and hot temperatures and sense that I have no language to express myself with, save the language of the senses. I am floating on air and the clouds and looking down at the universe. I am Frigg*spinning my colored clouds, writing my wisdom runes for the angels in the sky.}

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                           This My…

This my body is swathed in unprogrammable light fibers,

And this my heart filled with tales of ordinary heartbreaks.

Shimmering sets of warps duplicate the radiant timbers

In Terry Riley’s -A Rainbow in Curved Air.

This my world of sound is colored in red

And sometimes other shades,

Tangled with  this my-need to code or decipher.

Like faith,

Like the human heart,

Without visible closures,

I weave disconnected patterns and sequences

Refining my art by connecting disciplines-

Crocheting liquid spirals with my invisible sewing machine.

I speak of patterns as a language,

I am the white space between lines and circles,

Touch me and listen to the metacommentary

On fabrics and poetics.

Brooding threads inked in death and hope

Open pools of shrieking images- death and loss,

The renewal of life-

What is this vision bridging darkness and light-

the birth of a child,

or a little funeral of yesterday’s bride?

From day it becomes night,

I at the loam, under the snuffed candle’s leftover light-

The threads push the colors into firm inflexible lines.

Little by little the world of symbols becomes accessible,

Like the eddies of the river,

My eye wanders from one form to another-

Studying the strange logic of shapes and colors.

To see is a movement,

To find myself in what I see is rhythm-

I am color,

I am composition!

This my self- a story a looping, a knitting of the same yarn again and again,

Touched, sounded and changed by the weaver’s frame.

(* Frigg-Norse fertility goddess and the embodiment of earth, sky and clouds. She spent most of her time in her palace of mists known as Fensalir. She would sit at her spinning wheel in Fensalir and weave elaborate fibers. She was known as the weaver of clouds and the asterism Orion’s Belt is also known as Frigg’s Spinning Wheel. In her hands, the spinning wheel became a powerful weapon of magic. Frigg was also the healer who ordered the interweaving strands of body mind and soul to promote overall wellbeing.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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