Non-Human Narratives: Stories of Bacteria, Fungi and Viruses

Making worlds is not limited to humans. (…) In fact, all organisms make ecological living places, altering earth, air, and water. Without the ability to make workable living arrangements, species would die out. In the process, each organism changes everyone’s world. Bacteria made our oxygen atmosphere, and plants help maintain it. Plants live on land because fungi made soil by digesting rocks. As these examples suggest, worldmaking projects can overlap, allowing room for more than one species.

Anna Lowenhaupt-Tsing in ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World’

The exhibition Non-Human Narratives: Stories from Bacteria, Fungi and Viruses currently on display at the Van Eyck Academie in The Netherlands pivots around these words of Lowenhaupt-Tsing, emphasizing our multi-species world and inviting us to think about things that are alive but that are not people. As a human being, it can be complicated to let go of a human-centric view and become aware that the natural environment exists in itself—without us, and without us looking at it or consuming it. The anthropocentric view carries little openness towards microbes; bacteria and viruses, in particular, have a bad reputation. That which we cannot see, or which doesn’t remotely resemble us (as a mammal does) is hard to love or have empathy for.

Philosopher Ben Woodward elaborates in Slime Dynamics: “Engaging with levels of existence can easily lead back to a formulation of existence where humanity reigns on high, if for no metaphysical reason, then for our technological or artistic capacity.” Following Copernicus, Darwin as well as Freud to illustrate the various ‘dethronings’ of worldviews in Western history, Woodward states that we still “attempt to remain absolutely immune to the baseness reality of life and matter.” He sees slime as a trope to explore the relationship between ‘us’ and other matter: “Despite the fact that humans gradually ascended from these clustered ponds of ooze, slime, as both a general name for a life-generative and semi-solid substance in the physical sense and disgust of life, the ostensible grossness of organic being in a metaphysical sense, slime remains something to be left behind and forgotten.” To some extent this also applies to bacteria, viruses and fungi, though with an added layer that is perhaps even more damaging to their reputation: fear. We are scared of poisonous mushrooms, viruses spreading across the world, and bacteria making us ill.

In the exhibition, the collaboration between architect Rain Wu and chef/designer Marente van der Valk lends a helping hand by making the mysterious and hidden life of microbes visible and lovable through something that connects us all: our need to eat and desire to taste. Not only do microbes determine our food in large part through our metabolic capabilities, but they influence all life on earth. “In the first two billion years of life on Earth, bacteria—the only inhabitants—continuously transformed the planet’s surface and atmosphere and invented all of life’s essential, miniaturized chemical systems,” writes biologist Lynn Margulis. In his book The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz adds: “The vast majority of these bacteria—a mind-boggling 100 trillion in number—are found in our intestines.”

The Fermentation Lab by artist/curator duo KVM— Ju Hyun Lee & Ludovic Burel—reverses the hierarchical relationship between human and nonhuman. During the fermentation process, the nonhuman somehow dictates the human activities. One cannot force the process of transformation or even plan the consumption of the different fermentations. There will be spontaneous tastings organized throughout the exhibition as it is not us who decide the rhythm of organic processes like germination and fermentation of méju, but we depend on external environmental factors such as air temperature, humidity, and sunlight. One can only help and encourage the incubation by keeping an environment warm (30-35 degrees for the optimal fermentation), but in the end, the organic materials (barley, soybean, wheat) need to be carefully observed and tasted throughout the course of their co-evolution with bacteria. It was precisely such dedication and reconsideration of organic time that got composer John Cage so fascinated with mushrooms—the need to look in different ways to spot them, in order to pick them. Mushrooms invite us to consider new ways of seeing and living.

It is telling that we use the word ‘culture’ to describe the community of bacteria that transform milk into yoghurt. Transformation of a community through culture has a strong parallel with ‘our’ world, with both culture and community being at the heart of humankind. Growth and transformation is taking place on multiple levels at the exhibition: Raewyn Martyn is using the gallery to produce a drying puddle of edible methylcellulose made using seawater. Methylcellulose is a plant-derived polymer that connects to land-based and organic material histories—geographically specific and tied to particular ecologies that have moved through industrialized use and extractive deforestation. Cellulose was one of the earliest forms of plastic, an invention tied to industrial and economic histories of agricultural and horticultural production, and capitalization of waste through innovation of by-products. In the current context of peak oil, plant-based polymers are of renewed interest and subject to intense development and renewed capitalization. Depending on humidity and weather conditions, the cellulose will change over time. The phytoplankton in the cellulose (components of the plankton community that live in seawater) is self-feeding (‘autotrophic’). Not only are most parts of the exhibition subsequently edible and biodegradable including the Recipe Posters by Eun Lee printed with natural dyes, but several elements are autotrophic. This exemplifies how the exhibition itself functions as an ecosystem; next to its edibility, it is continually growing and decaying. Structured like a mycelium with different threads and side-tracks, it features related events that accompany the exhibition, and artworks that are interconnected and made in collaboration and dialogue with one another.

The exhibition runs 17 June-11 August, 2017 at the Van Eyck Academie in The Netherlands.

(All photos from Werner Mantz Lab @ Van Eyck.)

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