Studio Visit with Elaine Whittaker: Exploring the microbes among us.

Elaine Whittaker is an artist whose work is particularly prescient during the current COVID-19 pandemic which has challenged and sometimes overturned the way we view the world around us. For years, she has explored the relationship between humans and microbes and the interface where the two come into contact. She discussed her work with SCINQ Arts.

Can we start with some background? How did you first come to the arts? Did you study it formally? Can you walk us through your thought process (as best you can) when you decided that joining art and science together could lead to productive outcomes?

Though I did not study biology formally my interest in the natural world started when I was young. This interest continued through my postsecondary studies in Anthropology and in my work activities as an activist around ecological and feminist health issues. During this time, I was also avidly involved in photography (I had my own darkroom) and I was a member of a community clay studio where I created sculptural ceramics.

At around the age of 40 I decided to go back to university and embark on a degree in Fine Arts in sculpture and installation. I had been eagerly following the works of many artists engaged with nature such as Andy Goldsworthy, Agnes Denes, Nancy Holt, Ana Mendieta, Peter Von Tiesenhausen (to name a few), and this inspired me to experiment with non-traditional materials.

After finishing my degree, I expanded my artistic practice to include wax, plant organics, insect bodies and salt.

The instigation for incorporating these organic materials into my art came from my ongoing interest in the corporeal ecology of the body, medicine, and the natural environment. I portrayed these intersections by working with salt, using this mineral to mimic the organic by growing and nurturing diaphanous crystals on created and found objects. These artworks crossed the boundaries between organic and inorganic, and between the microscopic and macroscopic as salt became both the main artistic material, and metaphor, in my early artworks.

It was when I was researching early microbial life on earth, and the rise of infectious disease under the ecological pressures of global warming/climate change, that I was moved to incorporate live bacteria into my artwork. When I learned that there was a non-pathogenic salt bacteria that could be easily obtained from a biological-supply company and could be cultured in my studio and its DIY laboratory, I realized I had found a material stand-in for the infectious diseases I was studying. Having live organisms in my work and coupling them with cultural, political, and popular culture references made for a fuller, enjoyed, and challenging experience for the viewer. 

Murky Bodies – Treading Insidious Waters

While almost all of your work has become timely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “Contained” is particularly relevant. On the most obvious level, it is about isolating because of disease. Can you discuss the sense of microbially induced isolation in that work and how it affects the human-microbe relationship?

The tension between microbes that keep us healthy and those that cause infection and disease is a source of immense intrigue to me. Each of the components that make up my installation Contained investigates that relationship while expressing the idea of containment and confinement, of both the human and of microbes. 

Contained encompasses a series of art installations and sculptures, inspired by my mother’s experience of spending two years in a sanatorium after contracting Tuberculosis in 1944 at the age of twenty. The centrepiece installation, She Hungered for the Sky, recreated the atmosphere of the sanitorium – a white chair with the shawl she crocheted while quarantined; a white bedside table with her books and personal items; and an empty skeletal 1940s hospital bed with attached dangling petri dishes containing TB X-rays and drawings of lungs. In the centre of the bed frame, laid across the bare floor, her favourite crocheted tablecloth, metaphorically emphasizing her fragility and confinement. 

Directly across from the white bed was a wall installation entitled Fragile Forest. Representing the forest that captured my mother’s dreams and fantasies of escaping her illness and containment in the sanatorium, it was composed of white alveolar-like branches (made of waxed grape stems) that were adhered to cell culture plates. Above them, partially decellularized maple leaves, fragile and spotted like infected lungs, were precariously attached to the wall, fluttering from passing air currents. 

Decellularization means the plant cells have been dissolved leaving only a cellulose scaffold. This results in draining their colour, leaving them ghost-like and ephemeral. Lit from below, their silhouettes and that of the forest became even more heightened apparitions.

As one moved through the exhibition space, a series of framed monoprints and drawings of leaves and lungs, as well as small sculptures on pedestals, were encountered. They included test tubes inserted with partially decellularized maple keys (seeds) held in place by cell culture plates and stacked on synthetic maple leaves; sections of avian lung tissue displayed in tiny petri dishes; feathers in vials; miniature nests constructed from medical tubing; and a crow skull.

Contained (Installation)
Contained (Detail)

All these objects were carefully placed and contained on clear acrylic bed-like trays. The notion of a confined bird on the edge of expiration and a fantastical forest that heals and provides hope was woven through the artworks.

But the reality that TB is still an infectious disease ravaging the world was experienced by a wall installation of over fifty eerie empty oxygen masks lined up with cascading tubes. Entitled Fraught Air, it starkly reminded us that TB may be out of mind for many people, but it is yet to be defeated, known too well by the marginalized in communities over the world. 

There was one final artwork that is Contained’s main symbol of hope – the converging of science and technology, of human and plant. It was a series of three petri dishes containing decellularized maple leaves that had been cultured with human lung epithelial cells (within their cellulose scaffold).

With this piece, entitled Lungs of the Earth, the leaves were given even greater (albeit fantastical) potential by harbouring and combining plant and human lung power. This work was conceived and created in collaboration with Andrew Pelling and Ryan Hickey of the Pelling Laboratory for Augmented Biology at the University of Ottawa where I have been artist-in-residence. This work, and all the artworks that make up Contained, speak to the historical and present use of quarantine and isolation to control microbes that can harm humans.

Containment via quarantine continues to be one of the better tools we deploy during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic until a vaccine is widely available or eradication can take place.

Contained – Lungs of the Earth

You’ve done a lot of work with microbes — considering them, working with them, working on them, and portraying them. In the process, what have you learned about them and their relation to society?

One idea that you introduce in your work is the idea of bioparanoia. Can you discuss the idea and how it has been manifested during the COVID-19 pandemic? Has it been as expected or different?

Ed Yong writes in The Atlantic (January 2016) that, “It’s also clear that they (microbes) play vital parts in our lives, calibrating our immune systems, digesting our food, protecting us from disease, influencing the effectiveness of our medicines, and perhaps even affecting our behaviour.” 

I Caught It At The Movies

Yet even with all the necessary roles that microbes play, they elicit a great paranoia, in each of us individually and in popular culture in general. Even though we are individual, and social, living ecologies – a thriving community of organisms – our relationship with microorganisms remains a complex inter-dependence. This strain is linked with unease and paranoia, constant companions that nourish a fascination with the power of the tiniest of life-forms to cause disruption – all themes at the heart of my art practice.

The possibility of contracting an infectious disease was palpable for everyone with the threat of SARS in 2003, of Ebola in 2014 and 2015, and more recently with Zika and Lyme Disease. The media, especially social media, highlighted certain aspects of these epidemics in a way that heightened peoples’ fear. But the complexities of these infections seldom came across, nor the politics of the various countries involved, the economic structures in place that hinder transparency, and the cultural traditions of local groups that impact disease spread, and so on. Even if this knowledge had been available, the heightened public awareness – one of tension and dread – escalated forms of fear, and often also racism, that intimately associated these diseases with a fear of ‘the other’.

Given this and the image of all microbes as ‘bad’, it is not surprising that this is the response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus as it moves across the world now. A pandemic was expected by many infectious disease experts, epidemiologists, and many climate change analysts, but lack of funding and governmental denial and/or inference over the past years and decades has contributed to the unpreparedness and slow response by many countries.

We have now entered a world where the numbers of infected continue to rise and fears are heightened even more by social media, the press, politicians that seek to dismiss it or use it for their own benefit. For some it has escalated their fear of microbes, and for others it has broadened their awareness leading to respect for microbes. The pandemic has moved many people into living in a world that is now and forever changed how they look upon microbes.

You touch on the notion of protective gear acting as a facilitator of disease as opposed to protector against. A similar notion has arisen among a number of anti-mask, anti-quarantine advocates who take the notion literally. Can you compare your theoretical version of the idea vs. the way it has emerged in real life?

The mask controversy. Actually, I did not create my mask series Screened For, where I wear masks painted with infectious diseases, as a questioning to whether or not to wear masks. I created this series to convey awareness, but also the tension, that contagious microbes are very present and might be as close as the masks we wear for protection.

Screened For, is not a critique of the use of masks but a larger question of ‘what ifs’. What if we do not use protective equipment? What if we do not protect ourselves? What if we are not educated on how to use protective gear correctly? If you look closely at the portraits the masks do not have the nose pinched at the top.

I was consciously not wearing them properly to emphasize that these microbes could be literally on top of us, as close as our face (and nose and mouth and eyes). If we are not donning our PPE correctly, we are truly at risk and we are putting others at risk. Pandemics are dynamic and masks are an essential resource to curtail transmission. 

Screened For

The notion of boundaries runs through most of your work, explicitly and implicitly (e.g. Murky Bodies, Containment, Biofiction, Shiver). What role do boundaries play in terms of the microbial/human world, whether in physical form (masks), epidemiological (susceptible, exposed, infected, recovered, or dead), or socio-political (mask vs. no-mask)?

Thank you for picking up on that. The notion of borders and boundaries does permeate many of my artworks. I view these notions as explorations of the tension that is experienced between our human porous bodies and the great ability of microbes to move so easily into and through them. Boundaries melt away.

Microbes know no borders and can proliferate and flow across different internal and external ecologies easily. We think of ourselves as autonomous entities, but the role of microbes is to either reside within us symbiotically or populate us for their continuance. They have survived and evolved because of this proximity to us and other organisms. we are a community of microbes and our microbiome is both very resilient and fragile because of this, thus being populated by microbes means we need to accept that microbes can dissolve and transcend boundaries. These ideas are at the core of my artworks. 

What has COVID-19 illuminated for you about microbes that you have not yet considered in your work?

It continues to illuminate that microbes are beautifully complex, and that I need to continue to make artworks to convey that, again and again. I will also continue to put this in the context of climate change and habitat devastation by humans, emphasizing that zoonosis—microbes jumping from animal to human—will continue take place, expediating the rise of new infectious diseases and the re-emergence of known ones. I believe we have now entered the new Age of Pandemics.

Pandemic Response 1198

Finally, what’s next for you?

Currently I am showing artworks at THEMUSEUM, in Kitchener, Canada in the exhibition entitled Agents for Change: Facing the Anthropocene. 10 women media artists working at the intersection of science, technology, and art with a focus on ecological change. Curated by Nina Czegledy and Jane Tingley, it runs until January 3, 2021.

I will be exhibiting artworks in the Ecodata exhibition at the RIXC Art and Science Festival at The National Library of Latvia in Riga. The exhibition features twenty artworks by internationally acknowledged artists working in the field of media art, science, and ecology.Curated by Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits, it runs from October 9-November 17, 2020.

I will be showing artworks in the Culture of Contamination exhibition curated by Tarah Rhoda through the SciArt Initiative at the New York Hall of Science in the fall of 2021.

For more information about Elaine Whittaker, visit

IMAGE CREDITS: Elaine Whittaker

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