STUDIO VISIT WITH ANNA DUMITRIU: Exploring the sublime beauty of microorganisms and their place in the world.

Anna Dumitriu is an award winning, internationally renowned, British artist who works with BioArt, sculpture, installation, and digital media to explore our relationship to infectious diseases, synthetic biology and robotics. She has an extensive international exhibition profile including ZKM, Ars Electronica, BOZAR, The Picasso Museum, The V & A Museum,  Philadelphia Science Center, MOCA Taipei, HeK Basel, LABoral, Art Laboratory Berlin, the 6th Guangzhou Triennial, and The History of Science Museum Oxford.

Dumitriu embodies the artist-scientist in its fullest form. Her work is driven by a combination of curiosity, wonder, and respect all focused on the microscopic. She combines micro- and synthetic biology with a sense of the artistic sublime. Her process blurs the line between scientific laboratory and artist’s studio. As a result, she utilizes a wide range of media, whether it’s paint, seaweed, found objects, yeast, bacteria, or even data. If you spend enough time with her work, what you see is a restless mind that is always poking, prodding, extracting, and synthesizing. We, her audience, are the beneficiaries of an artist in full control of her craft.

Her latest project, Fermenting Futures, is a collaboration with Alex May and Professor Diethard Mattanovich, Professor Michael Sauer, Dr. Özge Ata and Dr. Martin Altvater at the Institute of Microbiology and Microbial Biotechnology of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, Austria.

Fermenting Futures is a nod to the importance yeast has played historically in agriculture and food production as well as scientifically as a “workhorse of biotechnology.”

According to Dumitriu, “The central artwork (pictured below) in the series explores and physically contains a CRISPR modified Pichia pastoris yeast that is simultaneously able to capture carbon and output lactic acid for the manufacture of biodegradable PLA plastic – for 3D printing. The sculpture comprises a glass vessel containing the bubbling modified yeast, sustained by a mass of tubes. 3D printed yeast forms, including one which incorporates the yeast-produced PLA plastic swarm across the container.”

Anna Dumitriu set aside some time to discuss her work with SCINQ.

 Fermenting Futures by Anna Dumitriu and Alex May. (CREDIT: Anna Dumitriu and Alex May)

Is your background as an artist or in the sciences? What came first for you?

I trained in fine art at the University of Brighton.

How did you come to bring art and science together the way you do. Often people just sort of dabble, but you really bring them together deeply.

I don’t think science was communicated particularly well at my school when I was younger, especially biology which is my biggest interest now. I wasn’t at all inspired by the way I was taught, and I dropped it as a subject as quickly soon as I was allowed. I did keep on with computer science and that has been useful throughout my artistic practice to this day. But I found my way back into biology on my own terms, as an artist, I started to collaborate with scientists and learn more – back in the late 90s. I got my experience with biology through hands-on in-lab experience and talking directly to scientists.

Bruce Christianson, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Hertfordshire,   compared it to a kind of anthropological experiment where you throw someone into a different culture and then wait until they’ve been assimilated into the culture and pull them out and interrogate them about their experience.

I think I’m sort of somewhere like that. I go deep into the scientific world and then I talk to the artistic community non-scientist lay people. I try to communicate what I’ve seen and what I found.

Science is so fascinating but also doesn’t necessarily translate so well the way that most scientists explain it. I’m not saying that all scientists are bad at explaining it, but they have formal training that is so focused that sometimes it’s very difficult to talk to people in the wider context.

You use a wide range of materials, many different methods and there are lots of wide ranging motifs in your work. But you always seem to return to microbes in microbiology. What is it about them that you find so fascinating and that inspires constant inquiry?

Microbes are so complex and the more you go into it the more fascinating they are. They’re these tiny living things. There’s so much diversity, and they can do so many things. They can eat iron. They can excrete iron. They can eat meat. They can communicate with their own species and do quorum sensing so they can collaborate on actions. They can communicate with and know the populations of other species of bacteria. They can communicate with human cells even. There’s just so much diversity and complexity.

I am very interested in them from a philosophical point of view, notions of the sublime that were talked about by Edmund Burke among others. Looking at bacteria and seeing how they fit into that is very fascinating to me. In Edmund Burke’s descriptions of the sublime, he talks about the very littlest things being sublime. Smallness could be sublime. In his “A Philosophical inquiry on the Beautiful and the Sublime”, he provides the list of things that are, to him, ‘sublime’. This text, which inspired Kant’s “Critique of Judgement’ and which Kant entirely disagrees with is hugely important in the field of aesthetics. Burke says that the very littlest things can be sublime and he talks about obscurity being very important to the sublime. Those things that cannot easily be such as microbes, or (in my more modern reading) like DNA. You cannot easily see it in its real form. Most images of DNA are visualisations.

Have you worked with DNA?

I’ve worked extensively with DNA in many ways, I’ve done a lot trying to ‘see’ DNA and specifically trying to see a CRISPR edit I made to a bacterial genome, working with the Neely Lab at the University of Birmingham. You can see the strand with fluorescent dyes attached to it so that you can tell what the bases are but you can’t see the double helix.

I’ve just been doing this lab residency in Munich at the Helmholtz Zentrum in the Institute for Epigenetics and Stem Cells. We’ve been basically trying to look at the relationship with heterochromatin and euchromatin and gene expression, and cell memory and cell fates – how the cells know what they’re going to be. Why do they pick those things and then how do they know where to go in the body? It’s very strange and it’s not understood. It’s fascinating.

I spent the last week attaching various fluorescent dyes and doing things to cells to study the effects of temperature change on transcription-replication conflicts. It’s trying to see whether something like an increase in temperatures would affect these conflicts that occur in the cells while RNA is being transcribed and the DNA is being replicated. Sometimes, these things happen at the same time. So I’m trying to understand how it works through these experiments. Then I am creating art work that tell this story and explains it to audiences.

We have been talking about how it’s possible can take a cell back to being a pluripotent stem cell. These cells can produce all the other cell types (except placenta cells). Totipotent cells can produce every cell type and it’s very hard to take differentiated cells back to totipotentcy, in fact it’s pretty much impossible to take them back to that although they spontaneously do it in culture sometimes. In that project I’m exploring how cells differentiate and what controls this, working with leading scientists in the field.

ArchaeaBot by Anna Dumitriu and Alex May in collaboration with scientist Amanda Wilson Imperial College. (CREDIT: Vanessa Graf Ars Electronica 2018)

You do you do a lot of work in labs in your during your collaborations. First of all, did you have to take any background courses, like lab courses, or did you sort of learn on the fly. Did they help you.

Initially, I was working with biologists in the UK. Dr John Paul, who is my longest collaborator, was teaching me microbiology. He was what they call a consultant microbiologist in the UK, but that’s not a consultant in the American sense of the word. It means a doctor who is a fully qualified  expert in their field He was teaching me a lot of microbiology techniques. From there, I started to collaborate with other scientists.

I’ve done a residency in the United States at the University of California, Irvine. There I had to pass a kind of three day computer-based training program where I had to prove that I understood the risks of working with radioactive isotopes and all sorts of things that I wasn’t going to be working with at all. It was very intense but I passed it I was working in synthetic biology. I’ve also done a lot of online training, like courses on FutureLearn just to kind of really improve my knowledge too, but mostly I learn hands on in the lab – it’s the best way to really internalise knowledge.

Engineered Antibody by Anna Dumitriu. (CREDIT: Anna Dumitriu)

Can you compare what it’s like working as an artist in the lab and working as an artist in the studio

They’re not too different because actually a lot of the methods are very similar to work in etching, for instance. There are some dangers. There’s a lot of health and safety aspects, so you have to be careful. You can burn your hands with the acid and inhale stuff. There’s a process that you follow step by step like a protocol. You do the same in the art making process as in the scientific process quite a lot of the time.

If there had to be a difference – and that’s not to say scientists don’t do this, too, because I think a lot of them do – is to think quite broadly about the cultural implications. I ask a lot of the questions that the public might wonder about. A lot of the time I find myself asking questions in the lab where the scientists don’t know the answers and they should be simple questions but then they say “Well, actually, I don’t know.” It’s like trying to understand things from a more broad perspective, and trying to communicate it from a cultural and historical perspective. I’m really interested in the history of all this and how we got to where we are now The public thinks that scientists know everything and that science is complete. and that’s a complete misunderstanding of what science is or does.

As an artist, you allow things to have their space to happen. Two ways that I’m thinking about are – number one, collaborating with others, either you collaborate with scientists or you collaborate with other artists, so I mean that’s kind of  out of your control. And then the second way is just like the way you allow things like yeast to ferment or bacteria to grow as part of the artistic process, and you can’t control what it does. And, you know, it’s, it’s hard to control everything.

Well, you can kind of control just as much with the yeast as you can with paint. You understand what situation they need to grow well. Sometimes things don’t turn out as you would expect, but that’s also true with something as traditional as painting. It doesn’t always go how you think it will.

Plague Dress Anna Dumitriu in collaboration with Sarah Alexander at the National Collection of Type Cultures Public Health England. (CREDIT: Anna Dumitriu)

Would you consider microbes as your collaborators as well?

To an extent, but only as much as maybe brushes or paint could be collaborators, I guess. I mean they do things, and they have their own ways of being, but also know what they probably going to do in a lot of situations. I’m not sure they’re my collaborators, but I definitely think they’re an important part of the process.

So go back to Bacterial Sublime, just how did you sort of get to that idea.

Well I stumbled upon it around 2003. [I think I first started looking into this,] I was reading a book by Alain de Botton. He wrote this wonderful book called “The Art of Travel”, where he talked about philosophical notions of travel and things like people who decided to become a tourist in their own bedroom, and things like that, really interesting stuff. He talked about traveling through the Holy Land, and the impact of the sublime on those tourists. That was probably my first introduction to the notion of the sublime in a way that really resonated with me.

I went on to read Edmund Burke and then I read Immanuel Kant’s books on it. He wrote a response to Burke and then wrote, Critique of Judgment. And then I really like Jean-François Lyotard’s stuff on it as well, this idea of networks. He talked about the internet as being this sublime communication network. Bacterial communication became something that was known about at that time and that tied it all together for me.

Shielding by Anna Dumitriu. (CREDIT: Anna Dumitriu.)

How do you know when things are finished, isn’t that the hard part?

You have a deadline, usually when you’re doing these projects it’s an exhibition or something like that, and you complete the work to the best of your ability to fulfil the needs of the exhibition and things like that but there’s always more to do. There’s always more to research. That’s an artistic practice. Following that story. So, I think, if you really finished something, maybe you weren’t that interested in it.

To make this a little timely. So as someone who spent a lot of time working with microbes, understanding microbes. Understanding the idea of microbes. What has the Covid-19 pandemic taught or revealed to you?

I’ve been doing a project which I’m still working on. It’s like, you know, a period of work on this project called Collateral Effects and it’s about the collateral effects of the pandemic. So the things that aren’t the first thing that you expect. It’s looking at things like, what’s the impact on antibiotic resistance. Because, because, in the early stages of the pandemic one of my collaborators said to me “Anna, it’s like throwing a bomb at the issue of antibiotic resistance” because people are getting given antibiotics in hospital because they’ve got COVID or by the dentists as the surgeries were closed, and maybe antibiotic stewardship went out of the window. I’m really interested in the impacts of this.

It’s interesting people are so horrified by the death rates from COVID of being like in the millions. 1.4 million also people die every year of tuberculosis. That’s acceptable to everyone apparently. So, it’s interesting to think about who it hurts and where it hurts them and this is  really important to what gets funded and how, and what actions happen. I was reading something today, 60,000 people a year still die of rabies (probably very under-reported), like it’s like the most horrific illness. How is this still happening when we have a vaccine?

Wealth inequality is obviously very important. I was told I was on a call recently that people in Romania, were facing another lockdown. I was like, why? And I was told it’s because only 30% of the population were vaccinated (at that time), which is so low. I mean it’s a poorer country but it’s still part of the European Union. There’s a lot of mistrust of the authorities because of the communist past, there are disparities between the former East and West Germany, for similar reasons.

One thing I’m very fascinated by is the history of plague and the history of disease. I am  just seeing the same tropes happening over and over again today. The pandemic didn’t teach me anything because I think I expected exactly what happened, it but it confirmed my suspicions that humans don’t really move on that quickly as we might like to think.

For more information, check out Anna Dumitriu’s website or follow her on Twitter @annadumitriu.

INTERVIEWER: brice.


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