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“We all need to engage with bacteria”

Artist Anna Dumitriu with a Winogradsky column

Anna Dumitriu with a Winogradsky column

“The importance of the public understanding of microbiology cannot be underplayed. Many businesses play on public fears in order to add value to their products, and newspapers and TV shows fill our minds with images of bacteria as armies of tiny monsters ready to attack unless we buy some new handwash or detergent.

There is a huge amount of scaremongering around ‘superbugs’ in hospitals, with press coverage grossly out of proportion to the number of cases occurring.

But what should we really be worrying about, and what, in terms of the relationship between humans and bacteria, is normal? As an artist, I’m fascinated by these questions. I collaborate closely with microbiologists and other scientists to make art that helps people engage more directly with the bacteria living within, on and around them.

My current solo exhibition, ‘Normal Flora‘, showcases some of the work I have created using live bacteria. This includes an antique Edwardian dress on which the existing white-on-white embroidery, known as whitework, has been pigmented with a bacterium called Chromobacterium violaceum. These bacteria change colour from white to purple when other bacteria of the same type are nearby.

In another piece I used Staphylococcus aureus bacteria taken from my own body alongside a multi-resistant strain, MRSA, to create designs on a quilt. I used different microbiological methods to create different patterns of growth of bacteria, which I then transferred onto the quilt. The piece has been autoclaved, so it contains no infectious material, but each square in the quilt shows a different aspect of the fight against MRSA.

Like the quilt, a lot of my work is tactile, decorative and aesthetically pleasing, but it also has a dark side. I like the tension between the fact that bacteria are extremely beautiful, fascinating organisms and the disgust and horror they bring about in people.

At college we once debated about whether all art is a political act, and, in a way, I think my work is political. I’m interested in conveying a bit more of the reality of the situation, helping equip the wider public with the tools needed to understand the issues.

I try to use bugs from my own environment when I can. People think that something with bacteria on it is dirty, but the reality is that they are everywhere. Whether we need to be worried about them or not depends on the type, number and location.”

Anna Dumitriu, artist

For more on Anna’s work, including the Communicating Bacteria project, funded by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, see Normal Flora.

This feature also appears in issue 68 of Wellcome News.

Filed under: Infectious Disease, Medical Humanities, Science Art, Wellcome Trust Publications Tagged: Anna Dumitriu, Art, bacteria, bacterial art, bugs, Chromobacterium violaceum, Communicating Bacteria, embroidery, microbiology, MRSA, Normal Flora, Textiles, Wellcome Trust Arts Award

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