BioArt : What is our True Relationship with the Human Microbiome?

The exhibition “Nonhuman Subjectivities – The Other Selves. On the Phenomenon of the Microbiome” was curated at Art Laboratory Berlin last weekend. 

The event featured works by François-Joseph Lapointe (Canada), Saša Spačal with Mirjan Švagelj and Anil Podgornik (Slovenia), Tarsh Bates (Australia) and Joana Ricou (Portugal), who came all the way to Berlin to present their work in person.

François-Joseph Lapointe’s 1000 Handshakes

We first met F.J Lapointe at his ‘1000 Handshakes‘ performance at the opening to the Berlin Transmediale festival 3 weeks ago. With his own little counter he walked around the hall, shaking up to 1000 hands of the people attending the festival opening night. After every 50 handshakes his assistants (white lab coats) would swab his palms, to use for later analysis of the collective microbiome.


Using this simple act of social networking, his goal was to create an illustration of his bacterial self, showing the change of the microbial community in the palm of his hand after these physical interactions.


François-Joseph Lapointe’s 1000 Handshakes at the Berlin Transmediale Festival – we were number 87 and 88! (CC 2:0:

The collected data was used to generate ‘microbiome selfies’ (as he calls them) which were exhibited in the Art Laboratory Berlin on the 26th February. He created these portraits by isolating the wet samples down to bacteria only (excluding fungi) and generated fantastic visuals with bioinformatic programming.

As well as being a Biosciences professor at the Université de Montréal (Canada), François-Joseph is also a passionate bioartist, combining his biological reasearch with perfomance art. He has published several bioart works so far including ‘How I became an Art(scient)ist: a tale of Paradisciplinarity‘ (2012) and ‘Choreogenetics – the art of making DNA dance‘ (also 2012).


François-Lapointe’s microbiome sequencing in the Art Laboratory Berlin. His final result of the 1000 handshakes (post wet-lab) started off with an illustration of his sterlized hand before making any physical contact, which still showed evidence of the living microbiome. The progress was clearly visible, for the sequences were illustrated periodically after each set number of handshakes. (CC 2.0:

François-Joseph has also performed the 1000 Handshakes project in other cities in addition to Berlin: Copenhagen, Montreal, San Francisco and Perth, and his next visit will be to Baltimore (US). This is therefore not only to explore the cultural and social effects of his experiment (how people react to the handshakes), but also a bid to collect mass genomic data for each of these regions.

Therein lies the true value of his Art movement, which is in fact a surprisingly effective method of data generation to study infectious diseases (with appropriate funding) – so his work is of great relevance to the biotech field too.


Mycophone_unison Team from Slovenia

Saša Spačal, Mirjan Švagelj and Anil Podgornik came all the way from Ljubljana to present their artwork in Berlin.  Their machine, the ‘Mycophone_unison‘ was a self-designed responsive sound installation between their own microbiomes. As Saša explained:

Mycophone_unison serves as navigation tool in the spacetime of multiplicities, to indicate the plurality of human body that can no longer be seen as one but as many.”

By touching an activation plate (the thumbprint button), the viewer sends a signal to the map which processes the ‘central celestial plate’ (composed of live cultures of all three artists) to give a acoustic response as a ‘sound of Unison’.


Mycophone_unison in the Art Laboratory Berlin. Different sounds are created, depending on the constantly changing optical density of the living cultures – each grown from swabs of the team themselves. (Far Right CC 3.0: Others Credit Saša Spačal)

The same project was presented at ThingWorld (International Triennial of New Media Art) in China, and Saša commented on how the reaction there was much more suspicious, because they had a greater fear of the perceived risk of infection (however very unlikely) the installation presented.

Saša is a postmedia artist, whilst Mirjan is a doctor of biomedicine and Anil is a DIY enthusiast. Combining that knowledge and passion they’ve been working on art and science projects together, mainly involving interactive installations, such as the one which was presented last week.

The collective received an Honorary mention at Ars Electronica Prix last year for their fungal interspecies connector Myconnect.

Joana Ricou: Microbiome Portraits of the ‘Other-Self’, ‘Non-Self’ and ‘Other Selves’ (Portugal)

Joana Ricou studied Biological Sciences and Fine Arts. She is mainly focused on the concepts of ‘Self‘ and the human’s position in the Organic world, usually using an oil-paint medium. To illustrate a human’s individuality and interaction with the environment, she created a different kind of self-portrait, using samples from her own body

With a small team of biologists she analysed her personal microbiome (‘The Other-self’) and compared it to environmental samples (‘The Non-self’), and so created beautiful cultures of her own unique microbiome (although only one slide of the ‘Non-Self’ was exhibited). She asks questions such as ‘does our Microbiome change with our environment?’ and if so, where is the distinction between ‘Self’ and ‘Non-self’?

An extended project ‘The Other Selves’ was a collection of portraits of belly-buttons from over 400 people collected over the past few years, which was also featured in the Guardian‘s ‘Navel Gazing’This project was awarded funding by the Wellcome Trust and in collaboration with the Eden Project in South West England.


Left: Joana Ricou and the Laboratory process. Right: Some of Joana Ricou’s microbiome portraits and Regine Rapp. A combination of all three projects were curated in a screening at Art Laboratory Berlin. (CC 2.0:

Tarsh Bates: Surface dynamics of adhesion (Australia)

Tarsh is currently a PhD candidate at SymbioticA, The University of Western Australia. She implements her idea of was it means to be female, and the relationship society today holds with the yeast Candida albicans, which is commonly found on the human body.

Contained in acrylic boxes, living Candida was cultured on a medium created using her own blood (at the Deutsched Herzzentrum Berlin – part of Charité) last week. The aim was to grow a flocked wallpaper sampler using Candida patterns meant to resemble the style of wallpaper popular in Victorian Britain, and comment on the domestic quality this yeast holds in our personal lives (emphasised with a furniture installation).


Tarsh Bates’ Candida cultures using a medium made from her own Blood, to grow a pattern resembling Victorian England flocked wallpaper (Credit: Tarsh Bates)

Her work highlights the relationship we have with Candida, which is often an unconscious aversion. Indeed, since C.albicans requires use of a level 2 containment license, a more passive species was used due to the Gallery’s permissions – which is strange, considering how often it is found growing between our toes…

Although we often see ourselves as single individual beings, the aspect of microbiome teaches us the contrary. Considering the vast number of microbes in and on our bodies one could almost say we ought to speak about our own self in the plural…

Why are we so disembodied from our own microbiome? Does that make us a singular or a collective being?

The Acoustic Response of ‘Mycophone_unison’ by Saša Spačal,  Mirjan Švagelj and Anil Podgornik

Mycophone_unison from Saša Spačal on Vimeo.

Feature Image Credit: Remix of Mycopene_Unison (Credit: Saša Spačal), F.J.Lapointe at Art Laboratory Berlin (CC 2.0, Joana Ricou’s ‘Other-Self Portrait’ (CC 2.0: and Tarsh Bates’ Flocked Wall paper sampler (Credit: Tarsh Bates)

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