The Art of Microbial Communication
By Ruth Schmidt, PhD (INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier Research Centre)
I’m a microbial ecologist, and I study how microbes communicate with each other via smells. I’ve always been intrigued by the arts and in fact my whole life I was torn in between the two disciplines. So, when I started my PhD I decided that I needed to find a way to combine both, and ever since have worked with artists who have inspired my work as a scientist.
Everything started with a pilot workshop organized by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences aimed to promote cross-disciplinary approaches and interactions by bringing together artists and scientists of diverse backgrounds. It was here where I met a composer and a cello player with whom we composed a musical piece, Microsonic, inspired by microbial communication that was played by the Ensemble 88, an ensemble specialized in contemporary music.
One of the major challenges was to create a piece that was not just a transformation of biological data into sounds - and thus to use arts as a medium of translation - but to create a space for both artists and scientists to learn from each other and contribute equally to a common project. The beautiful thing about music is that it is an ultimate abstract art form that is not tied to specific images and can therefore connect with or accompany easily other disciplines from the arts and the sciences.
We used a scientific article as basis to understand how microbes communicate with each other and how they can emit sounds. This idea was then translated into a musical piece in which the playing instruments symbolize the several sound signals that microbes use to communicate. The musicians became part of the creation process – through improvisation while listening and reacting to each other they had to communicate to let it work. The result was that all of us had to let go of the usual approach and to create a new way of thinking and working together.
This process made me realize how important it is to have a dialogue between people with different perspectives, and it inspired me to look at microbes in a different way. Instead of treating them as separate entities, I asked myself what a microbial dialogue would “sound” like, and what it means in the larger context of superorganisms, where humans and microorganisms cohabitate? I was enlightened to find out that microbes can actually hold dialogues, which became the title of my PhD thesis. This happened at the same time that Sonja Bäumel, a bio-artist based in Amsterdam, approached me to look at volatile dialogues between microbes living on the human skin. This project, fifty percent human, resulted in an exhibition that is still evolving and ongoing. It centers around the question, “How much human are we, if at least half of our body consists of microbial cells?”
During the creative process, a multidisciplinary team of artists, scientists, and science historians examined, questioned, and challenged the relationship between the human body and its microbial cohabitants. In particular, the project aimed to see how the concept of the Human Microbiome can be critically challenged and to allow people to reach out to their microbes and explore the potential of their microbial self. The project started a search for an empathic, sensory, and ethical encounter with the microcosm, respecting experiences of difference, strangeness, and otherness as a crucial moment in the process of getting to know ourselves. “What would a microbe do?” became the central question spurring this project. This idea was further translated into six questions: (i) Who is there? (ii) Where do they come from? (iii) How do they move? (iv) What are they communicating? (v) Who are their companions? (vi) What happens when they meet organisms that are not like them? These questions were addressed using scientific tools and the results were translated into three-dimensional space installation in which people could literally meet their microbes.
This in-between space aimed to create a tangible display of an imaginary world intended to break down hierarchies, dimensions, and scales to engage the public in a fascination of the microbial world. An important part of the project was to reflect on each of our perceptions as artist, scientist, science historian, or philosopher and how we can use the generated answers to better understand our scientific and artistic practices as well as to the way we exchange knowledge, ideas, and experiences in the future. For me, an important realization was that as scientists, we tend to look at microbes in a reductionist way, by breaking down complex systems into smaller elements in order to make them easier to study. But, by doing so, have we not also lost the intrinsic respect for these living creatures? Do we embrace our microbiome in our daily life – or does it rather stay an abstract object of scientific curiosity? Do we truly acknowledge that being Fifty Percent Human also means that we are Fifty Percent Microbe?
"Fifty percent human" exhibition. Photos courtesy of the author.
Ever since, these questions have influenced my scientific work and way of thinking and will be part of future collaborations with artists. For example, I'm currently working on aural soilscapes, a project to create ecological consciousness about climate change, in collaboration with a sound artist based in Montréal. In this project, we will investigate how sounds from soil and their smallest inhabitant, microbes, respond to temperature changes caused by climate change and how we, as humans, and active sound participants, stand in relationship with these sounds.