Post by Anna Dumitriu (www.normalflora.co.uk)
I struggled long and hard with the issue of what to do with the plain, white and highly uninspiring teapot I received in the post from MzTEK several months ago, mulling a series of scenarios in my head over and over again. I am very supporting of MzTEK and their aims and was really happy to be involved. But when I opened up the parcel my heart slightly sank.
I considered taking a Pico projector apart and trying to get the teapot to project tea pouring from the spout when tilted (cool but too expensive considering the risk of breaking the projector), turning the teapot into a piece of lab equipment (nice but would that work within the constraints of a ‘tea party’ and what would it do?), smashing it and rebuilding it as a bionic version or simply strapping it to a robot chassis so it would roll up and down the table. None of these ideas really convinced me though. It felt like a backwards way of working. Usually the overall concept and the final artwork are intrinsically linked for me from the very start. This constraint of the teapot felt exceptionally restricting, like I was back at school working on a project with a brief. If I was a designer then it might have made sense, but I am not, I’d probably describe myself as a kind of ‘conceptual artist’, I often make tangible objects but they are always very much ideas led.
My art practice is really centred on two main areas of very much linked research. I work with microbiology, I am currently Leverhulme Artist is Residence on the Modernising Medical Microbiology Project, University of Oxford who are looking at how transmission of pathogenic bacteria operates, what (near) real-time whole genome mapping of bacteria can tell us and also with robotics, working in partnership with the University of Hertfordshire’s Adaptive Systems Group. The themes that reoccur in my work are the microbiological life, artificial life, ethics and public engagement in science (which I view as a political issue considering how much misinformation is put out by the media). I make installations, interventions and performances using a range of digital, biological and traditional media including live bacteria, interactive technologies and textiles.
Finally I started to think deeply about tea itself and its properties. Since the beginning of the year I have been experimenting with dyeing embroidery silks with natural and man-made antibiotics: from turmeric to Vancomycin. My recent work the “MRSA Quilt” uses the tools we have against this well-known hospital pathogen in combination with fabric stained with actual MRSA bacteria (grown on chromogenic agar). For instance the polka dots on the quilt fabric are made with Vancomycin susceptibility disks (the way they can tell in the lab if a bacterium can be treated with that drug). I remembered that green tea is a natural antibiotic and an effective dye and started to think about that.
I began to try to culture a green tea resistant bacterium and to use it as a stain. I had previously developed an embroidery using green tea stained thread and it occurred to me that I could use kitchen/lab technology to create a textile piece that was stained with bacteria (sourced from tea, biscuits and cake) in interplay with the green tea’s antibiotic effects. Additional later embroidery is impregnated with negligible amounts of Vancomycin. The bacterial culture medium (Dr Simon Park’s “Park’s Kitchen Agar”) was created from supermarket ingredients and lab equipment was sourced from the local pound shop (and ebay). I had a failed attempt trying to culture Lactobacillus when I discovered they are microaerophiles and not likely to grow in air and at one point I went crazy and crumbled a chocolate biscuit on it. After 2 days I had signs of life and then went away for the weekend. Upon my return I had even more of signs of life and moulds had started to take over, sending their filaments deep into the cloth. Finally I made it safe and killed off all that life. Taking no chances I used surgical spirit, boiling water, mould killer and pasteurization, so that should do the trick. Pasteurization (originally developed by pioneering microbiologist Louis Pasteur to stop wine from spoiling) should be enough in itself but the mould killer will do for any spores remaining after rinsing. The risk of culturing anything nasty was also severely limited by the fact that all the bacteria were sourced from tea and biscuits and cultured at around 20 degrees Celsius (much less than the human body temperature).
The embroidery shows my first attempt at ‘Cutwork’, which is a technique, where in portions of cloth are cut away and the resulting ‘hole’ is reinforced and filled with embroidery. I wanted to do this as I have also embedded a video screen in the work, showing my processes. I was quite intimidated in many ways to think my embroidery would be shown in the V & A Museum, alongside so many of the world’s best textile works. But for me working in embroidery is a conceptual choice rather than a demonstration of my craft skills.
Around the time of the enlightenment the perversely difficult practice of whitework embroidery was considered to be one of the highest levels of achievement for a woman. They would sew in the evenings by candlelight straining their eyes to see the tiny stitches, hunched over their embroidery hoops, their bodies twisted and constricted by tight corsetry, one pinprick of blood meaning the whole piece would be ruined. This coincided with the period in which many of their male counterparts started to become ‘gentleman scientists’ beginning to rigorously study the world around them ‘scientifically’. This was the time when the scientific method was developed and disciplinary boundaries were drawn between art and science. I’ve made several large whitework embroidered pieces inspired by these ideas which for me is a way to consider paradigmatic changes in the process of research and current moves towards transdisciplinarity, alongside a consideration of what ‘feminine’ approaches to science and technology might mean.