Super-organism is an ongoing series of artworks investigating the human microbiome by Anna Dumitriu and Alex May. It currently comprises “Super-organism” a full body interactive installation and participatory workshop commissioned by Cinekid Festival in Amsterdam, a video installation “Super-organism: The Living Microbiome” commissioned by The Wellcome Collection and “The Human Super-organism” focussing on the bacteria from the hands commissioned by Eden Project as part of their permanent exhibition “Invisible You: The Human Microbiome”.
“Super-organism” (2014) is an interactive bio-digital installation that enables participants to explore the human skin microbiome. Visitors imprint their bodies onto a large soft screen, which becomes like a ‘virtual Petri dish’, slowly revealing the shapes of their bodies in the form of colonies of bacteria, which grow before their eyes.
The installation was made using custom software written in C++ and uses infra-red sensor technology to track participants in the space. The resulting ‘virtual Petri dish’ images are made up of collages of hundreds of stop motion films of bacterial colonies (originally grown from the artists’ own bodies using DIY microbiology techniques) that are being generated in real time for each participant, in order to create the effect that the bacteria from their own bodies has been cultured in a Petri dish.
The microbiome, the bacteria that live on us and in us, are an important part of what it means to be human and integral to our immune systems. We are, in fact, super-organisms – around half of the cells in our bodies are bacterial cells.
The human microbiome, the complex ecosystem of bacteria that live on us and in us, are an important part of what it means to be human. The microbiome actually forms part of our immune system and our ‘normal flora’ bacteria can prevent the growth of other more dangerous pathogenic bacteria. We are super-organisms: around half of the cells in our bodies are bacterial cells.
The Human Super-organism
The “Human Super-organism” (2015) focusses on the bacteria from the hands. It was commissioned by Eden Project for their permanent exhibition “Invisible You. The Human Microbiome” which is part of their flagship “Invisible Worlds” permanent exhibition in the Core Building, alongside another work by Dumitriu, entitled “Don’t Try This At Home“. Participants placed their hands on an interactive screen which acted as a virtual Petri dish and revealed the ways in which diverse colonies of bacteria from the human hands can be grown in the lab on agar. The opening of the permanent exhibit was also accompanied by a participatory workshop where Dumitriu explained the processes used in developing the works in the exhibition. Due to COVID-19 restrictions in place at the time, in 2021 this work was replaced in the exhibition by “Super-organism: The Living Microbiome”.
Super-organism: The Living Microbiome
“Super-organism: The Living Microbiome” (2014) originally commissioned by The Wellcome Collection, juxtaposes close-up high definition macroscopic video footage of the growth of colonies of bacteria with images of the parts of the human body from which they were sampled. The piece shows the huge diversity of ways in which these bacteria grow and spread across a Petri dish filled with agar jelly (a seaweed based growth medium) and how they compete for ‘territory’, sometimes producing their own antibiotics to ward of other bacteria or producing biofilms which help them to spread.
“BioArt and Bacteria” (solo exhibition) at Oxford Museum of the History of Science from 28th September 2017 until 18th March 2018.
“BioArt and Bacteria” (solo exhibition) at The Esther Klein Gallery and the Science Center in Philadelphia (USA) from 18th October until the 24th November 2018.
“BioArt and Bacteria” (solo exhibition) at Eden Project in Cornwall (UK) from 30th March – 1st June 2019.
“The World Unseen: Intersections of Art and Science” at The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention David J. Sencer CDC Museum: In Association with the Smithsonian Institution in Atlanta, Georgia (USA) from 20th May – 30th August 2019.
Collaborators and Supporters
The project is also made in collaboration with Dr John Paul, from the Modernising Medical Microbiology Project and is funded by The Creative Industries Fund NL and The Mondriaan Fund.