Chapter 5. Other Selves: An Artistic Study of the Human Microbiome

Abstract

We are made of many parts and many types of parts. Many of these are alive, and as the study of the human microbiome has recently revealed, most are not human. I explore the microbiome as an artistic medium and the questions it raises about identity, since the microbiome blurs the boundary between organism and environment, figure and ground. I cultivated my microbiome and others inhabiting my environment to create living paints with which to make an unusual self ­portrait: an other­self portrait. In the process, I arrived at a series of other­self landscapes, discovering the body as a world, multiple and dynamic.

Background

Comparing the concepts of identity in art and biology yields some insights about how our understanding of ourselves evolved. In art history, we can observe the progression from a concern with stylized forms and ideas, to a true depiction of reality, to an exploration of the metaphorical and subjective. Meanwhile, identity as defined in biology mostly limited itself to polemic, taxonomic descriptions of the human species1 until the 20th century, when it exploded to the forefront of the conversation with the discovery of DNA and the uniqueness of the genetic fingerprint.

More recently, several discoveries in biology, such as the microbiome, have fundamentally challenged our notions of identity. Researchers determined that not only are non­human organisms essential to our ...

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