Viral BioreMEDIAtion

A three year research-creation project (2011-2014) funded by FQRSC Établissement de nouveaux professeurs-chercheurs-créateurs
Directed by Tagny Duff, with research assistance from Kendra Besanger and Tristan Matheson

In popular culture, the virus, as a biological, molecular, cultural and digital entity, is often considered as a contagious and infectious intruder that must be combated and eliminated from host bodies. Contrary to popular belief, viral contagion may play an important part in the evolutionary development of bodies. They can be understood to bio-remediate bodies and generate necessary immunity and genetic information across generations. Bioremediation is a practice in biology, where living microorganisms are bioengineered to alter the chemistry of polluted ecologies, often considered as toxic or dead systems in need of revival. Remediation in media arts is understood as the use of one media to replace the use of another to sustain its function and vitality. This proposed program explores and develops a new concept of “bio-remediation” as the necessary interrelation between viral and microbial biological and digital media. Specifically, I am interested in working across the notions of bioremediation and remediation to reflect upon the cultural tensions surrounding the use of living systems to revitalize bodies.

In a more practical and applied sense, viruses can be understood to remediate harmful bacteria in the human body. In Georgia, the George Eliava Institute of Bacteriophage, Microbiology and Virology lab has been cultivating bacteriophages (viruses that attack bacteria) since the First World War to combat bacterial infections. Invented by a French Canadian scientist Felix D’Herelle, bacteriophages were grown and made into tonics for soldiers wounded on the battlefield. The use of bacteriophages as medicinal agents were commonly used in the eastern block of USSR during the cold war era. Due to political and linguistic barriers, this technology has just emerged in North America and Europe, and promises to be an alternative to antibiotics and the growing emergence of superbugs that threaten human lives. Microbes and viruses are now becoming understood as potential agents of sustainable healing and regeneration of human and non-human bodies.

This program proposes to utilize microbial life systems as material towards the creation of new biodegradable sculptural prototypes. The emphasis of research is not on mimicry or representation of microbial systems, but to actually use these life forms and systems towards the creation of new ephemeral sculptural installation works that disappear without leaving toxic waste materials behind. The prototypes will “feed” microbes and communicate with them through the process of decomposition, degradation and regeneration of the image and material forms. Life processes and systems within and beyond the threshold of human perception of time and space are explored.

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Related project: WET NET

A work in progress by Tagny Duff

WetNet explores the relationship between contamination, bioremediation and sustainable systems. This work in progress features the creation of “contaminated” wet sculptures in the form of disposable science equipment. For example, sculptures are modelled after the sterilized plastic flasks commonly found in the laboratory and used to conduct experiments. In this case, the flasks are made of agar (a seaweed base commonly used to create assays), mycelium (Lions Mane mushroom), and human viral cells (HeLa and Lentivirus). The interaction between the mycelium and viral cells generate a transpecies network extending both inside and out of the flasks. The interaction between fungi and human viral cells challenge the logic of aseptic technique and sterile containment that justifies the need for plastic disposable materials in the lab. The prototypes “feed” microbes and communicate with them through the process of decomposition and remediation. The combination and interaction between organisms is explored as a living and undead network system and architecture that provokes a rethinking of the materials used to produce knowledge in the science laboratory. What happens when microbes are no longer the subject of experimentation, but become the network and material for knowledge creation? In this scenario, notions of contamination and contagion are radically altered. Rather than restrict movement between microbes and human, the human must re-imagine relations with the microbial worlds.

WetNet is produced for the exhibition Emergencies2012. Part of the project has been produced during an invited artist-in-residence at Ectopia in collaboration with Cultivamos Cultura, the URIA-Centro Patogenese Molecular, Faculdade Farmacia at the University of Lisbon and Joao Goncalves. Additional support and collaboration on developed includes Form lab at Université de Montréal, Metacycle labs at Concordia University and Fluxmedia also based at Concordia University. Rapidprototype design by Yasaman Sheri. WetNet is part of the larger three year research-creation project entitled Viral BioreMEDIAtion funded by Le Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture.