Anna Dumitriu is a British artist who works with BioArt, sculpture, installation and digital media to explore our relationship with infectious diseases, synthetic biology and robotics. Her work attempts to interweave the scientific, cultural and personal implications of infectious diseases, using tools and techniques from microbiology and synthetic biology in the laboratory and studio to create works of art that aim to reveal the strange stories and the emerging future of biomedicine. She studies how a disease or virus is seen and represented over wide time scales, just as myths and stigmas are created.
In one of her projects, The Romantic Disease, she works with tuberculosis. Even today, as Dumitriu argues, tuberculosis is responsible for more deaths than other higher profile diseases, whilst resisting attempts to contain it. As she explains, we are interested in certain diseases and not in others. Covid-19 has killed more than 50,000 people worldwide and between 300,000 and 650,000 people die of the flu each year, millions die from tuberculosis. In addition, epidemics and especially how we deal with them, have also historically served to attribute the blame to another, an enemy, a foreigner or a minority, through false, racist and warlike speeches. The Chinese are blamed by many countries for the spread of the coronavirus. In the past, this was the case in other communities: Jews were accused of spreading the plague; for tuberculosis, it was immigrants who were highlighted by Western societies. According to Dumitriu, scientific studies show, for example, that it was Europeans who spread tuberculosis worldwide with colonization, as in India, where the population had no immune defenses to fight it. “Furthermore, an epidemic still affects all human beings: health is a global problem. Epidemics are urgent matters, imbued with many misunderstandings; part of my job is to communicate these issues, look at history and bring complexity.”
As materials, Dumitriu usually changes historical objects, such as medical and laboratory equipment, adding embroidery, in addition to incorporating bacteria or bacterial DNA in the tissues, as in the case of the work Engineered Antibody (2016).
I am fascinated by the concept of sublime in terms of bacteria and this notion of “bacterial sublime”, which I spoke about in 2004, has continued to inform my work ever since. There is a kind of admiration we can feel when we strive to keep the concept of bacteria in our minds: these tiny, obscure organisms with their fascinating, complex and occasionally terror-inducing abilities. I try to bring this to my work through the presence of traces of real organisms, although often sterilized in the case of dangerous pathogens, the objects are still contaminated with your memory.
“Engineered Antibody” (2016) is a bead necklace based on research by Xiang Li, who works with an antibody purified from the blood of an HIV positive patient. Made up of 452 handmade beads, it represents and physically contains the 21 real amino acids of the antibody in precise order. The light chain and the heavy chain of the protein structure were folded into the exact structure of the antibody. An antibody is a protein produced by the immune system to fight foreign bodies and viruses, which can bind to HIV. Xiang Li is working to improve this antibody, designing it to better block HIV infections by introducing an additional amino acid called sulfotyrosine.
At a time when complex new scientific discoveries are being made almost every day, but they are far beyond the understanding of laypeople, and when the stories we read compete to terrify us more than ever, we are more at risk than ever before of being taken away to buy the latest “cure”. We are blinded by pseudoscience and media advertising about the speed and success of biotechnology and become easy prey for miracle cures.
In her work “Plague Dress”, the 1665-style dress is made of raw silk, hand-dyed with nutshells in reference to the famous herbalist of the time Nicholas Culpeper, who recommended walnuts as a treatment for the plague. The dress is applied with original embroidery from the 17th century that the artist impregnated with the DNA of the bacterium Yesinia pestis (Prague), which she extracted from the dead bacteria of the pest. The dress is stuffed and surrounded by lavender, which historically was carried under people’s noses during the Great Plague of London to cover the stench of infection, and also to prevent the disease, which was believed to be caused by ‘bad air’ or ‘miasma’.