Unruly Objects

Project

The Denon wing of the Louvre contains some of the world’s most famous masterpieces. Among them, at the top of the Daru staircase, the emblematic Victory of Samothrace dominates the room. Discovered in fragments in 1863, the 2,000-year-old sculpture underwent many restorations before being presented to the public in the form it is today. The conservation of works of art, whatever their nature, has always been a central issue for the museum world, and is constantly evolving. Anna Dumitriu explores contemporary issues related to the subject, and questions existing protocols; through her project Unruly Objects, she creates experimental objects that combine BioArt, history and blockchain technology.

Far from being the only one to consider those questions, the artist initiated her project after discussions with her long-time collaborators. Initially, Veroniki Korakidou, who collaborates with the Department of Antiquities and Works of Art at the University of West Attica in Athens, suggests to Anna that they should carry out the project together. She starts by researching conservation methods and processes, and then assembles a team of experts in conservation, microbiology, and archaeology, with whom she can share the fruits of her labour. During the conversations, Hélia Marçal (UCL) presents the notion of “unruly object”, introduced in a publication by Fernando Dominguez Rubio; he defines the so-called docile objects, those that have a conservation protocol such as paintings or sculptures, and the others, called unruly. Anna then has the idea of creating BioArt objects, her speciality, dedicated to experimenting with different issues faced by conservators and ways of conserving them. 

At the end of 2019, she obtains an a-n bursary fund to kick-start the project, and plans her trips to Athens, which she will cancel numerous times due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Eager to work with the team there, she postpones the meetings until 2021 and resigns herself to conduct them online, otherwise she risks her grant. In parallel to her meetings, she acquires pieces of marble which she learns to carve for the project. These have obviously been washed by sea water, a detail she sees as a nod to the Greek marble antiquities found at sea and whose conservation process she has already studied. Moreover, Anna can assume that marbles also develop a microbiome.

She refers to the comments of conservators to create the worst, or at least most problematic, specimens of conservable art. One of the scourges of conservation is holes, which are known to harbour bacteria and soil. These are seen as a danger, as they can also attract plants that can grow unpredictably and threaten to break the work. So Anna looks at artworks that have caused problems in the past (as detailed in the publication by Rubio), and examines the case of Eva Hesse: in the 1960s her sculptures were made of transparent, floppy latex, today they are yellow and brittle. Would she want her works to be exhibited in this way? The artist died young and has not made any statement on the subject, which brings us back to the artist’s intention, a contemporary issue. 

However, the question could have been asked long before, as the statues we contemplate in museums were also painted in the past. But today we have better tools to address these issues and ensure better conservation. Anna and her colleagues are looking at blockchain technology to address this; it is a digital database of linked blocks that is transparent, immutable, secure and decentralised. The idea would be to integrate an RFID tag into the objects (which works in the same way as our credit cards), which would refer to an NFT (non-fungible token, a unique and exclusive digital certificate of authenticity, derived from the blockchain) that would contain all the data linked to the work, including the creation process. Every ten years, the curator in charge of the work will have to create a new NFT with new data related to its conservation or restoration. The theory is currently being put into practice, and the idea has still to be tested.

So Anna drills a multitude of holes in her objects and thinks about how best to incorporate bacteria and RFID tags into them. For the latter, she chooses an old model for its aesthetics which remind her of the Antikythera mechanism; considered to be the first analogue computer dating back to at least 87 BC, it symbolises lost ancient knowledge. 2000 years later, the machine was discovered in a shipwreck in the Aegean Sea. The parts buried in the mud were preserved enough to allow us to understand the purpose of the object, and the rest decomposed. Anna has already reproduced a Winogradsky column for her project, which can also be seen as an allusion to the ancient mechanism; composed of earth, bark, newspaper, egg yolk and shell, plaster, and rainwater, it is covered and left to macerate, until the whole becomes a self-sustaining bacterial ecosystem in muddy form. While its initial aim is to study non-isolated bacteria, it shows us the importance of the balance of the microbiome in the conservation of materials. 

Although fixed with resin in a dedicated, larger hole, the RFID tag is remotely reprogrammable. It is coated with agar jelly and then painted with mud from a Winogradsky column, and has finally been inoculated with SARS COV-2 RNA from a plasmid construct, as a form of biological timestamp for the project. The latter is a harmless reagent that was provided by the NIBSC. To make matters worse, Anna is adding cress seeds to the holes to encourage plant growth.

At the same time, the artist is in residence at the University of Surrey where she meets Simone Krings and Dr. Suzie Hingley-Wilson who are working on living latex; this fluid encapsulates cyanobacteria which have the property of capturing carbon, and therefore have a positive impact on the environment. As a result of her growing interest and as a tribute to Eva Hesse, Anna is also dedicating her objects to the experimentation of living latex, for which she is funded by the National Biofilm Innovation Centre

 

She now has several series of unruly objects, one impregnated with living latex, and others with bacteria and seeds. The first series has three objects: one she keeps to repaint and add seeds to, another is co-conserved by Zoi Sakki and Athanasios Karabotsos at the University of West Attica University, and the last lives inside a Winogradsky column. This one has a wire so that Anna can fish it out whenever it needs to be exhibited. Once the mud has been scraped off, it seems to be the most intact object in the series. The artist is active when it comes to exhibiting Unruly Objects; the project has made an appearance at The North Wall Gallery in Oxford, Birmingham Dental Hospital’s Open Wide Gallery, and conducted a workshop at the V&A (alongside a pop-up exhibition) as part of the London Design Festival, during which hundreds of participants were able to create their own unruly marble objects.

With the objects now created and being tested, Anna can focus on the conservation of BioArt. With the financial support of Arts Council England, she is researching the reasons why museums are reluctant include it in their collections; currently in discussions with sympathetic curators at the ZKM, the V&A, and the Boerhaave Museum, it is clear that without a clear protocol, they will not know how to care for the works, a problem that Anna is seeking to address with the blockchain aspect of the project. She has also learnt to distinguish between conservation, which aims to protect the object and its story, and preservation, which is to maintain the object intact and static. However, the artist seems to think that there is also a fear associated with the term ” BioArt ” to which a possible solution would be simply to abandon the word itself but one she does not want to accept. In the meantime, she proposes the following alternative: to write a manifesto on how to collect BioArt objects, a result of her research and a long-term work that should be completed next year. 

Anna Dumitriu has chosen one of the most docile mediums recognised by the museum world to make it unruly and undesirable. 

With determination and boldness, she pushes the boundaries of conservation expertise to offer a relevant methodology for all bio-artworks. 

Artist
Anna Dumitriu

Collaborators
Georgios Panagiaris – Head of the Department of Antiquities and Works of Art – University West Attica
Athanasios Karabotsos – University West Attica 
Zoi Sakki – President of the Association of Conservators of Antiquities and Works of Art – Greece 
Veroniki Korakidou – Hellenic Open University and University of Thessaly
Helia Marçal – University College London
Athanasios Velios – University of Arts London
Alex May – University of Hertfordshire
Ekaterini Malea – University West Attica 
Maria Chatzidaki – University West Attica 
Andreas Sabatakos – University West Attica 
Alexis Stefanis – University West Attica 
Anastasios Koutsouris – University West Attica 
Leonidas Karampinis – University West Attica 

Artist

There is sometimes a criticism that science instrumentalises art as a tool for communication, but that’s not really how it works. […] my work is inspired by a deep engagement with new technologies and the histories behind them and the futures that they might bring”. Where art intersects with the so-called hard sciences, we may encounter the widespread preconception that art’s only use is to illustrate scientific data. In this milieu, artist-researchers continually come up against the cliché of bohemia and art for mere aesthetic use. However, many of the projects that have come out of these crossovers have proven the value of art, particularly in advancing research on little-explored scientific topics and bringing an alternative vision to established fields. Anna Dumitriu has spent most of her career demonstrating this to the general public through the profusion of her projects and the diversity of her collaborations.

Born on the outskirts of Brighton and raised in Hastings, England, Anna comes from a modest background. At school she is interested in science, particularly physics, but drops out of biology at the age of 14. The study of bacteria is not part of the curriculum, and she prefers nuclear physics and archaeology, which she continues to study until her final year. She passes A-levels, in Computer Science, Art, and Archaeology and then takes an Art Foundation course at Hastings College, becoming one of the first people in her family to pursue higher education. She then studies BA (Hons) Fine Art (Painting) at Brighton University and in the early 1990s goes on a student trip to Romania, where she runs workshops in children’s homes. There, she makes an intriguing discovery which leaves a lasting impression on her and becomes the subject of her degree thesis: the Last Judgement fresco in the monastery of Voroneț. The work is famous for the mystery that has long hung over the recipe for the “blue” used, and for the fact that the paintings on the outside facades have been better preserved than those inside for more than five centuries. 

After finishing her Master’s degree in painting, she starts to take an interest in and explore the use of the World Wide Web, before it becomes widespread in our homes. At that time, it is slow and the quality of the information is basic but enough for Anna to realise that the information transmitted by print and broadcast media is only partial; in 1996, an epidemic of Escherichia coli kills 21 people in Scotland, and the bacterium, presented as a foreign body, is demonised. In reality though, other strains of E. coli are a natural part of our intestinal microbiome. These bugs are even helpful to our digestive system. Intrigued by the impact of the lack of information on ourselves as a society, Anna decides to make it her battle horse; to explore the facts around researched scientific subjects, and to highlight the data that we never hear about and that could change our perception of the subject.

So, in order to deepen her knowledge, the artist understands that collaboration with scientists is essential. She soon contacts institutions, starting with Brighton and Sussex Medical School near her home. At that time, she still paints, but she takes inspiration from scientific journals for the themes of her works. One of her first collaborations is with Dr John Paul, a specialist in medical microbiology, with whom she undertakes a laboratory-based project where he teaches her microbiology and how to document her work in the lab book. As time goes by, her creative process evolves along with the mediums she uses, and becomes more and more part of the scientific framework, particularly in biology.  

She learns to manipulate living and developing systems during the making of her work, and is very interested in infectious diseases; she touches on dangerous pathogens which require killing them in the laboratory and in the presence of an expert, or working with extracted DNA for safety reasons before displaying them to the public. Although Anna immerses herself in the research of her chosen subject, she prefers to let her ideas evolve through her research process and experiments with microbes rather than imposing a fixed idea from the start. She interrogates her observations and draws out what she feels is relevant, thus moving towards making the piece more concrete. The DNA or killed microbes are integrated into the artwork and act as a relic of the laboratory process.

Biology is now an integral part of her art, but Anna is not content to simply mix it with painting. Eager to evolve her art, she learns new skills whenever the need arises to create a new artwork. Thus she deploys her skills in areas such as natural dyeing or linen production, and works directly with craftsmen, inspired by Jeff Koons but with the difference that she wants to learn their techniques and use them herself. Moreover, the influences of Constantin Brancusi are felt in the choice of materials, of Alberto Burri in the aesthetic approach, and of Eduardo Kac, more generally, in relation to the Bio-Art movement. 

In 2007 she joins the European Mobile Lab for Interactive Art, a pioneering EU-funded project in collaboration between artists and scientists. She participates in workshops all over Europe, and makes important encounters for her career; in Greece, she meets some of the people with whom she is now working on her project Unruly Objects. 

With an obvious attraction to digital culture and new technologies, the artist is also deepening her digital skills and diversifying her collaborations; she is doing a residency at the Centre for Neuroscience and Robotics at the University of Sussex, where she discovers Artificial Life. She is interested in AI and AL issues, and regularly integrates them into her artistic direction. 

Photo credit : Donghan Wang

Over time, Anna’s mediums, her questioning and with it the nature of her artworks, become more complex. Archaeology and historical objects, which we usually see in museums, become an important part of her work; she seizes them, modifies them to give them a new life filled with exhibitions. In 2014, she exhibits Pneumothorax Machine, a piece that is part of the project The Romantic Disease, which takes the machine (of the same name) to compress the lungs of tuberculosis patients. As usual, she recovers an old model which she sculpts, engraves, and impregnates with bacteria relating to its original use. In the same vein, while in residence at the University of Surrey, she collaborates with a bio-archaeologist to make aDNA (a = ancient); Anna obtains a bovine femur prepared by the Department of Anatomy at the Faculty of Medicine, learns to carve it in order to incorporate bovine tuberculosis DNA, that she worked with Professor Mike Taylor to learn to extract from human remains found in the the Siberian permafrost. The piece has already been shown in three exhibitions this year alone. 

Finally, by touring exhibitions of her creations, Anna makes their history known to the general public, which in a way corresponds to the definition of conservation
For her, the work of art does not fully exist without the contact of an audience, creation and exhibition go hand in hand. Without the need to verbalise all her ideas, she lets the viewers question her in return through her pieces. Today, she exhibits in major international institutions, whether in museums, art centres or scientific institutes such as the CDC or Waag Society. Determined to find answers, she continues to develop large-scale projects and maintain her long-standing collaborations.

At first glance, Anna Dumitriu did not seem predestined to become a visual arts pioneer specialising in Bio-Art. 

By listening to her instincts, she has broken through the image of a simple illustrator, and taken her practice to a whole new level to establish herself among the great contemporary artists. 

Insights

When it comes to mixing art and science, the results can be surprising. The various art projects that involve science-related research show us that the possibilities are multiple; artists take an interest in subjects that are little explored because they have no commercial interest, they dig into recognised fields to bring an alternative vision, or they create their own movements and mediums. We know that art has historically evolved in line with technological advances, and therefore with scientific discoveries, to the point of democratising the tools and methods to the general public. The best contemporary example would be that of digital culture, whose rapid but certain evolution has profoundly influenced the societies of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The use of the internet and the advent of the web has had a major impact on the whole world. In the 1980s, we entered the information age. It was only a decade later that the phenomenon gained momentum, so much so that today the influx of data has become so great that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the real from the fake. Yet the storage function of the web still makes it an undeniably practical and useful tool. The same thing is happening with NFTs, which have become an artistic medium; they are a direct result of blockchain technology and ensure the protection of data through their immutable, transparent and unique character. These characteristics make NFTs interesting as a potential solution to the issue of knowledge preservation, an issue that has fascinated generations of artists and historians over the centuries.

So how do we keep the knowledge? Western history tells us of improbable dead ends and knowledge gaps from one era to the next. The Antikythera mechanism could be the symbol of this; up to then, invasions, wars and crusades have been the cause of disappearance of advanced technology. The further we go into the future, the more environmental disasters will gain a place on the podium of causes of cultural extinction. Archaeology plays a key role in the re-discovery of forgotten skills and ancestral cultures, but it is contemporary artist-researchers, such as Anna Dumitriu, who take care to intervene in the persistent problems associated with them. And generally, the answers to the problems of the past tend to vary with technological progress, in a long and evolving process, like a paradoxical cycle.

When artists enter the experimental phases of new technologies, they produce in abundance to test the limits and explore the drifts and results. These are always fruitful; the outcomes may be sometimes speculative but nevertheless give us a glimpse of a possible future solution or setback. Most of the time, experimentation tends to be trivialised into a new artistic practice, as the digital arts illustrate so well. Thus, it may well be that NFTs serve a much more important purpose than just a commercial one, and Anna is one of those who apply them to other areas of interest.

Photo credit : Alex May

According to the artist James Bridle, we are living in a New Dark Age in which we are changing our thought patterns to incorporate more and more information blindly. Fortunately, artists such as Anna Dumitriu have been able to work their way through the digital jungle to make the best of it, and to get us thinking about constructive solutions. Working hand in hand with archaeologists and scientists, she ensures that we remember forgotten histories and our role in our common future, as a guardian of humanity.