Drug-resistant superbugs sicken and kill tens of thousands of Americans a year, but at the Kapelica Gallery in Ljubljana, Slovenia, they’ve been sterilized and embroidered into clothing. Artist Anna Dumitriu has stitched potentially deadly strains of antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), the skin infection plaguing NFL locker rooms and high schools, and the rare antiobotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA), onto dresses and quilts to shed light on the strange, fascinating story of humans’ increasingly complex relationship with bacteria.
This isn’t Dumitriu’s first time using disease as a creative medium. Dumitriu says she’s been obsessed with plague since she learned about it in school as a child, and has been working with medical microbiologists over the last 20 years to explore bacterial biology's radical place in science and art. Today, she’s been trained to handle Class III biosafety-level pathogens, including tuberculosis, and can count the bubonic plague and anthrax among past artistic collaborators.
“It's almost like that desire to jump off a cliff when you see a sheer drop,” Dumitriu tells me. “The ones that are most horrifying are the most intriguing, too.”
The textiles may be shocking, but they’re no gimmick. The MRSA quilt and VRSA dress both share revealing stories about the history of scientific thought and the spread of disease. Black Death, for example, was often transmitted through contact with linens, though at the time doctors blamed humidity. Enlightenment thinkers, the founders of science as a discipline, also saw women as subjects of study--forces outside the realm of rationalism inhabited by men.
“[Rousseau] wrote very extensively about what women should be able to do, like how much they should be allowed to write, just enough so they could do their samplers, their stitching, and they could learn a little bit about botany, because it could help them with their embroidery patterns,” Dumitriu explains. “And I was interested in doing science through that medium to talk about that.”
Using stained agar jellies inoculated with the bacteria (some of which, the non-lethal kind, had been sampled from Dumitriu’s nose), Dumitriu decorated linens and clothing with the pathogens before sterilizing them in an autoclave, a lab tool that cleans instruments with high-pressure steam.
Dumitriu is hard at work on another project that straddles terror and twee. Next month, the artist will debut a series of Etsy-like felt lungs she’s been infecting with tuberculosis-loaded dust. Dust, she explains, was commonly cited as a source of the disease during the industrial revolution, but that turned out to be completely false: Tuberculosis is transmitted through airborne sputum, blood, and droplets that are expelled from the lungs with a deep cough.
A portion of the tuberculosis exhibit’s proceeds will also go to Target Tuberculosis, a charity that provides tuberculosis treatment and support in Africa and Asia. Dumitriu has been collaborating with the group to see what kind of misinformation exists about tuberculosis in the countries it visits. For example, some of the patients Target Tuberculosis has worked with have listed eating unripe mangoes and getting licked by a cat as behaviors that could cause the disease. When Dumitriu asked microbiologists if there was any merit to either notion, they told her that cats could catch tuberculosis, though it’s unlikely they could transmit it.
“But probably the unripe mango thing is wrong,” Dumitriu says. As a result, she’ll be hosting a workshop that inoculates agar jelly with harmless bacteria (in fact, these organisms might even be good for you) that grow in a similar fashion to tuberculosis. “Part of the workshop I'm doing is making agar with unripe mango and getting cats to lick the agar,” she says.
Like errant beliefs about plague and humidity, science and women, as well as tuberculosis and dust, Dumitriu says: “It's about telling that story and thinking about why they thought that.”