Monday, May 21, 2012

Issues of Scale

Very Cool Project
I'm thinking through the responses of two students in my Ren-Mod survey who, when asked to comment on images (such as the one on the left) made by bacteria, made a scaled comparison between bacteria and humans.  Shifts in scale are as fantastic as allegories or really, really good metaphors in my book.  They ask for impossible things (things you can't really have in your experience of the world), but impossible things that make possible things make sense.  Shifts in temporal scale (Jeffrey Cohen asking us to think about the rapidity and variety of geological change within the temporal framework of rocks themselves); shifts in physical scale (yes, I'm still gripped by Eileen Joy's sighting of our chemical signature in the galaxy as our greatest work of art); and these student responses I think I would dub shifts in performative scale.  This image (and others like it if you follow the link in the caption) is made by shading the area you wish to remain light (because this bacteria is nourished by light and will move towards it, leaving the shadowed/dark areas unmarked by their darkening presence).  The test question asked them to draw on the periods we'd studied to come up with a new name for this art that coaxed bacteria into making images.  A lot of students went with some riff on Conceptual Art; others invented different kinds of Primitivisms (bacteria being one of the most primitive forms of life - at least within the framework of the human scale); one dubbed it "Bio-Constructivism," another, "performance art" (because the bacteria is alive!).  But these two students took a different direction, claiming that humans, too, flocked to resources and established themselves there, leaving empty the negative space - just like the bacteria here.  One student even claimed cathedrals as bacterial growth on the landscape, humans having long flocked to resources to make images there.

I immediately thought of Glaber's turn of the millenium quote about the "great mantle of white churches" - here's the full quote, pulled from a passage in which Glaber is discussing the restoration of churches around the year 1000.

"[I]t was as though the very world had shaken herself and cast off her old age, and were clothing herself everywhere in a white garment of churches." 

This shot of beautiful Conques reveals the idea of concentration that my students put forward. It's the combination of both citing cathedrals as bacteria, and of noting that humans are drawn to resources - that that's where they leave their mark, their artistic gesture.  The white mantle of churches is, now that I think about it, an intermediary of performative scale: in its cloaking (meant to be comforting?) gesture, it is somewhere between the rapacious colonizing of bacteria and humans.  Does all of this make the white mantle more sinister, less sweeping a gesture? Of course, but it keeps the aestheticization of the gesture.  You get an image when you think about it.

Same Cool Project
And so it all comes together here, in an image of a cathedral made by bacteria. You can get pretty subtle in your manipulation of bacteria, eh? So yes, the bacteria is guided, moved, willed by humans (and we can have some nice debates about who the artist/the maker of images are here, and if intentionality and agency are required for artistic production, and if so, to what degree and whence) - but to a one, the students saw the phrase "Hello World" as spoken by the art bacteria. Some were a little freaked out by it: and I savored thinking about how much writing is presence.  

It's late, and there's still much grading to be done, but I can't help but wonder about the artistic gestures of bacteria on medieval art: on wood, on sculpture, on paint, on ivory, on manuscript) - or of other tiny micro-organisms. Those traces left behind by the presence of these micro-organisms as they wear on the work of art; or the dependence medieval artists had on these micro-organisms to make/preserve their art (enzymes in human saliva to clean alabaster, for example). The smallest scale of medieval artistic production that I can think of are the bees who make (ah, what else?) a cathedral inside their hive, after someone has secreted a consecrated host there (where is that miracle from? is that from Caesarius of Heisterbach? ooo, I'd love to know/remember).  We flock to our resources, and we make art there - we gather and collaborate and leave shadows; from chemical signatures in the galaxy to cathedrals in a Petri dish.


  1. Great post!

    I know I've read about that bee miracle too...a bit of searching leads me to the following sites (running out the door now, so no time to say more)...

    No surprise, I would have thought to have found it in Thomas of Canimpré's Bonum universale de apibus. Maybe!

    See also (this one especially: Ci Nous Dit is drawing on a LOT of stuff, so this is probably a very old story) (or THIS one especially...)
    and FINALLY

  2. okay, back, and YES, you're absolutely right about it appearing in Caesarius. See here.

  3. Dear dear Karl - you are a wonder! thank you SO MUCH for the full Caesarius page - that is some seriously fun Latin (vasculum!). how long are you in Paris? I officially owe you a drink!

  4. Karl is a bibliographic wunderkind.

  5. My pleasure! I'm in France until the end of June, with longish trips out of Paris to Dijon and Bretagne along the way. Mostly in Paris though.