We could be in for a rather stilted, tech-heavy exploration of the artist’s fraught family’s history. But the way the gallery has been decked out suggests (rightly) that a warmer, more intimate, ultimately more disturbing game is afoot. Past the first screen, fellow gallery-goers bleed in and out of view round a series of curved wooden walls painted a warm terracotta. Is the colour a reference to interwar architecture? All I can think of is the porn set in David Cronenberg’s existentialist shocker Videodrome. There is something distinctly fleshy going on.
Paterson cares about measurement. Turner cared about witness. An honestly witnessed play of light against a cloud can be achieved through the right squiggle. An accurate measurement of the same phenomenon must be the collaborative work of meteorologists, atmospheric scientists, astronomers, colour scientists, and who knows how many other specialists, with Paterson riding everyone’s coat-tails as a sort of tourist.
There’s method here, of course: Yamanaka’s X-Design programme at Keio University turns out objects bigger than the drums in which they’re sintered, by printing them in folded form. It’s a technique lifted from space-station design, though starry-eyed Western journalists, obsessed with Japanese design, tend to reach for origami metaphors.
Yamanaka’s international touring show, which is stopping off at Japan House in London until mid-March, knows which cultural buttons to press. The tables on which his machine prototypes are displayed are steel sheets, rolled to a curve and strung under tension between floor and ceiling, so visitors find themselves walking among what appear to be unfolded paper scrolls. If anything can seduce you into buying a £100 sake cup when you exit the gift shop, it’s this elegant, transfixing show.
“We often make robots for their own sake,” says Yamanaka, blithely, “but usefulness is also important for me. I’m always switching between these two ways of thinking as I work on a design.”
The beauty of his work is evident from the first. Its purpose, and its significance, take a little unpacking.
Rami, for example: it’s a below-the-knee running prosthesis developed for the athlete Takakura Saki, who represented Japan during the 2012 Paralympics. Working from right to left, one observes how a rather clunky running blade mutated into a generative, organic dream of a limb, before being reined back into a new and practical form. The engineering is rigorous, but the inspiration was aesthetic: “We hoped the harmony between human and object could be improved by re-designing the thing to be more physically attractive.”
Think about that a second. It’s an odd thing to say. It suggests that an artistic judgement can spur on and inform an engineering advance. And so, it does, in Yamanaka’s practice, again, and again.
Yamanaka, is an engineer who spent much of his time at university drawing manga, and cut his teeth on car design at Nissan. He wants to make something clear, though: “Engineering and art don’t flow into each other. The methodologies of art and science are very different, as different as objectivity and subjectivity. They are fundamental attitudes. The trick, in design, is to change your attitude, from moment to moment.” Under Yamanaka’s tutelage, you learn to switch gears, not grind them.
Eventually Yamanaka lost interest in giving structure and design to existing technology. “I felt if one could directly nurture technological seeds, more imaginative products could be created.” It was the first step on a path toward designing for robot-human interaction.
Yamanaka – so punctilious, so polite – begins to relax, as he contemplates the work of his peers: Engineers are always developing robots that are realistic, in a linear way that associates life with things, he says, adding that they are obsessed with being more and more “real”. Consequently, he adds, a lot of their work is “horrible. They’re making zombies!”
Artists have already established a much better approach, he explains: quite simply, artists know how to sketch. They know how to reduce, and abstract. “From ancient times, art has been about the right line, the right gesture. Abstraction gets at reality, not by mimicking it, but by purifying it. By spotting and exploring what’s essential.”
Yamanaka’s robots don’t copy particular animals or people, but emerge from close observation of how living things move and behave. He is fascinated by how even unliving objects sometimes seem to transmit the presence of life or intelligence. “We have a sensitivity for what’s living and what’s not,” he observes. “We’re always searching for an element of living behaviour. If it moves, and especially if it responds to touch, we immediately suspect it has some kind of intellect. As a designer I’m interested in the elements of that assumption.”
So it is, inevitably, that the most unassuming machine turns out to hold the key to the whole exhibition. Apostroph is the fruit of a collaboration with Manfred Hild, at Sony’s Computer Science Laboratories in Paris. It’s a hinged body made up of several curving frames, suggesting a gentle logarithmic spiral.
Each joint contains a motor which is programmed to resist external force. Leave it alone, and it will respond to gravity. It will try to stand. Sometimes it expands into a broad, bridge-like arch; at other times it slides one part of itself through another, curls up and rolls away.
As an engineer, you always follow a line of logic, says Yamanaka. You think in a linear way. It’s a valuable way of proceeding, but unsuited to exploration. Armed with fragile, good-enough 3D-printed prototypes, Yamanaka has found a way to do without blueprints, responding to the models he makes as an artist would.
In this, he’s both playing to his strengths as a frustrated manga illustrator, and preparing his students for a future in which the old industrial procedures no longer apply. “Blueprints are like messages which ensure the designer and manufacturer are on the same page,” he explains. “If, however, the final material could be manipulated in real time, then there would be no need to translate ideas into blueprints.”
It’s a seductive spiel but I can’t help but ask what all these elegant but mostly impractical forms are all, well, for.
Yamanaka’s answer is that they’re to make the future bearable. “I think the perception of subtle lifelike behaviour is key to communication in a future full of intelligent machines,” he says. “Right now we address robots directly, guiding their operations. But in the future, with so many intelligent objects in our life, we’ll not have the time or the patience or even the ability to be so precise. Body language and unconscious communication will be far more important. So designing a lifelike element into our machines is far more important than just tinkering with their shape.”
By now we’ve left the gallery and are standing before Flagella, a mechanical mobile made for Yamanaka’s 2009 exhibition Bones, held in Tokyo Midtown. Flagella is powered by a motor with three units that repeatedly rotate and counter-rotate, its movements supple and smooth like an anemone. It’s hard to believe the entire machine is made from hard materials.
There’s a child standing in front of it. His parents are presumably off somewhere agonising over sake cups, dinky tea pots, bowls that cost a month’s rent. As we watch, the boy begins to dance, riffing off the automaton’s moves, trying to find gestures to match the weavings of the machine.
“This one is of no practical purpose whatsoever,” Yamanaka smiles. But he doesn’t really think that. And now, neither do I.
In late spring this year, the Barbican Centre in London will explore the promise and perils of artificial intelligence in a festival of films, workshops, concerts, talks and exhibitions. Even before the show opens, however, I have a bone to pick: what on earth induced the organisers to call their show AI: More than human?
More than human? What are we being sold here? What are we being asked to assume, about the technology and about ourselves?
Language is at the heart of the problem. In his 2007 book, The Emotion Machine, computer scientist Marvin Minsky deplored (although even he couldn’t altogether avoid) the use of “suitcase words”: his phrase for words conveying specialist technical detail through simple metaphors. Think what we are doing when we say metal alloys “remember” their shape, or that a search engine offers “intelligent” answers to a query.
Without metaphors and the human tendency to personify, we would never be able to converse, let alone explore technical subjects, but the price we pay for communication is a credulity when it comes to modelling how the world actually works. No wonder we are outraged when AI doesn’t behave intelligently. But it isn’t the program playing us false, rather the name we gave it.
Then there is the problem outlined by Benjamin Bratton, director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics at the University of California, San Diego, and author of cyber bible The Stack. Speaking at Dubai’s Belief in AI symposium last year, he said we use suitcase words from religion when we talk about AI, because we simply don’t know what AI is yet.
For how long, he asked, should we go along with the prevailing hype and indulge the idea that artificial intelligence resembles (never mind surpasses) human intelligence? Might this warp or spoil a promising technology?
The Dubai symposium, organised by Kenric McDowell and Ben Vickers, interrogated these questions well. McDowell leads the Artists and Machine Intelligence programme at Google Research, while Vickers has overseen experiments in neural-network art at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Conversations, talks and screenings explored what they called a “monumental shift in how societies construct the everyday”, as we increasingly hand over our decision-making to non-humans.
Some of this territory is familiar. Ramon Amaro, a design engineer at Goldsmith, University of London, drew the obvious moral from the story of researcher Joy Buolamwini, whose facial-recognition art project The Aspire Mirror refused to recognise her because of her black skin.
The point is not simple racism. The truth is even more disturbing: machines are nowhere near clever enough to handle the huge spread of normal distribution on which virtually all human characteristics and behaviours lie. The tendency to exclude is embedded in the mathematics of these machines, and no patching can fix it.
Yuk Hui, a philosopher who studied computer engineering and philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, broadened the lesson. Rational, disinterested thinking machines are simply impossible to build. The problem is not technical but formal, because thinking always has a purpose: without a goal, it is too expensive a process to arise spontaneously.
The more machines emulate real brains, argued Hui, the more they will evolve – from autonomic response to brute urge to emotion. The implication is clear. When we give these recursive neural networks access to the internet, we are setting wild animals loose.
Although the speakers were well-informed, Belief in AI was never intended to be a technical conference, and so ran the risk of all such speculative endeavours – drowning in hyperbole. Artists using neural networks in their practice are painfully aware of this. One artist absent from the conference, but cited by several speakers, was Turkish-born Memo Akten, based at Somerset House in London.
His neural networks make predictions on live webcam input, using previously seen images to make sense of new ones. In one experiment, a scene including a dishcloth is converted into a Turneresque animation by a recursive neural network trained on seascapes. The temptation to say this network is “interpreting” the view, and “creating” art from it, is well nigh irresistible. It drives Akten crazy. Earlier this year in a public forum he threatened to strangle a kitten whenever anyone in the audience personified AI, by talking about “the AI”, for instance.
It was left to novelist Rana Dasgupta to really put the frighteners on us as he coolly unpicked the state of automated late capitalism. Today, capital and rental income are the true indices of political participation, just as they were before the industrial revolution. Wage rises? Improved working conditions? Aspiration? All so last year. Automation has made their obliteration possible, by reducing to virtually nothing the costs of manufacture.
Dasgupta’s vision of lives spent in subjection to a World Machine – fertile, terrifying, inhuman, unethical, and not in the least interested in us – was also a suitcase of sorts, too, containing a lot of hype, and no small amount of theology. It was also impossible to dismiss.
Cultural institutions dabbling in the AI pond should note the obvious moral. When we design something we decide to call an artificial intelligence, we commit ourselves to a linguistic path we shouldn’t pursue. To put it more simply: we must be careful what we wish for.
For a while now, I have been barracking my betters (and with a quite spectacular lack of success) to send me to cover the science and technology of the Middle East. True, it’s a region abuzz with boosterism and drowning in vapourware, but big issues do get addressed here, in a bullish, technocratic sort of way.
Is the planet in trouble? Certainly. The scale of the problem is easier to accept if you live in a climate and an ecosystem that was barely habitable to begin with. Is this state of affairs a consequence of human action? Obviously: the Gulf used to be green, with the whole coast once threaded with irrigation channels. No one here is ignorant of the fact. Should we bail out for Mars at the earliest available opportunity? Hell, yes – and Dubai, where the air-con (if not yet the air) has to be paid for, is the closest Earth has to a civic blueprint for Mars.
At the Dubai Design Week last November, I met a new generation of graduates sharing designs for the end of the world.
They had come for the fourth edition of the city’s annual Global Grad Show. The show featured 150 works this year, representing 100 of the world’s best design schools in 45 countries – and this explains, even if it does not quite justify, the show’s claim that it is “the most diverse student gathering ever assembled”. Locating the show is not so easy, I find, traipsing cluelessly among the super-symmetrical towers of d3 (the Dubai Design District, and one of Dubai’s many enterprise zones). I elbow through crowds gathered in knots around maps, there to guide them to Downtown Design, an enormous trade fair drawing in hundreds of brands from all over the world, or queueing for any one of the 230-odd other events, workshops and product launches that make this week the largest creative festival in the Middle East.
What’s driving this ferment? You may as well ask what’s driving Dubai itself – a liberal-ish responsive-while-undemocratic metropolis less than a generation old, emerging like a toadstool after spring rains in one of the most inhospitable ends of the Earth. Dubai, built by South Koreans, bankrolled by Iranian exiles, administered by European blow-ins, is global capitalism’s last great sandbox experiment before the Red Planet. The Emiratis themselves direct the design effort, and three projects dominate: mass housing; sustainable technology (because Dubai is already living the low-carbon inhospitable-climate nightmare); and, yes, I wasn’t joking, building for space exploration.
Set against the grandiloquence of the government’s plans, Global Grad Show is humble indeed. There’s a guide dog harness called Guidog by Paulina Morawa from Krakow, which, because it’s made of rigid plastic, communicates the dog’s subtlest movements to its handler, allowing users to traverse even the roughest ground. There’s a box of watery jellies by Londoner Lewis Hornby, who noticed that his grandmother, who lives with Alzheimer’s, finds drinking difficult. Eating a box of Jelly Drops (above) is equivalent to drinking a litre of water. There’s even a washtub by Masoud Sistani and Mohammad Ghasemi, an Iranian design team, which clips into the hubcap of a long-distance lorry, so that drivers pulling a 24-hour haul over the Hindu Kush can change into clean underpants once in a while.
If this last design makes you pause: well, so it should. Naji, another design from Iran (this time from a team at the Art University of Isfahan) hits the same nerve: a flotation device that deploys from street lamps whenever a road gets seriously flooded – presumably because some bright spark thought to build across a flood plain. Either these designs are absurdly naive or they are very astute, forcing us to confront some of the unspoken infrastructures underlying our ways of life.
There is, for sure, a mischievous side to this show. There’s Camilla Franchini’s plan for handing Naples, the third most populous city in Italy, entirely over to fulfilment-centre robots. Seray Ozdemir, meanwhile, has grown so fed up of London’s overcrowding that he’s designed a suite of furniture to turn narrow corridors into living spaces. Yiannis Vogdanis’s wearable devices simulate environmental problems; there’s a mask here that has users gasping for air whenever they pass bodies of oxygen-starved water.
Other exhibits argue, with some force, that the time for provocation is over, and what we need now are simple, cheap, reproducible devices to strengthen our ever-more precarious hold on a hot, spent, resource-stripped planet. There is a fog-harvesting machine, a wind-powered sea-water desalination device, a dry toilet styled for the European market and a portable urinal designed for women and girls in refugee camps. And since we can look forward to many more mass-migrations in the coming years of famine, drought and resource war, there’s a rescue vessel concept to improve rescue missions at sea.
“I’ve started seeing, year on year, a growing assumption that climate change won’t be solved,” the show’s director Brendan McGetrick says.”It’s depressing, but it’s also reassuring, in that these young designers recognise what I think most of us recognise: that the people in charge aren’t going to do anything at a big enough scale to be meaningful.”
Within their limited capacity, the designers at this year’s Global Grad Show are at least trying to get ahead of things.
Suspended from four wires, this digitally controlled cable robot is building something out of hand-size wooden blocks. It’s a slow beast. Hours must pass before its construction becomes recognisable: a dome, of the sort that John Soane produced for the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Polibot does not look like a game changer. But according to Arthur Mamou-Mani, whose architectural practice built it, Polibot’s children are going to change the world.
English speakers have only two or three translations from the French by which to judge the sometimes dreamy, sometimes nightmarish output of Tunisian poet and novelist Hubert Haddad. He began writing long prose in the 1970s and has been turning out a novel a year, more or less, since the turn of the century.
First published as Corps désirable in 2015, this novel sews a real-life maverick neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, into a narrative that coincides with the bicentenary of the first ever neurosurgical horror story, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Cédric Allyn-Weberson, scion of a big pharma plutocrat, has set sail for the coast of Paros with his war correspondent girlfriend Lorna Leer, on a yacht called Evasion. A horrible accident crushes his spine but leaves his head intact. Funded by Cédric’s estranged father Morice, Canavero sets about transplanting Cédric’s head on to a donor body. Assuming the operation succeeds, how will Cédric cope?
Haddad handles the subject of Canavero’s alleged head transplants (a matter of public record, and no little controversy) sparingly and well. The operation is captured in a closely choreographed sequence that remains wholly sympathetic to the surgical team while chilling the reader to the bone.
Nevertheless, this short, sly novel is not about Canavero’s surgery so much as about the existential questions it raises. Emotions are physiological phenomena, interpreted by the mind. It follows that Cédric’s head, trapped “in a merciless battle … abandoned to this slow, living enterprise, to the invading hysteria of muscles and organs”, can’t possibly know how to read his new body. His life has, sure enough, been reduced to “a sort of crystalline, luminous, almost abstract dream”.
Cédric doesn’t forget who he is; he simply ceases to care, and adopts a creaturely attitude in which self hardly matters, and beings are born and die nameless. In his world, “There was no one, with the exception of a few chance encounters and sometimes some embraces. Did birds or rats worry about their social identity?”
There is something dated about Haddad’s book: an effect as curious as it is, I am sure, deliberate, with piquant hints of Ian Fleming in his use of glamorous European locations. It’s in its glancing, elliptical relationship to technology that Desirable Body takes its most curious backward step. Yet this elusive approach feels like a breath of fresh air after decades spent wading through big infrastructure-saturated fictions such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Richard Powers’s The Overstory. Haddad focuses succinctly on formal existential questions: questions for which there are no handy apps, and which can in no way be evaded by the application of ameliorating technology.
The besetting existential problem for the book, and, indeed, for poor Cédric himself, is pleasure. He discovers this with a vengeance when he once again (and at last) goes to bed with his girlfriend: “Getting used to this new body after so much time seems like an appropriation of a sexual kind, a disturbing usurpation, a rape almost.” Lorna’s excitement only adds to his confusion: “The last straw is the jealous impulse that overtakes him when he sees her writhing on top of him.”
French critics have received Desirable Body with due solemnity. Surely this was a mistake: Haddad’s nostalgic gestures are playful, not ponderous, and I don’t think we are required to take them too seriously. Following Cédric’s dismal post-operative sexual experience, the book changes gear from tragedy to farce; indeed, becomes laugh-out-loud funny as he finds himself king-for-a-day in a buffoonish and clockwork world where “no one is really loved because we constantly go to the wrong house or the wrong person with the same extraordinary obstinacy”.
Desirable Body is about more than one decapitated man’s unusual plight; it’s about how surprisingly little our choices have to do with our feelings and passions. A farce, then, and a sharp one: it’s funny to contemplate, but if you fell into its toils for a second, you’d die screaming in horror.
The point — that the physicists working at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva might be constructing the very quantum reality they were hired to study — is lost on none of the 10,000-odd scientists and engineers involved with the project. And this awareness — that the very idea of science is up for grabs here — may explain why CERN’s scientists have taken so warmly to the artists dropped in their midst.
There’s a shipping container sitting outside 14th-century Dartington Hall in south Devon, offering cheap flights to an unspecified destination. Even by the standards of today’s budget airlines, Flight, by theatrical production company Darkfield is cheap. How do they do it? Part of their winning formula, I think, must be the way they kill their passengers.
Because one thing is for sure – the plane I seemed to be on (mocked up to a high degree of realism, with seatbelts and overhead luggage bins and a safety card in the seat pocket in front of me describing what action to take in the advent of some difficult-to-parse existential disaster; then, once the lights went out, magicked from the absolute darkness of the shipping container by an immersive binaural soundtrack) that plane, as I was saying, most certainly broke up in the air. I heard the screams. Some of them may have been my own.
Afterwards, armed with a steadying pint from the nearby White Hart pub, I had to admit, however, that life had not altogether left me. Was I alive or dead? Had I flown on an orange airline, or a blue one? To steady myself, I dug out my laptop and began editing my interview with Flight‘s co-producer David Rosenberg.
Rosenberg and the Darkfield company are no strangers to Dartington Hall. Their first blacked-out and binaural entertainment, Séance, ran here in 2017. And while they’re a company known for pushing the boundaries of performance, their presence is by no stretch a novelty for the estate which, since its purchase in 1925 by social experimenters Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, has been attracting artists, educators and political philosophers in an effort to develop new ways of living.
The work of the Dartington Hall Trust, which aims to maintain the estate as a place of radical experimentation, a model of rural regeneration, and a centre for progressive ideas and innovation, sounds hippyish – it is hippyish, in important respects – but that’s not to say it’s unserious. On the contrary. Important British institutions, including the National Health Service and the Arts Council, were conceived here.
A community devoted to self-renewal, the 1,200-acre estate is deep into ground-breaking experiments in land use, farming and housing, and artistic and social projects that involve the estate in the lives and aspirations of some of the most deprived communities in Britain.
“We want to be championing arts that are purposeful here, and have something to say about the world in which we live, whether through performance or the visual arts,” says Amy Bere, executive director of the Dartington Hall Trust’s arts programme. “We’re also looking for socially engaged and civic art, and for ways to reach those parts of our community who aren’t engaging with us yet.”
Darkfield’s offering is certainly likely to draw interest from all manner of people. Maybe not the timid, though. Scanning the transcript of our recent phone interview, I see that Rosenberg, a medical anaesthetist turned theatrical impresario, called the recent output Darkfield “a terrifying fairground of darkness”. He was joking. I think.
And of Flight – a 20-minute airline experience that leaves you inhabiting two worlds at once — one where you’re alive, and one where you very much aren’t — he said, “It’s not as scary as all that. Unless you dislike flying. Or you’re afraid of the dark. Or you have some existential terror about the way the universe is assembled.”
Simon Ings That’s a long list.
David Rosenberg But a short show. Glen Neath and I have been making performances in complete darkness using binaural sound for the last six years or so. But the commitment to sitting in a theatre for an hour in total darkness is a big one, so we’ve now begun making shorter, more intense pieces in shipping containers: pieces that would explore fear and anxiety in different ways.
Using the container means we can tour our material to places where audiences will engage with it in a different way – treating it a bit more like a fairground ride.
SI With this form of presentation, are you fated always to be exploring the uncanny?
DR I think we’ll be able to broaden our output as we develop. But for now, by putting people in an environment where they feel quite vulnerable, the uncanny plays a large part in what we do. Our first piece, Séance, dealt with our beliefs about death and the beyond. Flight began, obviously enough, with the fear of flying, but then we got interested in the work of physicist David Deutsch and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. There’s a peculiar interpretation of the many-worlds model, not very well regarded but irresistible, called the quantum suicide fallacy. Suppose all probabilities are played out in the quantum realm: then we will only have a conscious experience of iterations in which our consciousness survives. So, in this respect, it’s impossible to die in a plane crash. Of course it’s also possible to be the only survivor of a plane crash, or the horribly mutilated sole survivor of a plane crash, or the only person in the crash to be hurt, and so on: it’s maybe not that much of a comfort. But this is the game we are playing in Flight. You perish and you survive, at the same moment.
SI Why plunge your audience into darkness?
DR In most instances vision is our leading perception. We attach sounds to images, rather than the other way around. You can show this with auditory illusions in which people moving their lips in a certain way but the sound that you hear is related to the lip movements.
SI So we’re all lip-readers!
DR To some degree, yes. We wanted to make work that wasn’t led visually in any way, and to achieve that we need darkness. In the dark, we can start with the sound and create environments and characters and to allow the audience to create visuals for themselves, in their imaginations.
SI You first worked with Darkfield co-founder Glen Neath on Shunt in 1988 – the theatre company that pioneered immersive theatre in the UK. Why, with that background, did you decide to turn the lights out?
DR As we explore virtual reality and augmented reality we’ve begun to to notice that a lot of immersive techniques provide experiences that are are paradoxically less immersive than old media. “Immersive” has become an entertainment buzzword. I joked the other day about going to an immersive funeral: it was very sad, and it smelt a bit like bread.
Sure, we could reach a point where virtual reality is indistinguishable from real life; but then it would be real life. Quite a lot of popular virtual reality experiences involve doing incredibly mundane things. The human imagination, on the other hand is — or at any rate feels — limitless. I have been more immersed in a book than I’ve ever been in a 3D film. Immersion isn’t about drowning the senses. It’s about providing enough gaps for our imagination to fill.
SI Have you gone any further in exploring sensory deprivation?
DR We’ve used anechoic chambers to strip sound of all its reflections, so it literally becomes sound from nowhere. But we haven’t really thought of a way to bring that into a performance context. The problem is the body itself is incredibly noisy. As soon as you remove all the other sounds, then your body really makes a racket and you end up focusing on that.
For myself, I remember in the late 1980s I went to a sensory deprivation tank in Manchester that was set up in this guy’s flat. There was a bit of a vogue for the idea at that time. It was a very basic experience: a body temperature bath with enough salt in it that you floated, in complete darkness and quiet. Just before he closed the door on me, the last thing he said was, Don’t touch your face.
SI Good grief.
DR So of course I spent the whole time not touching my face, wanting desperately to touch my face.
“It’s like a cheetah going after a wildebeest,” says Judith Armitage, lead scientist for Bacterial World, an exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. She’s struggling to find a simile adequate to describe Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus, a predatory bacterium found, among other places, in the human gut. Indeed, it’s monstrously fast: capable of swimming 100 times its own body length every second.
Other bacteria are built for strength, not speed. Campylobacter jejuni, which we have to thank for most of our food poisoning, has a propeller-like flagellum geared so that it can heave its way through the thick mucus in the gut.
Armitage has put considerable effort into building a tiny exhibition that gives bacteria their due as the foundational components of living systems –and all I can think about is food poisoning. “Well that’s quorum sensing, isn’t it?” says Armitage, playing along. “After 24 hours or so biding their time, they decide there’s enough of them they can make you throw up.”
Above our heads hangs artist Luke Jerram’s gigantic inflatable E. coli, seen floating over visitors at the first New Scientist Live festival in 2016. It seems an altogether more sinister presence in Oxford’s Museum of Natural History: the alien overseer of a building so exuberantly Gothic (built in 1860, just in time for the famous evolution debate between Thomas Huxley and “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford) that it appears more grown than made.
Armed with just 55 exhibits, from the Wellcome Collection, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Natural History Museum in London, Armitage has managed to squeeze 3.8 billion years of history along a narrow balcony just under the museum’s glass roof. Our journey is two-fold: from the very big to the very small, and from the beginnings of life on Earth to its likely future.
Towering stromatolites, the earliest fossil evidence of life on Earth, reveal the action of countless anaerobic bacteria whose trick of splitting water would result, a million years later, in an extremely rusty planet filling up with toxic oxygen. To survive, let alone thrive, in the ghastly conditions ushered in by the Great Oxygenation Event required bacterial adaptations on which all living things today depend. For example, Paenibacilla (pictured) promote crop growth, and symbiotic bacteria of the genus Rhizobium pack essential hard-to-get at iron into our vegetables. Cellular adaptations defend against caustic oxygen, and have, incidentally, thrown up all manner of unforeseen by-products, including the bioluminescence of certain fish.
As multicellular organisms, we owe the very structure of our cells to an act of bacterial symbiosis. Our biosphere is shaped to meet the needs of ubiquitous bacteria like Wolbachia, without which some species of environmentally essential insect cannot reproduce, or even survive.
Naturally, we humans have tried to muscle in on this story. For a while we’ve been able to harness some bacteria to fight off others, thereby ridding ourselves of disease. But Armitage fears the antibiotic era was just a blip. “New antimicrobials are too expensive to develop,” she observes. “Once they’re shown to work they’ll be kept on the shelf waiting for the microbial apocalypse.”
But look on the bright side. At least once the great Throwing Up is over and the human population shrinks to a disease-racked minimum, the bacteria released from our ballooning guts can get back to what they’re good at: creating vibrant ecosystems out of random raw material. “Bacteria will eat all the plastic.” Of this Armitage is certain. “But,” she adds, “it takes time for metabolic cascades to evolve. We’ll probably not be around to see it happen.”
On the way out, my eye is caught by another artwork: uneasy and delicate pieces of crochet by Elin Thomas depicting colonies of bacteria. The original colonies were grown on personal objects: a key, a gold wedding ring; a wooden pencil. A worn sock.
Microbial World is a tremendous exhibition, punching way above its tiny weight. It doesn’t half put you in your place, though.