Essay :: materialities, spectralities, micbrobial matters
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen, Anthem, from the album, The Future (1992)
Precarious and frangible yet strangely resilient, the ‘impressions’ of domestic objects that make up my ongoing body of photographic and sculptural work, titled cultured colonies/colonial cultures, hover in a liminal space of constant becoming. Slipping in-between life and death; visibility and invisibility; materiality and immateriality; human and non-human; presence and absence; actuality and imagination; being and non-being; real and unreal; form and formlessness; (semi)living and non-living; they oscillate, restlessly, in a state of in-betweenness.
The photographic images are of casts of domestic objects made from a solidified mixture of agar and bacterial nutrient, onto which live, naturally pigmented pathogenic bacteria have been painted. Inscribed into, imprinted onto, or infused with the translucent jelly-like substrate, the bacteria grow unpredictably, and often uncontrollably, in response to the patterns or surface applications that I attempt to create for them. Rather than being the product of my creative efforts alone, the work is made through a process of organic collaboration between the micro-organisms and myself; they happen ‘with’ the agencies of the microbes in a dynamic process of exchange. I am constantly fascinated by the extraordinary creative abilities of my collaborators and their ingenious growth patterns.
The kinds of objects cast range in design, period and surface patterning. They include items taken from Chinese porcelain and English bone china - such as dinner, cake and side plates, teacups and saucers, bowls and glassware - and reference traditional English styling and patterning found in Royal Doulton, Royal Albert, and Royal Worcester ranges. Some of the casts feature quintessential, yet ubiquitous blue and white patterns of Chinese origin, such as the willow pattern, which the British copied in their production of blue and white 18th century porcelain, and the Dutch reproduced in their ‘Delft blue’ porcelain. Reproductions of the original designs of the cast objects, and the originals themselves that are still in existence, have become domestic ‘classics’ in many global post-colonies: in their reference to upper-class tastes and values, they have also become signifiers of settler middle-class consumption
and status, and often act as markers of gentility or respectability. As such, in both the original and contemporary reproduced form, the objects and their casts resonate as spectral traces of colonial legacies that haunt domestic interiors and broader individual and collective imaginations in post-colonial contexts. Verne Harris’s (2015:20) description of the archive resonates here: “For the fragments in their custody comprise matter out of place. And the whispers of dislocation can be heard. Ghostly voices of other places, of lineages, of origins”.
The casts create a semblance of presence, of immediacy, of touch, yet their delineation of absence ironically defines what they are. They read as if they have been made of layers of exposed subcutaneous tissue. Devoid of the protective epidermis, they are materially corporeal yet simultaneously eerie and spectral. Ethereal and ephemeral, they appear to be in varying states of atrophy, and as such, may act as affective carriers of memory, and evoke associations with trauma, absence, complicity, and loss. While they are preserved in the photographic moment, in actuality, although the bacteria’s growth has been chemically curtailed and thus ‘contained’, their agar surfaces are susceptible to contamination from eukaryotic micro-organisms such as fungi, yeasts and mould.
Following Lorenzo Veracini’s (2014), analogy between the relationships between growth patterns and characteristics of viruses and bacteria and the functioning of colonialism and settler colonial systems an analogy might be set up between the bacterial colonies that grow on the casts and settler colonies. Veracini (2014:615-616) notes that while both viruses and bacteria are exogenous elements that usually dominate their destination locales, a crucial difference is that viruses need living cells to operate, while bacteria attach to surfaces and may or may not rely on the organisms they encounter. As Veracini points out, viruses first attach to a host cell and then penetrate it in a way that is similar to how the colonial system depends on the presence and subjugation of those deemed as exploitable ‘Others’. Alternatively, while settler colonies might depend on the subjugation and exploitation of indigenous peoples, they have more in common with bacterial colonies in that settler collectives attach to the land but generally do not necessarily need indigenous ‘Others’ to reproduce and function (Veracini 2014:615-616).
Following Veracini, the casts, with their bacterial attachments, could be seen to speak to the demise of settler colonial culture, and the ways in which the ghosts of South Africa’s colonial and apartheid pasts – what Jacques Derrida (1994) calls ‘hauntologies’ – continue to inhabit the present. The concept of ‘hauntology’ replaces the ontological notions of ‘being’ and ‘presence’ with the figure of the ghost or spectre; it is an ontology haunted by disjunct, invisible-yet-present traces of a traumatic or troubled past, and the disquieting figure of the other within. If one considers the casts as hauntological spectres of a settler colonial past evoked in post-colonial present, they might also be associated with Sigmund Freud’s (1955 ) notion of ‘the uncanny’ wherein that which was once known and familiar (Heimlich) becomes disturbingly foreign (Unheimlich). That which has been repressed resurfaces; the forgotten is remembered; once homely objects become unhomely or ‘uncannily strange’.
Here, time is out of joint. While they reference the past, specifically a history of British and Dutch colonialism and Imperialism, the three-dimensional and photographed cast objects are suspended in the present, yet point to a nostalgia for the future. Multiple temporalities are ever co-present. The
typically English and Dutch styles of china and patterning that they reference refer to a legacy of settler colonialism which is rooted in South African history and a rich, yet deeply troubled, history of West-East cross-cultural and economic exchange.
By the 17th Century, in what is known as the ‘Dutch Golden Age’ of trade, art, science and military prowess, the Netherlands had become the foremost maritime and economic power in the world. The megacorporate trading company, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and its sister company, the Dutch West India Company, presided over the Eastern and Western trade routes. Resources, spices, tea, coffee and luxury goods were shipped from Asia to Europe. Marking the dawn of a globalised world, this rapidly growing web of trade created a market for cultural capital, leading to the consumption of household goods by the middle-classes. These objects were depicted in still-life paintings, portraits and scenes of everyday life by the Grand Masters of the Dutch Golden age, and the paintings themselves became signifiers of their owner’s wealth. In drawing with bacteria onto the casts, I reference the 17th century Dutch painting tradition by replicating Johannes Vermeer’s paintings of women in domestic contexts such as The Lace Maker (c.1669) and The Milkmaid (1658). Some of the cast objects are placed on agar ‘cloths’ which bear an uncanny likeness to textiles such as Dutch lace; fragments of agar are arranged in ways that might resemble disintegrating colonial maps whose finely drawn lines visually evoke arteries from which capillaries branch out.
During the 18th century, Britain rose to a dominant position among European trading Empires. Although her commercial market was with North America and the West Indies, she also embarked on trade with Asia, specifically China and India, through the activities of the East India Company. In the work, these references to colonial Dutch and English trade are extended in the function of the objects themselves – porcelain teacups and sugar bowls are used to hold tea and sugar – commodities which are resonant with the British Empire and Imperialism, and carry long histories of exploitation in its colonies. From the 1600s to 1800s, the East India Company was instrumental in spreading tea from China to India; with their plantations in India, British interests controlled tea production in the subcontinent. Tea, which was initially an upper-class drink — a sign of high society and social class — became the infusion of every social class in Great Britain throughout the eighteenth century and has remained so, to the extent that tea drinking is often associated with British culture. Sugar, used to sweeten the tea, was cultivated using slave labour in Britain’s West Indian colonies.
It is therefore not by chance that in microbiological terms bacteria are referred to as ‘colonies’ and ‘cultures’. In a microbiology laboratory, bacterial colonies are ‘cultured’ invitro, but in this case, they are cultured exvitro, as they grow on the casts themselves. These casts carry hauntological resonances of British and Dutch Imperialism and colonialism – the very mechanisms that drove the enculturation of capital, set against against an historical backdrop of slavery, genocide, dispossession, apartheid, exploitation, displacement and precarity. In tracing the stages of capitalism in South Africa from its mercantile phases with the establishment of the Cape of Good Hope, through Dutch and British settler colonialism and apartheid, the ‘casts-as-cultivated-cultures’ may be seen as uncanny spectres of disquietude that, even in their states of demise, continue to inhabit the future-present. In the context of post-colonial South Africa, a society which is characterised by cultural and physical displacement, the sense of uncanniness that they might evoke may be related to processes of re-invention or refiguring of oneself – processes that are shadowed by a recalcitrant and disorientating memory of place and space that must be worked through for newness to emerge. As Harris (2015:13).so eloquently puts it, “What is present speaks loudly of absences, and what is absent presents itself insistently. Presence and absence unfolding out of one another. The experience of being haunted”.
Derrida, J. 1994. Specters of Marx. Translated by P Kamuf. New York: Routledge.
Freud, S. 1955 . The uncanny, in The standard edition of the complete psychological works
of Sigmund Freud, edited and translated by J Strachey. London: Hogarth:217-256.
Harris, V. 2015. Hauntology, a Hauntology, archivy and banditry: an engagement with Derrida and Zapiro. Critical Arts 29(1):13-27.
Veracini, L. 2014. Understanding Colonialism and Settler Colonialism as Distinct Formations. Interventions 16(5):615-633.