For the past five years, I have engaged intensively with creative bio-research (also known as ‘bioart’) – an umbrella term for a range of art forms that entail the fusion of biology, biotechnology, life sciences and visual art. Bioartists engage with scientific processes, using living and non/living matter as media in innovative and exciting ways. The ‘impressions’ of domestic objects that feature in the ghosted matter, phantom hurt (and other chimera) video installation – the third in a series of installations that began in 2020 and will continue into 2023 – are made through an experimental combination of biomaterials and microbes. In the video works featured on the ghosted matter installation, I extend this use of biomaterials and microbes into the digital realm.
The impressions imaged in ghosted matter (2018-2021) and chimera (2021) are made from a cellulose-fibre produced by the symbiotic action of the bacteria Gluconacetobacter xylinus and yeast. This culture, which feeds off a mixture of tea and sugar, forms a biofilm at the interface between the liquid nutrient and air. The biofilm grows to form a cellulose fibre that when dehydrated, bears uncanny resemblance to traces of human skin – sloughed off, shed, discarded. In phantom hurt (2019-2021), the impressions are made from a solidified mixture of agar and bacterial nutrient, onto which live, naturally pigmented, mildly pathogenic bacteria have been painted. Inscribed into, imprinted onto, or infused with the translucent jelly-like substrate, the bacteria grow unpredictably and uncontrollably in response to the patterns or surface applications that I attempt to create for them. In both instances, rather than being the product of my creative efforts alone, the work is made through collaboration between the micro-organisms and myself; they happen ‘with’ the agencies of the microbes in a dynamic process of organic exchange.
In phantom hurt, photographs of the agar impressions were edited using animation techniques to visually simulate or suggest the growth patterns and movements of the microbes in non-literal ways. Transitions between images were orchestrated to evoke a sense of the agar moving from it its fluid, viscous state into solidity. The imagery in chimera and ghosted matter was taken from photographs of impressions of objects made from cellulose biofibre. The photographs were digitally animated ways that simulate the ever-changing states that the biofibre occupies. When dried, the material is in a state of organic stasis; it shapeshifts and discolours over time, and becomes soft, moist or brittle according to atmospheric changes. The impressions are therefore constantly in transitory, liminal spaces of becoming. When transposed into a medium such as video, which foregrounds movement and transientness, this sense of liminality is heightened, amplifying the transformative processes of the material. animacies comprises footage of the impressions made from biofibre. In their filmic iterations, the scale of the relatively small impressions is magnified or ambiguous. They appear as strange, ethereal landscapes, or as floating on the undefined white ground, slipping in and out of the frame, conveying a heightened sense of weightlessness, immateriality and fragility.
In the videos, the impressions appear and disappear, hovering restlessly in a liminal space of constant becoming. In their initial forms as material matter, they already inhabit an ever-changing state of in-betweenness, slipping in-between life and death; visibility and invisibility; human and other-than-human; actuality and imagination; being and non-being; (semi)living and non-living. From their states as matter which evokes both the visceral and the ephemeral, the tactile and the translucent, when translated into video, the impressions appear and disappear across the screen as ghostly, weightless, ephemeral, ethereal, transient forms (which often dissolve into formlessness); they become fleeting semblances of presence which simultaneously unfold into absence. Through these precarious ‘things’ that are barely things, the viewer-as-participant is invited to try and grasp the ungraspable – fugitive, fragmented remembrances of familiarity, strangeness, comfort, dis-ease, intimacy, distance, vulnerability, trauma, complicity and loss.
The impressions reference various design styles, periods and surface patterning. They include items such as tea-cups and saucers, bowls and plates, taken from Chinese porcelain and English bone china; some feature blue and white patterns of Chinese origin, such as the willow pattern, which the British copied in their production of 18th century crockery, and the Dutch reproduced in their ‘Delft blue’ porcelain. These designs, which are still being produced by the original companies, or reproductions thereof, have become domestic ‘classics’ in post-colonies such as South Africa. In these contexts, the objects, as well as the actual and filmic impressions I take of them, thus resonate as spectral traces of the violent colonial legacies that haunt domestic interiors and broader individual and collective imaginations. They carry hauntological resonances of British and Dutch Imperialism and colonialism – the very mechanisms that drove the enculturation of capital. Sugar, tea and porcelain were commodities of colonial commerce that were shipped by the Dutch East India and the British East India companies to the colonies alongside enslaved peoples, themselves considered fungible objects of trade. Read against this historical backdrop of dispossession, exploitation, genocide, displacement and precarity, the filmic impressions may be seen as uncanny spectres of disquietude that continue to inhabit the present, and will continue to haunt the future. They are like “ghosts … weeds that whisper… of the many pasts and yet-to comes that surround us”.
The impressions featured in phantom hurt were produced in a microbiology laboratory at the QEII Medical Centre, Nedlands, Perth, in collaboration with Dr Kate Hammer, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director Graduate Programs in Infectious Diseases, School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Western Australia. The work was made during Farber’s residency at the SymbioticA Centre of Excellence for Biological Arts, University of Western Australia (September 2019-January 2020).
The work on phantom hurt was made possible through the generous funding provided by the South African National Research Council and the University of Johannesburg Research Committee.
 Gan, E, Tsing, A, Swanson, H and Bubandt, N. 2017. ‘Introduction: Haunted Landscapes of the Anthropocene’, in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, eds. A Tsing, H Swanson, E Gan & N Bubandt. Minneapolis: G1–G14, here G6.