Art, Microbes and Planetary Health
On June 22, to mark the occasion of World Microbiome Day, artists, communicators, and scientists from different parts of the world came together in a virtual dialogue, open to the public, to reflect on the importance of bacteria for the sustainability of Planetary Health and the consequences of the excessive use of antimicrobials. Different artistic expressions, such as music, painting, sculpture and ceramics were key reference points. This International Dialogue on Art, Microbes and Planetary Health, arose from collaborative work, different reflections and research on the transformative power of art to understand health with an integral perspective and the complexity of the interrelationships in the fabric of life, making visible the beauty of the microbial world and making the unconscious, conscious. This article, written by Australian artist Peter Cameron, is a poetic reflection on the scope and depth of this Dialogue.
The turning of the light on the day of the Solstice
For more than 15 years ReAct Latin America, a dedicated network of art, science and health professionals have been coming together to re-imagine action on antibiotic resistance. This dialogue is a celebration of the Day.
New metaphors and sensory perceptions are needed to engage with microbiomes
The vital importance of microbiome for health in all bodies is now widely acknowledged and the collaborative research has developed deep roots. What this team does well is listen to the phenomena, following where resistances are and what these mean to various systems of health, attending to all the senses.
As human beings inhere in an open system of complex functioning relationships, we may learn more from these viewpoints than the generally accepted, industrially reduced, mechanical model.
To look at relationships inside and outside all bodily structures at the same time requires an ability to visualise moving patterns, requiring all our wits and senses. Vital relational collaborations create vital new narratives. Inter and intra-disciplinary teachers learning with students, cross-cultural work, art dancing with song talking between languages.
Changing our perceptions to strengthen our microbiome
Illuminated also are central questions of how we as humans are relating to the other realms of natural phenomena. Listening to the other depends on mutual respect and reciprocity; hearing is a further step.
Language is the major tool in branches of medicine these days, this being how the story of a disease is told. Relentlessly we listen to metaphors of industrialised war being used when talking about health or hygiene. The lasting implications and consequences of this often-brutal language are staggering for all life on this planet.
From a short 200 or so years ago, it remains a profound shift in our perception of what health is, who can be a provider of health and therefore what class of substance can be considered (and marketed) as medicine. War has a bleak view of relationship, especially coupled with a mindset that sees nature as other, and inert to the raging ‘dominion of a man’.
The arts capture our sensory perceptions
In any question many of our sense perceptions are engaged including the so-called unconscious. Within our current culture we usually do not see the arts as methods for the processing of complex issues, problem recognition and dissolving. (I paint to see more clearly where I am). The arts have always played a crucial role in health. In myriad forms of music, we feel the deeply connective passions of joy, sorrow and beauty. These experiences take us well beyond our usual understandings. We know music heals. Many are unlearning the (fearful) cultural constructs that deem the arts as superficial except when institutionalised. All churches know the potency of idols. Many arts practitioners sense how their work has a profound logic that is supra-rational. Many scientists, including Einstein himself, placed great importance on his violin and on his dreaming. Historically, dreaming was always done for the collective. Here we are led beyond the places where our plodding rational mind simply will not attend. So why are we afraid?
In the last few hundred years Science has developed tools to discern some of the hitherto invisible processes involved in our creation. And our destruction. For about 80 years bacteria has become a primary instrument for health. But now 130,000 tons of antibiotics are used each year! This collaborative dialogue shows how we need to listen more closely to the relational processes before we understand the mounting consequences of over usage. After being somewhat disorientated on a cartesian plain, the sciences slowly, reluctantly understand that there is no such thing as an impartial subject and how the viewer’s presence influences the study, the other. Some still regard Nature as other and consequently, feel they do not belong here. Self-awareness itself is a long discipline.
In many first nations cultures it is in the interstices, those spaces between the threads of relations, where the potent lasting stories of culture live. Western culture essentially opposes that, where subjects – specifically humans of a particular race and gender – form a constructed hierarchy of ‘control’. We will each decide for ourselves what is important when it comes to health. This dialogue looks further into the details and repercussions of various practises. Does buoyant health live in the individual or in the community, or in the land, water and air elements of that place? Or is vitality the system itself, the practical, daily emotional, spiritual relationships between each, every element affecting every other? What do studies of microbes, our oldest ancestors, tell us?
The team show how we can relearn our relationships with medicine and ask, what is health in this rapidly changing world? If we return to engaging our wide range of perceptual senses of body spirit and mind, we will rebuild our capacities to be more responsible to our family of loves, the wellbeing of the land, the dreams of children.
A work by Australian artist Peter Cameron, which resembles the route known as «lemniscata» (moebius or endless ribbon), presented during the dialogue by Dr. Silvina Figar, to symbolise the flexibility, movement and adaptability of bacteria in their interactions with the environment.
Changing our perceptions to strengthen our microbiome
We are gently reminded to overcome the fears that threaten our conscious development. Simply eating unprocessed, pure foods strengthens gut bacteria and returns us to our community being land and its healthy diversity. In being given strong conscious capacity, humans were encouraged to not deny their unconscious elements by building a strong culture of reciprocal responsibilities. Power and authority were separated, heterarchical structures adopted throughout. We know timeless cultures where this has worked well through apparent insurmountable obstacles like crushing ice ages. Humans do have capacity. The language of cultural abstractions and distraction has failed us all. Our deeper gut senses are calling. Most are quietly watching and listening now as the light turns.
What is being put forward in this dialogue is a powerful, vital way of being with our current circumstance. The dynamism of this collaboration stimulates much more than mind. Silvana beautifully elaborates connecting tissues across several senses where our fears can transmute into initiative. Satya tells us how battlefields turn into dancefloors. Sophia shows how dystopia in mind and utopia in heart together make new formats and language, while Alexis creates music dancing bacteria from the melody of fossilised microorganisms. These fundamental shifts of perception are real opportunities to make the unseen visible. We’ve been given a wonderful example of how to embrace the courage of the way.