The thought-provoking installation “SELFMADE” (2013), currently on display at The Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin, reveals the importance of microbes in our environment. Microbiologist Christina Agapakis (US) & scent artist Sissel Tolaas (NO) teamed up to create artisanal cheese made from lactobacillus swabbed from the skin of human beings. Lactobacillus is the bacteria responsible for curdling and preserving milk and giving cheese its characteristic smell and texture. Agapakis maintains that the cheese in the exhibit is not intended for human consumption but for investigating the unique microbial environment that humans participate in daily.
Through the installation Agapakis calls into question the prevailing paradigm of good/bad bacteria and offers a more complex view of the world of microbes, both biologically and culturally. She emphasizes the paradox of the modern paradigm: “We not only live in a biological world surrounded by rich communities of microorganisms, but in a cultural world that emphasises (sic) total antisepsis.”i Noting the inconsistency between modern human habits of consumption and bacterial intolerance in the environment, she asks: “Can knowledge and tolerance of bacterial cultures in our food improve tolerance of the bacteria on our bodies?”ii
Agapakis’ use of traditional cheesemaking methods underscores the connection between microbial culture and human culture. In her Pop!Tech lecture, she explains the biological and artistic process of her installation and of creating, by accident, the famed Sardinian “maggot cheese” casu marzu. The cheese can only be consumed when its larvae are, in fact, living. While some might recoil at the idea of consuming “rotten” cheese replete with squirming insects, Agapakis argues through her example of “encountering prejudice toward the macrobiological” for an increased awareness of cheese and its relationship to culture. Cheese, she notes, is about three things: “culture,” “biological context,” and “care” or “the way that we interact with and take care of the environment around us.”iii
Her exhibit poignantly illustrates cheese as a living object. Cheese, by its very nature, can never be an aseptic environment. Each cheese is filled with living organisms that interact with and mirror its culture both physically and sociologically.