My story comprises a series of successive or overlapping trajectories of care, care for myself and other beings, human and nonhuman alike, which inhabit my person and contribute to my existence. Each project involves a certain stage of life, its course accrued in the record of my personal history and the histories of all the other actors that join me in building the I-with. While these trajectories are represented in exhibitions, the latter rarely offer the opportunity to flesh their stories out fully, leaving them mere strands of memory transposed into the language of art. Which is why I am writing an autoethnography – to arrange these strands into a single, coherent tale.
Delectatio morosa (2013)
I have always felt a certain affinity for that which is discarded, unwanted, considered wretched – or abject. It is around those elements of reality that I see the potential of building trajectories. As different forms of life and matter, they carry their own specific meaning. And my trajectories are designed to test the resilience of these meanings and to generate new ones.
One such trajectory involved my long-term relationship with a variety of insect species, one chapter of which was explored by the Delectatio morosa exhibition, held at the since-closed Miłość Gallery in Toruń and curated by Piotr Lisowski and Natalia Wiśniewska. The gallery was set up in the curators’ former apartment and this residential aspect was essential to my efforts. I moved into the flat for ten days along with my insects: Madagascar hissing cockroaches (Gromphadorhina portentosa), morio worms (Zophobas morio), and mealworms (Tenebrio molitor). The venue was something of a vivarium, inside of which I shared my life with my insects’. We were, all of us, rendered into exhibits on display. Each of the rooms in the apartment was used for a different set of activities.
The first room the visitors entered after stepping through the door was the kitchen. It was the site of one rather controversial performative situation, arranged explicitly for the exhibition. As I sought to confront living matter with the meaning ascribed to it, I decided to examine the difference between an insect and a worm and establish at what point the two are considered the same. Worms carry negative, abject connotations, like infesting wounds and feeding on flour and fruit, as well as more abstract associations, such as ideas that burrow deep inside our consciousness. They are unwanted around us, and most definitely inside us. Which is why I set out to serve them in the form of a succulent, flavorful meal.
I wanted to see whether the simple switching of contexts would be enough to assuage fears and negate taboos. Many asked me how could I live with and care take of the insects only to kill and eat them later. The question probed the very foundation of my concept of care. As a person brought up in the countryside, I’m intimately familiar with how animals are raised with the utmost care only to eventually be killed for food. The performative dinner was intended to impose a certain cognitive dissonance on me and my guests, force us into a moral and aesthetic confrontation. Ultimately, the shared experience felt like a rite of passage, in the course of which we rose above our individual and collective boundaries.
From the kitchen attendees moved on to the living room area, clean and elegant. In its center sat a large, wooden table, conceived as a potential meeting place, but deliberately stripped of chairs to provoke awkwardness and discomfort. Above the table hung two photographs, resembling Baroque paintings. Both depicted my neck, along which a Madagascar hissing cockroach was sauntering. The pictures boasted a disturbingly erotic character, aestheticizing a relationship that enjoys little in the way of public acceptance as most construe it to be some sort of deviation. It was my intention to overaestheticize the deviation to such a degree as to induce another cognitive dissonance in the audience.
The two aquariums set on classic museum pedestals were supposed to have a similar effect. One held a breeding colony of morio worms, the same ones that my guests and I ate in the kitchen portion of the exhibition. The other tank, meanwhile, held hissing cockroaches, the same ones that were featured on the Baroque-styled photographs. The tanks separated the “worms” from the rest of the space, while the shape of the containers imposed a rigid, geometric form on the roiling biological masses. The white walls, the white pedestals, and the clear glass all gave the exhibit an aseptic, sterile aura.
Behind the living room sat the most intimate space, the bedroom where I slept alongside my insects and where I composed my autoethnography. Like in many a movie, the wall was covered with a tapestry of proof – in this case, corroboration of trajectories, notes, illustrations, and headstones for insects whose involvement with the trajectory came to an end somewhere in the course of the exhibition. One key aspect of the project was the fact that moved into the Miłość in December and the apartment had no heating. Especially at night, the temperature was uncomfortably low for me, and even more so to my exotic cockroaches. The curators provided me with a gas heater, which warmed up the living room throughout the day and then the bedroom at night, after I closed its doors to trap the heat in. I also moved the aquariums to the bedroom, where I placed them on the bed. I slept alongside them, like a new mother laid out next to a maternity ward incubator. In the mornings, I usually went to shower at the curators’ new flat and then back to the gallery. I had no appointments set up, but people could come and go as they please, I just lived there, with my insects, wholly focused on our coexistence.
safe suicide (2016-2020)
My earliest meetings with scientists (entomologists) took place when I was doing my insect project, and while I visited their laboratories, I can’t say that I stayed in any of them very long. It was only in 2016, when I was starting my transdisciplinary postgraduate studies at the Artes Liberales Faculty of the University of Warsaw, that I came across Professor Paweł Golik, the head of the Institute of Genetics and Animal Biotechnology, who made it possible for me to work in its labs. The somewhat abstract project I outlined to him involved me attempting suicide at the molecular level, on my own cells cultured in vitro, and it turned out that it was quite possible. I also learned that cells could be immortalized by being turned into cancer cells and that cells can die either through apoptosis or through necrosis. The former is called programmed cell death. This knowledge helped me narrow down my intentions for the project. I decided to immortalize cells only to finally take their life (and turn them mortal once more) by inducing them to perform apoptosis. I found myself under the care of a team working on human cell lines, members of which persuaded me to go with lymphocytes B isolated from my blood as the cells. Mentoring was provided by Dr. Agata Kodroń, with Dr. Magdalena Kaliszewska taking over advisory duties in later stages of the project.
From the moment they were isolated from my blood, they were given a wholly new status. They were no longer bound to serve my body, they became, to some extent, independent. I had to separate them from other blood components, which were of no use to me in my experiments. It was at the moment of isolation that I began to ask myself whether these were could still be called mine. Pulled from my body, they were rendered into research material. As soon as they were put inside culture bottles, they became a collective subject of my personal and professional care.
From its very emergence, a paradox lay at the core of this care, similar in character to the one that accompanied my consumption of the insects I cared for. Caring for the cell line I isolated, replacing the growth medium, and passaging the cells (the process of splitting the cell culture into more bottles when they outgrow their original one) – all of these efforts were aimed at preparing the cells for their eventual death. The better their condition was, the easier it was to observe the cells through a microscope, We began with two culture bottles; in one, the cells were immortalized with an Epstein-Barr virus, while the other remained virus-free as the control group. This gave me the ability to observe the differences between immortal (scientists prefer the term immortalized) and mortal cells. The former typically aggregated in clumps, which made them look like smaller and larger islands under a microscope.
I had to learn a lot about the behavior of cells, as well as the myriad ways of influencing them. While it turns out that cells are very easy to kill, whether through culturing errors or inadvertent contamination (which can wipe out both mortal and immortalized cells), the manner of their death is much harder to control. My goal was to bring about apoptosis in the cells and then record it with a confocal microscope. Designing the experiment so that the cells are induced to apoptosis rather than necrosis and being in the lab at the right moment to capture the process proved to be quite the art. Hard to say at this point whether I killed more cells deliberately or inadvertently, but the process definitely taught me humility and that as much as I tried to control the cells, they controlled me as well.
Despite the larger number of experiments and observations I was able to perform, I failed to capture, in either a picture of a recording, an event that the biologists mentoring me would unambiguously classify as apoptosis. I took the failure in stride and ultimately accepted it as added value. My attempts at care, here manifested as oppression, proved ultimately fruitless. The cells turned out to be even less mine than I thought.
Just when I thought I was nearing the end of this trajectory, that I had done everything I could and it was time to begin something new, an opportunity appeared to create something of an appendix to the project. I was contacted by the staff of the Laboratory of Molecular Bases of Aging at the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology. Cell aging is closely linked with life and death, both in vitro and in vivo. I decided to examine the aging of my own cell and investigate how it relates to the aging of my body as a whole.
Once again we had to begin the process with isolating cells from my body, but this time we chose fibroblasts. To sample the cells, we needed to perform a skin biopsy, that is cut out a small fragment of my skin. The procedure left me with a permanent mark on my arm. Isolation had to take place the same day as the biopsy, as the sample was in very good condition. Because fibroblasts demonstrate high adhesion (they tend to attach to surfaces), they were cultured in Petri dishes. Preparing the biopsy sample for culturing required considerable precision. First, the dermis had to be separated from the epidermis, as the latter is typically populated with microorganisms that can contaminate a culture. Then, the dermis was placed in a growth medium. We had to wait a while for the fibroblast outgrowth to commence, but the process was absolutely fascinating to observe. The cells slowly (and somewhat reticently) stopped being a part my body.
Working with the fibroblasts could easily be a separate project, but I finally decided to incorporate it into safe suicide. This time, however, the focus was not on dying, but what comes before – aging and senescence. To analyze the process, I performed three different staining at regular intervals, around every three weeks or so (B-gal, BrdU i 53Bp1). From each staining, I took a series of pictures, which I then used to calculate the ratio of stained to unstained cells, the key indicator of the aging process. Curiously, to be stained the cells had to be killed, meaning that, in a sense, the initial intention of the project remain unchanged. Whenever I performed the staining, a photographer (Patrycja Wojtas) took my picture, always capturing me in the same position, with the same lighting and no picture postprocessing. This was my way of illustrating the flow of time, inside the laboratory and out.
Because I performed my experiments across different laboratories, each of them continues to hold a supply of my cells. Those that were banked in liquid nitrogen are likely to survive for a very long time. I decided to conclude the project with a voluntary donation of cells to the laboratory in which I began my safe suicide journey. Once again B lymphocytes were isolated from a sample of my blood, immortalized, and finally frozen and placed in liquid nitrogen. It was a symbolic thank-you for the care I received in all the laboratories. I have no way of knowing whether this gift will ever be of use to anyone. Chances are that I will ask about that some years down the line.
Because the safe suicide project was dedicated to exploring death, I had not presumed that I would be attempting to place a live cell culture in a gallery. The opportunity to do that, however, came about in 2019 with the Beyond Borders. Processed Body – Expanded Brain – Distributed Agency exhibition held at the Łaźnia Center for Contemporary Art in Gdańsk as part of the Art+Science Meeting series (curated by Ryszard W. Kluszczyński). In a sense, the exhibition bookended the trajectory, as it marked the first time I treated my cells with hypochlorite in front of an audience, projecting the image from a microscope onto a wall to explicitly show the “suffering” of the cells. Not only did the performance ultimately upset the natural order, so to speak, I later realized that I failed to provide the necessary guidance to my audience. Few viewers understood what they had watched, why the performance had been silent, somber, and shrouded in black. The experience taught me that transitions between contexts (here the contexts of the laboratory and the gallery) must be reflected in changes in care.
The Last Supper (2017–2019)
One idea that came to me when I was working on safe suicide involved using cells as a source of genetic material for The Last Supper. The basic premise of this latter project entailed reenacting the biblical miracle under laboratory conditions by transmuting my body into beer (I felt no need to hew so close to the biblical original to aim for wine). My science partner for this trajectory was Dr. Jakub Piątkowski from the Institute of Genetics and Animal Biotechnology. Pursuing the two projects simultaneously was possible because they were held in two labs sitting on the same floor.
Our goal for this project involved selecting one of my genes and introducing it into yeast; the gene had to be active in yeast metabolism and have some significance in fermentation. The end result, unfiltered beer, would contain the genetic material of the yeast along with minute traces of my own. Symbolically, I would be sharing myself with anyone who drank the alcoholic beverage we produced.
Predictably, designing the premise proved much easier than executing it. We had to first select a specific gene, then construct the plasmid, and finally to replicate the plasmid inside of bacteria. The bacteria could take up either the recombinant plasmid (which was our goal), the original plasmid, or no plasmid at all. This meant multiple trial-and-error attempts. Similar complications accompanied attempts to introduce the recombinant plasmid into the yeast (S. cerevisiae). We had to make multiple attempts with different strain of yeast. In this project, bacteria and yeast received my care as engineering elements, helping me achieve the presumed structural goal. Some could say that such a framing was nothing but cold calculation. And they would be right. In this instance, my attitude toward the bacteria and yeast differed little, if at all, from the laboratory standard. These organisms worked for us.
The project took a very long time and there were moments where Jakub Piątkowski and I lost hope in a successful outcome. Once we succeeded in introducing the recombinant plasmid into the yeast strain, it turned out that the strain was incapable of fermentation. A mixture of brewery yeast strains, meanwhile, stubbornly resisted taking up our plasmid. Looking for a way out, we finally mixed the brewery strains with our transformed yeast. Fortunately, the combined population proved a success and brought about the so-called “violent fermentation” in the early phase of the process. Our beermaking efforts became the stuff of local legend. The aroma of freshly brewed beer carried through the halls.
The bottling stage fell on the summer, when temperatures soared. We stored the bottles in a rarely visited portion of the lab. One day, a cleaner heard an explosion coming from the area and it turned out that the pressure inside the bottles grew dangerously high due to the sweltering temperatures. Wearing a makeshift hazmat suit and face covering, Jakub was able to save most of the remaining bottles by opening and then recapping them. Following the near loss, we moved our storage to a cooling unit.
From its very inception, I planned to conclude The Last Supper with a performative dinner or, to be more precise, a performative reenactment before the camera of the scene captured by Leonardo da Vinci in his famous mural under the same name. Ultimately, however, we found ourselves constrained by the specific regulations concerning genetically modified organisms. While the lab had a permit for work involving GMOs, developing food products involving byproducts of genetically modified life was not covered under the document and could be risky. To make sure, I petitioned the General Sanitary Inspectorate in Warsaw. The officials, however, refused to sanction consumption of the GMO product outside of the laboratory, as even filtering the beer could not guarantee removal of all fragments of modified yeast from the beverage. This led me to drop my attempts to take consumption outside the lab premises and decide to hold the dinner inside one of the classrooms at the institute. In the end, this proved a boon to the project, as the scenery inside the classroom, with its long lab benches, bore a strong resemblance to the scene portrayed by da Vinci.
The performative dinner has never been repeated in a live setting; at exhibitions, it functions as a video recording, a movable mural painting, so to speak. However, we still have access to our recombinant yeast, so there’s a chance that one day we’ll brew another batch of beer and sit down with others to share it over a meal.
synthetic motherhood (2017–2018)
I rarely content myself with committing to just a single trajectory, an attitude mirroring the character of our times, which prize output volume and high turnover above anything else. I also find myself incapable of waiting when it comes to things I consider important. Why is why I used my genetic material for one more project: synthetic motherhood. It would seem that this project would speak to the very essence of care, given its focus on motherhood. This is likely due to too few people paying attention to the first word in the name, “synthetic.” My laboratory vision of motherhood involves cold calculation and data crunching. I know I myself will never be a mother, for myriad reasons, but I needed to reckon with that subject, to create representations of my potential offspring. To do that, I had to explore a wholly new area of biology: phenotype prediction and forensic sequencing, which projects potential physical characteristics from genomic data. Acting on a recommendation from Professor Paweł Golik, I reached out to Professor Wojciech Branicki, who heads a lab at the Małopolska Centre of Biotechnology.
I was familiar with Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s Stranger Visions project, in which she generated hree-dimensional portraits allegedly from genetic material isolated from random cigarette butts, chewing gum, and hair found on the street. I decided to undertake a similar predictive analysis, but working off combinations of sequenced genomes – sampled from me and ten other men (demonstrating a range of phenotypes). Reality, however, proved disappointing, as I soon learned that from a scientific standpoint, the forecasting is strictly limited to hair and eye color, while the technology for predicting skin color was, at that point, still in development. The primary tool for analyzing sequencing data, the HIrisPlex table, is available online.
The aforementioned laboratory allowed me to perform high-throughput sequencing of my DNA and then shared with me the sequencing data gathered from ten anonymous men. Because the lab had no way of mixing and comparing sequencing data coming from two people, I had to come up with my own solution. It turns out that the best approach involved simple Mendel crosses, which offered a staggering number of possible configurations. As I was doing my calculations “by hand,” I had to narrow down my scope to just 15 variants. Uploading the results into a HIrisPlex table produced a variety of probability percentages for hair and eye color for offspring from me and a given donor. We should note here, however, that the predictions are far from certain – hence the likelihood expressed in percentages.
Aside from expressing care toward the human and non-human actors in my endeavors, I have also consistently sought to foreground care conceived as a kind of work ethic, or honesty. Which is why it was important to me in this project to clearly communicate which parts of it were carried out using scientific means and which were pure artistic speculation. The final shape of this trajectory is a merger of these two aspects. The project ultimately produced two portraits, of a boy and a girl, rendered in ten different hair and eye color versions derived from data analysis. The facial features were artificially changed to resemble mine.
How do you mother these synthetic representations? I’d say that the mothering is synthetic, too. It lacks the deeper emotions or the attachment that most associate with motherhood. My mothering is different: it’s caring for ideas, their thrust, and their audience. I decided that I shall not limit myself and simply be a mother to all.