One of the driving questions for the Microbes on the Mind project (click here) is how we can represent a more-than-human body; how we can depict, write, feel, perhaps even hear and smell ourselves as partly microbial. We study how others have approached this communicative puzzle, and experiment with different methods ourselves.
Since the project began in 2019, we have tried techniques ranging from exhibition making and historical storytelling to film, podcasting, memory work and art-science collaboration. Across these media, a common motivation replicates and mutates – a conviction that the microbiome buzzes with potential for shifting how we think about human wellbeing, pushing us towards a more interconnected and environmental perspective, and acting as a provocation to the crude separation of ‘mind’ or ‘psyche’ from ‘body’ or ‘digestion’. But these ideas need to be communicated and made usable in order to affect change. The relationship between science communication, research impact, and the potential instrumentalisation of creative practice is of course complex – but a matter for another blog post!
In Autumn 2019, we worked with visiting scholar James Wilkes to develop a workshop called ‘Writing from the Gut’, publicly advertised to anyone with an interest in grappling with how we can write on behalf of such a strange subject as a microbe, and how experience might be expressed when the subject understands themselves as dispersed across scales, across forms of cognition, across modes of feeling. The course comprised four sessions build around writing exercises called TRANSLATION, ALTERED PERSPECTIVES, EXPERIMENTAL EXCESS, and SHIFTING SCALES, all applied to objects from the exhibition Mind the Gut (click here). At the end, we made a pamphlet which will be available online soon – but for now, the introduction by James Wilkes is below. I will also present the project at the Chronic Living conference in April 2021 (click link here).
In conclusion, an observation: when we tried to write the microbe, it often seemed to recede from us. It could be approached, slightly shamefacedly, on its own terms – writing to evoke an entirely other world where anthropomorphisation had a guilty gravity. The microbe could also appear laminated into everyday ways of talking about being a body; the crash, gulp, and gurgle of digestion expressing its mysteries through a microbial lens. But it was much harder to write as a combined subject, to feel intimate with the microbial, to find scaffoldings that are not about doubling – a voice in the ear, a devil on the shoulder, a wise gut instinct reining in the brain. These figures are very tempting, but they frame our relationship with microbes as dialogical, negotiated, offering revelation from another realm, rather than as co-constituted and reshaping subjectivity itself. What should we take from this? Accept and play with it, or continue to resist?
Recent scientific research suggests that the trillions of microbes living in our guts may play a role in regulating our moods and mental states. In other words, we might think of human experience not just as the production of a singular being but as the outcome of many interacting species. Literature has a long history of representing how we think of our inner lives; what new possibilities open up if we start seeing ourselves as communities, ecosystems or ‘holobionts’?
This was the question that sparked Writing from the Gut, a creative writing course based in Mind the Gut, Medical Museion’s exhibition exploring the multiple connections between brains, bowels and bacteria. Each week we discussed microbiome science, poetry and fiction, and explored the creative writing exercises reproduced here as a pull-out sheet.
The first writing exercise invited participants to find another life-form and try to write from its perspective. This process generated intense discussions about the possibility (or not) of representing non-human experience in human language, and some of the resulting texts explicitly wrestled with this. The second week we looked at the various scientific experiments in the exhibition, seeking out their unfinished and subterranean possibilities, bringing our bodies into our writing and tapping into the history of scientific self-experimentation. In the third week, we tried out various kinds of translations on our own or others’ texts. The way that translation deals in relationality, intimacy and collaboration gives it a close (if oblique) connection to the question of writing as a multi-species organism. The final exercise involved shifting spatial scales and trying to move away from the human-sized domain we normally inhabit. In doing so, we wanted to build other worlds that, in the tradition of speculative fiction, the reader could briefly inhabit.
This pamphlet documents the outcomes of these exercises: a snapshot of a moment in time, necessarily incomplete but providing a glimpse into the processes of making, and the way ideas and experiments emerge, take root and tangle.