Other self portraits (bellybutton portraits)
This series and performance was developed as a semi-permanent exhibit for Invisible You – The Human Microbiome at the Eden Project, funded by a commission from the Wellcome Trust.
Bioart Summer Residency, School of Visual Arts, 2013.
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 2014
Other microbiome projects
The Bellybutton Portrait Series is an installation and participatory performance that invites viewers to consider their other selves, the parts of their body which are not human, and reflect upon the connection they form between ourselves, the world around us and our parents.
Each portrait is a living painting, created with the other selves of the portrait's subject. The living painting is a culture of the bacteria and other living things collected from the subject's bellybutton. It is thought that the microbiome of each person is as unique as our fingerprint, and that it comes from our enviorment and from our mothers. The bellybutton, biologically and symbolically, signifies the uniqueness of the individual and a connection to birth and our mothers. Each bellybutton portrait was striking and unique - but who is it of? Perhaps, the individual, their mother and their world?
The Bellybutton Portraits performace is a participatory experience where visitors are invited to get a portrait done by collecting a sample of the microbiome of their bellybutton and measuring the height of their bellybutton. In the study of the microbiome and many other scientific studies, large collections of samples are routine. The same experience, taken out of the context, can take on a special meaning and become transformative. The purpose becomes not of accumulating data but of provoking individual, subjective insight. Science and art can have an interesting interplay where the scientific symbols (its language and objects) serve as a gateway to the experience, a message of safety and comfort (“I will be safe participating in this experiment”) and factual information, whereas the artistic symbols can make the experience visceral and personal, and bring about a shift in the perception of the self.
This project is being done in collaboration with Dr. Rob Dunn and Holly Menninger, who run Your Wild Life Program, at the Dept. of Biological Sciences, in North Carolina State University. Dunn and Menninger previously led a public science project called Belly Button Biodiversity (navels.yourwildlife.org) where they engaged the public in authentic research on the belly button microbiome, examining questions about what species live in this tiny patch of skin and what factors influence their abundance and diversity. They published the first research paper on this work in 2012 (Dunn et al. 2012, PLOS ONE), revealing diverse flora in our belly buttons (nearly 2400 species detected, with an average of 67 per person). Analyses of their dataset – which includes over 500 participants – are ongoing.
Dr. William Gaze and Dr. Michiel Vos from Exeter University; Julie Urban of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Suzanne Anker, Brandon Ballengée, Sebastian Cocioba, Rául Gomez Valverde, Dr. Jerry Schatten, Dr. Stephani Davis, Dr. Martin Blaser, Dra. Maria Dominguez-Bello, Lauren Nichols, Lea Shell.
This work was funded by a commission from the Eden Project. The Eden Project, supported by the Wellcome Trust, launched a new exhibition Invisble You that explores the unfolding story of the human microbiome in April 2015.