By Deb A.
Sculptor and Agave Magazine contributor S.E. Nash started thinking about fermentation and microbial activity after reading about sourdough baker Chad Robertson, cheese nun Noella Marcellino, and fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz in Michael Pollen's Cooked. After a three-week workshop with Katz, Nash's ideas around merging art and fermentation began to take shape. Nash's sculpture, Collaborative Microbes, is featured in the most recent issue of Agave Magazine; here Nash explains quorum sensing, why technically we're all 'they', and how microbes can teach us about human nature.
AGAVE MAGAZINE: Have you ever been surprised at how one of your sculptures has evolved?
S.E. Nash: When I returned to NYC from summer fermentation camp in 2014, I experimented with many ideas on how to incorporate fermentation and allow it to remain edible in the sculptures. This meant including glass vessels that are covered and separate from the sculptural materials, which are definitely not edible. Crafting the sculptures is a very intuitive and fluid process for me. Planning a sculpture in advance usually leads to changes when working anyway, so I will create initial drawings for sculptures that I know will change as I start working. The feasibility and structural aspects of including jars of fermented foods can be challenging, so the evolution of the sculptures is usually contingent on how the vessel will be incorporated. The fermented foods are fairly predictable as to how they will turn out; even if I do not know exactly how something will taste, I am skilled at creating the right conditions for the food to transform in the proper manner. Now that my work is involving other people, either as collaborators or participants, I am opening up the work to unexpected occurrences in social and community based practice.
At the end of an exhibition, visitors can consume your sculptures. What draw does the impermanence of your work with fermented foods have for you?
I describe microbes as my sculptural collaborators. Their waste products are what we like to eat in the form of sauerkraut, cheese, beer, sourdough, and countless other delicious foods. I was drawn to work with fermented foods due to the role they play in cultural production and community involvement. I believe the taste of fermented foods, their umami, connects us to a magical sense of creation. Describing taste and sensory experience with other people feels very unifying. In describing what we taste together we can share subjective experiences, compare notes, and delight in consuming appreciation for the food and its maker. I think that by including foods that are living and that change over the course of an exhibition I am giving viewers an entry point to consider our complex biological and social relationships with the world. The impermanence is a part of life cycles and our perception of time.
Why is fermentation an effective way of exploring notions of gender?
I like to say: if we know that our bodies have a symbiotic and dependent relationship with microbes and we know that those microbes comprise at least half or over half of our cells then we are at least half microbe. If being human means being at least half microbe, then I would argue that our ideology should take into account this incredible symbiosis we share with microbes (and viruses, as we are coming to learn). What can we understand about microbes that will help us untangle sex, gender, and sexual reproduction? Bacteria do not have a sex or gender and they can reproduce in myriad ways, including transferring DNA to selectively become another species of bacteria! From a theoretical standpoint I would like to say that microbes are queer (without choosing to be so), but that they also queer our bodies regardless. I think our language is typically very limited and constricted to binaries in discussions of gender. Thinking about the ancient microbial world puts this in perspective for me. Can we look at the blip of human history in comparison to the billions of years that microbes have on us and understand that our codified definitions of race and gender are shortsighted? I believe that microbes illuminate the idea of plurality contained in the self. This is why I use the gender pronouns they, them, their, and I argue that everyone is technically a “they”.
Why would a future in which humans learn quorum sensing be a good one?
Good question! I hope I can be pardoned by scientists for using “quorum sensing” as a metaphor. Among bacteria, quorum sensing is communication between individual bacteria and communities of bacteria, and this chemical communication can be sensed across species. It can serve as a decision making process, telling the group whether to grow a biofilm or to produce an antibiotic, for example. Quorum sensing may be a key to understanding symbiogenesis, or the evolution of multicellular life forms out symbiosis with single celled bacteria. The idea of quorum sensing appeals to me as a way to decenter the importance of human evolution and human history on earth. We are part of a biophilic world and our increasing awareness of our relationship with microbes has the potential to empower us to make decisions based on an appreciation for complex ecosystems.
What message would you like to share through your work?
I would like to communicate that the work we do as individuals is interdependent. My work is contingent on communities: viewers, participants, actants, and those who are doing the work that I draw on. In the near future, I am enthusiastic about working with farmers and communities interested in sustainability. I love working with children, too, and plan to include groups of children and their ideas in future projects. I hope to bring people together to discover and delight in the wonders and magic of the microbial world, and to realize our connections with one another through creativity and generosity of spirit.
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