Background – University of Copenhagen

Background

“We live in the age of bacteria” – thus, puts the paleontologist and evolution biologist Stephen Jay Gould an apparent paradox to a point: For it precisely these – the oldest, smallest, most ubiquitous and abundant as well as structurally simplest, diverse and variant organisms – that become increasingly the focus of attention when we pose the question, today, of the nature of life itself. In the wake of our fascination with ‘Big Data’ and the immense quantities of information made available by sequenced genomic mapping data, our attention is shifting increasingly to the underestimated role of microorganisms in complex functional structures of presumptively ‘individual’ creatures. The Human Genome Project has been followed by the Human Microbiome Project. Bodies are thus increasingly understood as multi-dimensional and symbiotic creatures, even as cross-species ecologies. There are, for example, ten times more bacteria in and on the human body than there are human cells; micro biome transplants are being considered as a way to combat obesity, and, in synthetic biology, bacteria are even redesigned with new features. All of this goes to the heart of the human self-image, bringing bacteria both as matter and as a metaphor squarely into the center focus for philosophy, art and the natural sciences.

This interdisciplinary conference, in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut Copenhagen, inaugurates the establishment of the new international research network to be launched in 2014/15 by German and Danish researchers – an historic alliance, if you will. For, after all, it was Hans Christian Gram, a Danish botanist, pharmacologist and medic, who developed his staining method of bacteria-identification, still in use today, during his studies between Berlin and Copenhagen. During this one-day, pre-launch event, associated members of the new expert network will discuss the foundations of the three-year research program initiated at the University of Copenhagen.

In addition to the multi-perspective academic exchange of ideas, there will be an art performance open to the broader public. The spotlight, however, will be focused on bacteria, ‘booster’ of the emergent research fields at the intersections of medicine, natural sciences, humanities and the arts. Bacteria are both a) observable knowledge objects, b) vibrant media of knowledge production and biotechnological tools, and c) living subjects that are considered agents of a post-anthropocentric world view, also of philosophical interest. The conference explores why, how and when bacteria broke the boundaries of specialized disciplines and began to serve as materials, motives, models and metaphors in new contexts of knowledge production.

The event is the second co-production within the Strategic Partnership in Arts and Culture between the Goethe-Institut Dänemark and the Department for Art and Cultural Studies of the Copenhagen University. It is realized in collaboration with Medical Museion (Copenhagen) and Micro Human (Berlin). Invited experts from Denmark and Germany will discuss the potential of the emerging network to intertwine social, philosophical and industrially relevant perspectives and ways of thinking, between art-based research and research-based art, architecture and art history as well as media- and literature studies through to epistemology, medicine and synthetic biology.