26 November 2013

Not your usual quilt

MRSA Quilt (via)
Anna Dumitriu's "MRSA Quilt" is coloured with rather unusual dyestuffs - the blue colour is made by MRSA bacteria.
"The quilt squares are made using natural and clinical antibiotics on chromogenic (pigment-generating) agar in which the fabric has been embedded and inoculating the squares with bacteria, creating patterns that reflect the interaction between bacteria and antibiotics. The quilts are embroidered with thread dyed with saffron as well as with the antibiotic Vancomycin" says this write-up, which includes a video of the artist talking about her work.

The project's website adds this information: "There is huge gap between the public’s understanding of the issue of hospital acquired pathogens or ‘superbugs’ as the press describe them. MRSA is a mutated form of Staphylococcus aureus, which is part of our normal bacterial flora and thought to be carried by around 25% of the population (this figure could potentially be much higher as it may simply be that our testing methods are flawed). MRSA has acquired genes which mean that it can withstand treatment with methicillin-based antibiotics. However, vancomycin is usually still effective. MRSA is not only acquired from hospitals, there is also community acquired MRSA. In hospitals patients are more susceptible to infections if they are immune compromised or have operation wounds, hence the risk of MRSA there. Patients are routinely tested. However, transmission vectors (how the bug moves from person to person) are not properly understood and the Modernising Medical Microbiology Project is now using whole genome mapping of bacteria to try to understand far more about this important factor."
Dumitriu's other "lab work" includes a project on tuberculosis, the world's largest infectious killer. "Where there's dust there's danger," as the saying goes - so she used dusty felting wool to make little lungs, which were then embedded in the medium used to grow the tuberculosis bacteria. After a month of having bacteria growing in them, the little woolly lungs were sterilised before being exhibited, so there is no risk of infection from them, just a "memory" of being contaminated. They'll be shown in early 2014 at Watermans in Brentford - look under "The Romantic Disease" on her website, normalflora.co.uk.
She says the objects she has created can be used for storytelling, to engage the public and communicate issues connected with the diseases and their clinical and cultural importance. The lungs and the quilt that she has made reveal - or rather, allow people to get interested in - things they've never thought about till being confronted with, and hopefully intrigued by, these strange objects.

Dimitriu is artist-in-residence on the UK Clinical Research Consortium Project “Modernising Medical Microbiology” at the University of Oxford; this sort of mix of art and science has been going on for a while but still astonishes - or horrifies - a lot of people (especially those who see no "need" for art and think that science is totally objective).

It's been said elsewhere that this sort of work isn't art and it's "a total waste of resources". It would be interesting to know how a residency in a clinical research programme is funded, and what sort of public engagement or other outreach, eg interaction with staff, is expected of the artist. 

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