In between bacteria and being.
Taking ancient food rituals to unseen extremes, Canadian-Ukrainian artist Bianca Hlywa is most known for producing monumental SCOBY bacteria. By cultivating this organic matter into exhibition settings, her plump installations recall Joseph Beuys’ animal fat sculptures, re- envisioned for the 21st century. In the past few years, Bianca has grown scobies in unconventional contexts, including a London self-storage unit and an upcoming intervention within an ex-office space environment. Sometimes incorrectly deemed hazardous, bacteria and yeast are amongst the most important organisms in human culture. They are essential in the making of vinegar and beer, as well as now-popular edible products like kombucha and sourdough. As a discreet life force in its own right, Bianca embraces the comforting presence of growing matter and its capacity for giving way to transformation. Moving beyond the constraints of representative mediums to instinctive performance and mechanical installations proved significant in how easily reality can be disturbed. Exploring these materials’ inherent potential comes naturally to Bianca, whose aim is to “challenge notions of life and non-life, and conditioned hierarchies of consciousness.” Pursuing the practice of preservation, Bianca is currently working on a film in collaboration with Norway’s Teksnik Museum that critically examines the operations of heat treatment technology. Applied for pest control and sanitation in institutions globally, the aggressive process is the industry standard to clean artworks before entering their collection. Considering how this “baptism through fire” functions within the remit of an institution, Bianca speaks openly about the tensions of control in her attempts to counter the wider ecology of the museum.
To begin in the beginning, was there a defining moment that drew you to contemporary art?
There were a couple of different influences. I was raised in the suburbs of Calgary, Canada, with parents that really loved activities and going to cultural events. So I would visit a wide range: Christmas fairs, ski hills, traditional Greek festivals, and contemporary art exhibitions. I happened across a film festival when I was really young and saw an edgy, scary, sexy French film which really left an impression. I had never seen anything confront such dark and emotive visions of reality. I later felt similarly when I stumbled upon a set of studios during an art residency in Florida—by the time I made it to the Centre Pompidou I was sold!
Following your BFA in Painting and Drawing at Concordia University in Montreal, what drew you to study in London at Goldsmiths? Were there any particular artists, lecturers or thinkers of particular interest? Was there a conscious decision to move to an installation-based and more performative practice away from the more traditional course?
During my undergraduate degree, I came to England in 2015 to participate in a residency named RUFUS Stone. My professor recommended I visit Goldsmiths and I completely fell in love. People were chatting in the corridors and everyone was buzzed to discuss philosophy and politics. Also, I saw Laure Prouvost walking around and thought holy hell, if I can get into this university I have to make it happen. So my decisions were never chosen unconsciously. I have always followed what I am excited about, so usually this leads to trying out loads of different materials and mediums. What drew me to performance and installation was how it can be used to disturb reality. They can bounce out of contained surfaces, making it easy and entertaining in a sort of pop way.
I first saw your work at the MFA Degree show, but what initially captivated me wasn’t seeing it, but smelling the installations of growing bacteria from the next room! It is so unusual that artworks have a pungent fragrance, where smell becomes inherent to one’s encounter with the work. In fact, in a recent interview with Anicka Yi, I learnt that people are actually starting to lose their sense of smell, as it is gradually becoming less important for human survival. In your exhibition, there was a symbiotic relationship between the visitor and artwork, as chemical compounds were exchanged. For you, is it important that the exhibition visit is not a passive one?
Completely! As I mentioned, I chose all aspects of my exhibition in order to make the experience impossibly passive. The constraints of symbolic surfaces like drawing, painting and video, is that they are comfortably positioned in front of you. In many cases, you have to be interested, ready and willing enough to engage with the content. The bacterial installations I make are rude in that they catch you before you can understand what is happening. I aim to draw people in, through devices of attraction and containment, however, at a certain point I want to challenge these limits of appropriate distance. Once you are too close for your own comfort, it is already too late. With this, I try to break the barrier between the viewer and what they are looking at. My practice is really focused on the boundary itself, investigating where it lies and the permanence of its presence. Thank God for my house that protects me from such dark shadows looming! *A small confession is that if you smell the bacteria before noticing it, it is probably too pungent. Some people are completely repulsed before even seeing the installation! It is certainly a struggle to create the installations while taking into account varying sensibilities, especially for me, as I’m completely used to the smell.
SCOBYs have become increasingly prevalent in our lives, more and more people are now making Kombucha at home. With the numerous health benefits promoted in the media, it is not unusual to see them given away on apps like Nextdoor or sold in Sainsbury’s probiotic range. What initially brought you to experiment with SCOBY?
The trend really. My partner and I were brewing the drink when it was first becoming popular. I liked the taste and wanted a fizzy drink that was cheap, healthy and low on calories. This is why Kombucha is so popular now. After bringing SCOBY into my home, I became super attracted to its aesthetic and its quality as some sort of discreet life being in its own right. At the time, I was reading about Jane Bennett’s ‘vibrant potential’ of materials which challenges the distinction between life and non-life, hierarchies of consciousness, as well as trending topics in ecological discourse—you bet your bottom dollar I was making work with slime mould! Bringing bacteria into my art practice from this point on was a no-brainer.
I know when you said you first started making kombucha, the ‘bubbling brew’ made you feel at ease. Does caring and nurturing for each SCOBY still provide a comfort?
Yes. It makes me feel comfortable to know I have an entity that is always growing even when I am not present, it soothes my desire for constant production. I also find it an attractive and funny companion. I have been growing SCOBY for so many years now that it feels like an old friend and ally.
I find that your work is in dialogue with prominent ecological thought in both academia and contemporary art; that of kinship with nature. In a recent essay, Timur Si-Qin said, “Reality is seen predominantly through a lens of utility and power; the value of nature is ultimately understood in terms of its extractable use value for humans rather than for any of its innate values, such as being alive, beautiful, or contributing to a wider ecosystem.” Does this conceptual belief resonate with you?
Yes, definitely. I think this question relates to what I mentioned earlier regarding the cultural boundary between the self and the other. Exerting power over nature is a way to establish hierarchy. This is a fearful and narcissistic attitude that I believe originates from a place of being uncomfortable with one’s own status. To this point, life forms that challenge its hegemony are not to be seen or interacted with, only dominated in the worst possible way. Supremacy is crystal clear here, and a delusion is maintained that certain humans are above the natural cycles of life and death. This ‘chosen’ group seems to be made for heaven, history books or cyborg dreams of immortality. The general problems that inform my position have surfaced in ecological discourse, which is at least partially a result of global warming. It takes nature ‘fighting back’ on a major level for us to realise that it has a power of its own, which is pretty sad, but makes a lot of sense in relation to the intensity of the West’s violence.
In 2018, you impressively grew a SCOBY to your own body weight. Titled ‘Computers Don’t Eat Sugar to Make More Computers’, the name recalls Sandor Katz’ book Fermentation as a Metaphor, that draws connections between microbial communities and human culture. What drew you to link your process that is so ‘natural’ with computers? How does it relate to broader metaphors in your work?
Shout out to curator William Noel Clark from VITRINE Gallery for helping me choose that name which I also love! At the time I was thinking about the different dynamics of life in various beings. Specifically, I was looking at the similarities and differences between bacteria, computers and humans. I think they are all related in their ability to generate. Without context or knowledge, this proliferation could at first be understood as a key shared activity. This became palpable as I was making SCOBY, which seemed to only care about producing more of itself. If you were to zoom out and picture the world, humans expand much like bacteria, or computer chips really. It’s incredibly algorithmic and binary: relating to 0’s and 1’s, off / on, dead / alive. To focus on these similarities at such a level could be read as reductive, as it does not recognise the specificities which are so apparent. Maybe categorising, comparing and contrasting will always be problematic, because the entity is best understood without words. So, this name is a bit of a joke. I was thinking about how SCOBIES eat sugar to reproduce, how I eat sugar to make more Bianca’s (or artworks). But wait, then, the difference lies in that computers don’t eat sugar to make more computers! Great? Damn?
One particular SCOBY was made with 300 litres of tea and 27 kilograms of sugar, ultimately growing to 110 kilos. What is the afterlife of the SCOBY when a project comes to completion?
That SCOBY was dried over a mannequin and made into a dark leather/paper/raisin-type structure that I used in a drawing, called ‘Parched Revival’. The drawing featured a reclined figure made with the dried SCOBY. The figure had a blue plastic hand (actually a cell phone holder) and was placed in front of a wall-sized pencil drawing of flora and fauna in a pile.
Segueing to your film practice, it is noticeable how there seems to be more focus on visceral feelings such as humour and disgust rather than a more linear, storytelling narrative. Is this a conscious way to move away from a more traditional method of film- making?
Emphasis on viscerality is similar to speaking about phenomena such as proliferation that have the possibility of arriving before knowledge and narrative. In order to inhabit this perspective, I sometimes aim to think more like a child or animal than an adult. I know this is purely an imitation game, but it can be useful in attempting to break with a dogmatic perspective and concentrate on inherent contradictions in an image or culture. I either focus on that or build tension up elsewhere: peeling back layers for different effects. For example, in my upcoming video there is an art conservationist speaking about the technicalities of how objects are heated up to remove pests in a chamber that appears to be a mutated-aluminium-foil-spaceship-castle. The video follows what he is saying, but then overpowers his explanation with the sound of chirping birds from an exhibition he is preparing for. The audio track reveals the tension that exists in the pursuit of depicting nature in circumstances which look light-years from it. Video is a fantastic medium to work with in relation to this, as it has the ability to layer content that is from completely different situations.
You mentioned that during your online Summer residency ‘PRAKSIS, Live or Buy’ in Oslo you made a film for the Klima2+ exhibition at the Teknisk Museum in Norway. Could you give us a synopsis of what to expect?
The video looks at the Heat Treatment technology that conservationists use. In order to eradicate insects, museums will often put everything entering the institution into a heat chamber for 24 hours at ~60 degrees. I picture this process as a baptism through fire, an important function in the wider ecology of the museum. I am specifically interested in how preserving objects for the indefinite future within the museum’s collection necessitates anti-life attention elsewhere. This can be seen in the rooms which cannot be entered by the conservationists for too long because of insufficient oxygen levels, or even within the heat treatment itself which is an evolution of a more toxic process involving spraying objects with DDT, a synthetic insecticide). The video depicts the museum’s bizarre natural habitat. It compares the comfortability of heating up as seen in the sanitisation and preservation processes with the intimacy of human body warmth; where we can witness the conservationists drink tea and take baths.
In this year that has been defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is interesting that there has been both an exacerbated fear of ‘bacteria’ and also a massive increase in its cultivation through home-brewing, sourdough bread, etc. Has the lockdown experience impacted the rationale behind your work?
I used to think the world was too sanitised and too controlled. I thought there were problems with science and my art was all about this. COVID-19 has made these conversations necessary and important. It has been stabilising for me to see this and understand it on an experiential level. However, I believe that we still have to remain critical. What your question made me think about is the politics behind health and bacteria: there is a class distinction between the people that make sourdough, and those most at risk of the virus. Privilege buys the ability to control what is under the microscope in your house. This controlling behaviour moves beyond focused technology, into a class-related hierarchy giving others less control over their lives. The fear COVID-19 generates will no doubt exacerbate this issue. I also believe that although science works (and I will take the vaccine), it is not a perfect solution to a global problem. What might kill us in the long term are some deeper spiritual issues resulting from certain understandings of our own ‘evolution’, which historically have been championed by thinking that humans are separate from and superior to nature.
These images, taken in your Marylebone studio, feature a large maquette for a work that will be shown in Berlin. Will the SCOBY’s presentation there involve any transformations from previous exhibitions, and will we see a dialogue between other artworks?
This work is similar to one named ‘Life Models’, where a clawed mechanism lifts a giant bacteria from its vat. In this instance, the bacteria stretches upwards incredibly slowly, causing its skin to pull in a completely captivating yet terrifying acid-like delusion. At some point, after about ten minutes, the bacteria falls out of the claw and splashes back into the tank. This new model has a larger bacteria attached to the moving mechanism. This resembles the technique used in ‘Figures of Amplification’, which I showed at the Goldsmiths MFA degree show. ‘Figures of Amplification’ had the bacteria sewn to the mechanism, so the action looped as the bacteria raised and lowered. In the Berlin installation, the SCOBY will be lifted out of its vat, and rolled on a drum, which should last about twenty minutes in a repeating cycle. My goal is to cultivate a focus on the stretching of the skin. ‘Life Models’ differed in the way that the focus was more on the bacteria making contact with the technology—a small yet crucial distinction.
Coinciding with this, your forthcoming show at the Verticale Arts Centre in Quebec will also show a SCOBY bacteria. This time, it is planned to reach the colossal magnitude of 500-600kg (that of an adult horse or small car), do you predict any challenges in this project?
God yes, I mean this is more of an experiment. It will be growing in Verticale Arts Centres’ storage area, which is shared between multiple different institutions. The other people who own parts of the storage unit do not know it is happening which will of course be the first issue. Verticale is an arts space which has not had a physical and constant location in many years. I think in a way then, they relate to this bacteria: popping up in whatever location, creating problems for themselves and for others by just existing. So this choice for them, interestingly enough, serves as a kind of self-portrait. Besides this, I am concerned about how large the tank will be: since it has to mirror a storage unit space, it will hold thousands of litres of sweet tea. I have to ensure it does not leak and that there is a large enough team to remove the bacteria. Hopefully, it can be separated without breaking into many small pieces. The team at Verticale has been such a dream to work with, so whatever issues arise, I am comforted by the fact that I know I am in supportive hands.
Thinking towards this coming year, what are your hopes for your practice in 2021?
Professionally, I want to become financially stable with my art practice and I would love to have the support of a gallery. Technically, I want to become more capable in making casual bacterial and mechanism installations and I want to think about showing the bacteria in the same worlds as my drawings. Another ambition is to sandwich my drawings in bulletproof glass. Let’s see what happens. I do not want to pressure myself too much.
Words by Laurie Barron