As a part of my current artist residency in the Biospatial Workshop at RMIT University, which involves a seminar called Contaminated Life, I have been thinking a lot about the material and metaphor of ‘contamination’.
In order for something to become contaminated it must first be pure and contained. Contamination implies the entry of an external agent into the interior of the contained or separated essence. In this sense, the idea of contamination could perhaps be understood as a function of Western modes of thought, especially the scientific paradigm, which seek to understand the world in an atomistic manner. For example, contamination becomes a problem in scientific practice when there is a need to isolate and maintain different forms of life separately from one another in a laboratory context.
The etymological origins of the word can be traced back to the Latin roots for ‘together’ and ‘touch’ – for things that are separate to be brought into physical contact is to risk mutual contamination.
To culture animal cells in the lab, the cells must first be isolated from the animal and then they must be maintained in an isolated state – in sterile conditions. The human body and it’s microbial community have the potential to contaminate living cultures that are grown under these conditions. Hence, not touching is an important part of the practice of maintaining sterility.
Microbial contamination in this context, is a vector. Once the contamination, the touching, has occurred, the contaminating element proliferates, enacting a transformation. The metaphor of contamination, as an invasive and undesired transformational vector, is clearly operational in doctrines of national and racial purity and religious rituals of cleansing. It is perhaps not surprising that one of the pioneers of animal tissue culture, Alexis Carrel, was a prominent eugenicist.
The original Latin composite formed from the roots ‘together’ and ‘touch’ was contamen meaning “contact, pollution”. Following ‘contamination’, the Online Etymology Dictionary gives the first recorded use of ‘pollution’ in English as c.1340 “discharge of semen other than during sex”. Being the word nerd that I am, this discovery both amused and excited me. It draws a beautiful connection between contamination and (misbegotten) pleasure, contamination and (misplaced) generative potential, contamination and explosive movement – the vector. It points to the potency of the thing discharged into the environment and its ability to create effects beyond itself. And of course there are all those phallic visions of smoke stacks and oil company executives.
But I digress….
As much as we might have the tendency to think of things in terms of discrete categories, the world is an impure and messy place. In the human body “there are 10 times as many microbial cells as there are human cells”. (Science News Online) Which community contaminates the other? Symbiosis would be a better word. Intimate touching, generative co-existence, pleasurable co-habitation.
Recently, I have been thinking that contamination is a useful metaphor for framing certain interventionist modes of art practice, whose effects proliferate beyond the event in which new modes of engaging with the world are touched upon. However, in writing about contamination here, I have come to see that the metaphor is limited by its dependence upon the existence of a clear boundary between inside and outside. Perhaps it is more useful to think of an always already existing potential to throw the system into a different mode by internally proliferating beyond certain thresholds. To move away from a focus on pure identity and into an awareness of connectivity.
And on that rather abstract note… I end.