Microbial Witness/Atlas


Collaborative research and installation projects with Joel Ong

Artists Mick Lorusso and Joel Ong describe the multitudes of microbes that inhabit our world as witnesses to the unfolding of planetary life, through cataclysm, adaptation, conflict, and partnership. As John Ellis expressed in Seeing Things, to witness an event is to be responsible in some way to it, and indeed these microbial witnesses actively participate in the development and maintenance of animals, plants, and ecosystems. Through the creation of artworks and mythical narratives, Lorusso and Ong build an atlas, or worldview, of the microbial realm, incorporating the techniques of DIY biology and microscopy, and taking note of important new developments in metagenomics and information technologies that have given researchers insight and appreciation for complex ecological networks of microbes. The artists focus on the interstitial ecology between sites on the human body (beginning with the skin) and environmental microbiomes (in the dirt, air, and water). The terrain is constructed as a geological continuum between the ground and the body, exposing sites of exchange and modes of transport that microbes use to access these sites, while encompassing metaphors of environmental disruptions and solutions on a global scale.

First exhibition of Microbial Witness/Atlas – Intervention with ArtSci Salon Cabinet Project at Gerstein Library,  University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


Second exhibition at Biocultura, Santa Fe as part of Earth Optimism Santa Fe


Below are a few texts that accompanied both exhibitions, plus titles of fictional narratives on the microbiome:


Microbial New Mexico

We live in a microbial world.

Microbes dapple every surface in New Mexico. They navigate air currents and water currents of the acequias and of the Rio Grande. They congregate around the roots of trees, on our skin, in our bathrooms, on cell phones, and in the cabinets in front of you.

Microbes outnumber the the eukaryotic cells of our own bodies, and inhabit almost every know surface, water body, and air current on the planet. The existence of animal and plant life on this planet relies on the presence of microbes. Each animal body has its own unique microbiome, tailored to its own diet, environment, and life history.

While microbial relationships are sometimes fraught with violent encounters, a vast majority of relationships between microbes and between microbes and hosts are peaceful or symbiotic. These interactions and partnerships have danced through time long before the appearance of plants, animals, and humans, going back three and a half billion years and continuing powerfully into the present.

Only in the twenty-first century have humans gained an ample appreciation of the utmost importance of microbial life amidst rising developments in metagenomics and proteomics that allow researchers to quickly sequence and analyze the genes of thousands upon thousands of microbes from our guts and skin, to the rivers and soil.

What is your own relationship to microbes?

Do you know that by inhabiting a space your body leaves a special microbial trace?



The dirt you see in the petri dish comes from Chimayo, New Mexico, a Catholic site of pilgrimage. People visit the small adobe church nestled close to the mountains to gather a portion of this dirt from a small hole in a side chapel. Sometimes they place the dirt directly on themselves at the hole, eat it, or take it to a loved one.

The dirt is said to have miraculous curative properties. Hundreds of crutches hang on a wall leading to the dirt, suggesting that hundreds or even thousands have been instantly healed of their disabilities upon applying the sacred dirt. Thousands of photos of people in need of prayers cover an adjacent wall, along with rosaries, images of saints, and benches for prayer.

Mick Lorusso cultured the dirt on nutrient agar and also applied it to his left arm for two days. The photograph shows the results of this combination of soil and skin microbiomes cultured on agar. What appear to be B. subtilis, fungi, actinomycetes, and other unidentified cultures thrived on his skin, contributing to a rich diversity of microbes. Maybe some of the curative properties of the Chimayo dirt also come from its microbiome?


Fictional story titles- stay tuned for publication:

Nitrosomonas lisa and the Three Microbial Ecologies

Polaromonas aeolata and Wind Eagle

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