Science & culture
Work in progress, with Ellie Harmon and supported by the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas once defined dirt as "matter out of place" -
that stuff which a culture deems impure or unclean.
New microscopic scientific practices are transforming our
ideas about dirt as well our ideas about what is "out of place"
in a contemporary globalized world.
Just a single gram of rich soil can contain up to two billion bacterial cells and 18,000 unique genomes. Contemporary scientists are investigating and mapping this wild, poorly understood world of microbial ecosystems through metagenomic sequencing - a technique for analyzing and representing the complete DNA content of an environment. In mapping the microbial wilderness of our bodies, our built environment, and the wild ecology of the soil, these "dirty" layers are transformed into a bio-info-technological resource.
As this microbial mapping proliferates, dirt, in its materiality, is implicated differently within knowledge of global and local systems - sometimes even figured as critical to keeping these systems in balance. Mapping the biomes of the earth's soil gives scientists a way to track and understand climate change as it impacts and perturbs global ecosystems and weather patterns. At the individual level, human health might be re-framed as dependent on maintaining a balance and diversity of bacteria that comprise one's microbiome. In cultural discourse, social scientists and media pundits call for technological "cleansing" as the proliferation of new information and communication technologies threaten the balance of personal lives and relationships. One California organization, Digital Detox, offers a "Camp Grounded" retreat for adults in which becoming "human" "again" is premised precisely on walking barefoot in the dirt.
How might we understand dirt's multiple roles in contemporary science and society? How do scientific practices of mapping demarcate boundaries and define what is dirty, natural, alive, and in balance? We are conducting an investigation and documentation of dirt along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) as a way of reflecting on intersections of science, mapping, and liveness. Through an exhibition, a website and the production of an artistic atlas of dirt and California geography, we will examine the multiple roles of dirt and mapping in contemporary science and society. How do we, as people, define and encounter nature, dirt, and science? How is dirt alive? How does this liveness of dirt re-illuminate our understandings of ecology, climate change, the divisions between the natural and unnatural, and the mapping of boundaries? How do scientific representations of microbiology - primarily centered on DNA sequencing - render the soil and its liveness in a particular digitized and partial way? How can we engage with the aesthetic nature of science alongside and as part of quantitative data creation? Our collaborative productions aim to invite new interlocutors from the university and wider community to such conversations about dirt, liveness, and contemporary technoscience.