AMOEBA + PSEUDO-AMOEBA

Astarte Rowe

Introduction: Art is Amoebic

This essay was largely written in concert with an exhibition I curated at the Critical Distance gallery in Toronto, Ontario, titled The Amoebic Workshop: A Submerged Exhibition, which opened on 21 September 2016.[1] Along with artworks by Jessica Drenk (United States), Gabriel Lalonde (Canada), and Claudia Wieser (Germany), the exhibition featured as its centerpiece a living culture of single-celled amoebas, Mediolus corona. These shell-building protists were housed in an aquarium set up by Carleton University’s Patterson Research Group (PRG), who had collected live samples of the micro-organisms from Bell’s Lake, Ontario along with other species of plant and animal life, and sustained them there within the sediment in which they naturally reside.[2] Though invisible to the gallery visitors – who by design were denied any visual representation of the amoeba’s shells (tests) in the exhibition itself – the ‘exhibition’ of the amoebic workshop submerged within the milieu of the lake sediment was intended to draw attention to modes of creation and construction that escape not only direct perception, but also straightforward aesthetic categorization. The transactions between life and matter at the micro-scale – on the other side of the vast abyss of space and time that separates our world from the world of ‘dirt’ – thus become, in this essay and its attendant exhibition, the means for reconceptualizing the processes underpinning human technē. By bringing the actual territory of the amoeba into proximity with contemporary art, and with artistic traditions such as the Renaissance workshop, the virtual territory that makes possible artistic expression reveals one of its oldest faces: that of Pseudo-amoeba.

The Amoebic Workshop does not claim that Arcellinidas, or testate amoebas, are artists. Such a statement would already betray a human-centered, correlationist, and anthropomorphic worldview. Introducing a fragment of Mediolus corona’s lacustrine habitat into the gallery space for the first time in its 720-million-year history – without annexing or subordinating it to an artist’s oeuvre[3] – instead poses the following question: toward what horizon can art be redirected once estranged from its prescribed associations to the human? The exhibition attempts to track whether the artworks of Drenk, Lalonde, and Wieser would ‘behave’ differently, would express different dimensions, when exposed to an inhuman living system. Just as significantly, it asks whether our conception of the animal is capable of evolving when a space conventionally dedicated to human aesthetics is made host to a living, thriving system.

The refusal to apply the term ‘artist’ to the amoeba generates the necessary momentum for considering art as amoebic, and for enabling art to transcend its programmatic association with the human. Essentially, the potential for art to become animal resides in the disqualification of animal as artist. The subtle difference being evoked is that if the animal is proclaimed an artist, this does not trouble the coding of human epistemic values onto the animal, whereas to probe art’s potential to become animal is to delineate the action of an ungovernable, unpredictable mutation within art that resists subsequent recoding. Art becomes highly dynamical, energetic, and unpredictable, since its becoming-animal does not entail a mimetic, or imitative, process. There is no animal – actual or symbolic – involved, only the uptake and release of molecular speeds, intensities, and modulations which are injected into art. If there is no ‘animal’ toward which art is directed, this suggests that the animal as such is deterritorialized or uncoupled from human consciousness. We are in fact dealing with an ‘abstract Animal’[4] throughout this essay. To map these maneuvers as succinctly as possible: the introduction of an amoebic workshop into a gallery space reserves the potential for art’s becoming-animal on condition that the animal is dematerialized, rendered abstract, and recedes from – or even submerges – human consciousness.

The unicellular organism in this exhibition is the amoeba, a lifeform that slimily pastes itself to the theoretical writings of, among others, Myra Hird, Georges Bataille, Manuel DeLanda, Vilém Flusser, Luciana Parisi, and Raymond Ruyer. It is not my intention to account for how these thinkers address this protoplasmatic being, except to note its antecedence as a philosophical topic. What is clear is that the amoeba supports – even demands – a conceptual mode of address, one that exceeds scientific inquiries into its nature. Indeed, the amoeba brings to bear a surplus of virtuality that cannot be governed by the sciences, nor become the source for a symbolic identification within the arts. It is this virtual dimension that this exhibition strives to activate. Indeed, we are talking about an organism that possesses an excess of genetic material, one hundred times more than humans;[5] that has the capacity to clone itself, such that it troubles fixed definitions of birth and death;[6] and that acts as a primary coder at the threshold between matter and organic life or bios. It is an organism that, furthermore, resides outside of our sensory wavelength, and our perceptions of it are therefore radically skewed toward the speculative. My exhibition and essay are concerned with deploying these inbuilt virtualities as a way of engaging the question of art’s becoming-animal. In other words, the amoeba occupies a virtual status that is intensified by its recontextualisation within a conceptual category, and actual gallery space, typically associated with human creativity.

This essay will diagram the various mutations taking shape as art is opened up to the abstract animal. Firstly, it reimagines the prototypical Renaissance workshop as a nonhuman assemblage. That is, the term ‘workshop’ can only be applied to the amoeba – its case-building activities and self-cloning technē – to the extent that the humanist workshop is reconfigured according to a protoplasmic ‘body without organs’ (BwO). Next, the elements of this BwO are used to contextualize and justify the rationale for constructing a conceptual automaton called Pseudo-amoeba. This is an entity designed to dislocate the amoeba from human thought; it is a de-metaphorising machine. Yet, Pseudo-amoeba is also an assemblage composed of, and animated by, the artworks of Drenk, Lalonde, and Wieser, when their immanent amoebic tendencies are elicited. In short, Pseudo-amoeba is what registers the processes whereby art becomes amoebic. Thus, it is through this virtual automaton that we can assess how ‘art’ is reconfigured, once it incorporates the functionalities of the abstract animal, and once the microbial world inherent in dirt is engaged as a field for conceptual and aesthetic inquiry. The Amoebic Workshop cannot but take place, physically and conceptually, as a submerged exhibition. In a sense, a submerged exhibition becomes the essential precondition for a virtualized encounter with the amoeba, and does so precisely by preserving the profound spatial and temporal chasm that separates the amoeba’s milieu from ours. With the amoeba’s virtualities restored, it is possible to gain a perspective on the obscure poetics of a formation catching up to, or converging upon, itself. Scientific inquiry has already profoundly complexified our understanding of the microbial, to the point of rendering its conceptual attributes available to the types of exploration being advanced by this exhibition. But the motives here are to galvanize the amoeba’s protoplasmic virtualities, not at the expense of, but in tandem with, scientific inquiry. Cutting-edge scientific research uses arcellinidas as bio-indicators for phosphorous and arsenic pollution in Canada, and other parts of the world. I will be applying this bio-indicative methodology to the notion that the amoeba is signalling a superstructure – a super-amoebic formation – that encroaches upon the lifeworld of the amoeba itself. These are but a few of the ramifications that begin to proliferate when we consider art in its amoebic incarnation.


The Amoebic Workshop

In this section, I qualify the amoebic activities taking place within the lake sediment – preserved in an aquarium within the gallery space – in terms of a ‘workshop,’ on condition that the prototypical Renaissance workshop is exposed as a non-humanist, machinic assemblage exemplifying what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call a ‘body without organs.’ This manoeuvre traces the effects of the amoeba’s inclusion in a human-based exhibition, while also affirming certain protoplasmatic capacities – enveloping, secreting, reproducing, assembling, constructing, and so on – that cut across unicellular and multicellular lifeforms as an ‘amoebic transmission.’ It is by deterritorialising these workshops with respect to one another that the machinic substructure of a BwO is exposed as the praxis subtending each.[7] As a speculative gesture, I am proposing to tune into an amoebic transmission that carries across the human-inhuman chasm separating a prototypical 16th-century Renaissance workshop from a micro-workshop in an aquarium installed in an art gallery at the dawn of the 21st century.

The Renaissance workshop was dedicated to mapping, anatomizing, and glorifying the human body. While the workshops of Old Masters produced realistic images that symbolized, by virtue of their very execution, the prowess of human knowledge, form, and beauty, they were also animated by another, nonhuman type of organization. The workshops took on an autonomous life of their own even as they were involved in stratifying a discursive, scientific, and aesthetic representation of the human. Thus, it is by staging amoebic activity as a workshop that the Renaissance workshop is also revealed as definably protoplasmatic in its activities and modes of production. Renaissance art was largely produced in workshops, or botteghe, associated with and managed by renowned artists. Indeed, certain Great Masters apprenticed at a tender age in the workshops of their predecessors.[8] A workshop was organized almost organically, with overlapping divisions of labor and graduating levels of duty, as a variety of practical and artistic skills were progressively mastered, including the pricking and pouncing, or spolvero, of cartoons; the grinding of colors; the copying of works; the sketching from busts and torsos; and so on. Philips Galle’s engraving of La Pittore del Bottega by Jan van der Straet (alias Giovanni Stradano alias Stradanus) strikingly captures this array of activities (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Jan van der Straet, La Bottega del Pittore, c. 1593-8. Engraving by Philps Galle, paper, 19.5 x 27 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Figure 1. Jan van der Straet, La Bottega del Pittore, c. 1593-8. Engraving by Philps Galle, paper, 19.5 x 27 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


On one hand, this image represents the Euclidean ideals of Renaissance visual composition, with linear perspective creating depth of field in the receded chamber, and the calculated demonstration of symmetry between the artisans on the right mirrored by the portraitist, model, and lady in attendance to the left; Galle’s engraving itself mirrors the triangular composition of a painting of St. George being completed within it by the lead artist, who occupies the pinnacle of this triangle.

La Pittore del Bottega unequivocally celebrates humanist ideals – the human capacity for learning and knowledge-production, as articulated through the quadrivium; the memorialization of antiquity; and the rendering of the human body into anatomically correct and naturalistic proportions. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that this painting hinges on the vanquishing of the inhuman dragon located at its center. In this symbolic context, art and human creation are antithetical to, and set the human apart from, the animal. Interestingly, though, the killing and suppression of the animal only seems to spawn a micro-regime of animality that dethrones the concept of a human-based workshop, and that begins to animate the entire painting, almost amoebically. Hence, another ‘body’ subtends the Galle engraving – one which, according to Deleuze and Guattari, opposes the ‘organization of the organs’ defining a given organism; and rejects its designation as subject.[9] The BwO is not a ‘body’ in the sense of a single individual or collection of individuals; it is rather an assemblage of different processes subject to various modulations – gradients of change, conjunctions, thresholds, particle nomadisms, and disarticulations – that opens up a space of pure experimentation within the milieu of the workshop. Thus, the Galle engraving refers not only to the prototypical Renaissance workshop, but also to its BwO, whose modes of production and representation do not resolve into, nor are strictly definable by, organs that see, paint, carry, handle, grind, measure, memorize, copy, et cetera. From this philosophical vantage point, there is no human organism in the engraving, only an abstract or machinic phylum onto which speeds, operations, intensities, and deregulated particles converge.

This takes us well beyond the notion of an organism and toward that of a highly complex machine composed of organic and inorganic parts performing the work of a virtual body – the BwO. Carmen Bambach’s comprehensive study of the Renaissance workshop foregrounds these impersonal technical dimensions. She references, in this regard, Leonardo’s didactic texts, in which both the ‘mechanical’ and ‘scientific’ aspects of artistic production are emphasized, summarizing the fact that ‘[s]een as a whole, these notes perhaps portray a less familiar Renaissance, that of workshop tradition with its inheritance of cultivated design habits, technical shortcuts, props, gadgets, and its view of drawing primarily as a functional tool rather than as an expressive masterpiece.’[10] In short, ideals related to the production of original and authentic works of art conflict with the reproductive methods by which artisans would, for example, copy or pounce the originals and cartoons of the master painter.

Interpreting the Renaissance workshop in terms of a BwO, a living assemblage, enables us to virtualize our understanding of the workshop and its modes of production in a manner that is highly applicable to the amoebic workshop. Indeed, it is with respect to the BwO that the prehuman and cellular qualities of the Renaissance workshop seem to emerge. In this view, the Renaissance workshop is an evolving cellular ‘body’ – absorbing and processing materials, techniques, and concepts; testing mathematical rules and principles; and off-loading images onto the world. Significantly, the workshop’s mode of reproduction may be considered asexual: in Bambach’s view, copies begot other copies; cartoons were bequeathed as though comprising elements of genetic code;[11] and even after his demise, the workshop of the inestimable Veronese continued to produce ‘Veroneses.’[12] In short, during this period in Western art history, the workshop operated not like but as an extension of amoebic (re)productivity. By this account, the workshop not only emits signs of the amoeba, it is its virtual territory.

Mediolus corona is an arcellinida – a species of amoeba that assemble their tests (shells) out of microscopic lake sediment. In 2014, Earth Sciences biologist Timothy Patterson distinguished them from the genus Difflugia corona, as their incredibly designed shells bear basal spikes and a crenulated aperture (Figure 2).[13] Mediolii live throughout the world at the Sediment Water Interface (SWI) in peat, moss, and freshwater bodies. These organisms’ lack of organs immediately suggests a BwO-type assemblage. Everything they require for survival is contained within a single microscopic cell. One may portray this as follows: they possess not a brain but intelligence; not a mouth, stomach and anus, but the capacity to capture fungi, bacteria and algae with their pseudopodia (not a limb, but an improvised extension of their cytoplasm), and to digest and expel waste; not a nervous system, but something perhaps like a hyper-sensitivity to their environment, responsive, in some way, to the environment’s capacity to sense, surveil, and regulate itself.[14] They reproduce asexually through a process of binary fission where the cell divides in two, and this self-division defines one of the primary activities of the amoebic workshop: manufacturing living icons of itself along a bio-genetic gradient.

Figure 2. Ralf Meisterfeld, Mediolus corona, 2009, dead specimen, 50 µm. Aachen, Germany.

Figure 2. Ralf Meisterfeld, Mediolus corona, 2009, dead specimen, 50 µm. Aachen, Germany.


This reproductivity is indicative of the type of tasks any workshop might perform – say, in the proliferation of religious iconography during the Renaissance. Although this amoebic function might draw comparison to humanism’s celebration and proliferation of the human form, what is being workshopped is the cloning of the amoeba itself. This tautology is further complicated by the production of the amoeba’s shell, and in particular the manner in which test production capitalizes on mitosis. In his seminal text Built by Animals, Michael Hansell summarizes the process as follows:
An individual [Mediolus] flows around, carrying its case with it. While doing this, it not only engulfs food particles but also sand grains that accumulate inside the amoeba as a large ball. When the time to reproduce arrives, the nucleus of the amoeba replicates its DNA to create two complete nuclei. The cytoplasm (the body material) then begins to divide, one nucleus going into each half, to form two independent organisms. One of these will inherit the existing house, but the other takes the ball of stones in its cytoplasm. As the two organisms are created, these stones move to the surface and arrange themselves as a new house.[15]
It is therefore difficult to get a clear sense of what is privileged in this process: cellular fission, or test production. The genetic phenotype is indistinguishable from its extended phenotype. But this is also the point at which the amoeba takes on virtualized qualities.

The amoebic workshop may be considered a switch or conductor between matter and bios, metabolizing where these two planes abut one another. At the amoebic level – where the shell-building mechanism is territorialized onto the actual reproduction of the entity, and is injected into and out of its very cytoplasm – it is impossible to differentiate matter from bios. Put succinctly, the inability to distinguish mitosis from shell replication also problematizes the differentiation between organic and inorganic matter at the amoebic microscale. This raises the question of the creative act, as we do not yet know how the shell assembles, and does so according to such sophisticated engineering principles.[16] Can we consider the amoeba shell to be following a self-organizing modality? Manuel DeLanda introduces such a possibility in his attention to the dynamical processes of inorganic matter. As he argues, ‘[m]atter, it turns out, can ‘express’ itself in complex and creative ways, and our awareness of this must be incorporated into any future materialist philosophy.’[17]

The argument for an amoebic workshop is based on the fact that organic life (bios) is cloning itself, and matter is self-organizing and self-expressing through the shells. Not only does this call into question whether the amoeba is a biological or a material entity, it also points to the indiscernibility between organic and inorganic life – a breakdown in our ability to organize matter and bios into hylomorphic and discursive frameworks. The convergence between, for instance, biomass and minerality in soil composition is characteristic of this fluid and non-hierarchical mutual articulation. Amoebic transmission relays a BwO insofar as our desire to distinguish and organize matter and bios is never fully resolved at the microbial scale of life, as they appear to be aspects of a singular body/function. Therefore, what appears to us as the indistinction between inorganic and organic life is precisely the deterritorialized plane of the BwO. Ultimately, what is being workshopped, practiced, and experimented with in this exhibition is the formation of a BwO, a virtual threshold shared by the Renaissance and the amoebic workshops.

The reason for deferring to matter’s self-organizing principles is to destabilize any reading of the amoeba that would coalesce into a fixed representation of its actions and attributes. Thus, applying the term ‘workshop’ to the amoeba is intended to uncover a protoplasmic ‘body’ within the humanist workshop without establishing an equivalence or reciprocity between human and nonhuman agents. Instead, this gesture is tasked with pushing the human to the edge of the nonhuman, or the animal, but not without rendering the animal infinitely abstract, and therefore submerged beyond human thought and articulation. These are the two edges the exhibition traces: intensifying the animal character of human art; and, once sufficiently alienated from a human-oriented interpretation, using art to disrupt the capture of the animal within representation. In this way, The Amoebic Workshop virtualizes both art and the animal, so that as art becomes animal, the animal has room to become abstract. In the next section I propose how Drenk, Lalonde, and Wieser’s artworks may begin to adopt amoebic qualities. But in so doing, these qualities are also oriented toward an excessive, abstract, and deregulated horizon that exceeds a stable definition of the amoebic (or the animal). And so, in attempting to decouple thought from being, in striving toward the charismatic yet deadly limit of a BwO, we will need to elicit a guide that is unbound by human subjectivity and interests. The conceptual entity I term Pseudo-amoeba will diagram specific functions and map out pathways through the virtual that prevent total deterritorialisation onto the de-stratified plane of the BwO, instead mobilizing its deterritorialising capacities incrementally.[18]


Pseudo-amoeba and the Animality of Art

The uncanny automaton, Pseudo-amoeba, materializes as a figure haunting the limits of a submerged consciousness, and registers the effects of art’s becoming-animal. Elizabeth Grosz expresses the transaction between art and the animal as follows: ‘Art is of the animal. It comes not from reason, recognition, intelligence, not from a uniquely human sensibility, or from any of man’s higher accomplishments, but from something excessive, unpredictable, lowly. What is most artistic in us is that which is the most bestial.’[19] Any atavistic associations we might bring to bear upon this statement would be misleading; instead, what Grosz alludes to is a passage onto abstract animality. Using Pseudo-amoeba as a conceptual automaton enables us to redirect every thought, instinct, and association into impersonal mechanisms and functions that are not correlated to human subjectivity. Pseudo-amoeba is a sentinel at the threshold of the abstract animal, a means of safeguarding its virtuality. This approach is not intended to dehumanize Jessica Drenk, Gabriel Lalonde, and Claudia Wieser, but rather to externalize the artistic functions and processes – construction, reproduction, and atomization – rendered perceivable through their work. Put differently, the inherent technicities of Drenk, Lalonde, and Wieser become the dynamical features that constitute Pseudo-amoeba and, in so doing, begin to express the vital and virtual forces of the abstract animal. Modulating these pseudo-amoebic functionalities in the case of each artist’s work will follow nonlinear and unpredictable patterns that attest to the destratifying processes at work in the context of art’s animality.

It is truly wondrous to have discovered the artworks of Drenk, Lalonde, and Wieser. That these artists each consented to their art entering into an unprecedented alliance with the amoebic bespeaks a receptivity, on their parts, toward surrendering human subjectivity to invisible, insensible forces, and to submerged relations. I want to talk briefly about the motivations underpinning the selection of these artworks. The artworks in this exhibition are atomical; they can be broken into units. Once disassembled, we are left with manufactured objects and implements used to measure, map, and divide the world into digestible, consumable parts. The mass-produced pencils, Barbie heads, toy cars, and tiles represent, above all, the ‘sediment’ of our modes of inhabiting the world in a post-industrial socius. A certain conversion occurs in these artworks, however, whereby the parts become reassembled according to a logic which strays from their intended purpose: pencils are misused and rendered non-functional in Drenk’s Implement 4; Lalonde’s Barbie heads and toy cars from Les Barbies dans le vinaigre series cannot be pickled and eaten; and Wieser’s ceramic piece, Untitled, prearranged into the impossible squared circle, both heightens the irrationality underlying these other gestures, and lays bare the process of assembling units into a recognizable object or sign (circle, square).[20] This conversion process conveys an amoebic-type assemblage wherein particles of inorganic matter are incorporated into the cell and synthesized as shells. These processes of assemblage and conversion are broadened, however, when we incorporate other capacities, such as construction, reproduction, and atomization.

Jessica Drenk’s Implement 4 (2015) is a technical feat. In her Implement series, thousands of standard-sized pencils are glued together and then sanded into voluminous, organic structures. At a scale of millions of times greater, Drenk’s artwork supplies the most relevant visual reading of the amoeba shell; her work therefore fulfills the conditions for an amoebic mode of construction. Yet, Drenk did not have an amoeba’s shell in mind when she constructed her sculpture; furthermore, she refuses to resolve the tension between organic and inorganic form in her practice.[21] For instance, while she deliberately preserves the geometric shape of the pencils in the interior portion of the sculpture, when viewed from the outside, there is almost no way of recognizing the object ‘pencil.’ In fact, the dematerialized pencils bear the non-uniform markings one might expect to find on an animal exoskeleton, shell, skin, hide, or fur – or in any mineral deposit – where a systematic pattern is overwritten by the nonlinear metrics of movement and flow. It is interesting to note that this is the reverse of the amoeba shell, whose interior is smooth, while its exterior surface is angulated, sharp, and spiked at the base.

On what basis can there said to be continuity between amoebic and human forms of construction, despite the disqualification of imitative or representational approaches? This becomes an invitation to think of construction as a process occurring almost ‘outside of’ itself: a biomorphic process which is not governed by internally determined or prescribed notions of form and structure. Biomorphism began as a practice in 20th-century art, architecture, and design, the principles of which dictated that organicity be achieved not through imitation (not even of nature), but by experimenting with intuitive modes of construction.[22] This means that form is arrived at organically and accidentally – without deferring to a pre-existing model or template, and without any predetermined sense of outcome. This is not to say that the amoeba shell or Implement 4 are not highly designed objects that must have necessitated intense calculation and many trials to perfect. What must be emphasized with a biomorphic object, however, is that its form is not final nor static, but is the temporary crystallization of those organic flows that bring about what we thereafter nominate ‘shell,’ ‘sculpture,’ ‘home,’ or ‘building.’ In light of this, Drenk’s Implement 4 presents less as an object, and more as an inscription of continuous evolutionary growth – de-emphasizing the outcome or end product involved in construction, to focus instead on the more dynamical aspects of formation. With Implement 4, what is actualized is the process of construction, more so than any identifiable, or rational, object.

A biomorphic reading of Drenk’s sculpture also provides clues as to how we might imagine the amoeba’s shell construction as being implemented in the absence of a model or template. Applying a biomorphic framework to both human and amoebic practices avoids anthropomorphic generalities, and enables one to think of construction, building, or assemblage as modalities expressed independently of any given species. In other words, it is to think of construction as the expression of how matter and bios themselves communicate with and enhance one another. This is certainly applicable to the amoeba, in that it seems to have absorbed and harnessed, as mentioned above, the capacity for matter to self-organize in order to produce its extended phenotype.[23] Challenging our view on construction as a capacity that is species-dependent, biomorphism instead suggests that when we construct, we are doing so on behalf of matter. If matter self-organizes, this takes the burden off of a purely knowledge-based approach to construction. Biomorphic art, like Gothic architecture before it – and like the amoeba shell – adapts the aesthetics of matter taking shape. Therefore, biomorphism, in the cases of both the amoeba and that of Drenk’s sculpture, cannot be explained by the form of these objects, but by the processes through which they emerge.

The pseudo-amoebic capacity arrived at through Drenk is a mode of construction that is thoroughly evacuated of any trace of mimesis, in the anthropological sense of model or memory-image. The artisanal amoeba follows instead the inherent mathematical functions and angulated geometry of the particles found in its environment, and this in itself demands an informatic understanding of bios. While the amoeba’s shell is not predicated on a prior image or form, it certainly conveys a developed technicity. We might even argue that the amoeba shell does not appear completely ‘organic.’ The amoeba’s test and Implement 4 are highly encoded, informatic objects that begin from a non-archeological basis. They may be understood as objects growing without form, and encoded without knowledge: as an informatics decoupled from archē and a growth process devoid of eidos.

Construction and cloning are intimately allied in the amoeba, as demonstrated by the Hansell quotation above. However, it is within the context of Gabriel Lalonde’s artworks that the truly reproductive aspect of the amoeba comes to light – not directly, but through his treatment of the infinite (in)consumability of plastic. In Lalonde’s series Barbies format voyage (1995-2004), eight small mason jars contain individual Barbie heads, as though three cycles of cellular division have occurred and each head is floating in its cytoplasmic fluid with a jar as its abode or shell. In another series, Les Barbies dans le vinaigre (1995-2004), Lalonde has laboriously (dis)assembled dozens of Barbie heads and limbs in four full-sized mason jars, all staring out from behind their transparent glass screen (Figure 3). One single jar in his Barbies & autos work contains plastic toy cars amassed as though in a womb, waiting to be hatched upon an over-carbonized world. Mass-produced Barbie heads, limbs, and toy cars have been multiplied, suggesting a correspondence between asexual reproduction and mass-produced plastic.

Figure 3. Gabriel Lalonde, Les Barbies dans le vinaigre, 1995-2004, Barbies, mason jars, oil, 18 x 8.75 x 8.75 cm. Collection of the artist.

Figure 3. Gabriel Lalonde, Les Barbies dans le vinaigre, 1995-2004, Barbies, mason jars, oil, 18 x 8.75 x 8.75 cm. Collection of the artist.


Interestingly, it is by presenting plastic objects quite literally as food that our consumerist habits become disoriented. Lalonde has created a very strange image with his pickled Barbie heads and toy cars – an image, in essence, of indigestible plastic objects that are nonetheless presented in the manner of jars of preserves. Two contradictory actions are taking place. One is that plastic is presented as a consumable; the second is that, in doing so, Lalonde is suspending, if not reversing, our desire to consume it. Thus, his artwork proposes itself as a study on the strategies of mass consumption. Through his invitation to consume the inconsumable plastic heads of Barbies and toy cars, Lalonde is forcing us to confront our buying habits in a particularly effective, if sinister, way. By presenting plastic as consumable, he is delaying our addiction to plastic long enough to uncover its inconsumable character.

Lalonde’s plastic ecology is circuitous and indirect, performing the malleability of plastic itself. For example, Lalonde calls the Barbie series his ‘iconoclastic’ works, as they critique corporate values and what he calls ‘la marchandisation de l’humain’ (the merchandising of the human). He attacks what he perceives as the reduction of the human to the slavish role of consumer, and is therefore not objectifying the objects themselves, but the ideology disseminated by the corporate system that markets these toys.[24] Thus, it is not Barbie that is impugned, but the profit-driven economy subtending this iconic doll’s marketability. Even though they have been dismembered and beheaded, there is an ideological exoneration of the Barbie figure; its destruction is only partial. In fact, the dolls are being preserved and pickled, but only insofar as it is the degradation of time, or wabi-sabi, that has been tasked with taking over the iconoclastic gesture.[25] Indeed, Lalonde’s interest in the decay of words, memory, and Eros is informed by the aesthetics of Japanese wabi-sabi, and its focus upon the delicate and exquisite collapse of matter.[26]

There is another feature of this plastic ecology that needs to be addressed, as it complexifies the correspondence between synthetic and microbial reproduction. Lalonde’s Barbie series is adapted to the amoeba’s asexual mode of reproduction insofar as mass-produced plastic objects are manufactured as clones. Plastic is an amorphous, metamorphic entity, and Lalonde’s particular usage of the material draws our attention to the notion that the infinite reproducibility of plastic has appropriated microbial plasticity and its reproductive capacity. Amoebas – also known as ‘protists,’ after the Greek god of the ocean, Proteus, who is able to change his shape at will – naturally possess desirable qualities that humans fulfill synthetically, through our use of plastic in all manner of products and packaged goods. When Lalonde’s treatment of the inconsumable character of plastic is placed alongside the living rhythms of the amoeba’s reproductive cycles, a virtual dimension is opened up, one in which the infinite reproducibility of plastic may be said to have overtaken microbial plasticity. Plastic – that most inorganic and non-biodegradable of substances – itself assumes the self-reproductive and self-generative functions of Pseudo-amoeba within the milieu of mass-manufacturing. Moreover, Lalonde’s gesture towards wabi-sabi creates an aesthetic affirmation of even plastic’s susceptibility to decay and degenerescence, his pieces presenting the clearest possible picture of the post-industrial ‘sediment’ produced by these processes at the macro-scale. The plastic heads and cars are presented in Lalonde’s works as indefinitely suspended somewhere between living cells, foodstuffs, and dejecta, and seem to await some radically non-human bio-system or formation through which to be utilized or consumed.

To recapitulate, a biomorphic mode of construction – enabled by the alignment between Drenk’s sculpture and microbial shell-making – is projected onto the amoeba to suggest the absence of a prior template or blueprint for its shell. In this sense, construction is uncoupled from representation: it occurs outside any pregiven image or plan, and conforms to matter’s self-organization along the gradient of organic life. And with reproduction, what is conveyed is the sense that synthetic plastic manufacturing is fueled by microbial mitosis, or cellular division. These are undoubtedly abstract interpretations of both the artworks and the amoeba which unfurl an atomic image of the amoeba shell, whose particles cannot be assembled into a coherent, rational representation. The biomorphic collapse of a prior image thus foreshadows the process of atomization or fragmentation that emerges once Claudia Wieser’s three artworks, Untitled (2014), Gelege des Teichhuhns (2016) and Fischreiher (2009), are defined pseudo-amoebically. In their orientation toward the animal, absorbing its effects and biorhythms, the artworks included in this exhibition do not, in turn, mirror a conventional image of the animal. Rather, in their animal transformation, the artworks actually become tools for dismantling and destabilizing our conception of the animal. Wieser’s artworks mark the culmination of this process – they offer us the most abstract interpretation of the animal, and this has to do with their own abstract qualities, and their preoccupation with the spiritual essence of geometry.

Geometry plays a central role in Wieser’s art, with squares, circles, lines, and symmetries turning up on two-dimensional planes and surfaces, while cylinders, cones, and spheres inflect the spatial configuration of her site-specific installations. Volumes and planes often intersect, such as when a cylinder is placed on digital prints depicting statues from Antiquity or medieval icons in her installation The Mirror, at Marianne Boesky Gallery. It is not only the viewer’s gaze that is moving, but the entire work that has been set in motion through the elusive play of planes and volumes, accented by an array of media: photographic references to 19th-century architecture; tapestries; glazed tile arrangements; and digital prints of Byzantine, Renaissance, and Medieval art emblazoned on wallpaper or laid as sheets on the floor. These art-historical references are seldom presented in their entirety. Often appearing in truncated or cropped form – and overlaid by other geometric indices, or even her sculptures – they add to the dizzying, swerving optical pressure of her art-spaces. In generating collisions between Modernist abstraction and other genres and materials, Wieser is pushing abstract figures to their material breaking point. As Kito Nedo argues, ‘although they stick to geometric forms, her spaces do not feel cool or functional, but rather like strange cult spaces where future and past, science fiction and ancient history collide in mysterious ways – allowing the spiritual side of modernism to be experienced on an emotional level, via our own bodies and senses.’[27] Nedo’s statement calls attention to how spirituality is generated in Wieser’s practice not by quarantining abstract and geometric forms from the world, as was the case in Paul Klee’s, Piet Mondrian’s, and Wassily Kandinsky’s work; instead, Wieser reverses the principles of abstract modernism by applying geometric forms and symmetry directly to the material world.

Take for example Gelege des Teichhuhns (2016) and Fischreiher (2009) – found book pages onto which Wieser has applied gold leaf in rhombus shapes, framing the eponymous vintage photographs of a swamp chicken’s nest and a lone grey heron, respectively. These golden interventions on found materials such as book pages and commercial tile – in Untitled – appear like aureoles used to canonize, in this case, not saints or the Madonna, but the lowly world of the animal and the hidden geometries of matter. Wieser is not denying abstraction, but bending it toward the material world. She seems to be examining how this can generate another type of spirituality than the one associated with the sanitized and rational refuge of abstract modernism. In overlaying them onto the material world, Wieser refuses to abstract these geometries from objects, animals, matter. When we consider that the declination of an atom in the void follows a swerve, the fact that electron ‘clouds’ are spherical, and that bilateral cuts change an atom’s energetic composition, it comes as no surprise that geometrical symmetries are inseparable from the physico-chemical world in Wieser’s art. Geometry is one of materiality’s truths. To abstract these forms and laws from the world is to dispossess the geometric, mathematical valency occurring at the level of matter itself. Thus Wieser is not flippantly playing around with forms, but restoring their physical, dynamical, and even chaotic modalities – achieving this feat precisely through the collision of geometric, digital, and material regimes.

The application of geometry and symmetry to the animal marks a gateway to the abstract animal. Untitled – an assemblage of gold tiles indicating the ancient mathematical formula of the ‘squared circle’ – poses an irresolvable and irrational problem in mathematics. This irrationality also frames the question of the amoeba shell that is at once terribly dense, yet arguably atomic or fragmented in its presentation. To clarify: it is not that the shell is threatening to fall apart, nor that its constructed state can be dismissed. With micro-fossils of testate amoebas dating as far back as 720 million years ago, surely there is something frighteningly enduring about the shell – as attested by the difficulty micro-biologists face in capturing images of the amoeba due to its shell density.[28] But why then the insistent image of a shell whose particles appear fragmented? While the shell is undeniably dense and resilient, I want to suggest that it is received by our visual and sensorial nodes – across the span of a billion years – as an unstable, atomized image. This is an image that, like the mathematical formula based on the ‘squared circle,’ is irrational and abstract. The spiritual, abstract, and geometric qualities of Wieser’s artworks are used to emphasize these properties in the world, in matter, and in the animal. Indeed, it is the interface between organic and inorganic processing – the aforementioned amoebic workshop – which conditions even the materials we consider most elemental. As Myra Hird notes, the gold that Wieser uses in her art could have been refined by microbial intervention: ‘Gold may well have bacterial origins as well: “Thiobacillus leaches the gold into solution from sulfide-rich rocks, and mats of cyanobacteria absorb it into their sheaths,” producing ancient (about 2.5 billion years ago) deposits like those found in Southern Africa.’[29] The spiritual geometry immanent to the matter-bios interface is also linked to the admission of an irrational force in nature and is being leveraged, in this exhibition, to enshrine the abstract animal.

Atomization is the process of collapsing rational thought – a process that is at work both in Wieser’s artworks, and in the fragmented image of the amoeba shell. The tests of the amoeba elicit symmetry from microscopic debris, but it would be a mistake to ‘rationalize’ this gesture, by attributing a pre-programmed sequence to the microbe or a formula to the final assembly. Instead, the challenge the shell presents is the very same as that of Wieser’s art: to nullify the difference we impose between the abstract and organic, and instead to restore to all such forms their physical, dynamical, and even chaotic modalities precisely through the proliferation and collision of geometrical, material, and atomical regimes. At the level of ‘dirt’ and sediment, then, we discover nothing like the undifferentiated ‘muck’ our sensorial and conceptual faculties would suggest, but a proliferation of diverse processes ranging from the ‘highest’ abstract symmetries to the ‘lowest’ chaotic entropies. The purpose of approaching the amoeba shell as an atomized object is thus, firstly, to address a faculty that has not yet been developed; and secondly – what amounts to the other side of this proposition – to atomize or unbind human perception. In short, to visualize the amoeba shell is to partake of a virtual, abstract process in which a submerged sensorium has already been activated, a prospect that will be explored in the next section. Thus, if the shell is an atomic object, it may be the case that it atomizes perception in turn.

The functionalities that have been evoked in this section through the works of Drenk, Lalonde, and Wieser have been referred back to Pseudo-amoeba precisely in order to alienate these from our human faculties and thought processes. Pseudo-amoeba is an apparatus that projects the atomic, biomorphic and plastic dimensions of art onto the animal, and vice versa; it foregrounds the inherent technicity, plasticity, and even artificiality of bios. Deploying Drenk’s, Lalonde’s, and Wieser’s art toward the simulation of amoebic life – as Pseudo-amoeba – potentially restores an alien quality and intentionality in life back to itself in the absence of human thought and intervention. In other words, bios’s capacities become exponentially excessive and uncontainable once we virtualize and denature our mode of address toward life; once we become somewhat insincere toward life.


Architectonics of a Submerged Exhibition

The more we investigate microbial life, the more virtualized it becomes.

The introduction of a living system into the gallery space necessarily warps and submerges the very structure of the exhibition, and, moreover, disqualifies the curatorial act since it is impossible to ‘curate’ the exchanges between matter, energy, and bios; to regulate the reproduction and death cycles of the amoeba; and to commission the construction of its tests. This certainly does not suggest that the exhibition does not exist, but rather that it is submerged, in a number of important respects.

Let us begin with one of the most obvious ways in which this is a submerged exhibition – namely, that the amoebic workshop lies beyond the threshold of visibility. The Patterson Research Group has curated a micro-lake, reproducing a cross-section of a generic lacustrine environment with a rocky shore, plants, and sediment. However, the viewer can only grasp the ‘milieu’ of the amoebas, and not the amoebas themselves, or their workshop. The amoebic workshop is withdrawn from perception, being that there are no representations of the amoeba test except in the catalogue. It is at the threshold between the visible and invisible that a virtual experience may take hold. The aquarium forms a ledge from which our sensorium can plunge into the imperceptible dimension of the amoebic. It is not an exaggeration to state that the entire exhibition hinges on this one ridge, as it is where the lake-ing of the gallery space occurs. Alienating a lake fragment from its original environment, and placing a living-reproducing-dying system within a gallery space, are gestures that are not intended to draw the amoebic and human realms together – to ‘pollute’ the gallery space with the lake sediment, as it were – but rather to indicate their radical asymmetries. Respecting the original scale of microbial life, and casting the activity of the amoebas as a ‘workshop,’ generates a series of aporias in scale, representation, and timeline. The different dimensions of unicellular and multicellular life can in fact be framed as a temporal paradox: we are contemporaries of the amoeba across the chasm of a billion years.

This temporal paradox, which follows on from the vast difference in spatial scale that confounds our perceptions, is not just a result of the longer evolutionary history of microbial life, but also of the fact that the time-scales of single- and multicellular life are likewise utterly incommensurable. The amoeba is submerged in a temporal milieu that is fundamentally alien to our experience, and therefore necessitates a speculative approach. The Mediolus corona and its kin are in this sense prototypical examples of what Quentin Meillassoux, a founder of the philosophy of speculative realism, terms ‘arche-fossils,’ defined as ‘materials indicating the existence of an ancestral reality or event; one that is anterior to terrestrial life.’[30] The ancestrally submerged micro-verse is scientifically observable, but it is not ontologically ‘given’ in any other sense; there is no correlation to be made to our space-time, much less to our mode of perception. However, this does not preclude our contemporaneity with these life-forms – which inhabit our world and our bodies, and with which we have countless sub-sensory interactions and encounters – or the virtualities of the abstract animal that are re-expressed by our own art and technicity.

The virtual and speculative modes invoked here offer a powerful means of approaching radically asymmetrical – indeed, submerged – relations between human and nonhuman ontologies. The essential work of such thinkers as Myra Hird and her colleague Kathryn Yusoff constitute theoretical explorations of the submerged zone generated by the aporia of our ‘intra-action’ with microbial life – signaling what cannot be recuperated by human epistemologies. Hird’s work in micro-ontology presents a unique opportunity in the Western tradition to disinherit our claim to the world, interrogating how we may relate to that which antedates us even as it remains vital to our existence in such a way that ‘bacteria…precede my relating with them.’[31] This statement is confirmed by Yusoff, who argues that the insensible ‘points towards modes of exclusion and forms of resistance in our thinking with nonhuman others that are before and beyond relationality.’[32] In other words, the insensible calls attention to the ontological importance of what is excluded from our thinking of the microbial. And it is precisely this non-relationality, and the profound asymmetry it introduces, that acts as a dynamical driver for opening up new conceptual and aesthetic territories. To be precise, these non-relations do not limit, but extend the frontiers of our being-in-the-world. As stated by Yusoff, ‘to understand the exclusions of sense and the possibilities for thinking the insensible as an expanded mode of worlding.’[33] Submergence, taking us into the virtual reservoirs of insensible relations with microbial life, allows access to worlds within worlds.

To warp thought, to submerge consciousness – as the opening up of a virtualized encounter between the amoeba and art. The inundated Barbie heads, the bodies of water in Wieser, the cavity in Drenk’s sculpture, as so many traces of a submerged exhibition that has washed over our anthropocentric understanding of amoebic life.


Super-Amoeba

Mathew Holm is a graphic artist who, along with his sister Jennifer Holm, has co-written and illustrated a series of didactic children’s comics called Squish the Amoeba. Squish inhabits the microsphere, and faces the types of challenges that pepper the life of a regular school-going child – bullies, ennui, homework, nagging parents, chores – and escapes from these through comic books. Indeed, he follows the adventures of Super-Amoeba with great interest, at one point becoming his avatar in a situation necessitating super-heroic intervention. Having invited Holm to respond to The Amoebic Workshop, he designed a marvelous image of Squish attending an art exhibition (Figure 4) whereupon he discovers a portrait of an amoeba and exclaims: ‘Art is Amoebic!’

Figure 4. SQUISH Copyright © Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, 2016.

Figure 4. SQUISH Copyright © Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, 2016.


Although brimming with dulcitude, excitement, and innocence, let us unpack some of the more troubling implications pertaining to this image and statement. The metalepsis figured in Holm’s illustration – the cartoon ameoba confronting a depiction of a more ‘realistic’ amoeba – captures a key component of what this exhibition has attempted to stage: namely, the opportunity for the amoebic (as workshop, as Pseudo-amoeba) to encounter itself in the recontextualised milieu of a gallery space. Indeed, it is not only we who are being exposed to the amoeba from this new aesthetic angle, but Squish as well, and in the process he becomes self-aware. This illustration indicates a field of convergence insofar as the amoebic has coalesced around its self-representation; the amoeba is able to surveil and study itself. Yet, the statement ‘Art is Amoebic’ only qualifies amoebic self-awareness or convergence to a certain point. In other words, this statement upholds only the barest logical structure before collapsing into the absurd. Indeed, ‘Art is Amoebic’ is not a sense-based statement, but the synaptic firing of a neuron across a billion years into the present, an amoebic transmission crossing a vast and submerged field of non-relations. Even as Squish becomes self-aware, then, his statement subverts an anthropomorphic reading of the situation. As I have been arguing throughout, my slogan ‘Art is Amoebic’ is not intended to identify the amoeba as the next contemporary art superstar, nor does it presuppose that its shell is an aesthetic object. ‘Art is Amoebic’ is a non-communicative phrase that is intended to hollow out our relation to the amoeba through art itself, even as it evacuates art of its anthropocentricity, and to force a reassessment of the organic-inorganic interfaces in the micro-verse of dirt along a virtual trajectory.

In this final section, I want to explore the most pressing concern compelling us to unpack this amoebic qualification of art – what was earlier articulated as the becoming-animal of art. This examination involves the obverse of Pseudo-amoeba, an entity we are nominating, in an homage to Holm, super-amoeba, which is definable as the refinement – to the point of totalization – of amoebic capacities in the absence of an abstract animal. Importing some of the implications borne out in Holm’s illustration, and setting them to work in a scientific context, will hopefully enable us to consider the amoeba as a ‘bio-indicator’ for a super-converged matrix. Put simply, the notion of amoebic self-knowledge in Holm’s illustration catalyzes the amoeba’s bio-indicative functionality in the sciences, to the extent that the amoeba alerts us to this unchecked, de-virtualized super-amoebic formation.[34]

Arcellinidas (testate amoebas) are used in current research as important bio-indicators for reconstructing paleolacustrine environments. Through core sampling – and by deploying a vast array of scientifically-deduced calculations, enhanced electron microscopy, and chemical analyses – it is possible for scientists to decipher the paleoecology of a given lake and the different cycles of eutrophication it may have undergone on account of, for example, dam-building by beavers. This research is then applied to calculate current levels of arcellinida population growth or decline that are affected by such factors as urbanization, phosphorous runoff from a neighboring golf course, or from nearby farms and households that used high levels of phosphates in their fertilizers and detergents before government-sanctioned strictures had been enforced. Likewise, lacustrine arcellinidas are currently used to bio-indicate arsenic contamination as a by-product of gold extraction in Northwest Territory mines in Canada.[35]

I present this very brief summary of the crucial research being conducted in the fields of micro-biology and earth sciences in order to highlight not only the role of these disciplines in environmental conservation, but to uncover how the amoeba is used as a bio-agent and geo-imaging processor for the implementation of safer environmental measures. In becoming part of our epistemic toolset for data collection, microbial life is increasingly engaged on the basis of its scientific instrumentality, and at the expense of its virtuality. As important as scientific research is, it has not so far enabled a virtualized milieu for the amoeba. But this fact in itself does not signify what is at stake in promoting this mode of address toward the amoeba, and it is only in light of a super-amoebic formation that this motivation becomes clear.

I am borrowing the concept of amoeba as bio-indicator in order to launch the question of whether this bio-indicative capacity is not a mere fraction of a greater wavelength or transmission – one that cannot be accessed through positivist science. Just as Squish has encountered his representation for the first time in the context of an art exhibition, I want to suggest that what the amoeba bio-indicates are not only the effects of environmental degradation, but also the amoebic super-structure that is borne out through human modes of industrial production that have become de-virtualized. To be clear, it is not the ‘amoebic transmission’ that is itself being problematised – the echoing of amoebic functions related to building, discharging, reproducing, and so on across untold timespans and scales of life – but that certain amoebic capacities have been perfected and exaggerated to the extent that they have now circuited back to impinge upon the amoeba and its habitat. The amoeba is bio-indicative of its own technē, operations, and mechanics, once these have become uncoupled from the virtualized ‘abstract animal.’ Consequently, the amoeba is bio-indicative of the super-amoebic stratification that takes over in the absence of an assemblage like Pseudo-amoeba.

We have become a super-amoebic civilization, territorializing the reproductive sexualities of the animal and capitalizing upon its methodologies of production in order to engineer our extended phenotypes, but all the while disavowing the potentialities of an ‘abstract animal.’ Hence, just as Squish’s exclamation ‘Art is Amoebic’ de-pressurizes the compressed representational field in which he finds himself, so too has the amoeba’s convergence into super-amoeba been relieved in this essay and exhibition through Pseudo-amoeba, and specifically through a virtualized modality it has brought to bear upon amoebic life. If these virtualized events are being staged through contemporary art, perhaps we may begin to characterize this period in art history as deeply bifurcated between de-virtualized and virtualized planes and strata. Thus, inasmuch as contemporary art is mapping the axiomatics, circuits, and the instrumentalisation of what Terry Smith calls (following Heidegger) a ‘world-picturing apparatus’[36] – surveilling the world’s self-surveilling modalities – it also seems to be affirming the potential for a becoming-animal of art; that is, where art is undergoing a profound transformation not toward the ‘animal’ as such, but toward that virtual reserve expressed by the animal. Contemporary art is plugged into the territorializing power of super-amoeba, but it is just as engaged in modulating micro-processes and activating imperceptible filtrations whereby art becomes the basis for a virtualized estrangement from the world through the animal. It is therefore in this very specific sense that ‘Art is amoebic’ indicates a potentiality already nascent within contemporary art, whereby art becomes the virtual territory, workshop, and milieu for nonhuman individuation. In a sense, therefore, the more art is opened to the abstract animal, the less instrumentalised it becomes.[37]

I want to propose a final excursion into the artworks of Drenk, Lalonde, and Wieser in order to indicate that in having enabled the pseudo-amoebic virtualization of the amoeba, so too does their own art become virtualized. Thus, filtered through Drenk’s Implement 4, one might begin to visualize the amoeba shell as bio-informatic – as a shell that, in having stored an excess of information, has not rigidified into an archive, but that follows biomorphic flows, errors, and gradients in its mode of construction and experimentation. In terms of the amoeba and its cytoplasm, in Lalonde’s Barbies dans le vinaigre series one might envision the infinite reproducibility of plastic as having overtaken microbial plasticity and reproduction. Refracted through Wieser’s praxis and artworks, one may plateau onto an atomized ‘image’ of the amoeba shell that reaches us as unbound atoms shaped by the void. These are Pseudo-amoebic virtualities speaking from and to a submerged consciousness (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Jason deCaires Taylor, Silent Evolution (detail), 2010, Sculpture, dimensions variable. Cancun/Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

Figure 5. Jason deCaires Taylor, Silent Evolution (detail), 2010, Sculpture, dimensions variable. Cancun/Isla Mujeres, Mexico.


As barely ontological messages that are receding at alarming rates under a convergent super-structure, what might they be signaling? Synthetic plastic becomes an ossified after-image of microbial plasticity. Informatics, without the errors, experimentations, and the types of expenditures inherent to bios, risks overcoding the world. Lastly, if the void, the absolute, can only be confirmed mathematically,[38] and through advances in techno-science, this would sublimate, certainly not submerge, a universal ego/I.[39] Hence, what is at stake in a converged super-amoebic formation are the triple eliminations of error (as biological mutation), plasticity (as microbial endurance), and the affirmation of the void (as a vector for atomization).

The Amoebic Workshop: A Submerged Exhibition




[1] A condensed version of this essay appears in the exhibition catalogue, as do two other essays in this issue – those by Justin Clemens and Myra Hird, which were commissioned for the catalogue – and the interviews with Jessica Drenk and Claudia Wieser.

[2] The Patterson Research Group were my principal collaborators for this interdisciplinary project. Their crucial involvement cannot be overstated, as there simply would not have been an amoebic workshop without their expert creation and maintenance of the aquarium mini-environment. The curation of the amoebic aquarium has triggered concrete advancements for the PRG as well, and as such was evaluated by both parties in terms of a co-parallel evolution in the context of their own research and for opening up contemporary curation to a new set of concerns and priorities. Upon the closing of the exhibition, the contents of the aquarium, including its still-living residents, were returned to Bell’s Lake.

[3] The aquarium in this exhibition is intended to stand on its own terms. It is not representative of an artist’s work in the way that, for example, Pierre Huyghe employs aquariums with living inhabitants as a medium for his own conceptual gestures. See Alteveer, Ian. ‘Vestiges in the Rocks: Pierre Huyghe’s Mineral Garden,’ in Pierre Huyghe: The Roof Garden Commission (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015), 14.

[4] This term refers not to a figure but to an immanent modality: ‘A fixed plane of life upon which everything stirs, slows down or accelerates. A single abstract Animal for all the assemblages that effectuate it.’ Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 255.

[5] See Money, Nicholas P. The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 12.

[6] ‘Because protists practice uniparental reproduction, they defy death in a way that troubled Freud’s pleasure principle and death drive.’ Hird, Myra J. The Origins of Sociable Life: Evolution after Science Studies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 25.

[7] The BwO ‘is not at all a notion or a concept but a practice, a set of practices. You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit.’ Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, 150.

[8] Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, began his apprenticeship in Verrocchio’s bottega at a very young age. See Bambach, Carmen C. Drawing and Painting in the Italian Renaissance Workshop: Theory and Practice, 1300-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 82.

[9] Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, 158-9.

[10] Bambach, 1999, 12.

[11] Ibid., 124, 92. This notion of the ‘copying of the copies’ is an amoebic function as well, termed polyploidy. See Money, 2014, 12.

[12] Brilliant, Virginia and Frederick Ilchman. Paolo Veronese: A Master and His Workshop in Renaissance Venice (New York: Scala, 2012), 21.

[13] Patterson, R. Timothy. ‘Mediolus, a new genus of Arcellacea (Testate Lobose Amoebae),’ Palaeontologia Electronica, 17:2, July 2014, 1-8.

[14] Raymond Ruyer’s theorization of consciousness is highly applicable to the amoeba insofar as he states that ‘consciousness, knowledge, and self-survey are not akin to an illumination; they are the presence of a primary mode of bonding, which subjectively exists as an absolute domain and is objectively manifested as equipotentiality.’ Ruyer, Raymond. Neofinalism, trans. Alyosha Edlebi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 123.

[15] Hansell, Michael. Built by Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 60. Mediolus is being substituted for the original ‘Difflugia’ in Hansell’s text, as the genus had not yet been distinguished by Patterson (and would not be until 2014).

[16] Ibid.

[17] DeLanda, Manuel. ‘Inorganic Life,’ in Crary, Jonathan and Sanford Kwinter (eds.). Incorporations (New York: Zone, 1992), 133.

[18] As stated by Deleuze and Guattari, ‘[y]ou don’t reach the BwO, and its plane of consistency, by wildly destratifying.’ Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, 160.

[19] Grosz, Elizabeth. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 63.

[20] Images of the artworks by Jessica Drenk and Claudia Wieser can be found in the interviews with the two artists that also appear in this issue.

[21] This is likewise the case with many other of Drenk’s artworks, in which there is an undecidability between inorganic and organic materials: her Tesselation series transforms wood into unreadable matrices of binary code; her Bibliophylum installation, which appears like a wall of shells, is in fact made up of fragments of books hardened by wax; and Reading our Remains is an ongoing series where altered books are made to resemble geological strata.

[22] One might think of Antonio Gaudi’s interminable Sagrada Família as a primary example of biomorphism.

[23] See Richard Dawkins for his theorisation of the extended phenotype – the ability for an organism to manipulate its environment as a manifestation of its genetic makeup. Dawkins, Richard. The Extended Phenotype: the Long Reach of the Gene (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).

[24] Lalonde, Gabriel. ‘Entretien avec Gabriel Lalonde,’ Mange Monde, 3, 2012, n. p.

[25] Correspondence with author, August 16, 2016.

[26] Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows provides an excellent reading and application of this term, and its incommensurability with Western aesthetics. See Tanizaki, Junichiro. In Praise of Shadows, trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker (Sedgwick: Leete’s Island Books, 1977).

[27] Nedo, Kito. ‘A post-Bauhaus approach to transforming public and private spaces,’ Frieze, 162, 20 March 2014.

[28] Correspondence with Andrew Macumber, August 9, 2016. Macumber is a micro-biologist from the PRG who is trying to ascertain whether arcellinida tests have evolved epigenetically or phylogenetically – that is, whether the various test formations have mutated in response to their habitat or not.

[29] Hird, 2009, 29.

[30] Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier (London: Continuum, 2008), 10. Although one might argue that microbes do not technically predate terrestrial life, given that they are themselves among the earliest life-forms on Earth, their milieu and umwelt are so far removed from the human as to constitute ‘fossil-matter,’ as the instrumentalised uses of these organisms discussed in the next section will clearly indicate.

[31] Hird, 2009, 26.

[32] Yusoff, Kathryn. ‘Insensible worlds: postrelational ethics, indeterminacy and the (k)nots of relating,’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31, 2013, 208.

[33] Ibid., 215.

[34] I wish to cautiously suggest that Justin Clemens and Adam Nash’s timely theorization of the digital’s recent subsuming of every other medium is an antecedent to the idea of structural convergences, as is being applied to the concept of super-amoeba. See Clemens, Justin and Adam Nash, ‘Being and Media: Digital ontology after the event of the end of media,’ The Fibreculture Journal, 24, 2015, 6-32.

[35] See Boudreau, Robert E. A. et al., ‘A paleolimnological record of Holocene climate and environmental change in the Temagami region, northeastern Ontario,’ Journal of Paleolimnology 33:4, May 2005, 445-61; Patterson, R. Timothy et al., ‘Development of an Arcellacea (testate lobose amoebae) based transfer function for sedimentary Phosphorus in lakes,’ Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 348-349, 2012, 32-44; Nasser, Nawaf A. et al., ‘Lacustrine Arcellinina (Testate Amoebae) as Bioindicators of Arsenic Contamination,’ Microbial Ecology, 72:1, July 2016, 130-49.

[36] Smith, Terry. ‘Worlds Pictured in Contemporary Art: Planes and Connectivities,’ Humanities Research, 19:2, 2013, 11-12.

[37] I am indebted to Charles Green for having illuminated the question of art’s instrumentalisation.

[38] Meillassoux’s ‘sign dm’ (devoid of meaning) posits the voiding of the Universe of meaning and semantics, thereby nullifying correlationist metaphysics. Sign dm powerfully harkens a singularity – the disembodiment of human thought from the world – and in this very specific way suggests a sublimated (not submerged) mathematical/numerical ego. Meillassoux, Quentin. ‘Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition,’ trans. Robin Mackay and Moritz Gansen, in Avanessian, Armen and Suhail Malik. Genealogies of Speculation: Materialism and Subjectivity since Structuralism, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 117-197. Claire Colebrook’s argument for a realignment between the Derridean ‘trace’ and radical materialism may be thought of as arriving at de-correlationism through the vital failure of assimilating aesthetics and language into thought: ‘“writing,” “trace,” “différance,” or “plasticity”…are also non-things insofar as they might be thought less as nouns and more as markers or place-holders for an attempt to think about that which can never be given precisely because it is the disturbing, destructive and disinterring movement through which any givenness or thing is possible.’ Perhaps Colebrook’s reinvestigation of the ‘trace’ may be considered the obverse of sign dm, insofar as the literary or aesthetic trace is the inhuman, material ‘sign’ of an always-already aborted consciousness. Colebrook, Claire. ‘Not Kant, Not Now: Another Sublime,’ in Askin, Ridvan et al. Speculations V: Aesthetics in the 21st Century (Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2014), 139.

[39] I once more defer to the unparalleled scholarship of Justin Clemens, and particularly to his essay in this issue, ‘Uninhabiting the Corrosive Littoral of the Anthropocene in the Levelled Sands of Being,’ as an example of how the sciences and arts may become critically aligned. Clemens thus fulfils the following stipulation by DeLanda: ‘We must create stratometers of every kind – mathematical and nonmathematical – and get to work mapping the attractors that define our local destinies and the bifurcations that could allow us to modify these destinies.’ See DeLanda, 1992, 161. Italics added.


Dr. Astarte Rowe received her PhD in Art History from the University of Melbourne. Her articles appear in the International Journal of the Image, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, Art + Australia, and World Art.