Donkey Bite: Nastio Mosquito on what he is and is not

“I do think there are things in life that you must decide, but to be who you are is not a decision,” says Nastio Mosquito, following the group exhibition Positions at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven.

Art Africa: March 23, 2016

AA Newsletter 23Mar INT Mosquito3Installation view of Nástio Mosquito’s work at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven. Photo: Peter Cox.

It’s pitch black in the front gallery of the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven. After a few minutes, I still can’t see my hand in front of my face. Feeling around with my arms, there’s nothing; not even the door I came through is visible anymore. A moment of panic. How far did I walk into the room; are there others in here? A green light in the far corner beckons and I slide-walk towards it, still unsure of what obstacles the artist may have planted. The light starts taking the shape of a small screen, burning pink halos into my retina. The squeaks emitted by the screen starts sounding more and more like a voice. Up close, I can hear and see: it’s Nastio Mosquito and he is naked. Ranting about everything and nothing in a way that gives goose bumps. Just like the interview with him.

Winner of the 2014 Future Generation Art Prize, celebrated by the BBC at the Venice Biennale with a rhetoric “Is this the coolest artist at the Venice Biennale?”, the Angola-born Portugal-schooled Mosquito slips through questions and labels with the slight of tongue that has become his trademark. The award is “flattering” but he doesn’t know what the consequences are yet, and he’s “just grateful that there’s space” for him in the art world that has now opened up for him. When it comes to the labels game: he is not a video artist, he is not a spoken word artist, he is not a performance artist, he is not an artist. He is not African, he is not diasporan, he is not postcolonial, he is not political. He just is. This is Mosquito’s integrity. Then, just when you feel lost in the darkness grasping for theories, he gets very personal.

You’re part of an exhibition of four artists – with Anna Boghiguian, Chia-Wei Hsu and Sarah Pierce – at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven until 3 April, called Positions. Would you say integrity is your position as an artist?

It’s a position that I am consciously trying to live from. Staying close to my sense of integrity is important and allows me not to have to make decisions all the time, by being there I am just there. I don’t have to decide too many things, I just have to be obedient to my sense of integrity. I think becoming an artist was a position that I had to agree with. There was a particular time when I had to agree. What I was available to fight for, chase and commit to, was connected to doing these things with writing, song writing, video making. It’s what kept my head going at night. I just had to agree with it. It’s a bit of a fake truth that you have to decide. I do think there are things in life that you must decide, but to be who you are is not a decision. You have to agree with it. So I just agreed with it, in small doses, I don’t think there was a moment.

You resist labels and decisions, yet your work is very narrative driven. How do you make your work?

I think it’s the most natural thing for a human being to create from his supernatural, intangible point of view. We need to organize it, but things are born out of somewhere else. Then it is about serving that idea and finding the best way for that idea to come to life – is this idea better as a song, a film, a photograph or a performance? Studying jazz [for two and a half years in Portugal after school] gave me the capacity to relate to musicians and interact with them, and be able to construct a sonic palette to deliver a particular narrative. Going to study production operations [in media in London] gave me a few insights on how certain things work from equipment to script.

AA Newsletter 23Mar INT Mosquito2Installation view from Nástio Mosquito’s solo show at the Espai d’art contemporani de Castello, Spain.

The jazz background explains a lot in terms of your distinctive sound. Were you planning on being a jazz musician?

I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I’m just doing, I’m just agreeing with where things are. I want to know, I would like know, I would like to be connected to what I want to be when I grow up. But more than what I want to be, I want to know who I am – you know? And again, to come into agreement with that. The sense of purpose that is in my limitations – there are things that I am good at it, there are things that I like to do. So between what I’m good at and what I like to do is a natural tendency to do something. It’s not always very clear to me. But I’m still wanting to know what I’m going to do when I grow up. And I want to come into agreement with that. And be.

Wow, even the way you speak casually ripples with improv jazz-like pauses and repeated words. Are you a natural performer, when was your first performance?

Depends what you call performance! [laughs] The first ever thing I did was a donkey in the Christmas play in boarding school. I still remember it as being something relevant for me. It was not the most important role in that play, but I think it was the teachers who made me feel that it was important enough to give it my all and it felt very good. It felt very good to receive the compliments. And, strangely enough, it was a donkey. The donkey is not a very celebrated animal – even the cow gets more good vibes than the donkey. Donkeys are stubborn, ugly, smelly, extremely working class. It felt good to be that donkey, it felt good to commit to it, and do the hee-haw sounds. I don’t think I had any lines. There were just a few cues, blocking a few positions on stage and a hee-haw moments of some sort. The whole process just felt very generous. Very tangible, with people working together. There was a script, different articulations of things, things had to be working. An independence, but at the same time coordinated. There was a dynamic, but it was nice. It was not the most comfortable situation for me – some people like it I suppose – being in boarding school away from home, it was very tense. I was nine at the most. I confess I’ve never spoken about that like this. I guess I’m constructing on it.

Do you think the memory changes?

I think it does. Between becoming more clear and more foggy. Memories have a utility to them, they’re here to serve you. 

AA Newsletter 23Mar INT Mosquito4Nástio Mosquito, Ser Humano, 2015. Installation view Van Abbemsueum, 2015. Photo Peter Cox. video installation 4’08”. video by Vic Pereiró, courtesy Nástio Mosquito ©

What has been your “donkey” performance as an adult?

I don’t know, maybe it’s my personality or something like that, but I have a feeling that it hasn’t happened yet. In terms of performance, there are moments of pure joy. I’ve had tremendous privilege these past fifteen years in terms of how I’ve had the possibility and opportunity to live my life, but I haven’t done that performance yet. There are many important things in my life, there are many things I respect, but I don’t have a story to tell my grandchildren about yet.

Maybe it’s coming up this year. What’s next for you?

Besides the Van Abbe exhibition, I currently have a solo show of new work at the Espai d’art contemporani de Castelló in Spain. There’s another show coming up at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev, Ukraine, this year. I’m also preparing a new performance – I have a new collection of songs that I want to bring out, but want to try them out on stage.

From gut to gallery

Everything we were taught to believe about fearing bacteria is being upheaved by a growing movement of designers and scientists.

Published in DAMn 55: March/April 2016

expanded-self-ii_sonja-baeumel_1

Some 40 trillion invisible organisms cover every surface of our body, inside and out. This microbiome of bacteria, yeast, viruses, and fungi that we have accumulated throughout our life, since birth, is especially concentrated in our gut. The role E. coli plays in digestion is well known, and sometimes our candida or staph levels will get a bit boisterous and we’ll have a yeast infection or a sty. But up until recently, these mysterious personal squatters have not been given much attention, based solely on the assumption that the microscopic organisms live in neutral harmony with each other and with us. But what if our bodies are, in fact, made up of more microbiome cells than human cells?

Since we are truly more microbiome than human, what does it even mean to be a person anymore? As opposed to our obsession with everyone being an individual, are we actually ecosystems or superorganisms or conglomerate ecological corporations? This is the inspiration behind Austrian designer Sonja Bäumel’s current project, which involves researching the social interactions of bacteria and of other microorganisms, in collaboration with a scientist and a cultural historian. Research has linked depression, mood-swings, stress, cravings, diabetes, heart disease, and weight management with our invisible cohabitants, meaning that they could very well be contributing to our consciousness and decision-making. Scientists at Virginia Tech have announced that they may soon be controlling a robot brain using E. coli. Bäumel has been working with bacteria for over seven years, since graduating from Design Academy Eindhoven with a project exploring bacteria’s relation to fashion, which earned her top honours. Since then, others have developed bacterial fabrication techniques, such as New York fashion designer Suzanne Lee, who produced a Biocouture range of leather jackets.

In the same vein, German design student Julia Krayer recently showed Honingleder at Cologne Design Week. Translated as honey leather, it’s a skin-like material produced by bacteria that, during the fermentation process (of the same sort used in the beverage industry), metabolise sugar and secondary plant compounds into cellulose fibres. The result, says Krayer, is “a range of materials that can be slotted somewhere between textile, leather, and paper.” By incorporating the positive associations of honey and leather, she also hopes to challenge people’s perceptions of bacteria as ‘disgusting’ and ‘dangerous’.

How do you do?

It is this question of our relationship to and perception of bacteria that has also taken over Bäumel’s original fashion-based practice: “Now I’m figuring out that it’s more about finding alternatives for the platforms surrounding the body, not necessarily about finding solutions for the existing fashion system.” Recent works have included an agar cast of herself imprinted with her own microbiome and allowed to grow during an exhibition at the Waag Society in Amsterdam last year, and continuous explorations into visualising the bacteria on our body through dyes in petri dishes. Destigmatising bacteria is an important component, and for her on-going Metabodies project she obtained the handprints of a couple after exercise, after sex, and after showering, collecting these in petri dishes. People were surprised to discover that the most bacteria were present after showering, challenging our perception of what ‘dirty’ means. Bäumel explains that our skin’s pores release a new layer of bacterial protection each time we wash.

The importance of preserving our bacterial pals in order to maintain healthy immune systems and prevent the increasing threat of antimicrobial resistance and superbugs, is the message behind a fun, pop-up Pet Shop by the Waag Society – an institute that has been facilitating trans-disciplinary experimentation and research in the fields of art, science, and technology for over 20 years. Friendly, adorable micro-organisms with names like night-owl photobacteria, cool-cat spirulina, and fluffy fungi, as well as a range of DIY hardware that includes a microscope and an incubator, aim to appeal to kids, creatives, and hackers alike. By anthropomorphising microorganisms, the hope is that we’ll resist the temptation to use antibacterial household cleaners and toiletries.

Who’s watching you?

Not destroying our microbiome is a good thing, unless you’re trying to hide from Big Brother, as designer Emma Dorothy Conley explored in her Microbiome Security Agency project. Conley latched onto the discovery that each person’s microbiome is completely unique, like a fingerprint. In theory, it can provide information about our lifestyle, the people we’re living with, and where we’ve been – this is how shoplifter spray works, by intentionally adding trace-DNA to the suspect’s microbiome. “As soon as something is touted as being so specific to an individual that it can identify us, we need to ask how this will infringe on our personal privacy”, says the Ireland-based American. Winner of the 2015 Bio Art and Design Award in the Netherlands, she had collaborated with scientist Guus Roeselers to work out how one might camouflage the bacterial traces one leaves everywhere. The result is a range of pseudo cosmetics that adds so much raw DNA data to your microbiome that it would overload an identification test with too much information. An installation at the MU Artspace in Eindhoven allowed people to contribute bacteria – the more bacterial-DNA data included in the cosmetics, the more effective they were – and to apply it to themselves in powder form.

For Bäumel however, bacteria and microorganisms are not simply inert DNA; she is therefore pushing to adopt the methodology of metagenomics in her practice. This means that rather than looking at a single species in isolation and from the perspective of DNA, the emphasis is on trans-species social interaction and communication. In short: bacterial intelligence. “Only because they’re smaller – scale is a very interesting aspect in this project – are they seen to have less value than us”, says Bäumel.

Growing concern

A typography project by Ori Eliasar called Living Language unpeels some of the philosophical layers embedded in the notion of humans having an intelligent microbiome. Eliasar created ancient Palaeo-Hebrew letters in petri dishes using bacteria, and then added algal proteins in the shape of the modern Hebrew alphabet. As the bacteria grow, the initial shapes change into the new letters. “Using my research, experiments, and results, I am hoping to infuse nature, culture, character, and language with some new theories of my own”, says the Israeli about his graduation project.

Working in a school comes with certain liberties; however, for galleries and institutes moving into the realm of art and design utilising the medium of bacteria, from inert DNA to actual living matter, things are less obvious. This is unchartered terrain and it raises an entirely unexplored field of ethical and technical presentation issues. Bäumel experienced this first-hand when her installation at the Waag Society last year was removed prematurely because the results had not been anticipated by the organisation. Although disappointed, Bäumel is anything but put off; instead she appears incentivised by the challenges posed by being a pioneer. It would take such a spirit to be drawn into the field to begin with, but it’s Bäumel’s slow, methodological approach and her evolving personal attachment to microorganisms which indicate that her work is not gimmicky. “Caring about them is caring about us”, she smiles.