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  • Signs of the Times. Collecting Biological Traces and Memories (in progress)

    Masks (medical/textile) became symbols of these challenging times, confinement, uncertainty, and fear. Pictures of people wearing masks will be historical documents of this period. With time, they will take on different meanings. Masks are dedicated to protecting us from the virus, but if used for too long, they can also pose a health risk, accumulating everything coming from our nose and mouth while we breathe and talk. After a few hours of wearing, they are soaked with body secretions and individual microflora. Besides masks being worn, three are also masks lying in the streets. After usage, they become trash — biohazardous trash. They are then anonymous; we can’t know who was wearing them. Maybe it was a coronavirus carrier or a sick person with various illnesses. What is the story of the person behind the mask?
    This project is thought of as a long performative process. I do not want to be limited by deadlines, as is typical for contemporary art production. I prefer to produce slow art. I give myself two or even three years to complete the project. The activity is divided into a couple of stages.
    Stage I: Collecting anonymous biological traces (done)
    In Spring 2021, I decided to collect masks from the streets of Berlin to use them as laboratory samples in the future. It was a specific activity of dealing with masks understood as an abject and possible site of viral contamination. Collected masks have been placed in laboratory tubes.
    Stage II: Collecting individual biological traces and memories (in progress)
    I realized that anonymous masks were not enough for my pandemic archive at a certain point. I was curious about the people behind the face covers. I wanted to listen to individual stories and collect masks contaminated by personal biological material and memories from the Covid19 pandemic. To do that, I had to organize meetings in person. It was essential after such a long time of confinement. Every participant is asked to sit in front of the camera and share a memory from the pandemic. I do not ask many questions; leaving space and freedom for the stories is crucial. I give the person a fresh medical mask to contaminate it while talking and breathing. After the talk, I took the mask, placed it in the laboratory tube, and added it to the existing collection. All recordings will be transcribed.

    So far, the project’s hosts were:
    Liebig19, Berlin (August 2021)
    Łaźnia Gallery, Gdańsk (October 2021)
    TOP (Transdisciplinary Project Space), Berlin (November 2021)
    FishTankPamora, Malmo (January 2022)
    Art Laboratory Berlin (January-February 2022)
    ArtSciSalon Toronto (April 2022)
    Ethnographic Museum Zbąszyń, Poland (September 2022)
    FEMeeting, Evora, Portugal (September 2022)

    Appendix: Creating collective memory (partly completed)
    During the first wave of the pandemic, between March and June 2020, I participated in meetings under the working title Viral Culture Bio-art and Society. An academic curator at Pomona Colege Gallery, Claire Nettleton, initiated the series to assemble the international art& science community and exchange experiences and support each other in the face of global crisis. The meetings were also an occasion to discuss professional issues such as creativity during the pandemic, virtual exhibiting, online education, and the role of bio-art in the discourse around the pandemic. There is a collection of notes, chats, transcripts, and video recordings. I see them as a meaningful archive that will be valuable historical documentation for the future. I decided to work on them, do video transcription, and sort and collect references. My goal is to prepare a publication complemented by short interviews with people participating in the meetings. I would ask them mainly about the series's meanings for them individually. These recordings can be put together with those composed while collecting the mask.
    Stage III: Biological traces examination (to be done)
    I plan to investigate biological remains from the collected masks, both from the human body and the environment contaminating the sample. I am not interested in human genetic material but rather in non-human agents (such as skin microbiome). This stage is consulted by dr Jakub Piatkowski from the Institute of Genetics and Biotechnology in Warsaw.
    Stage IV: Performative exhibition (the initial script)
    The installation is thought to deal with the disappearance of memories and an effort to preserve them for longer. I would require several pairs of screens (their number depends on the room size). They should be located on each wall at some distance from each other. One screen, a graphic tablet, is dedicated to writing the fragments of these pandemic stories I collected during the project production. The other should display the Petri dish content from the collected mask samples. Every visible species will be identified. I would be in the gallery every day. A chair should be in front of each screen dedicated to writing. I would sit there and write down stories on the graphic tablet, and when the screen was filled, I would move to the next one to do the same. The tricky thing would be that the text would start disappearing from the moment I finished writing on a tablet, so I would get back to the screen to write a story again after some time. The disappearance of the text would be synchronized with the Petri dish picture disappearing on the second screen. This constant disappearance would keep me busy, but visitors could help me in this work. They could find printed versions of memories in the room I recorded and write them down on the random tablet where the previous writings disappeared. There is not only one story adjusted to a precise pair of screens. Everything is fluid and dynamic, a constant struggle to remember.