The microbes that live on and in our bodies weigh over 1 kg; they outnumber us on a cellular level by 10:1. There is increasing scientific interest in regard to the impact of the microbiome on everything from autoimmune diseases and body weight, to our cognitive and emotional states. Still, relatively little is known about this hidden universe of cohabitors.
My practice revolves around the revolution that human microbiome research has brought with respect to our definition of Homo sapiens and to multiple concepts of self. I address these important questions by transforming the bacterial communities on my body (collecting the microbiome before and after the experiment) and generating a series of microbiome selfies, so to speak, to illustrate the metamorphosis of my bacterial self. Sometimes, my wife joins me to investigate how two people affect each other at the bacterial level on a daily basis. In my research and creation, I use art and science as a way of engaging with the public on important societal issues. As such, my experiments are both scientific hypotheses and artistic performances.
“1000 Handshakes” is part of a long series of such performance/experiments I have been doing to keep track of the changes in my microbiome through various types of activities. At the Panum Institute, University of Copenhagen, I shook hands with 1066 people, including students, staff, patients, and members of the public passing through the building, attending lectures, and eating their lunch. Periodically, assistants took a swab sample from the palm of my hand, and the DNA of my skin microbiome was analyzed to reveal how our contact with others shapes the microbes between us and how it changes who we are, one handshake at a time. On Friday October 10th, the same performance was repeated at the University of Copenhagen’s Medical Museion during Culture Night. For this second experiment, I shook hands with 1218 people who gradually changed the invisible microbial community in the palm of my hand. If it is true that ‘you are what you touch,’ I will never be the same again.