about this contribution
I inhabit the microbial world. Microbes live on my body and inside my body. Every opening in my body envelope is populated by millions and millions of different microbes. I eat microbes, swallow microbes, digest microbes, and defecate microbes. When I kiss my wife, I share microbes with her. When I shake hands with my neighbor, we swap our microbes. We are both part of a complex network of microbes commonly referred to as the microbiome, which is an essential part of our individual and collective bodies. The composition of my microbiome fluctuates on a daily basis, according to my all my actions and encounters. Although my genome is fixed, my microbiome is changeable and adaptable. I can transform my microbiome as I wish to change my identity. As part of my artistic practice, I expose my own body to various types of experiments aimed at changing the makeup of my microbiome. I then use the tools of science to quantify the effects produced.
On February 3, 2016, I shook hands with 1,001 people at the Berlin Transmediale, gradually transforming the invisible community of microbes living in the palm of my right hand. At regular intervals, assistants took samples of this skin microbiome to study how contact with others transforms who we are. Since then, I have repeated this hybrid project, at the interface of art and science, in Copenhagen, Montreal, Perth, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Paris. The performance of 1,001 handshakes raises awareness through physical engagement, through acts of participation and exchange at the social, individual, and microbial levels. As a scientist, the objective of this experiment was to collect scientific data on the human microbiome, the dynamics of contamination of my microbiome in contact with the microbiome of others. As a bioartist, it was more the notion of individuality that appealed to me, a philosophical concept that I formalize through microbiome self-portraits, or microbiome selfies generated from the DNA of bacteria harvested from the palm of my hand. Hidden beyond the visible, in the palm of a hand, as the most curious visitors zoom in, these microbiome selfies reveal themselves on a micro scale. Am I still the same after a thousand handshakes with strangers? These multicolored bacterial networks attest to my metamorphosis.
This mundane action of the handshake comes to us today in a new light amidst a global pandemic exacerbated by social distancing. The limits of my body are not those of my skin. I touch therefore I am. I carry traces of your microscopic identity with me. I am a network of microbial cells that dance with my own cells to construct the person that I am in real time.
author: François-Joseph Lapointe, biologist and bioartist, Professor & Researcher at Université de Montréal.
editorial mediation: Gwenaëlle Lallemand
graphic designer: Bertrand Sandrez
photo credits: see below
Copenhagen: Adam Bencard, Louise Whiteley (curators); Linda Fønss, Anna Simone Kofoed-Kristiansen, Lea Korsholm, Louise Kristensen, Maria Loroño Leturiondo, Anne Sofie Pinstrup Jørgensen, Elin Rosenbek Severinsen, Mika Rosenberg, Emma Strip, Lisa Sutherland, (assistants).
Berlin: Christian de Lutz, Regine Rapp (curators); Alanna Lynch (assistant).
Montréal: Geneviève Dubois, Virginie Lemieux-Labonté (assistants); Cindy Bouchard, Etienne Lord (photo/video).
Baltimore: Margaret MacDonald (curator); Anne Estes (assistant).
San Francisco: Alexandra Carmichael (assistant).
Paris: Gwenaelle Lallemand (assistant); Olivier Kruzer (video).
Perth: Carley Ternes (assistant)
supported by: Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture
references and rights
illustration rights and references
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Copyright 2022 by the author. Reproduced with permission.
François-Joseph Lapointe, Microbiome Selfie, 2014–2020. Photo and data visualization credits: François-Joseph Lapointe
bibliography and references
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Gimbert, Carine, and François-Joseph Lapointe. 2015. “Self-tracking the microbiome: where do we go from here?” Microbiome 3: 70, https://doi.org/10.1186/s40168-015-0138-x.
Hutter, Thiago, Carine Gimbert, Frédéric Bouchard, and François-Joseph Lapointe. 2015. “Being human is a gut feeling.” Microbiome 3: 9, https://doi.org/10.1186/s40168-015-0076-7.
Lapointe, François-Joseph. 2017. “De la transformation expérimentale du microbiote cutané.” Images en Dermatologie 10: 202–205.
Lapointe, François-Joseph. 2017. “Je touche, donc je suis.” Inter, Art Actuel 125: 56–57. https://id.erudit.org/iderudit/84838ac
Lapointe, François-Joseph. 2019. “La performance artistique comme dispositif d’expérimentation scientifique.” In Art, performance, manœuvre, coefficients de visibilité, edited by M. Collet and A. E. Létourneau: 195–202. Dijon: Les Presses du Réel.
Lapointe, François-Joseph. 2020. “Autoportraits au microbiome.” Pour la science (hors-série) 109: 28–31.
Lapointe, François-Joseph. 2021. “Die experimentelle Veränderung des menschlichen Mikrobioms als künstlerische Praxis.” In Naturkultur – Alles ist Interaktion, edited by M. Schneider, 61–68. Berlin: Steidl-Verlag.
Parke, Emily C., Brett Calcott, and Maureen A. O’Malley. 2018. “A cautionary note for claims about the microbiome’s impact on the ‘self.’” PLoS Biology 1, no. 9: e2006654, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2006654
Rees, Tobias, Thomas Bosch, and Angela E. Douglas. 2018. “How the microbiome challenges our concept of self.” PLoS Biology 16, no. 2: e2005358, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2005358.
to cite this article
This article is using Chicago format for its references
Lapointe, François-Joseph. 2023. “1,001 handshakes.” .able journal: https://able-journal.org/1001-handshakes