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My work engages with microbial life through the inclusion of edible fermented foods in sculptural installations. In this work, the microorganisms present in fermented foods become sculptural actants. Seeing a floating SCOBY (symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast) on top of tea or the bubbles and smelling kimchi is visceral, bodily, and can be revelatory. My own revelation with fermented foods has happened through extensive experimentation, research, and microscopy. The kitchen-lab leads to the studio, where each sculpture is created for a specific ferment. Formally, the sculptures elucidate my desire to create an artistic essence of, and environment for, the fermented food and its microbial profile.

Practically, the sculptures are constructed around vessels that contain the ferments. The vessels become a body for the viscous substrates, a way to rethink the binary of interior/exterior, and a way to make digestion transparent. Through this looking glass, microbial activity sheds light on anthropocentrism. The sculptures create space to reflect on our symbiotic relationship with microbes and the ancient ingenuity they bring to the table.

The significance of microbes in relation to a queer perspective on being is central to my thought process around this work. My 2016 solo show, They/Them/Their, at Black Ball Projects in Brooklyn, NY, was titled in reference to my gender pronouns and also to the multitude of microbes we coexist with. When framing the human in relation to prokaryotes (bacteria), we learn that they outnumber us in our own bodies as well as in the population on Earth, not just in numbers of individuals, but in total biomass as well. Microbes reproduce in myriad ways and cannot be defined by gender. If microbes are without gender and they make up at least half of our human selves, then are we are all pluralities? Are we are all they, them, and their?

They/Them/Their featured four fermentation sculptures, a large-scale wall sculpture, and a collaborative shelf of ferments. To inaugurate the show, I held a kimchi demonstration and packed the kimchi into its sculpture, Leuconostoc Mesenteroides (the title references the primary bacteria found in the beginning stages of kimchi fermentation). For the collaborative shelf, I invited people from the New York City fermentation community to bring jars of fermented food to share. The ferments were observed throughout the show, and they were festively eaten at the closing “harvesting” of the sculptures.

Before that show, in 2014, I was introduced to fermentation through a three-week residency at the Foundation for Fermentation Fervor, Sandor Katz’s Tennessee residency program for aspiring fermentation practitioners. Located within a network of queer intentional communities, the residency experience foregrounded the queer, trans-feminist, punk, and DIY connections to food fermentation. Post-residency, I wanted to bring the spirit of community, inclusiveness, and radical alchemical flavor to my work. The result has been to create programming for pieces that necessarily involves others with an interest in making fermented foods. Knowledge-sharing among community members, artists, gardeners, scientists, chefs, and bakers, has had the effect of decentralizing expert knowledge in favor of collective knowledge.

My 2017 solo show, Lactobacillus Amongus, at PLUG projects in Kansas City, MO, was premised on collecting all of the sourdough starters in the area. By doing so, I brought together a community of sourdough bakers that had not previously met. Elaborate narratives often accompany heirloom sourdough starters, so I collected sourdough stories from each participant. At the end of the show, participants brought homemade sourdough baked goods to a community potluck and shared sourdough stories along with their leavened contributions.

Conjured by the act of fermentation, a serendipitous collision between Food Studies and artistic enquiry is now the primary focus of my work and scholarship. Combined, art and food become a medium for dialogue around pressing contemporary questions: those surrounding the body and identity, cultural history and food narratives, food and social justice, and so many more. By celebrating fermented food through art, I aim to create experiences that elicit discovery and honour what we know and do not yet know about our symbiotic world.

Figure 1

Schizomycetes Phase 1, 168 x 112 x 61 cm Materials: Jun tea, glass jar, polyurethane foam, burlap, modeling compound, sintra, epoxy putty, wood, acrylic paint, copyright S.E. Nash, 2015.

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Figure 2

Artificial cave, 56 x 61 x 35 cm Materials: wood, burlap, epoxy putty, paper mache, plaster, paint, jar, mead, copyright S.E. Nash, 2015.

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Figure 3

They/ Them/ Their at Black Ball Projects, copyright S.E. Nash, 2016.

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Figure 4

Lactobacillus Amongus at PLUG Projects, copyright S.E. Nash, 2017.

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Figure 5

Lactobacillus Amongus sourdough potluck at PLUG Projects, copyright S.E. Nash, 2017.

-> See the list of figures