Architectures of Inverted Bodies



A moth will never know what a zebra finch hears in its song, a zebra finch will never feel the electric buzz of a black ghost knifefish, a knifefish will never see through the eyes of a mantis shrimp, a mantis shrimp will never smell the way a dog can, and a dog will never understand what it is to be a bat. We will never fully do any of these things either, but we are the only animal that can try.

— Ed Yong, An Immense World (2022)



The act of tuning in and sensing the environment around us in its entirety rarely has the chance to unfold in the day-to-day life of fast-paced capitalism in the city. For many of us in lockdown, while our bodies were confined, new worlds opened up and revealed themselves to us; worlds that had been there all along, and yet, forced to stay still, we were only just seeing. Staying at my childhood home during the first six weeks, limited for the first time to walking only within a mile radius, I let Walden, my unkempt lurcher, lead me through unchartered routes, steered by an olfactory language reading the urban topography beyond my own senses. This cramped locale, just beyond the North Circular ring road, that I grew up in and thought I knew so well, became an ever-expanding new landscape of hidden back alleys, lockups, fly-tipped canal sides and motorway underpasses. Meanwhile, in Hackney, artist Esmeralda Valencia Lindström wearing watchmakers’ glasses, discovered new intimacy within her four walls. Magnifying surfaces to an extreme, yet with a static focus, her apartment was transformed into a blurry terrain unless moving her face—and body—up close, flat against walls and floors, where a cacophony of inhabitants and micro-landscapes danced to the fore. Edges of her body blurred into the built environment, shifting perceptions of the expanse of ‘home’. The languages and syntax that compose our built and natural environments are formed of anthropocentric scales: roads, buildings, doorways or corridors carve out and mould the world we perceive. We read our geographies as pathways, routes, areas and zones. And, the main actors in this landscape similarly follow this scale; humans, of course, but also cars, animals, storm clouds. They are bodies that we can sense through sight, sound and touch in the most immediate—and human—ways.

Drawn to the otherness that lives stealthily beyond human perception within the environments we build and operate within, Lindström’s inquiry into the microworlds around us seeks to counter the regime of anthropocentrically-scaled perception and to open our human senses to the cacophony of alterities that surround us, hidden within and beside our everyday. There are architectures within architectures; and architectures in their inverse.



Dry Rot


Using the term umwelt, pioneering biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), described the perceptual life-worlds of animals. His animal behaviour studies influenced the study of cybernetics of life, transforming the way that we humans have studied and articulated the semiotic web of interactions within nature. Yet these animal umwelts that he described are still only a fraction of our earthly biome architecture, one of only five kingdoms alongside plant, fungi, single-celled protista and monera. The world that we perceive is only partially of our own social and personal construction: nature’s myriad strands, holding infinite interactions invisible to us, have transformative effects on our perception of our environment. And just as ants form their own architectures, building bridges or rafts out of their bodies, and mycelium networks build forests, bacteria, archaea, protozoa, algae, and virus communities self-architect also. As palaeontologist Andrew Knoll once said, ‘Animals might be evolution’s icing, but bacteria are really the cake.’ Swabbing surfaces, Lindström’s investigative eye draws attention to the life and constant change on the surfaces of the seemingly dead objects we are devoted to preserving as artworks. Even in the most sterile-seeming of environments, where climate control creates sanctuaries of conservation, her Petri dishes of collected, multiplying bacteria tell a story that is instead full of liveness.

Lindström has been searching for a dialogue with one fungal world-former in particular: Dry Rot. Microscopic spores attracted to a cosy damp home, joyfully germinate, growing a community of long, filamentous hypha threads. As they build and grow in happy conviviality, amassing into a mycelium network throughout a wooden habitat, they eventually fruit into a new generation, pumping new spores into the air, flying the nest to find their own, new path. From the perspective of the human, Dry Rot is a destructive parasite, she sucks the blood from the veins of the architecture. Yet bodies in decay offer new possibilities of being. Where we see closed doors, walls, ceilings and floors, Dry Rot sees hospitable entryways, snug enclaves, easily navigated routes and a gluttonous feast. Where solid matter ends and the airy mass of corridors and rooms takes over, her journey is cut short. This inverted architecture is the umwelt of Dry Rot; though using the same building blocks as components, she inverts and composes them anew, forming an altogether different worldview.

Dry Rot colonises. She seeps into structures and makes them her own; she extracts, exploits and dissolves into nothingness. She evokes uncontainability. Rumour has it that she arrived on the UK shores aboard infected trade ships, just above the waterline of their wooden hulls: the coloniser colonised. She creates fear in precarious housing, run-down rentals, stately homes and museums alike.

Lindström’s glass containers and sealed bags of feeding dry rot, Feeding Samples (2023), hold a wildness inside them. Feeding Samples poses exhibition barriers, most institutions will not allow it to be exhibited, in the unfounded fear that it might somehow escape its airtight cocoon. Yet despite our palpable fear of Dry Rot—not wanting to be infected or for it to infiltrate one’s home—there is nevertheless a somewhat morbid fascination with this yellowing, white-speckled mulch. A compulsive curiosity and impulsive repulsion; we want to get close to it, but not too close to commit to contamination. A curiosity of contagion, but always at arm’s length.



The Parasite


‘My body is an interchange of time. It is traversed with signals, noises, messages and parasites’, wrote Michel Serres.

It is only recently, after almost twenty years of being prescribed SSRI’s (to rather dismal effect), that I have finally shifted my attention to my body as a biome. I undertook an entire gut microbiome reset, consuming kefirs, pickles, sauerkrauts and kimchis in abundance: fermentation is my collaborator. ‘A sophisticated neural network transmitting messages from trillions of bacteria, the brain in your gut exerts a powerful influence over the one in your head’, writes Dr. Siri Carpenter. A hundred million nerve cells line my gastrointestinal tract, creating a powerful gut-brain axis, and amongst a plethora of other activity, the gut bacteria manufacture about 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin. Within only a couple of weeks, I was no longer at the beck and call of the surging cortisol and adrenaline that has been my daily 5am wake-up call for years. I am suddenly aware of the care that is necessary for these wonderous communities inside me to flourish. I attend to them daily, a garden of possibility inside, out of sight but fundamentally my kin.

During my first studio visit with Lindström, we pondered the parasitic nature of Dry Rot and our shared fascination with its opportunistic survival. Parasitism may seem macabre, but it’s likely that the majority of animal species evolved parasitically: surviving by exploiting the bodies of other creatures. They evolved alongside the ancestors of birds and mammals as their bodies developed the ability to produce and control their own body heat, allowing them to distance their internal environment from their external surroundings, and subsequently creating a planetary biome of creatures adept at surviving, amongst continually varying environments, with stamina and durability. Many of these parasitic freeloaders carefully select their choice of hosts, based on temperature, smell and possibilities. I show her the reddened round mark on my leg, which has been slowly expanding and fading; what I assume to be some parasitic infection that will eventually go away of its own accord, and which, in the meantime, feeds my new curiosity of the bodily biome I play host to. Alarmed Lindström tells me that I must urgently see a doctor, and later the blood tests return showing a positive infection of the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi: Lyme Disease is surging through my body. Von Uexküll writes of the lush green cacophony of a forest being a quiet, barren desert for the tick, awakened only by the passing heat of a warm-blooded animal; likewise, the bacteria carried by that tick, now reads my body as a flowing, indulgent feast of red blood cells. Suddenly, my body is not only a collective biome but a battleground of incompatible worldviews, where the gut microbiome that I had been nurturing is suddenly extinguished by the antibiotics that now fight the Borrelia infiltrators. Mind, gut and blood: a stage of interactions and hosting architectures that form and reform me anew.



The Leak


Dry Rot’s cousin The Leak, a similarly unwelcome intruder, took up residence in the library at Goldsmiths in the winter of 2022. An unknown opening beckoned her in. As I sit in the quiet of the library over this past year, I have become attuned to her familiar, drip…drip… drip in the stairwell. She has been my study companion for many months.

What, I wonder, is the umwelt of water?

Water seeks movement — it gushes, flows, drifts and ebbs, pulled by tides, currents and courses — yet it also desires bodies to hold, nurture and allow it to be. From The Leak’s perspective, the building is a structure of horizontality, as she seeks her downward journey, pooling in moments before continuing onwards, descending into the belly of the building. The library’s concrete and steel skeleton is both traversal-ways and holdings.

She kept everyone on their toes, a constant dance of buckets, cloths and paper towels. A metronome of time passing as the buckets slowly fill. The browning stains on the splashed floor, huddled around each bucket’s base encroach in ever-enlarging circles, and are periodically scoured back, to start their slow return. Tentative, yet resolutely determined to claim their bodily space.

Over many months, roofers, plumbers and technicians of various specialisms scoured the building for The Leak’s ingress, seeking out unknown hidden cavities or ageing pipes through which she might be nourishing her journey.

As the technicians and workers sought to halt or redivert her, instead she rediverted us. Corridors, stairways and entranceways periodically closed. She choreographed our movement through convoluted routes around the library building. She channelled us through alternative stairwells and corridors, past books and collections I had not previously noticed.

We danced to her tune. She diverted our attention.

And all the time, she continued her journey on her most efficient course, to her end destination. To wherever and from wherever that may be. Astrida Neimanis describes, ‘water as body; water as communicator between bodies; water as facilitating bodies into being. Entity, medium, transformative and gestational milieu. All of this enfolding in, seeping from, sustaining and saturating, our bodies of water.’ Water feeds and sustains our bodies and that of the Dry Rot alike. But she also needs non-organic bodies to hold her form in return; ocean beds, river banks, pipelines, and the concrete crevasses, channels and conduits of the library’s concrete carcass.

The leak seekers, try to reverse engineer The Leak. They drench the roof above the library with leak detection spray—water spiked with ultraviolet dye—scrutinizing the inside of the building for signs of the tell-tale tinted liquid. Yet her secrets remained secure, and the technicians became ever-more perplexed. The tainted water they spray remains undetected, disappearing to somewhere else entirely, unknown and untraced. Caressing the building’s body from its external perimeters, the human can only know so much; meanwhile The Leak, making her way through the building’s structures knows the intimate contours of its veins, its arteries and its bones.

– – –

Behind a locked door, in the hidden chambers of Goldsmiths Library, amongst the mobile shelving systems moved and revealed on their rotary tracks, Lindström has been swabbing the delicate musty pages of pamphlets, manuscripts, objects and publications of the Women’s Art Library. Pages fray at the edges of aging staples and the glue cracks as spines creak reluctantly open. These rows of carefully coded box files, journals and stacks of papers, posters, performance scores and artworks—a biscuit made of real flies, a golden wrestling suit, a bottle of Becks Beer that someone drunk after it was archived—narrate a time capsule of bygone eras. The library collection is formed of human-created structures, of gender, class, race, and society. They are perceived as relics; documentation of past moments; past lives. But instead, Lindström’s swab tests reveal communities of bright orange dots, white cotton-like surfaces, and shiny beige puddles. This particular collection, however, is notably quiet; whilst the surfaces of a Phyllida Barlow sculpture (Untitled smallholder, 2019) at the Royal Academy hosted bacteria in a range of bright pastels, and swabs from several works of John Latham stored at his home in Flat Time House produced bacteria growing in spiky black blobs that quickly took over the Petri dishes, here at the Women’s Art Library a poster, by an artist unknown, with the text ‘EQUAL PAY NOW’ took months to grow a small beige swatch in one corner. Meanwhile, the swab from a monoprint, reading ‘WOMIN ARE NOT FOR SALE SO FUCK OFF’, still remains blank. The librarian’s diligence in climate control, preservation and eliminating contamination is just one of many anthropocentric regimes that seek control over nature’s fluid, mushy mess of entangled survival. Past happenings are shaped into taxonomies detached of their inevitable contemporary liveness. Yet even if here they eke out a meagre living, these histories aren’t yet dead, they are alive with murmuring contamination of their making and in their process of preservation, both metaphorically and in practice.

Eventually, The Leak found her home, here in the Women’s Art Library. Slinking in silently from above, she mostly steered clear of the fragile items of paper. She crept close enough to hold a dialogue, accidentally seeping into some of her closest co-conspirators. ‘We are contaminated by our encounters’, writes Anna Löwenhaupt Tsing in The Mushroom at the End of the World, ‘they change who we are as we make way for others. As contamination changes world-making projects, mutual worlds — and new directions — may emerge.’

– – –

I visit the library again after the summer, shortly before the start of term, but The Leak has vanished. She’s left without a trace. Her drip no longer echoes in the library atrium. Instead, it sparkles with anti-bac and maybe a faint spell of recent paint, though perhaps my expectant mind, trying to piece together her whereabouts, imagines this. Those in positions of authority have made their mark. And those in high-vis jackets have completed their task, carried out astutely. The ordered intent of the human-built architecture prevails once again; her explorations of the body of the building and her lingering sociability have finally been stilled, severing The Leak’s inquisitive playground.

Now unanimated, the atrium holds only whispers of her ghost.

– – –

Modernity has long-centred human exceptionalism at the heart of an anthropocentric perspective. This regime of modernity restricts our capacity to sense, relate and imagine otherwise. Lindström’s works reveal the multiplicity of the worlds that surround and are within us. There are no ‘good’ bacteria and ‘bad’ bacteria, as the probiotic advertising companies would like us to think: just differing modes of survival, just as dry rot fungus doesn’t see concrete or brick as a barrier, but as a welcome opportunity: it grows through it, nourishing itself on the dampness within the materials.

Through bacterial analysis, endoscope investigations and thermal imaging, Lindström’s works invert the architectural languages that guide our experience of the world. Different worldviews sit atop one another, or sometimes side-by-side with one another, existing in the same realities but perceiving it differently, sometimes reversed, sometimes inversed. Her works let us view the everyday spaces around us through these different lenses. Yet they remain impenetrable for us. As much as her works nurture and hold a dialogue, they also remind us of the inevitable distance. We will never move like or think alongside Dry Rot or The Leak. We can only be somewhat aware; and coexist in both happy and unhappy ways.