Are human beings not insular individuals but teeming interspecies colonies of assorted tissues and bacteria? Czech intermedia artist Nela Pietrová links visual art with research practice to find a deeper understanding of the queer nature of metamorphosing (co-)dependent substances and, ultimately, herself.

With each pill a creature is born 

Together we become

Children of the monstrous, the wicked

I crouch in the grass and squint my eyes to better focus on the bulbous growths rising from the stump of a felled tree. The mint green soft army that resembles alien anemones beckons me with its garish appeal. It reveals to me its secrets of communal interspecies coexistence. Lichens, along with ferns and bryophytes, are cryptogamic plants. As if the very name of the category were suggesting their queer identity. They exist thanks to a collaboration that can be imagined as a partnership between fungi and algae or cyanobacteria and sometimes bacteria, called lichenism, the exact workings of which we do not yet understand. The relationship is mostly symbiotic (mutualistic), between mycobionts and photobionts, but it can also border on parasitism (semi-parasitic).

In his essay Queer Theory of Lichens, David Griffiths writes about the connectedness between the perception of humans as separate individuals and the normative understanding of species reproduction, which is linear. “What is clear in these scaled multispecies ecologies is that sexual reproduction and vertical inheritance are only part of the picture.” In other words, he suggests that humans, as an ecosystem composed of a vast array of bacteria but also tissues of different genetic backgrounds, can reproduce in ways that defy the narrative of human sexual reproduction and vertical transmission of genetic information. The text thus draws on ideas from Timothy Morton’s Queer Ecology. “Morton anchors human beings in a tangled web of living and non-living agents, opening up the possibility of unpredictable encounters with alien and unknowable subjects.” Further, Morton draws attention to the fact that human beings are also made of many living and non-living agents, rather than being solitary individuals.

In a mutualistic relationship, the photobiont or algae, supplies the energy obtained by photosynthesis. The mycobiont, in turn, provides inorganic matter and water. The bacteria present can then influence the colour of the resulting colony. However, there is also speculation about the possibility that the algae are merely captive to the fungi, which use them for their survival, sucking the necessary energy from them and merely keeping the algae alive. The utopia of communal, egalitarian interspecies coexistence thus breaks down, and we can observe hierarchical power-holding and resource plundering by dependent entities, as in the neoliberal capitalist world of the Anthropocene.

The garish colour looked a bit out of place in the mostly brown-green nature and forced me to make my way through the soaked soil closer to the sandstone rocks lining the valley. The lichens seemed to grow parasitically on the half-dead tissues of the trees and sweating sandstone rocks, places where life cannot be sustained. It is on the shaded rocks that the toxic yellow organism, Chrytotrix chlorina, sometimes called gold dust, thrives. The volcanic rocks are like giant sponges holding water, they are dewed with sweat, creating the conditions for vibrant creatures such as Psilolechia lucida, the Yellow Shale.

Lichens can serve as an indicator of air pollution. Photosynthesizing algae cannot filter the incoming air and quickly become toxic. I’m avidly documenting each growth, relief, and texture. I feel like I’m bewitched, intoxicated by the garish colors and mysterious microworlds. I’m surrounded by a realm that defies human scale. But it doesn’t escape its processing and becomes part of the pharmacological industry. In a more poetic case, lichens can become an ingredient in perfumes, thus transforming and lending their seductiveness to humans.

Every night, I cut one-eighth from a tiny yellow pill as best I can. Occasionally, my knife slips and I swallow a bigger batch. The nights afterwards are deep, I dream chaotic dreams that then return in fragments and mix with reality and memories during the day. I also turn the wheel of hormonal happiness slightly each night until I hear a subtle click, turn my palm over, and a white round pill lands in it. Some parts of my inner world have decided to betray me and conspire against me, so I send another pill into my rested stomach. After that, I have to wait at least half an hour so I don’t deprive myself of the beneficial effects of the final pill, which has the superpower to reuptake my serotonin.

I think of it all as an interplay of chemicals and processes, or as a symbiosis of little creatures in my body that take care of the proper functioning of all the other communities of cells that make up my organs. All these concrete material processes describable by chemical formulas then give rise to abstract emotions that are hard for me to grasp.

I’m becoming toxic, it’s inevitable. I’m losing control, maybe I never had it. Substances get into the bloodstream and the kidneys filter them out and excrete their residue in the urine back into the water cycle. These substances have undergone a metamorphosis in my body, caused it to change, and now they are returning to nature where they will play the role of agents of transformation and continue to transform themselves again. They are metamorphological and metamorphosing. I myself participate in the process of self-queering and include myself in the chain of nature’s queering. Together we are interspecies communities undergoing endless transformation, endless becoming. Together, we are creating a new interspecies family tree. In each of us is a piece of the other. Humans are like lichens, they are composed of many organisms, bacteria, and cells, which together make up the shell we call human.

Photography is a light-dependent process, originally a symbiosis of photons and silver particles in an emulsion on photographic film where a chemical reaction, a transformation, takes place. While digital photography does not contain the same indexicality as analogue photography, there is still an interpretation of reality through the medium. Reality changes, distorts. It becomes a mere section. The lichen structures on the computer screen reveal similarities with fauna, they resemble animals. So I give them space to realise themselves, I release them from the locked pixel surfaces, I give them an independent shape, a body. I release the resulting creatures into the digital landscape of the photobiont where they can rejoin the community work in their new bodies. They serve as a solid foundation on which other, somewhat more material, mycobiont bodies can flourish, seeping back into reality. Through the process of digital manipulation, I seek to understand the complex chemical transformations of organic nature into potentially toxic substances. However, I see it as an alternative to traditional systems of human reproduction. Perhaps symbiosis versus parasitism is an illusory dichotomy serving to make my existence reducible, allowing for my inclusion in the Monstrous Other and subsequent treatment. Acceptance of my toxicity allows me to participate in the queering of nature. The resulting installation is an allegory for birth and becoming.

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BIO / Nela Pietrová was born in 1995 in the Czech Republic. Nela is an intermedia artist currently doing her MA at the Academy of Fine Arts Prague, working across the mediums of photography, audio, video and spatial installations. She completed her BA studies at Camberwell College of Arts (UAL) where she specialised in fine-art photography. Her main focus is on processes of transformation and becoming of both digital and physical materials and their relationship to the human experience. She tries to liquify the borders between those realms in order to better understand our entanglement within them. Nela bases her practice on current research in xeno/glitch/hydro/feminism, queer futurism, new materialism and queer ecologies.


Artworks / Nela Pietrová

Translation / Františka Blažková

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