At one point, I had 12 liters of milk in my fridge. Bags of pasteurized milk sat next to an array of capped and labeled falcon tubes in an uncanny tableau of pre-experimental chaos. Inside each of those tubes were hand swabs of bacteria that I’d collected from Concordia staff members who agreed to participate in my little food provocation.
Last year, I made a cheese cultured with bacteria that naturally live on my hands. I cheekily called it ‘a handmade cheese’ but wanted to up the stakes. Last week, I made the same kind of cheese, but I used other people’s hands and served it to the public to theoretically scrutinize and taste.
And scrutinize they did: “By staging encounters that ask the viewer to engage directly (for example serving cheese made from the bacteria on human hands), Hey makes space not only for thinking, but also feeling our way through these kinds of epistemological and ethical splits,” recounts Milieux member Alix Johnson, who attended the event I organized for the occasion, Engaging with the Microbial Other: an exhibition of recent ferments and prototypes on December 6, 2017.
I made this cheese because its physical form tugs at the ethical fabric of what we consider to be a legitimate food, what constitutes contamination, and who gets to decide. What’s too ‘out there’ to be considered edible? Then again, what’s ‘too close’ for comfort? How do the answers to those questions change from individual to institutional scales?
This was more than just a proof-of-concept; this was a deliberate attempt to engage with the likes of directors and heads of committees that enable/hinder certain forms of research. I asked for their hand samples, invited them to the exhibition, and fed them (along with the greater public) their ‘handmade’ cheese. Well, “fed them” sounds like I pried open their mouths and force fed cheese samples. Far from it: people ate more than 80% of the samples, while I stood on the other end of the room to keep from adding any social pressures.
Responses ranged, but the most common reaction was that of curiosity. They taste so different, they’d say, referring to the variability in flavor and texture in the three samples of other-people’s handmade cheese. One sample didn’t coagulate as much, indicating very little microbial activity, and had a texture closer to yogurt. Another tasted almost sweet, like mascarpone.
Said one Masters student, “I found the exhibition fascinating. I readily acknowledge that food preparation is a science, however, I’ve never really thought about the reaction of bacteria in our food. Nor have I ever considered the ways in which our own microorganisms can be manipulated to produce something edible.”
Or even delicious: One of the people who offered their hands for swabbing said that they liked their cheese the best. They didn’t know it was theirs when they tasted it, but I informed them afterwards, and we confirmed that their ‘handmade’ cheese was the one they preferred. Makes you wonder if that was by chance.