D. ward muses on the current and potential roles of the human gut microbiota in collaboration and art in general.
When thinking about artistic collaboration, one might have in mind the image of an artist working together with another artist (or community, environment, etc.) to produce a work of art in some form. A diagram of this image would include the artist, a bidirectional arrow between them and another entity, and something synthesized from this relationship. Unfortunately, this image may bias one toward imagining the artist’s collaborator(s) as being external to the artist, obscuring the view of the many tiny, constant collaborators internal to the artist themself.
If we identify the artist with the human part of the artist’s body, then, by current estimates, that body is approximately 43% artist by cell count. The remainder is composed of the microbes living in and on the human body, including the 100 trillion bacteria making up the gut microbiota. A clear bidirectional exchange between gut bacteria and the artist-as-human is seen when we consider that the artist influences the composition of the gut microbiota through diet, probiotics, and antibiotics, and that studies have increasingly shown the influence of gut microbiota on various mental processes through the gut-brain axis. Studies have further demonstrated that transplanting microbiota from the gut of a person with no symptoms of depression to a depressed person’s gut decreases symptoms of depression (and vice versa!), demonstrating the potential strength of the artist-microbiota relationship. Confronted with the degree to which bacteria influence the artist-as-human’s thinking, one might begin to doubt the idea of the artist as an autonomous subject at all. But by viewing the artistic process as a collaboration between artist and microbiota, with an ongoing exchange of ideas, we allow the retention of the artist-identity (although the labor of trillions of collaborators may go uncredited toward the work of art).
Now, in a traditional collaboration between, say, two artists, each gut microbiota is obviously included in the collaborative process through its interactions with its corresponding artist-as-human. But on top of this, direct microbiota-microbiota collaboration may occur. In recent years, researchers have found a correlation between closeness in social relationships and gut microbiota composition; that is, the more intimate a relationship, the more similar the gut microbiota between the humans in the relationships. We can then picture a convergence of gut microbiota, essentially an inter-microbiotic collaboration, paralleling an increasingly intimate artist-artist collaboration. And given the effects of the gutbrain axis on psychology, this can result in a convergence of thinking between collaborators, the shared microbiome functioning similarly to the wholly new “third mind” that Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs described as arising when two subjects collude. One must then wonder whether this effect can be accelerated through (fecal) microbiota transplants between the two artists. Moreover, how can artists employ such microbiotic interventions to envision a revolutionary, collaborative future?