The genome revolution has changed our perception of our bodies. Canadian biologist and choreographer François-Joseph Lapointe is exploring this revolution, with an immodest taste for bacterial exchanges.
“I am not François-Joseph Lapointe. 50% of the cells in my body are not human cells. 99% of the genes on my body are not human genes. All my actions affect who I am. All my encounters change who I am. I am no longer really human. I am the sum of my genome and the genomes of all the bacteria living on me, around me, inside me. I am a superorganism.”
This is how François-Joseph Lapointe introduced himself to the audience at Laser, an event organized this spring by Leonardo/Olats and La Diagonale Paris-Saclay at agnès b. in Paris. While we can’t exactly say that Lapointe is no longer human, he is an artist and biologist who performs on his own body, whether it’s shaking the hands of a thousand people to study contamination or eating a bat “in the hopes of becoming Batman” and thus realizing his “metagenomic egoportrait”.
On the scientific side, where he began his career, this director of the laboratory for molecular ecology and evolution at the University of Montreal is currently working on applying statistical methods of graph theory to phylogenetics and population genetics. On the artistic side, his work is based on biology and micro-organisms, while channeling choreography, performance, visual and graphic arts.
A community of organisms inside us
Lapointe is a specimen of “paradisciplinarity”. The researcher also explores the artistic potential of metagenonic, or environmental genomics, a science derived from genomics, in relational performance art.
Human genome sequencing lasted no less than 13 years (from 1990 to 2003). Today, metagenomics sequencing takes a week. This technique is used to identify fungus, bacteria, etc., that can be found in the environment, and to study the community of organisms living inside us.
Metagenomics led to the Human Microbiome Project (HMP), which in 2012 revealed that we are composed of 99% bacteria genes, and that different parts of the body are associated with different micro-organisms. Ever since these discoveries, metagenomics has exploded, with an increasing number of microbiome projects: intestinal, cutaneous, facial, umbilical, dental, vaginal, mammary, seminal, conjugal, neonatal, food, fecal, canine, feline, floral, domestic, telephone and even interstellar (ISS)…
“I touch, therefore I am”
How to use these new tools to make art? Lapointe has been searching for the past few years how to modify his microbiome to create “metagenomic egoportraits” or “microbiome selfies”. In the relational performance 1000 Handshakes, initiated at the Medical Museum in Copenhagen in 2014, the artist visited the Danish capital, shaking hands with as many people as possible and measuring the dynamics of bacterial contamination on the palm of his right hand. Every 50 handshakes, his team of researcher-performers took a sample and analyzed it in the lab to print “egoportraits” indicating the level of contamination.
It’s interesting to note that after a certain number of handshakes—which Lapointe enumerated—people became more hesitant, or wanted to wash their hands afterward. The performance has since been repeated at various events, such as Quantified Self in San Francisco in 2015, Transmediale 2016 in Berlin, and Culture as Medium in Baltimore, also in 2016.
“1000 Handshakes”, performance, Medical Museum in Copenhagen, 2014:
“Genetically Moving Organism”
In his PhD thesis in dance (2012), Lapointe developed the principle of “choreogenetics”, explaining how the guiding principles of his Organisme Génétiquement Mouvementé for International Dance Day in Montreal in 2007. His objective for this choreography was to replace the choreographer with a molecule of DNA, so as to obtain an objective structuration of the choreographic score, to dance your own DNA. The audience was invited to dictate an endless series of A, T, C, G nucleotides representing DNA, which each dancer associated with four movements. This 3-hour-20-minute performance was adapted in 2009 for 30 dancers in Montreal’s Central Station and titled Polymorphosum urbanum.
“Polymorphosum urbanum”, performance, Central Station, Montreal, 2009:
Pursuing his work on the microbiome, Lapointe had the chance to spend some time in Guinea, supported by the Paris Museum of Natural History, to sample the microbiome of a bat. “I eat, therefore I am,” declared Lapointe, convinced of eating a bat “in the hopes of becoming Batman”. He sampled his oral microbiome before and after eating the bat, as well as the bat’s microbiome, before eating it. And he did so despite the threat of Ebola and the prohibition to consume any bushmeat (monkey, rat, bat, porcupine, etc.). Lapointe ate bat meat and lived to tell about it, pointing out that his metagenomic egoportraits contained a little bit of bat.
Among his latest projects, Kamasutra Microbiome (“I fuck, therefore I am”) consists of “finding a sex partner, having him or her sign a consent form (very important), enacting various positions of the Kamasutra, taking microbiome samples before, during and after, and going back to the lab for selfies”. His wife volunteered to join him in practicing the possible combinations between oral, urethral, anal, digital and oral, vaginal, anal, digital. Although some were practically impossible (such as anal-anal), they were able to witness the encounter of their microbiomes and printed portraits of their bacterial intercourse.
Lapointe is currently working on Holy Microbiome (“I believe, therefore I am”), which humorously reflects the practices of certain believers, such as licking the sacred door of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, gargling with holy water, and dipping their feet in the sacred Gange river. Holy François-Joseph!
François-Joseph Lapointe will be in Copenhagen on October 13 to present his performance “Becoming Danish” in the context of the “Mind the Gut” exhibition
The next Laser event will be held on September 21, featuring artists and scientists Cécile Beau and Anthony Hildenbrand, Véronique Béland, Benoît Lahoz and Christian Jacquemin, 17, rue Dieu in Paris, 7pm, free entry