To follow on from the editorial devoted to a still from L’Hippocampe ou “cheval marin” (1934) by Jean Painlevé, a scientist who was close to the Surrealists, I asked two artist-researchers, Jeremie Brugidou and Lia Giraud, whose work generates novel images of marine organisms, to explore new visions of living things. Part of an arts-sciences dialectic, both enjoy carte blanche to combine theory and practice, potentially leading to the joint making of a film for PALM. Jeremie Brugidou conducts his research in multiple formats. Born in 1988, a former student of the École Normale Supérieure, he has written articles, made films, and is the author of the novel Ici, la Béringie (Éditions de l’ogre, 2021) and the thesis Vers une écologie de l’apparition, which is being published this year by éditions Mimésis. Today in residence at the IMéRA (Institut Méditerranéen de Recherches Avancées / Aix Marseille Université), he is preparing an underwater installation based on the bioluminescence of a bacteria for World Ocean Day, on 8th June of this year. He explains the context for his project in “Photogenic trans-species”, his first contribution to PALM. Étienne Hatt

An eye at the bottom of the Mediterranean, 2,200 metres down. The dense darkness is punctuated by scattered, intermittent blue flashes. In the late 19th century, this living environment with its colossal volume (more than 95% of the Earth’s inhabitable area) did not exist: it was neither measured nor sounded; in Western minds this zone was bottomless and lifeless. In the 20th century this volume began to exist and humans became present in it, through technical extensions and epistemological mediations: probes, sonars, submersibles, remote-controlled robots, sediment samples and microorganisms. Here, in the Mediterranean, at a depth of 2,200 metres, lies a very deep observatory, initially named ANTARES, consisting of 1 km3 of highly sensitive globes that are trained on the seabed. This extreme depth now exists as a biotope, a habitat, but also as an observation post, a place to take samples and potentially exploit as a resource. This zone is known as the benthic zone. Little lives here, however, or that is the theory, in other words it is supposed to be completely dark here. This absolute darkness is important: it was chosen as a site to host eyes of a new type, eyes that can see the invisible. Hyper-sensitive optical globes were positioned at the bottom of the sea to form a gigantic telescope covering 1 km3. A very specific kind of invisible thing was being targeted here, an invisible thing that is also absolute, an invisible thing that no living form can see and no technological device can capture directly, an intangible invisible thing that passes through matter in straight lines that are perfectly mathematical but indifferent to the perceptible. I am talking about an absolute that refers to a thing conceptualised outside any context and which is thus postulated to be immutable, infinite and indifferent.

At the bottom of the Mediterranean, at 2,200 metres, an eye was positioned to see absolute particles in absolute darkness. However, according to the theory, this complete darkness can nevertheless, in certain very special conditions, be penetrated by the absolute particle. Usually indifferent to matter, the latter can in certain exceptional circumstances lower itself to worldly interaction by emitting another particle, called a muon, which is much less indifferent to the perceptible since it can play with one of its fundamental limitations: the speed of light, which is slowed down by the volume of water at high pressure. A blue flash is emitted, which can be seen only by the highly sensitive eye of the underwater telescope: this blue flash is produced by a muon when it exceeds the speed of light in water (Tcherenkov effect), betraying the presence of a high-energy neutrino, that famous absolute particle that astronomers are searching for at the bottom of the Mediterranean in order to study black holes and the formation of galaxies.

However, these neutrino eyes were quickly rendered inoperative. In this volume chosen for its absolute darkness, matter toys with matter and living organisms have different preoccupations from those of humans. The ultra-sensitive eyes were quickly blinded, dazzled by intense levels of light unimaginable at such depths. Flashes of light appear at much more intense levels than those produced by neutrinos and certain eyes were covered in a persistent veil of light. Some of the globes were brought back up to the surface where the biologists discovered that a thin film of organic matter had been deposited on the lenses: a colony of bacteria that emits light. Even the furthest depths at the bottom of the sea are littered with lights. Living things travel in large numbers, thanks in particular to deep water convection currents, formed by the seasonal cooling of the surface, which create circuits that renew the deep water via surfaces that are rich in organic matter and deep surfaces that are rich in minerals. It was necessary to shift from telescopes to microscopes, from the infinitely distant to the infinitely close, in order to discover a new bacterial species, named Photobacterium phosphoreum ANT-2200 by biologists.

“Absolute” vision is characteristic of a self-centred, and in this case human, perspective, destined sooner or later to clash with other visions emanating from living creatures. A vision thus determines a field of appearance, a domain circumscribed of the possibility of the visible, linked to the locomotive, sensory and affective capacities of the bodies it emanates from. However, a vision is not limited by skin, it can extend outside the body through technical extensions and associated environments, but it mutates through transductions and passages through environments and is differentiated at the point when a sufficiently powerful effect of scale happens to break the established division between absolute and relative.

I work in association with Photobacterium. I cultivate and use it, I create the conditions suitable for a colony to develop that can become sufficiently luminous to be visible to the human eye. Of course, in this process, once the nutritional environment has been entirely consumed, and in the absence of a means of escape, the colony declines, is extinguished and dies. Everything is then placed in an autoclave and heated to a temperature of 120 degrees, eliminating every form of biological life, before being incinerated. It is true that I use these bacteria. Nevertheless, I like to think that there is a possibility of, if not reciprocity, at least of correspondence, of a convergence, if only partial, of interests, and I try to engineer it. Perhaps it is not possible to see the tiniest element of reciprocity in this process in which I have the impression that I have the power to decide whether these single-celled organisms have a right to live or not; but if we refer to such models as, on the one hand, domestication, and on the other the physics of forces such as gravity, we can suppose that a circuit of reciprocal influences, even intangible ones, still exists. We could postulate that there exists between us an emission of undetectable particles that nevertheless act on reality, like the neutrino, and we could call them, unlike the neutrino, the participio. Thus, without ever forgetting the prevailing balance of power that is in play, we can nevertheless start out from a principle of epistemological opening, or radical empiricism, that consists in saying that the bacteria, in a way, are cultivating me at the same times as I cultivate them. The nature of this manner is one of the objects of my attention. Notwithstanding the flagrant imbalance in the stakes for them and for me, we are taking part in something together, as I begin to create a bacteria nursery. To what extent the bacteria domesticate me to their customs and use me in this whole process remains to be determined.

Positions of the photophores and luminous excretions in certain species of cephalods and fish.
The bioluminescence produced in the photophores is only rarely produced by bacteria. The symbiosis with bacteria is verified in the case of certain sepiolid squids of the Euprymna and Heteroteuthis type. The bioluminescence most often comes from an endogenous production thanks to a chemical reaction common to all of the species producing bioluminescence. Nevertheless, this basic chemical reaction (luciferase+luciféerin+oxygen → photon) is perhaps a very old bacterial legacy. Image © Jeremie Brugidou

We can outline a few of the main axes. These bacteria are present almost everywhere in seawater, in very small concentrations, and very unevenly, in patches. They occur above all at great depths, in conditions of darkness, low temperatures and high pressure on organic material in suspension that is carried along by the sea’s currents. They emit light during their growth process in keeping with a 24-hour cycle: 12 hours of growth then 12 hours of decline. Unlike bioluminescent bacteria of the Vibrio type, Photobacterium does not need to reach a critical threshold (quorum sensing) to trigger the process of luminescence: it emits light, even at a very low concentration. The human eye cannot see light at such low concentrations. Perhaps other microorganisms can, like microplankton, and possibly some larger organisms. Biologists do not know exactly for whom this bacterial species is important or for what uses. Biologists know that other species of bioluminescent bacteria are generally found in large concentrations in the organisms of marine animals, either invisibly or indirectly visible, for example in the digestive tubes of animals, many of which have transparent bodies, or directly visible in animals that use bacterial bioluminescence for their own ends, for example inside dedicated organs, photophores. Indeed, some fish and cephalopods create bioluminescence through symbiotic association with luminous bacteria: they grow these bacteria inside their organisms and use the light emitted by the colony to create their own light effects thanks to a complex optical system of photophores made up of reflectors, valves and chromatophores, as well as photoreceptors, which ensure a constant and instantaneous control over the luminosity produced by the bacteria. Generally, it would appear that the light emitted by the bacteria in the dark, deep and vast environment of the ocean serves to advertise the presence of organic matter with the aim of attracting hungry creatures who could then unintentionally host the bacteria in their digestive tubes. The bacteria are also found on excretions, a source of food for others. This is how the Photobacterium might function: going from one tube to the next, it is thought to colonise various organic hosts borne by these accidental encounters driven by hunger. Photobacterium has not been identified as a symbiotic bacterium in the marine environment. In the laboratory, it is only my temporary associate and I have not yet completed my study. But this relationship can evolve.

First you have to feed the bacteria. The bacterial strains are kept in the freezer in small 1 ml tubes at –80 degrees. They are woken up and their growth stimulated by being inoculated into a rich medium. The procedure for preparing this medium is quite strict, requiring a precise dose of nutritional and cellular matter mixed with seawater. Everything is rigorously sterilised by the autoclave before being inseminated with the bacterial strain. In laboratory conditions, it has been demonstrated that a rich medium is a medium that creates strong competition between species: without sterilisation, it is not certain that the Photobacterium would win the battle for the medium. Or rather, to be precise: sterilisation makes it possible to assign the entire medium to the sole species chosen by the experimenter, thereby creating a controlled organism-medium interaction with the aim in this case of producing enough luminosity to be seen by the human eye. In non-laboratory conditions, Photobacterium might develop well, or better even, alongside other microorganisms, but it is possible that it does not become luminous, or at any rate not enough to be perceptible to the human eye. It is possible that being visible to humans is not at all one of its aims, but that said, it ended up on ANTARES’ eyes in a very visible way.

In the laboratory, if the medium is not correctly sterilised, the colony does not produce any light. The question of whether Photobacterium can become more luminous through association with another marine organism remains unanswered. At any rate, in association with people, it works. It would seem here that the biological trick of producing light is an evolutionary advantage for this bacterial species to which humans have dedicated an entire medium rich in nutrients simply to be able to take advantage of this unusual luminosity. Perhaps it will end up at some point being sufficiently convincing to persuade humans to remove it from its enclosed medium, perhaps by eating it. In the late 19th century, some bacteria had managed to do this with a physiologist by the name of Raphaël Dubois, who regularly entertained high society with his photo-bacterial combinations. It was Dubois who developed the first recipe for cultivating bioluminescent bacteria. He used them to create lamps that provided astonishingly good light, which he showed to the Parisian public during the Exposition Universelle of 1900 alongside another burgeoning luminous obsession, cinema, and a new emerging technology, electricity. We do not know what species he used or what became of it.

With bioluminescence, Dubois, who made the first experimental studies and produced the first substantive scientific knowledge on the subject, saw a continuity in the evolution of living forms through a “fire that was never extinguished” and a continuity between living forms through a shared attraction for light that reaches us from very far away in time and very deep in the ocean. He named the two main active principles of the bioluminescence that can be found in different forms of molecular combinations in all light-producing species luciferin (a protein) and luciferase (an enzyme). Lucifer, the bearer of light and fallen angel, can be found at the heart of a process of life that Dubois described as “intimate”, that is to say both internal and specific to a body, a creation mastered by an organism in its own interest but whose interest is, however, shared beyond itself, a form of autopoiesis or sympoiesis. A few years later, Jean Epstein used the term “the devil’s cinema” to describe the art of moving light, an animist art in his view that links us with other living forms, as well as stones, the sea, ghosts and time. Perhaps his theory of the photogenic is inspired by the biophotogenic defined by Dubois thanks to pyrophorus beetles, bioluminescent bivalve molluscs and luciferase bacteria. Perhaps the specificity of cinema, its photogenic-ness, is a particular case in the long evolutionary history, phylogenesis, of the biophotogenic. In this case, which evolutionary branch did the vision of cinema emerge from?

Photobacterium was discovered on globes at the bottom of the Mediterranean. It is now also present in freezers, in petri dishes, Falcon tubes and other laboratory vessels. I would like to give it an underwater prominence again, one that is also shareable by humans, without technical extensions. I am thus going to create transparent globes inside which I will place a bacteria colony so that it can produce enough light to create an underwater light installation in which humans and other local underwater organisms can move around. Bioluminescence can be found throughout the living world, scattered in an apparently random way if we follow the current cladistic divisions. It is an ancient biological phenomenon that some date to the period when breathing appeared, and which gave the ocean in particular an evolutionary advantage that is today shared by more than 80% of the underwater biomass. Light attracts or repels, signals, warns, diverts, alerts and deceives, it takes on multiple and sometimes contradictory functions according to current scientific knowledge. It seems to be the object of a certain number of choices made by the organisms that are confronted with it: is it a light you should move towards or move away from? Am I going to use this light to attract, repel or divert? Is it a sign of alliance or misalliance? Bacterial light, through its gentle and above all continuous brightness, seems to be rather attractive, indicating a source of food. Humans and non-humans encounter each other, thereby forming different pre-established relations of predation: underwater, particularly at night, humans are out of place, their fragility is perceptible. Without light to illuminate others, it is humans who find themselves illuminated by another form of life. What will that produce? In what way is the human attraction to this light’s “beauty” different from the squid’s attraction to the craving for this light? How far can we take the idea of predation and where are we in our predatory relationship with other species? Can we imagine relations between humans and light with predation? At any rate, light is a question of life and death. Bacteria know this. Pholas dactylus know this. Squid know this. Do humans know it?

A long time ago, before history, fire enabled ancient humans to find the time and inner space to tell stories about their relations with living things: hunting, gathering, communications, creations, appearances, deaths. This light in the dangerous darkness brought people together and inspired stories in which something akin to human individuality started to appear, an awareness of their extraordinary place in the fabric of the world. And then much later on, stories were told with light in dark halls, cinema, and then smaller stories were told on smaller screens, and smaller and smaller screens, that are more and more attractive and more and more stuck to our skin. Do humans in industrialised societies use light or do they find themselves domesticated in an ecology of light they are unaware of? The persistent paradigm of human difference within nature is based on a founding image: the thinking subject as a projection of light onto the world. Perspective as a symbolic form of the human’s place in the landscape crystallised a collusion between the vanishing point, the divine point and the point of the subject, the point of view of the Prince, the absolute, ideal human: the human outside the world, of which he is master and owner, the leading character and simultaneously the omniscient narrator. The universe is no longer geocentric, but the perceptible remains anthropocentric through a rigorous sharing, codified in particular by the paradigm of the rectilinear propagation of light whose source and horizon merge in the human subject. And what if we do not fully master light? And what if other creatures have different uses for light? And what if our own light uses were not the ones we thought of? How can we redefine an ecology in which humans are deeply intertwined with other living things through light? We have not yet fully determined the symbiotic properties of humans.

Diagram for an experimental action with bacteria, with a visual collage as a backdrop. Image from top to bottom and left to right: Villeneuve, First contact, 2016; diagram of Brunelleschi’s panel; Van Gogh, Sower at Sunset, 1888; Cousteau and Malle, The Silent World, 1956; Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, 1490. Image © Jeremie Brugidou

I move the photobacterium from a 1 ml tube to a 25 ml tube, then to a 1 litre jar and a 10 litre sphere. At each stage of inoculation, I am careful to avoid introducing other organisms into the medium so that I can create a Photobacterium colony as numerous and luminous as possible. I ensure that they have enough to eat for 24 hours, that they are at the right temperature, and that they have interesting textures they can cling to and settle in if required. In other words, I am an organism involved in growing a bacterial culture for my own ends, which, temporarily at least, coincide with the bacteria’s ends, in other words producing light to be seen. I reflect again on a famous and oft described symbiotic relationship, that of the squid Euprymna scolopes and the bioluminescent bacteria Vibrio fischeri. The squid cultivates a specific form of bacteria inside its photophore. Thanks to a complex filtration and selection system, it manages to sort through the huge quantity of bacteria in the medium, keeping only the one that interests it and can produce light. Every day it ejects into the surrounding water around 80% of the bacterial stock used in order to restimulate strong growth. I imagine my sphere as a photophore and my experimental sterilisation process as a process of symbiotic selection favouring both my own project and that of the selected bacteria. In the case of Vibrio, a very interesting phenomenon took place with a young squid that encountered the bacteria for the first time. The latter’s photophore was not constituted at birth, forming only when it encountered Vibrio, which through a process of genetic modifications “informs” or rather imposes a form on the photophore, so that it is specifically suited to it. At what point can this type of transformation occur in me? Is there an equivalence between the morphogenesis of the young squid and an “intimate” process inside me through an encounter with the bacteria?

Diagram of the symbiotic event taking place between the squid Euprymna scolopes and the bacteria Vibrio fischeri. The graphic of the morphogenesis comes from Chun et al., “Effects of colonization, luminescence, and autoinducer on host transcription during development of the squid-vibrio association”, PNAS, 105(32), p. 11323–11328, 12 August 2008. Image © Jeremie Brugidou

At night, I dream of a technical system that would enable bacteria to develop as well as possible and for the public to see as well as possible. I dream about bacteria and what would “please” them most, the most favourable medium conditions for them. I dream of bacteria’s desires and a general desire for light. In my dreams, I am caught in a technical spiral, an implacable logic, a hybrid of scientific rationality, dreamlike sensoriality and an unidentifiable affordance or valence. Like the squid, my personal system undergoes uncontrolled transformations. But is it the scientific mechanics that submerge me or is there something else, something like a morphogenesis of thought triggered by an inter- or rather trans-species association? By trans-species I am emphasising the relationship of mutual transformation that presides during an inter-species encounter. However, the intimate transformation that perhaps takes place inside me cannot be measured. It may only be identifiable in the vestiges of the dream that show through in the waking state: a new idea, an image, a happy accident. Traces of trans-species participio.

Représentation schématique d’un participio
© Jeremie Brugidou

Bioluminescence is a relational phenomenon. Light and encounter merge. Imagining that humans are the only living form capable of disinterested interest in bioluminescence, that they are absolutely outside the phenomenon, in a position of neutral and objective control, is an epistemological abstraction constructed by scientific rationality. This abstraction makes it possible to produce solid knowledge, it makes it possible to identify and distinguish a certain number of phenomena, it makes it possible to illuminate living creatures in a manner specific to the human scientist, but it does not make it possible to enrich the relational dimension, it does not make it possible to understand and even less to describe the transformations that take place in us during these encounters. These thoughts come to me when I am in the process of constructing an artificial ecosystem rich in nutrients for bacteria, isolated from the surrounding environment in a sealed sphere, a surrounding environment from which the bacteria nevertheless come “naturally”. What a paradoxical interconnection! However, the sphere and the isolation tell us something about our modes of presence: in underwater conditions they become manifest, but in reality it would appear that Western ontology has produced a form of subjectivity that resembles a brain in a receptacle. My installation offers a correspondence and a possible inversion: like these bacteria, we are both infinitely far from the world and infinitely close to it, between the telescope and the microscope. Faced with these luminous blue globes in a dark expanse where we float, what becomes of us? What other visions are we projected into?

I create this artificial ecosystem, or natureculture artefact, as if it were a photophore: the selection at the beginning is strict so that the bacteria that I chose to place there takes sole advantage of the nutritional medium to produce the greatest possible light intensity. I want this light to penetrate human vision, or to put it another way, its field of appearance, while forcing humans to venture into other bodily and affective situations through night diving. Through this double intrusion, I produce a link with the deep ocean from whence these bacteria come, while showing the naturecultural fragility of this link through the intermediary of the enclosed globes. This is an epistemological machine, half biological, half technological, which aims to produce paradigmatic transformations in humans with the aid of luminous bacteria. The following step will be to make this machine autonomous, and finally truly sympoietic.

Jeremie Brugidou
Translated from the French by Bernard Wooding