Microorganisms on Stage : Winogradsky columns as performative displays in art and science

Research output: Journal Publications and ReviewsRGC 21 - Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)38-44
Journal / PublicationPerformance Research
Issue number3
Online published9 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - 2020


The Winogradsky column is a nineteenth-century device for culturing microorganisms using samples of water, mud and other nutrients in transparent tube-shaped containers. In this device, metabolic processes and microbial functions are not reduced to mere illustration but are staged at the intersection of presence and representation. In this article, the Winogdrasky column is analysed as a cultural artifact that embodies recent changes of conceptualization of microorganisms in the life sciences and the humanities. As an instrument that models specific ecosystems, the Winogradsky column moves away from conceptualizations of microbial species as isolated and self-defined organisms in favour of a more ecological, interdependent, multi-species interpretation of life. This paper also traces the transition of the Winogradsky column from an experimental device of the natural sciences into a form of display in natural history museums and later appropriated as an artistic medium. With examples from displays at natural history museums as well as works of art and biology, the Winogradsky column embodies the shift in thought and discourses regarding microorganisms, their ubiquity and impact on the environment and on us, which corresponds to a larger epistemological transformation to re-frame microorganisms towards a post-anthropocentric turn.

Research Area(s)

  • Bioart, microorganisms, microperformativity, Contemporary art

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Research Unit(s) information for this publication is provided by the author(s) concerned.