Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin: Microbial Speculations on Our Gut Feelings
On ViewRecess Art
January 9 – February 22, 2020
Nightclub incubator is the mood of Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s residency at Recess, corroborated by its magenta light and pulsing, electronic soundtrack tuned to a specific frequency to stimulate bacterial growth. It is not a bad summary of her aims either: to create a collective space for speculating on the possibilities for transcendence, sociality, and care that the microbial might give to us today. Shin has set up the space as a makeshift microbiology lab, scattered with DIY science experiments: a jerky dehydrator is repurposed to make makgeolli, Korean rice wine; a pressure cooker heats copper coils to make essential oils; mason jars isolate LAB, lactic acid bacteria, from milk and rice water; a grow tent in the middle of the space incubates assorted baby greens sprayed with that homegrown LAB, thought to accelerate plant germination. But the material circumstances are almost incidental, a stage set to convince you of the presence of other knowledges. Shin’s appeal to the molecular is an appeal to the cosmic; at the very small, like the very big, representation fails us, and faith is what we’re left with. Most of what is happening you cannot hear, touch, or see with the human eye—it exists only as a feeling, an intuition.
And what does it ask us to feel? Part of it is the sense that our bodies already carry our past histories and potential futures. Shin cites recent research which explains how immigrants lose native gut bacteria when they move away from their homelands. In light of this, how does the regeneration of those microbes offer a space to explore, as the press release notes, “possibilities for common survival, interspecies symbiosis, and care?” A key process for exploring this is fermentation, the chemical breakdown of materials by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms. For Shin, fermentation is a form of transformation and alchemy. It belies a timescale that stretches before humans and will continue far after. It is a breaking down that is a building up. This timescale is difficult to translate into the space of the gallery. Not much happens as Shin brews kombucha and rice wine. Boredom and frustration evidence the limits of human perception that Shin intends to challenge. But it’s not entirely clear what differentiates these activities between an art context and one outside of it—the homebrewing millennial wellness guru. Shin opens up a fruitful space of speculation, but the demands of those questions sometimes leave us wanting either more art or more science to help us get there.
Yet so much of the beauty of the project is in the questions it leaves in its wake: How does the microbial model the social? What does the cell teach us about desire, ambition, and love? Shin’s practice is animated by an eclectic epistemology between science, religion, and mysticism, as a stack of books from writers like Anna L. Tsing, Mel Y. Chen, and Karen Barad evidence. Many of these threads are expanded on through the impressive list of collaborators she has enlisted. In the performance/research collective Sprechgesang Institute’s experimental opening dinner titled Perfect Fruit, courses titled “corn,” “potato,” “apple,” and “durian,” respectively, melded the poetic, culinary, and political significance of each substance. Others further explored how the realm of the molecular might be sites of regeneration: artist Guadalupe Maravilla’s healing sound baths, scholar Lauren Fournier’s workshop on radical fermentation, Herbhag's collaborative classes on the relation between the subterranean and the subconscious, and the queer cooking collective Spiral Theory Test Kitchen, among others. Within Shin’s framework, every action—eating, pooping, and breathing—was imbued with an aura, a feeling of something familiar but new. The project felt most alive as people gathered for the fruitful work of collective confusion.
In all of this, Shin’s role is part shaman, part amateur scientist, and fellow participant. Almost all of the knowledge from this project was procured from the internet, and this DIY ethos is significant because it points to the ways this knowledge is currently not diverted in the contemporary pharmaceutical field. Shin’s is an argument for the ways we might re-employ science towards new socialities. The appeal to science and mysticism offers a way to escape the gridlock that saturates so much of the cultural discourse of identity. Theories dealing with the unknown, like science and religion, can be useful bodies of knowledge to deconstruct the linguistic molds that bound our matter so stubbornly: “female,” “asian,” “queer,” “human,” etc. Sandblasted by the granularity of the cellular, the boundaries between social and biological categories seem to melt away and we’re left with galaxies of indecipherable electrical impulses and chemical processes, embraced only by our common difference.