»It’s about a breast-gut-brain connection,« Jenna Sutela says when we meet at her studio in Kreuzberg, Berlin. The Finnish artist is talking about her latest body of work, part of which recently debuted in an exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich and will travel to the Schering Stiftung in Berlin come September. Through a video, ›Milky Ways‹ (2022), an immersive installation, ›HMO nutrix‹ (2022), and a series of wall reliefs titled ›Gut Flora‹ (2022), Sutela explores various aspects and effects of human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs)—a topic that seamlessly reflects her overarching practice as well as the state of contemporary research in related scientific fields.
»In her performance ›Many-Headed Reading‹ (2016) Sutela ingested a dose of Physarum polycephalum, a single-celled slime mold that, despite its literal lack of a brain, can make complex decisions and solve spatial problems through the interactions of its many nuclei.«
Sutela is known for collaborating with biological and computational systems, including microorganisms and artificial intelligence, using them in experimental and esoteric ways that bring them far beyond their usual laboratorial or technological contexts. In her performance ›Many-Headed Reading‹ (2016), for example, she ingested a dose of Physarum polycephalum, a single-celled slime mold that, despite its literal lack of a brain, can make complex decisions and solve spatial problems through the interactions of its many nuclei; it is thus been referred to as a ›natural computer‹ and has been used as the model organism for self-organizing, decentralized robotics. In her performance, Sutela relinquished her body to the slime, allowing its hive-like behavior to program her own. Meanwhile, with ›Gut Machine Poetry‹ (2017), she proposed a biological computer system: the microscopic movements of a kombucha culture were observed by a computer and functioned as a random number generator, with the numbers interacting with text in a database. As the symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast in the kombucha developed, so too did poetry. This idea was further expanded upon in ›nimiia cétiï‹ (2018), an audio-visual piece that also resulted from a computer watching the movements of microbes, but instead of results in Latin alphabet, it used the movements to create a »bacterial-Martian language,« as Sutela has called it. Now, by adding human milk—be it organic or synthetically produced—into the equation, Sutela is working with HMOs, the sugars therein, and their effects on human gut bacteria as well as our cognitive capacities.
»Human milk really adds to this gut-brain connection, and it’s a component that’s running through humanity,« she says. »Everybody in some way encounters it, be it from their parents, a wetnurse, or some interspecies exchange through formula.«
The idea of a universal connection fueled her interested in human milk, and the psycho-biotic potentials »sealed the deal.« But Sutela is not the only one interested in it: more than formula for infants, prebiotic HMO supplements have recently hit the market, following research about their effectiveness in improving adults’ gut health. Knowing this, between 2019 and 2021, Sutela explored how the human gut biome develops and how HMO sugars, in combination with gut bacteria, affect cognitive capacities alongside scientists when she was a visiting artist at the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology. She observed experiments in cell-cultured human milk and different applications thereof, while at the same time, she experienced lactation herself: »I’m not the only female artist dealing with breast milk or motherhood topics,” she notes, “but it’s also kind of unavoidable when it comes to you.«
The resulting installation, ›HMO nutrix‹, features a two-meter-tall fountain filled with synthetically produced human milk and is powered by deconstructed breast pumps. The milk swirls and bubbles, backdropped by a soundtrack of biomimetic throat singing, performed by Arjopa, a German Khoomei singer and musician with whom Sutela also collaborated for ›YAMSUSHIPICKLE‹. But where ›HMO nutrix‹ is physically all-encompassing, transforming human milk into an object of desire and fascination (much like the HMO prebiotic powders and capsules available), ›Milky Ways‹ acts as an audiovisual science-fictive poem. The video interlaces footage of an artificial gut in a Copenhagen lab with cosmic-looking microscopic details of human milk and landscapes with white lilies. More biomimetic songs by Arjopa play in the background, while subtitles fuse science and lore: on one hand, the running text explains HMOs (»Human Milk Oligosaccharides are potent sugars found in breastmilk that feed babies’ gut flora and seem to shape the development of their nervous systems«), while on the other, it retells the Greek myth of the creation of the Milky Way (»The galaxy [from the root word gala, meaning milk], finds it mythological origin in Hermes suckling the infant Heracles at the breast of the sleeping Hera, who, on awakening, pulls Heracles away, splattering milk through the heavens«). The stories meet in the same way Sutela’s scientific research becomes art: through textual and aesthetic poetry.
In addition to human milk, Sutela also investigated fecal transplants and bacterial therapies at MIT—two other methods of strengthening or improving adults’ gut health. Fecal transplants, for example, can help reformulate a sick person’s microbiome through the introduction of stool from a healthy donor. These intersecting points of research resulted in the series ›Gut Flora,‹ pieces from which are on display at the gallery Société in Berlin through mid-September 2022. The series comprises sculpted reliefs of orchids, celosia, and other flowers, each with a lively, buttery surface. At first, they appear cute and innocent, but as with all of her work, they conceal more than meets the eye: the pieces were sculpted from mammalian dung, and the opal-esque glaze is, in fact, breast milk, some of which came from Sutela’s own body.
»Microorganisms and their often-unseen affects are omnipresent in Sutela’s work, for her practice always encompasses, as she says, ›life forces that play a role in our existence and are more than human, be it microbial or machinic forces.‹«
»The work is very primordial in character, which feels like the only true or natural way to work right now for me—very, very close to materials, very bodily, close to hand,« the artist says, specifically referencing her experience during the pandemic.
Though this new work is indeed more personally connected to Sutela than previous projects, it undoubtedly connects to her ongoing interest in the (breast-)gut-brain connection. Microorganisms and their often-unseen affects are omnipresent in her work, for her practice always encompasses, as she says, »life forces that play a role in our existence and are more than human, be it microbial or machinic forces.« She continues: »There are all these magical potencies around us, and when they react in the right way, they produce something bigger than the sum of the parts.« Be it in a performance, an algorithm, a video, a bubbling fountain, or sculptural wall hangings, Sutela’s work makes such magical potencies manifest.