Invited to participate in the Institute of Contemporary Art’s 50th anniversary exhibition ICA@50: Pleasing Artists and Publics Since 1963, Philadelphia-born New York-based artist Josh Kline worked with microbiologists from the University of Pennsylvania to create a new work for his project Living Wages.
The latest in his growing oeuvre about the body and labor in the twenty-first century, Living Wages is an exhibition with three parts: a video interview with a FedEx delivery worker; six clear plastic storage containers prepared with bacteria; and four custom-made pedestals that look like FedEx boxes. The latter contain the 3D-printed body parts of the delivery man—the head, the hands, and the feet. Overall, these elements create a fragmented portraiture of the worker.
At the biology lab, Kline used the plastic bins as over-sized Petri dishes. They contain the objects that are mentioned in the video interview with the FedEx worker in which he describes various aspects of the job—the wage, the hours, the difficult moments, the food he eats on the go, and his career aspirations. He talks about drinking lots of coffee, eating instant noodle and Pop Tarts, and drinking grape soda from the company vending machine. In a real biology experiment, Kline chose six objects—the above mentioned worker’s fuel, a FedEx box, and a stack of shipping slips—to place in the bins filled with nutrient media and genetically modified E. coli bacteria.
Penn undergrads Antonio Muscarella, Andrea Nam, Amy Sollitti, and Benjamin Williams specially engineered the bacteria growing in Kline’s artwork during a science hack sponsored by Integrated DNA Technologies, Synbiota, and Genomikon. When Kline and the project curator, ICA’s Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow Liz Park, visited Penn’s teaching laboratory of the Department of Biology to request help preparing the nutrient media, Dr. Karen Hogan showed them various bacterial compounds that they had grown in the lab, including the recently engineered bacteria from the science hack. Kline, who had been working on an unusual portrait of a FedEx worker donned in black and purple uniform, was immediately drawn to two compounds, which were, fatefully, purple and black in color. Dr. Hogan explained that the purple compound can be used to treat humans with parasitic infections and some types of cancer, and that it is very difficult and costly to produce the purple compound. Often, when the genetically engineered pathway is incomplete, a black compound lacking the cancer-treating properties is produced.
Dr. Hogan and Dr. Amanda Cottone from the Department of Biology took Kline’s interests in the bacteria seriously, and ran various experiments to determine how the artist could best grow these compounds with the desired aesthetics. The resulting six bins sit in ICA’s second floor gallery, with living, breathing, purple and black bacteria growing around the various objects that a FedEx worker needs on a daily basis. As a material in an artist’s installation, the bacteria becomes part of Kline’s visual signifiers that bring to mind, among other things, the still necessary hand-to-hand transfer of objects and microbes in the twenty-first century world of e-commerce, and the socio-economic and health implications of on-the-go, on-a-budget diet of a laborer who needs to work long hours from the crack of dawn to deliver us a truck full of boxes.