Guest Talk — Klaus Spiess (Medical University Vienna)

Photo credit: © Peter Mayr.

On December 10, 2019 the Department of Media Theory will host the talk “Mouth Microbes as Good Hosts: Entangled Speech” by Klaus Spiess, an artist and researcher who runs the interdisciplinary Arts and Science programme at the Medical University Vienna. Born as a psychosomaticist, in his recent artistic work Klaus Spiess speculates on how via the mouth flora poor speech could result in a poor oral ecology, even leading to hard tissue damage in the mouth. His work is based on recent studies, which relate reduced biodiversity to reduced language diversity. Poor speech — in his definition — uses the pervasive “representationalism” of language, which has rendered material realities inaccessible behind the linguistic systems that construct or represent them (cf. Barad 2007). In contrast, entangled speech beyond arbitrariness conjoins mattering and meaning. In his concept it is directed by the ecological wellbeing and phonetic memory of the oral flora.

The sharing of time and space with other-than-humans in human mouths has been a prospect since François Rabelais’ work (1934), with legions of soldiers living in Gargantua’s mouth.  Jacques Derrida (1974) added another sharing, noting the mouth’s opening into text: “speech, stuck together by saliva, and spat out”.

The presence of numerous nonhumans in the mouth raises questions about autonomy.  Both microbes and speech are unstructured and nonlocal. Aiming for an oral “eco-logic” (Morton 2016) Klaus Spiess explores how speech and mouth fungi (“mycobiome”) mutually inform one another.

Mouth microbes are strong communicators in connecting people, they are even altered in one’s mouth by other people’s behavioral decisions (O’Doherty et al. 2016). As with words, circulating means survival for microbes: both are genuine cosmopolitans. Since the Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg (2006) claimed that the microbiome seems more interactive than we are, but its diversity decreases — together with phonemes — Klaus Spiess has been wondering how oral microbes and speech might facilitate an eco-language, which not only processes formal symbols but becomes a biological state in order to understand and protect its own ecology.

The audiences in the performances that Klaus Spiess has recently presented together with the artist and performer Lucie Strecker, speak phonemes, for example, of their given names, until the repetition stimulates the growth of certain microbes by subtle changes of saliva flow and acidity. These microbes then acquire by mnemons a membrane memory (Caudron 2014) of the phonemes spoken by the audiences’ addition of phonemes conjoined with microbial pheromones, the latter which are then faded out. However, an ecological adaptation (replication vs. death) to the individual phonemes remains, which not only alters the alphabetic order of the input word, but organizes itself between one’s own speech and one’s own oral flora, and becomes a ecolinguistic self-care system. Speakers have to improvise in order to keep the flora ecologically adapted to their vocal input. Finally, they receive the transcribing microbes as a probiotic mouthwash, filled into vials, labeled with the transcribed phoneme.

Biosemiotically, in this intra-active eco-material realm, microbes become sensing interpretants, saliva an object, pheromones/phonemes indexical signs.

Saying given names in these performances becomes a transitional phenomena (Winnicott, 1992). By stress, rhythm, and intonation, the audience collectively blubbers, gargles, or sputters their names, sucks from them, accidents and language misconception work quickly. This decenters language as a legislator, the voice coming from nature, coming from “elsewhere”. (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004). Appealing to acoustics against representationalism, Klaus Spiess refers to Jane Bennett’s concept of vibration ontologizing resonance and claiming that it overcomes the distancing of language within an onto-epistemology of language.

The meaning of a sentence is always just beyond the end of it (Derrida 1974), even more so in this entangled speech. It is not easy to explore the in-between of the physical and the semiotic. One of Derrida’s legacies was “to open up a fluid boundary between things like letters, marks, or lines, populated by all sorts of strange entities” (Morton 2014). Strangely, we are both familiar with and remote from our mouths’ biosphere. Through Morton’s “hyperobject” and “ecognosis” (2016) we discover that the mouth is “nonsensical yet perfectly logical, and that is funny: the sight of something maniacally deviating from itself in a desperate attempt to be itself should remind us of Bergson’s definition of what makes us laugh”.

Klaus Spiess is an artist and researcher, who directs the interdisciplinary Arts and Science programme and chairs the LASER Art&Science talks at the Medical University Vienna, where he is Associate Professor. Together with artist and performer Lucie Strecker he has shown transdisciplinary performances and/or installations on the subject of biopolitics, including at Budascoop Kortrijk; Tanzquartier Vienna; Belvedere/21er Haus, Vienna; Bemis Center of Contemporary Art, Omaha; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; Click Festival, Helsingør; ISEA International; AIL Vienna; and Muffatwerk, Munich, among many other venues. His installations have been exhibited at venues such as the Beall Center for Art + Technology, Irvine, the Onassis Cultural Center, Athens, and at the Prix Ars Electronica Festival. He has published on the subject of his work in Leonardo, The Journal of Performance Research and The Lancet.

The Guest Lecture Series of Professor Ingeborg Reichle’s lecture on BioArt is an informative and stimulating opportunity to hear from distinguished artists and experts about what’s going on in the emerging fields of bioart, biodesign and speculative biology and also helps our students to build their network of contacts.

Our guest lectures are open to all.

Public Lecture 10.12.2019, 13:45–16:15 hrs
Vordere Zollamtsstraße 7, Lecture Room 21, 4th Floor
University of Applied Arts Vienna
1030 Vienna