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Micro-histories in a jar

written by Anna Harris
13/08/20

13th August, 2020 – Tonight I had the opportunity to be part of  Sensate Memories, A multimodal conversation – hosted by the fabulous Centre for Imaginative Ethnography, and in particular Dara Culhane, Denielle Elliott, Cristina Moretti, and Jordan Hodgins. The other panelists included Florencia Marchetti, Leslie Robertson and Hemangini Gupta, and each of their presentations were awe-inspiring for the creativity, playfulness with language and form, and for how each spoke together, in conversation through our invited commentaries. I have include several sections of my own talk below, which was made up of three micro-essays told in an archived text on Dropbox (see below), an essay written for the event, and photos of my embroidered microbiology napkins. The theme of the talk was bodily archiving.

Micro-essay #1

Travelling histories: An ancient jar of starter?

Sensory memory fragment, written April 2016, unpublished, archived in Dropbox

One Sunday I was handed, somewhat ceremoniously, a warped little take-away container of bubbly brown goop. My husband and I were taking a free sourdough bread making workshop, part of a skills sharing scheme in our very ecologically friendly new home town of Totnes, in the heart of the Devon countryside. Our cheerful instructor Holly had given us both (and the other six bread-making novices in the class), what is called “a starter”. She was learning how to make bread herself and thought she would learn alongside us. With post-it-noted library books spread out on her kitchen table, we poured over the advice from the best bakers in the UK. It looked easy enough: flour, water, salt. Some kneading. A warm place to rise. A hot oven. The tricky part seemed to be the yeasty and bacterial starter. We had known this from our previous attempts at making bread. Kilner jar after kilner jar of tepid brown muds that we had created from flour, water and raisins, were emptied into the kitchen sink, not a bubble of microbiological activity in sight. But now we had something special, so Holly told us. A starter that was not created last week in her kitchen, but rather one that was over a hundred years old. Handed down from hessian wearing monks keeping themselves warm during a Devon winter with woodfires baking their sourdough loaves. My husband and I looked down at our goop, which had now transformed into something ancient and mythical. [unfinished]

A napkin embroidered with yogurt cultures

Micro-essay #2

Sourdough starters: The sticky archives of quarantine 2020

Written July 2020, for Sensate Memories

Nearing the end of this historic-ethnographic project on learning sensing in medicine, I am wading into the dropboxed digital-sensate memories of past ideas, those like travelling bacteria. Rereading the sensory artifact above, I can smell those starters we made in Devon, our starter travelling with us around the world – wrapped carefully in suitcases, snaplocked into friends’ freezers during our holidays, through customs dried onto parchment paper, into many loaves of bread – only now to lay dormant in our fridge, not a bubble in sight. I recently read many newspaper articles and saw lots of Instagram photos of the sourdough craze sweeping those crazed by lockdown during the current pandemic. With no daycare for months, my husband and I struggled to keep it together, let alone keep our starter alive. But so many seemed to be finding security, creativity, distraction and visual delight in the simple act of making of a sourdough starter.

When lockdowns spread around the world, something stopped spreading besides a virus: our own bacteria. Sequestered in our homes, our travelling germs had nowhere to go, could not be shared in our contact with others, plants, animals in the outside world. Instead, our own homes and their large inhabitants became isolated microcosms of tiny creatures, breeding and diverging. And where was one of the places they found a home? Those multiplying sourdough starters. Microbiologists have found that some of the bacteria and yeasts in starters come from the bodies of bakers, and moreover, that the bodies of bakers start to grow the lactic acid bacteria of their starters. So these starters born into the world in quarantine kitchens in fact become like sensory archives of the bodies of its inhabitants, and their new habits and routines and ingredients in lockdown life. At the same time, the inhabitants also become sensory archives of their new engagements with the microscopic world.

These are literally sticky threads of history, which cling, reproduce and diverge with our bodies. Our research team thinks a lot about the sticky threads of history in our medical education project, particularly the historian on the project, John Nott, as there are so many ideas and ways of sensing that stick to the materials with which medical students learn sensory skills. Our object of focus has been tools and technologies, and we explore the materiality of sensing through these artifacts in medical schools. The great starter project of quarantine makes me think of other ways to trace sticky threads of micro-histories in bodies, jars, the food we eat. I wonder how we might trace these archives, in ways beyond text, something which the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography, and the creative sensory ethnographers affiliated, have been exploring with inspiring results. Overleaf is the germ of an idea that explores a more textile based experiment with sensate memories and bodily archives in embroidery. These are embroidered microbes I made previously, but I also imagine what it might be like to share and look microscopically at quarantine starters, and perhaps even to trace, with fabric and thread, what has grown in these sour, gloopy, bubbling and stagnate jars, how this might speak to another kind of historical record of our times.

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