Sometimes you can find her in the woods, looking for mushrooms, alone, or accompanied by a group of curious people like her. Next, she might be tattooing the most rebellious of mushrooms in a safe environment like her laboratory, which doubles as her studio. Other times, she walks barefoot through the jungle of Berlin, the city where she`s based, just to see how many microbes will stick to her feet in a busy place like Moritzplatz. Theresa Schubert also likes to play with unicellular microorganisms, which offer unique patterns as a gift for her attention. These are then transformed into projections, even on human hands, composing a unique but volatile tattoo, which slowly fades away moments later, like a precious moment of happiness, forever burned into one of mind’s synapses.
In 2020, Schubert did something even more radical than usual. She ate a part of herself in public. All the people that I spoke to, about her auto-cannibalization performance, were just stunned about the idea. Then, they wanted to hear more. As part of her mEat me project, Theresa cooked a part of herself and ate it in front of dozens of people, gathered in February at Galerija Kapelica, the most important art gallery in Ljubljana. She even offered pieces of her meat to be tasted by the public.
A piece of muscle was surgically cut from Schubert`s thigh, two and a half months prior to the performance. It was then cultivated and grown in a biotech laboratory by Slovenian bio engineers. The unique experimental art project mEat me was accompanied by a stimulating installation, also prepared by the artist. It involved projections, in a sort of audiovisual documentation of the laboratory process. Moreover, Schubert used machine learning models to create a virtual independent persona of herself. The artificial and real Theresa Schubert then staged a conversation in front of the audience.
Schubert sees a possible future in which humans could actually eat their own meat, grown in a home incubator. A self-sufficient life using in vitro meat production techniques. The human body as a food production unit. A forever renewing food source. No more animals slaughtered. Less pollution and no more wasted energy.
Tell me a bit about the process, what happened after the biopsy? Could you walk, considering the surgeon cut one cubic centimeter of your thigh muscle?
The actual biopsy did not hurt because there was local anesthesia with a syringe through my skin until the thigh muscle. I didn’t feel any pain at all during the procedure. Still, after the surgeon cut out the piece of my muscle, I was in shock. My body had some kind of over reaction to the biopsy, I felt like fainting and was sweating. After the anesthetic faded out it was actually very painful. My videographer, who filmed the whole biopsy, drove me back to the gallery to store my cell sample in the fridge of their biolab. After this, I could rest at my accommodation. I was supposed to go to the lab the next day, but it was too painful to walk, so I had to cancel. Anything beyond 200 metres was an obstacle. On the third day after the surgery the pain faded and the wound healed quite fast after. In this regard I was lucky, because the only doctor who agreed to do the biopsy without a medical reason was a plastic surgeon and he took specific care of making nice stitches. He had collaborated on another art project with Kapelica Gallery in the past.
How did it feel like to eat a piece of something that was cut out of your body? I’m talking strictly about this feeling, not about the “auto-cannibalization” you performed in front of the audience.
Exciting and thrilling. It’s like an alien thing—not like I took a bite of my finger, you know: a piece that had been cut out in advance. There was a laboratory process involved, which started—to a certain degree—a process of dissociation. Once you go and cultivate it in a lab it becomes something else, like a new organism. So, although I knew it was of my origin, it was also different, not entirely me, something new evolving.
How did you prepare the meat in front of your audience—and how did you taste?
It tasted quite sleek, somehow indescribable. There is no other taste like it. At the performance I used a kitchen bench, a gas cooker and a frying pan. I didn’t add any spices because I wanted an absolute minimalist approach and authentic taste.
The piece looked like a thin translucent burger patty. More precisely, it had the size of a petri dish (around 10 centimetres in diameter and 6 millimetres in height). During the performance, I just fried it in oil without adding salt, so it was the pure natural taste of it—a bit artificial, and unlike anything else.
You also have to keep in mind that the meat we grew was at an early stage, before any vascularization or fat tissue would have formed, which are essential parts in making meat structure and taste. My cells were grown on a scaffold made from edible gellan gum, that’s a tiny three-dimensional network structure used for tissue culture. It’s an organic by-product coming from bacteria. The scaffold also contains a lot of water, so I had to be careful not to overcook it. Growing meat in vitro is a very complex process and, as we can observe, start-ups around the world are still working on solving issues to produce animal meat in the lab.
- This is part of the story published in the second issue of 20 seconds magazine for experimental music and art. 20 seconds magazine ISSUE 2 is available in print version only, and can be pre-ordered ahead of its official launch (26th of September 2020), on 20secondsmag.com.