Extra Credit_Beatriz Da Costa’s “Invisible Earthlings” by Dalton Abbott

Beatriz Da Costa’s insightful exhibit, “Invisible Earthlings”, was quite an experience in both the intellectual and aesthetic sense. Inside the room in which the exhibit was displayed, a wall of text immediately caught my eye. Upon reading the context for and origination of Da Costa’s ideas, a single sentence struck me as particularly poignant: “How can a revived environmentalism” function if we deny the existence of billions of actors?” Da Costa is talking, of course, of microbes, invisible yet important microorganisms such as bacteria that play a large part in the everyday lives of humans. Da Costa set out to, through methodical research, create a tangible identity for these previously unknown invaders. The majority of Da Costa’s research concentrated on collecting samples from common surfaces such as park benches, gates, and flowers, and examining the types of microbes that were found, as well as analyzing their primary function, hence defining their reason for existing on Earth.

Da Costa’s first specimen, a butterfly bush, yielded Fusarium, a type of bacteria that affect barley and can cause severe crop damage. Inside her garage, Da Costa found Rhizopus, which are known to cause numerous bacterial infections in both humans and animals. On a flower, Da Costa found Conodiobolus, a mold found in soil and decaying debris, which can again cause infections in primarily animals, but rarely in humans as well. On her gate, Da Costa found Staphylococcus, a bacteria that is primarily harmless, but infectious strands can cause ailments such as food poisoning. On a bench, Da Costa found Bacillus, a common bacteria that is mostly harmless. She also found Penicillum, a fungi that can be used to produce penicillin. Da Costa continues on to document various other sources of collection and the bacteria that was documented, along with its potential harmful effects and strands, or lack thereof.

Da Costa’s exhibit was so moving and interesting, in my opinion, partly due to its utter simplicity. Though most are unfamiliar with different types of bacteria and the role that these bacteria may play in one’s life or overall health, all are aware of the existence of many different types of microbes. Da Costa did not present her research merely as an attempt to educate the masses in terms of the role of microbes and their interactions with human life, but rather attempted to provide an accurate portrayal of the true biological breakdown of our planet. Da Costa realizes the importance of microbes in allowing Earth’s complex ecosystems to properly interact and coexist, and through “Invisible Earthlings”, she attempts to provide an identity for these living cells that, despite their important role in affecting human and animal life, are overlooked, a noble, humbling endeavor. Human ignorance and self- centeredness are often responsible for such oversights, as microbes are so small that they are not overtly visible to the human eye, causing humans to disregard not only their existence, but their important function in the biological system. Da Costa, in creating “Invisible Earthlings”, sets out to raise awareness of the simple fact that Earth also plays host to an entire other living population that has just as much of a rightful place to exist in this environment as humans.

- Dalton Abbott

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