The Colosseum has been many things in its lifetime: it began as a place where emperors distracted the masses with gladiators and gore; it was plundered for stone to construct buildings like St Peter’s Basilica and the Palazzo Venezia; then it was declared a sacred site to Christian martyrdom and left alone.
Now the arena – or rather, the bacteria within it – is becoming a living artwork for the first time, over three nights starting on 17 September.
Multimedia artist Sabine Kacunko will make the Colosseum glow with a projection of bacteria she has gathered from its very walls. Far from being a dilapidated 2,000-year-old carcass, Kacunko’s project – officially called The Invincible Big Bacteria Project – will show that the Colosseum is teeming with life. “I make visible what you normally don’t see,” she says. “My film brings the surface of the Colosseum to life.”
It was being stranded in New York when the towers fell on 9/11 that started Kacunko’s obsession with bacteria. “I wanted to use this terrible situation to show how we can go in a more peaceful, constructive direction,” she explains. “I realised that humans are so small in the evolutionary process and that we should have more respect for life.” A meeting with a microbiologist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art showed her how art, history and science could be connected. “She explained patina and bacterial film, and that inspired me to work with it, to show that the smallest lifeform is so intelligent and strong and collaborative. That they are the winners and we are the losers. Bacteria shows the metamorphosis of life.”
Kacunko soon started using bacteria to subvert her black-and-white photography. “I destroyed my photographs by covering the negatives with bacteria,” she says. “They like the gelatin in the negatives, and their metabolic process produces pigments. It was a fantastic surprise – all these beautiful colours!” The Total Museum in Korea exhibited a six-week, real-time webcast of her evolving, bacteria-ridden artworks. The scientific community took notice, and she was given a research lab in the renowned Robert Koch Forum, part of the Charité Hospital in Berlin, to continue her studies.
For the forthcoming project, which is part of Unesco’s International Year of Light, Kacunko has also designed software that translates bacterial movement into sound. Over the three nights, a pair of dancers will perform to the track before some of the buildings constructed from the Colosseum’s remains.
“The Colosseum is a masterpiece,” says Kacunko.“This arena is where fierce competition, life and death happened. I’m projecting the oldest and smallest lifeform on to it to show that we can cooperate rather than fight. That it’s a better way for our future.”