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99% Bacteria Free – a review

For me, being an artist encompasses the responsibility of reflecting upon the society I live in and the mechanisms that influence and control daily life. My project 99% bacteria-free explores and reflects culturally based eating environments. It invites the participants to examine, critique, and smile at non-official but widely accepted ‘rules’ that control our everyday eating behavior, such as: washing our hands before meals, disinfecting our cutlery before eating in public cafeterias, or using hand sanitizer after sneezing. Some of these rules are more evident than others, some verge on neurotic absurdity, but all are – in some way or another – accepted and practiced when eating. So what happens if I, as an artist, decide to use some of these practices centered on the preparing, staging, and eating of a communal meal and intentionally re-frame them?


In the course of my project 99% bacteria-free, I built a mobile cooking studio and prepared five different bacteria dishes that I alternately cooked in public and semi-public spaces. Approximately six guests participated in each lunch or dinner. I also invited passers by and people who expressed an interest in the project to join the meal as well. Once seated at the table each guest was given a bacteria booklet. The booklet referenced the form of a vaccination booklet and contained illustrations and information on five bacteria stems. Each time a guest joined the feast and tasted a different bacteria dish, they received a stamp – one for each stem – in their booklet. Guests could join the feast at any time – without any previous knowledge of prior lunch and dinner sessions. 

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Fig.1. Lucia Rainer 99% Bacteria Free 2014, image courtesy of the artist.

The communal meals were centered on a noticeable desire for sanitation and sterility within contemporary society and resulted in three key observations. First, there exists numerous practices for improving cleanliness, second, next to promoting regular hygiene strategies, educational campaigns are – amongst many other factors – relying on scientific findings, which are increasingly making apparent that microbial ecosystems within the human gut play an intricate role regarding health and disease, and third, most food consumed in Western society lacks vital bacteria. Moreover, the little vital bacteria (e.g. probiotic bacteria) we eat are often destroyed through long cooking or frying times or added sugars in food. 99% bacteria-free was interested in exploring the problematic of a noticeable desire for sanitation and sterility versus the intricate role bacteria play in relation to health and well-being. In order to understand particular eating environments and their social routines better, I closely studied the everyday actions we take. I was especially interested in practices that were assumed to be self-evident, but – on a second glance – revealed themselves as rather questionable. Here I took two approaches. First, I carried out field observations in restaurants and public restrooms. Second, I documented two group discussions adhering to the methodology of Ralf Bohnsack.1 This meant, after shortly explaining my interest regarding an increased desire for sanitation and sterility and the simultaneous observation that most food consumed in Western society lacks vital bacteria, I stepped back and allowed for the discussion to develop on its own. I gave the participants space and time to find their arguments and position themselves within the group. Getting truly involved, the participants discussed the dualism of ‘healthy eating’ and ‘germ-free daily life’ when preparing and eating communal meals. Looking back, it felt as if I had been forgotten. This made it possible to only take minor influence in the discussion and allowed an in-depth insight into various, culturally based eating environments.


While collectively preparing and eating our communal meals, the guests’ conversation focused on friendly – i.e. predominant flora – and unfriendly bacteria. What role do friendly and unfriendly bacteria play in the human organism? Which bacteria stems are linked to our well-being and resistance to disease? Lactobacillus bifidus for example is an intestinal friendly bacteria. Following research results from North Carolina State University, lactobacillus bifidus feed on indigestive complex sugar molecules, which cannot be decomposed by enzymes alone. The body needs additional lactobacillus, such as bifidus for example, to be able to decompose these molecules properly. In addition, the molecules’ surface is similar to a simple sugar molecule onto which unfriendly bacteria and virus ligate. Because of this, the complex sugar molecules reveal themselves as traps: not only do lactobacillus bifidus feed on the molecule, they also eat the unfriendly bacteria and virus attached.2


In addition to cooking, eating, and having a conversation within the project I gave short lectures about the particular bacteria stem of the day and its role in the human organism. My lectures reflected on the findings of my field observations and facilitated group discussions. Hence, our communal get-together and the meal evolved into a communal lecture demonstration, which engaged in the reflexive acknowledgement of the social context in which it was situated and negotiated. The communal lecture demonstration further critiqued the lecture format as a medium of knowledge formation and dissemination.3 It challenged the power relations embedded within the lecture format regarding the lecture performer as the authorized speaker as well as the disseminator of validated knowledge. The communal meal critiqued this contract between the lecturer and the audience – between the one who knows and the ones who do not know, or to quote John Cage, the communal meals were aimed at saying what they had to say in a manner that would reflect this shift; that conceivably permitted the guests to experience what their host had to say rather than only receive it.4 The meals exemplified an alternative perspective regarding the institution of academia and its practices of authorization: knowledge and its dissemination were put on stage, placed behind a table, given a microphone and a glass of water, but the transmission of knowledge became uncertain. Is the lecturer and host merely the performer who pretends to know? 

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Fig.2. Lucia Rainer 99% Bacteria Free 2014, image courtesy of the artist.


99% bacteria-free’s central focus lies upon the interplay of frames and acts of framing.5 While our communal meals are given a meaning based upon a frame of social and cultural repertoires designating how guests are expected to act when invited to lunch or dinner, the term framing describes the guests’ active interpretation of this situation. Frames and framings have the same origin, yet constitute one another as different praxis forms: framings signal frame agreement or non-agreement and as a result they can cause given frames to become ambiguous and break.6 To be more precise, within 99% bacteria-free’s communal meals, frame breaks existed in two ways. Firstly I – in the position of the artist – gave lectures on microbiology. This evoked questions as to the truth of what I was saying and if the setting of the communal meal in the frame of a performance reduced the work to make-believe. The guests for example asked: are there real bacteria stems within the petri dishes? Is there real bacteria in the meal?

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Fig.3. Lucia Rainer 99% Bacteria Free 2014, image courtesy of the artist.

The second frame break was embodied within the communal dinner gatherings. In Western contemporary society, bacteria are commonly perceived as unfriendly and harmful causing illness and disease. They are not to be eaten. 99% bacteria-free however introduces friendly bacteria and conveys the idea that bacteria balance is vital for human well-being. Simultaneously, it acknowledges that harmful bacteria exist and that eating bacteria – be they friendly or unfriendly – does not stay within normal frame activity. Thus, 99% bacteria-free is based upon practical frame breaks and the idea that breaking frame is an affective and effective practice of critique. This out-of-frame-action temporarily breaks the frame and raises the issue of “frame limits”.7 It facilitates an entry into and critique of contemporary preparation and consumption practices. Wanting to be 99% bacteria-free seemed to be one of them.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Ralf Bohnsack, Die dokumentarische Methode und ihre Forschungspraxis: Grundlagen qualitative Sozialforschung. Opladen: Leske + Budrich 2001.

Go to footnote reference 2.

Georg Schön, Bakterien: Die Welt der kleinsten Lebewesen. München: Beck 1999. 23-24, (translation by Lucia Rainer).

Go to footnote reference 3.

Lucia Rainer, ‘Lecture Performance. Das Experiment an der Schnittstelle zwischen Kunst und Wissenschaft’ in Sigrund Brunsiek, ed., Praxistest. Künstlerische Projekte zur Vermittlung aktueller Kunst, 2012, 140-142.

Go to footnote reference 4.

John Cage, Silence. Lectures and Writings by John Cage. Middletown: Wesleyan 1961, ix

Go to footnote reference 5.

Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper & Row 1974.

Go to footnote reference 6.

ibid: xv.

Go to footnote reference 7.



Ralf Bohnsack et al. Die dokumentarische Methode und ihre Forschungspraxis: Grundlagen qualitative Sozialforschung. Opladen: Leske + Budrich 2001.

John Cage. Silence. Lectures and Writings by John Cage, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press 1961.

Erving Goffman. Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper & Row 1974.

Lucia Rainer. ‘Lecture Performance. Das Experiment an der Schnittstelle zwischen Kunst und Wissenschaft’ in Sigrund Brunsiek ed., Praxistest. Künstlerische Projekte zur Vermittlung aktueller Kunst. Schöppingen: Forum 2012,140-42.

Georg Schön. Bakterien: Die Welt der kleinsten Lebewesen, München: Beck 1999.

Lucia Rainer

Lucia Rainer is a German-Italian performer and performance studies theorist based in Hamburg, Germany. She received her Bachelor of Arts from the universities Martin Luther, in Halle/Saale, and Macquarie in Sydney, focusing on the research fields of social photography and art as a political practice. In 2008 she received her Master of Arts in Performance Studies from the University of Hamburg and completed a post-master degree at a.pass (advanced performance and sceneography studies) at Posthogeschool voor Podiumkunsten in Brussels. In 2015, Lucia completed her doctorate at the Institute for Human Movement Science at the University of Hamburg. As of October 2016, she holds a professorship for Aesthetics at MSH University for Applied Sciences Hamburg. Her research interests revolve around the concept of lecture performances, notions of interdisciplinary research, and concepts of performative writing.