Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


VIRTUAL EVENT: IAS Growth/Waste — Skin Hungry? Aesthetic approximations to the critters of touch

13 January 2021, 5:00 pm–6:15 pm

Sonja Baumel

with Marina Warner (BBK), Anne Anlin Cheng (Princeton), Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin (artist), Sonja Bäumel (artist) and Mellissa Fisher (artist). Chaired by Albert Brenchat-Aguilar (Birkbeck/Architectural Association)

This event is free.

Event Information

Open to







Albert Brenchat-Aguilar

Please join the event here.

Look closely but don’t touch. While over-exposed to the fictional and fixed aesthetics of SARS-CoV-2, we are all suffering, in different degrees, of what is being called in the mass media as ‘skin hunger’: a desire for human touch that is being explained as a biological need. Haptic communication has been reported to affect infants’ wellbeing, adolescents’ behaviour, stress, and even immunity, pain and attention. Few months through the coronavirus pandemic have been enough to publish papers assessing the current situation of touch deprived peoples. This panel aims to think through the current touch deprivation in terms of appreciations and affections with the bacteria of the skin. Taking into account the agency of touching as a privilege in the present times (imposed on some and prohibited to others) we wonder: What can we build from current aesthetic-agentic relations with our skin bacteria? Or in other words, what can we take from looking closely at the bacteria of our skin in the current coronavirus pandemic from an artistic lens?

This panel presents the work of three artists approaching the aesthetics and ecology of bacteria in the skin and responses from two academics from the arts and humanities.


  • Dame Marina Warner is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London and a Professorial Research Fellow at SOAS. She is a writer of fiction, criticism and history; her works include novels and short stories as well as studies of art, myths, symbols and fairytales. She is a contributing editor to The London Review of Books, a Fellow of the British Academy, a Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and, since 2017, President of the Royal Society of Literature. She was made DBE in 2015, and the same year was awarded the Holberg Prize in the Arts and Humanities. in 2017 she was given a British Academy Medal and a World Fantasy Life Time Achievement Award. She is currently patron of the Ted Hughes Society, Bloodaxe Books, Society for Story Telling, Hosking Houses Trust and The Longford Trust. Please find more about her work here.
  • Anne Anlin Cheng is Professor of English and American Studies, and affiliated faculty in the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies and the Committee on Film Studies at Princeton University. She is an interdisciplinary and comparative race scholar who focuses on the uneasy intersection between politics and aesthetics, drawing from literary theory, race and gender studies, film and architectural theory, legal studies, psychoanalysis, and critical food studies. She is the author of The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden GriefSecond Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface; and, most recently, Ornamentalism
  • Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin explores the porousness of bodily boundaries and the ceaseless movement of living processes, like fermentation, echoing the history of colonialism. Shin is interested in the history of conquest and the literal digestion of materials – smells, microbes, and food – as a system of relations that emerges from a complicated history of entanglement. Shin has exhibited internationally and was recently an artist-in-residence at Recess in Brooklyn, a Visiting Artist Fellow at UrbanGlass in Brooklyn, Col(LAB) artist-in-residence at Princeton University in New Jersey, and Wave Hill’s 2020 artist-in-residence for Winter Workspace program. Shin is a 2020 New York Community Trust Van Lier Fellow. Please find more about their work here.
  • Mellissa Fisher is a British artist based in Margate; her work explores the relationships between nature, science and the human body. In 2016 Fisher was commissioned by the BBC to create a large scale microbial sculpture which formed a central theme of the documentary Michael Mosley verses the Superbugs. Throughout the last 8 years, Fisher has explored the microscopic world in nature and cell biology in collaboration with scientist Professor Mark Clements who worked with her on all microbial projects and she continues to work collaboratively with various scientists across the UK and internationally. Please find more about her work here.
  • Sonja Bäumel’s (AT) interest lies in the microbial layer, a second layer that can be found on top of all bodies. Her work has been exhibited internationally. Her Textured Self project is in the permanent collection of the Textielmuseum in Tilburg in the Netherlands. She is co-founder of the Dunbar's Number collective (2011), member of Pavillion35 (2012) collective based in Vienna, and of the WNDRLUST (2013-2018) collective based in Amsterdam. Sonja is heading the Jewellery-Linking Bodies Department at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Please find more about her work here.

New (Normal) Materialist Decay Series

Decaying matter is an essential component of our built environment. From compost in our gardens, to lichen and fungi in our brick and stone walls and tile roofs, to bacteria on our skin, our environment grows thanks to and along with non-human decay. However, we neglect these non-human agents and, now more than ever, we fear them as they also include viruses and the surfaces where viruses inhabit. We wash our hands with antibacterial soaps, interact with the world through gloves, masks, scrubs, glasses and screens. We now sterilise our built environment more than ever, thus polluting it with toxic antibacterial matter. To ignore decaying matter and the waste of our new material mediations (as well as their destinies and trajectories) also means to neglect the human workforce that physically deals with decay and the organisms that support it.

New (Normal) Materialist Decay will showcase a series of conversations under a new materialist approach to the built environment. For this revised series, we want to question how the new normal challenges previous revolutionary approaches to decaying matter (compost, soil, bodies, food, weeds…) and question if it is still possible to shift thinking about them. Before COVID-19, one could have imagined a poetics of waste co-existing with the repurposing of waste so that it comes to signify as non-waste. But what can we do now?

This series of panel debates and conversations will involve academics, artists, gardeners, botanists, chemists and landscape architects. These conversations and their outcomes will be free and open to everyone. This series is partly funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and supported by UCL Urban Laboratory and the Institute of Advanced Studies at UCL as part of their collaboration on the research theme of Waste. This series is part of a bigger project conceived by Sabina Andron (UCL, Ravensbourne) and Albert Brenchat (UCL, BBK, AA)

We propose 5 sessions:

  1. The Dissimilar Architecture and Politics of Rot - from Positivist Ecology to Intersectional Theory
  2. The Aesthetics and Care of the Soil in the Urban Environment
  3. Skin
  4. Key Work and the Anxiety of Public Space
  5. Exhausted Matter

All welcome. An event link will be posted on this webpage.  Please do not hesitate to contact us if you need assistance on the day, and follow this FAQ link for more information and to read our virtual events code of conduct. All of our events are free, but you can support the IAS here.

Image by Sonja Bäumel