CONSUMING ART • by Peter Tupper

“Claire, darling, it’s been too long!”

Claire heard the Long-Island-lockjaw accent of her former teacher, Professor Abigail Fairfax. The contents of the heavy glass case in Claire’s arms lurched just as her stomach did. “Hello,” she said, refusing any more recognition.

“I had no idea you would be at this exhibition.” Fairfax clasped her white-gloved hands.

Claire confirmed the number on the door. She was in the right place, but the gallery’s exhibition room was already packed with Fairfax’s tanks and display boxes of tailored organisms and sealed ecosystems, the kind of thing medical clinics and law firms kept in their lobbies as status pieces. Living wallpaper.

She managed to block the path of a passing organizer. “I’m supposed to set up in this space, not her.”

“Your exhibition has been moved into this space,” the organizer said. He guided Claire through what should have been her exhibit space and around a corner.

Claire gasped when she saw the space. “This is a closet! And most people won’t even turn that corner.”

The organizer shrugged. “Sorry. Professor Fairfax entered at the last moment and we had to shuffle around a few people.” He touched his headset, then rushed away. “I told you, keep him away from shellfish — ”

Claire closed her eyes and went through the relaxation exercise her therapist taught her. When she didn’t feel like her head would explode, she put her case down on the floor of her closet. It would have to do, as she needed this show.

“I love to see how my students have drawn upon my teachings.” Fairfax peeped over her shoulder. “And what do you have there?”

Claire’s piece was a manhole-sized off-white disk of bio-gel with a black plastic cylinder in the middle. A line of black radiated from the centre and swept around the circle, as slowly as a clock’s minute hand. The black line was a colony of tailored organisms that consumed the off-white biomass, reproduced and then died and decayed into grey biomass. Ambient light made it regenerate into creamy-white gel, only to be eaten again by the marching black line. Claire had spent more than two months carefully designing the living creatures in their self-contained ecosystem. “It’s called The Moment of Consumption.”

“Mmm, tcch.” Fairfax walked around Claire’s work. “I won’t deny you’re technically talented, dear, but…” She sighed. “You still lack ambition.”

Ambition is easy when you have tenure and grants and grad students, Claire thought but did not say. As usual, Fairfax turned her backhanded compliment into an exit, leaving Claire alone to seethe.

Breathe through it, her therapist always told her, use your art to manage it. Claire looked at her space and calculated the distance to Fairfax’s exhibits. I’ll show you “technically talented”.

While Fairfax chatted with the gallery officials and ordered her grad students around, Claire lugged boxes in from her van. She injected chemicals and organisms into her largest glass tank, building a colony of organisms with custom behaviours and interactions. She had painted and sculpted once, but to her nothing compared with working with living beings.

By the time the gallery was ready to close for the night, Claire’s work had helped diffuse her rage, and she had backed away from acting on the rest of her plan. Her therapist would be proud. As she put away her tools, Fairfax’s pumps click-clacked around the corner.

“And what is this, Claire?” Fairfax asked.

The tank was shallow but wide and long enough that it took up nearly all of her space. A macrobe, an engineered organism the size of a mouse, swam through the translucent medium, propelled by tough flagellae. In its wake were small deposits of organelles in myriad shapes and colors, some pulsing with life, other already dying.

Claire said, “It should be ready by tomorrow. I call it Feed.

“Hmm,” said Fairfax, as she bent down and waved her hand near the macrobe, which changed course and swam towards her hand. “Thermophilic?”

“Complex second-order scent tracking. It’s keying off the remnants on your hands,” Claire explained.

“Ah. Well, I see what you’re trying to do.” She turned on her heel and went back to her exhibition.

Claire lost any reservations about her plan. Even her therapist would understand.

The organizers came and turfed everybody out for the night. No one noticed that Claire did not seal the lid of her tank.

The next morning, Claire arrived at the gallery just as Fairfax began yelling at the organizers. Apparently she could open her mouth all the way. “Ruined — months of work destroyed — do you know what that means — ?”

While Fairfax berated the cringing organizer, Claire walked past her unnoticed. Her sneakers crunched the remnants of broken, empty display cases and squished in the trails of slime criss-crossing the floor. Around her corner, soft light glowed, cycling through the seven colours of the rainbow. She turned the corner and gasped at what she had not even imagined.

Instead of a single macrobe in a vast, empty field, the inside of the tank was packed with life. Here and there were little colonies, their patterns recognizable as Fairfax’s, but they were surrounded by a complex ecosystem of macrobes, some harvesting pieces of the Fairfax colonies, others ferrying bits of green matter from photosynthetic colonies. The harvesters carried the fragments to the center of the tank, where the fragments were cast into a matrix of constantly evolving shapes and colours and textures.

She placed her hand on the glass case, smiling as the creatures inside sought their creator’s scent. “Did you eat well?”

Peter Tupper is a writer and journalist based in Vancouver BC.

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