Damaris Athene: Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
Mellissa Fisher: I'm a Bio artist at the moment. I'm from Dorset and moved to London to study illustration in 2009. I was about to drop out and then I found a lecturer and artist in the university called Heather Barnett, who is the pathway leader at Central Saint Martins (CSM) Art & Science MA. She was a photography tutor at the time and she started an interdisciplinary art and science module called Broad Vision. The first time I looked down a microscope I thought, ‘I'm sold! I want to work with the invisible world!’
DA: Where was your degree?
MF: Westminster. Illustration wasn't for me, I should’ve done Fine Art, but I was told that I wouldn't get a job with a Fine Art degree. I'm grateful that that happened as if it hadn’t I wouldn't have gone onto the path that I'm on now. The ‘Microbial Me’ project came from the Art & Science module, as did a collaborator.
DA: It really began everything!
MF: 2012, that's where it all began. Then I saw the head of MA Art & Science at CSM, Nathan, at a gallery and he asked where my application for the Masters was. I thought, ‘I should do a Masters now’. Then I got sick of London and moved here (Margate) and I'm so much happier. Kent is the place to be. People say it's like Shoreditch, but it's not, it's much better. It’s more, as Tracey Emin says, ‘raunchy’.
DA: Can you tell us more about your practice. You said you're a Bio artist but can you expand on that a bit more?
MF: I like to say I'm a Bio artist at the moment because I think as an artist you're going to forever change. For about five/six years I've been making sculptures with living organisms, mainly my bacteria. I wanted to create work to make people see the invisible world that they have on them that they don't really think about - out of sight out of mind – and to make it less scary. Without it we'd be really ill and die. The magic of time-lapse photography is setting it all up and coming back a couple of weeks later. Putting it all together it takes ages so it's a real reward when you've watched the film, you're like, 'Woaaaah. That happened I was right next to it'. I relate to Rachel Whiteread in that respect, because she makes work about the secret life of things and I'm the secret life of invisible things. The mushrooms are a new thing that I still haven't developed properly yet.
DA: How do you usually work when you're making the agar?
MF: It depends. If it's nutrient agar, which I usually use with plants, like in the cress videos, I can do it in the studio. If I'm growing actual bacteria you have to treat it as a biohazard, even though it's probably not. It's all the same bacteria you have on you all the time, just grown at a higher concentration. It smells horrible. It must be in a controlled area just in case. There's always risk assessments when working with science and you have to think of the worst possible scenario that could happen.
DA: Do you have a lab that you do it in?
MF: I used to have constant access to a lab at Westminster. I was meant to make my body in bacteria for my degree show, but then five months before my show Mark (Professor Mark Clements, my collaborator) told me he got a new job in Lincoln. I broke down a bit and then had to think of something else. The year before I'd gone on a residency in Canada and been exposed to all these different types of mushrooms and fungi. I was interested by the Reishi mushroom, because it's known in Asian culture to be the mushroom of immortality. It increases the amount of macrophages in white blood cells which boosts your immune system. All the work I make is based on myself, and ‘Immortal Ground’ was based on me exploring immortality through nature in a concrete environment - the crossing at King's Cross, Central Saint Martins. It’s a play with immortality and nature, and if nature is immortal.
DA: Well are we immortal by being carried on through the bacteria in the soil that lingers after we’re buried?
MF: Yeah exactly. It was an intermission in the work I've been doing with bacteria because I didn't have any lab space. Now I do have lab spaces with collaborators in Manchester and Berlin, and Mark's now coming back to London. It’s difficult to get access when you don't know anyone.
DA: Manchester and Berlin, that's very far to go.
MF: It is but it's all about the grants you get and how you apply them. Grants and networking are the key to doing art, as is studying and researching.
DA: How did you find the MA Art & Science course at CSM?
MF: It was the best two years of my life. I learnt so much about my practice, about myself and about how other people work. I wanted my MA to be a more positive experience than my BA and I worked really hard. It’s about 20 times harder than a BA, which most people don’t realise. The first week I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’. I was scared but you have to pursue through it. As artists we tend to almost kill ourselves making work but the most important thing I learnt was to have a break because it can cause a lot of damage to you and your artwork. I keep in contact with the people that are studying there. It's a great community of people. It's very small the art and science world and it's predominately female as well which I find interesting.
DA: That is interesting. I wonder what that is?.... How did you find the change from illustration to Fine Art?
MF: I didn't really change as I didn't ever draw. I didn't know how to draw at all so I made sculptures – the course was illustration and visual communication. What got me into the Art & Science was a project with my Uni hamster, Bovril, may she rest in peace. She fascinated me because she was very smart and she knew her name. I made a maze to try and teach her how to follow colour and scent. It worked! I eventually learnt how to draw in my second year I thought, ‘Come on you're doing illustration degree you've got to be able to draw something!’. I had a sketchbook for a whole summer which I drew in when I wasn’t doing anything. I taught myself and got this weird style, like automatic drawing. Surrealism it's the main influence in all the work I make. René Magritte is one of my favourite artists of all time.
DA: Interesting. Do you ever display the drawings?
MF: I’m not very confident about them. It’s personal because the sketchbook I work in is small, A6, and I draw in it when I feel like crap. It makes me vulnerable to show my drawing but it’s my aim to do it a bit more this year.
DA: I look forward to seeing them some place soon!...What have you been doing since graduating in 2015?
MF: I'll start with the obvious one which is Microbial Michael, the BBC project. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. It was extremely ambitious and no one has ever done it before. I had no reference and I had no idea if it was going to work.
DA: What aspects were difficult when working with TV?
MF: When you work with media they don't see your work as artwork. They see it as a prop for something they're doing, they are the ones making the artwork, the film. I didn't realise that was the case and I wanted to make a life-size agar sculpture. I'd been planning it for years and it was meant to be my body, but for TV purposes it had to be Michael Mosely’s because he was the presenter. We only had 2 months to do it and I needed 6. The most challenging part was the casting because we (SPACER_) had to make it the right way up - so when we took off the cast the agar was there. Agar is thinner than water and it had to be water tight. We made a Petri dish base for it out of resin and then we did a rubber mould over it. We had to do everything like five steps behind and ahead at the same time and it was really really difficult. I've made a film about the process too.
DA: Yeah, I watched it, the time-lapse. Even watching that I thought, ‘I don't really understand what's going on!’. It looks mad!
MF: Yeah it was mad. We did all of that in two weeks! One of the mistakes I made with the casting was to not make a skeleton for the inside so there’d be less agar and less health and safety risk. I thought it would be fine – let’s just make it simple. I estimated around 30 litres of agar and it was actually 160 without the skeleton! When I told Mark he said, ‘If that was to fall over and crack open there would be enough bacteria on there to kill someone. We can't do this.’ It had got to the point where I was so stressed I couldn’t cry anymore. We had to delay the project for about a week. When we put the skeleton in, it reduced it down to 60 litres, which was fine. It was very mentally straining. Unfortunately we had to dispose of the agar body for health and safety reasons. I couldn't throw it away myself because I wasn't trained and that was a big issue for me. From day one it was completely out of my control. I'm sad that the sculpture is gone because it would have lasted 10 years or more. The project was extremely exhausting and mentally challenging, this is the first time I’ve spoken about it properly as I had a difficult time accepting the failure of the project, I’ve only just recovered from it and am now starting to see that it was a very successful project despite having to destroy it early on.
DA: Thank you for the privilege! What else have you been doing since recovering?
MF: I've been trying to get back it get back to basics. I moved to Ramsgate. I was doing lots of workshops, going into forests to collect specimens to study for inspiration and trying to recover. I was trying to get as much inspiration as I could but then at the same time I was forcing myself so it didn't work. Saying that, I have given talks as well. I went away for a month to New York and I went to Canada on a residency where I met some amazing artists. I also showed a film on slime mould in London where the slime grows over an agar sculpture.
DA: What is slime mould?
MF: Slime mould is Physarum polycephalum. It’s an organism that communicates with itself to get food. It's very intelligent and lots of artists are working with it. You find in forests and it's safe to work with it but it smells like sweaty armpits and escapes from it’s container to find food! Time-lapse is easy with it because it grows very quickly. The footage of myself in the film was when I was depressed. It was when the attacks were happening in London and Manchester. I was in New York and I felt disconnected from home but also connected as well. I was crying so much and to stop myself from crying I decided to film myself. With the science work I do there's no emotion in it. Art is meant to be emotional and I haven't done emotional work for so long. I’m trying to do that more this year and trying to get back to the core of myself because everything is about myself in different ways… For three months I've been writing applications like a madwoman. It's laborious and you get about 1 out of 100. That philosophical thick skin is hard, especially when you feel like crap. The amount of times throughout my degree I thought, ‘I don't want to be an artist anymore’, and then my tutors would say, ‘Well you are one. You can't turn back now’. They’re right and you just have to keep going. People don't think it's hard.
DA: People have no knowledge at all about what's it's like to try and be an artist.
MF: It's like naivety, isn't it? As an artist you have to be business minded, an accountant, everything!
DA: Yeah, marketing, PR.
MF: Yeah, everything! Lots of things I find quite difficult, like social media I'm a bit crap at. People joke that I should get a PA!
DA: Then you need be earning enough money to pay someone.
MF: I had a student from CSM contact me probably about six months ago asking if she could be my PA for free. I didn’t want her to work for free. Free is not good. I think artists should always be paid.
DA: Alas the reality doesn't align.
MF: Hopefully it will one day. I get these e-mails from places saying, ‘We want you to be a part of this show but you have to pay €500 euros’. I respond back with a hashtag saying, ‘Pay fucking Artists’.
DA: You don't sugar coat it!
MF: Not at all because they need to hear it. They might not even bother with it but I think if enough people say it.. I think the only acceptable things to pay for are residences or £10 to £20 entry fee for a competition. But £500. That’s ridiculous.
DA: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
MF: I've been researching Tracey Emin and I'm relating to her, which is frustrating me because for so long I couldn’t stand her.
DA: It's interesting that in the slime mould video piece you are showing more of yourself and straight away it made me think of Tracey Emin. She’s very self-confessional. She lays it all out.
MF: Yeah, she's raw.
DA: You've kept it all in and now you're letting a little bit out.
MF: I think it's because when I was younger I was always criticised for being open and honest. I've got in trouble for being blunt before. When I got the commission with the Eden project I kept my myself in. Now I’m learning that it doesn't matter. Some people's ideas of ‘proper’ is different to others, but people, especially artists should always speak their mind as long as it doesn’t upset anyone. That’s what art is about, speaking your mind and provoking thought in others.