Vital practices: Self-experimentation as artistic and scientific form
Ana María Gómez López
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ATear ecologies

At the time of this writing, news outlets worldwide are reporting the case of a Taiwanese woman found to have four bees living underneath her eyelid.1 Only a few millimetres in size and known colloquially as “sweat bees,” these insects were consuming the proteins found within the tears of a woman identified only as He, her family surname. Remarking on the successful removal of each of the tiny specimens by a confounded ophthalmologist, much of the media coverage failed to mention the worldwide presence of these insects attracted to perspiration and other saline bodily fluids, as well as their study by scientists who use their own eyes to attract and feed their apian subjects. One example is Hans Bänzinger, a Swiss entomologist who has researched bee and moth lachryphagy in forest regions across southern Asia since the mid-1960s. In 2009, Bänzinger allowed more than 250 bees to consume tears from his eyes at several sites throughout Thailand, later conducting a similar study between 2013 and 2014.2 Bees imbibed his tears during day-long stretches held over several weeks, most often staying for minutes at a time and proving barely noticeable or producing minimal discomfort. Only on a few occasions were the foraging bees too “pestiferous” to bear for more than a couple of hours.3

Bänzinger’s investigations and their accompanying photographic records constitute a form of self-experimentation: single-subject research where a person carries out processes within and through their body to gather information on a specific phenomenon, assess a prototype, or otherwise test a hypothesis, remedy, or procedure. Hans Bänzinger’s examination of sweat bees falls into a robust lineage of self-experimenters in entomology. These range from William Baerg and Allan Walker Blair, a U.S. entomologist and Canadian physician who allowed black widow spiders to bite their hands to examine the effects of their venom in 1923 and 1933, respectively,4 to Justin Orvel Schmidt, a U.S. entomologist who for the last 35 years has been bitten and stung by approximately 150 different species of Hymenoptera—the order of insects that includes bees, wasps, and ants—to create a quantitative scale to measure the resulting pain.5

Yet Bänzinger’s absorbed examination of tear-sipping bees in the Thai tropics also allows for comparison with artists who use their bodies to engage first-hand with insect and ecological activity. In his film Springtime (2010–2011), Dutch filmmaker Jeroen Eisinga captures himself sitting in front of the camera while 150,000 bees cover his face and upper body. Viewers witness Eisinga growing concealed by the engulfing swarm, his nose and eyes barely remaining clear. Serving as director and subject, for Springtime Eisinga collaborated with beekeepers from Cahir, a town in County Tipperary in Ireland, as no beekeepers in the Netherlands were willing to participate.6 Eisinga’s restraint in the face of teeming bees—comprising a total of twenty-five kilograms in weight—exemplifies the deliberate use of his body both for the creation of an artwork and a biological encounter, one thoroughly familiar to apiculturists and bee bearders, but that nevertheless requires a commanding exercise in surrender. At the time Eisinga performed his work, the record for bee-bearding on a person was 350,000 bees, or the equivalent of 39.5 kilograms.7

What follows is an attempt to survey instances of self-experimentation in two distinct fields: single-subject (or n of 1) studies in human physiology and the life sciences, and durational, body-based work in contemporary art.8 In drawing distinct operational commonalities between the two contexts, I do not aim to equate or simplify the different ends to which artists and scientists have used their bodies as a site for intellectual and creative inquiry. Rather, I am driven to advance a perspective—now more of a proposition than a definitive statement—of self-experimentation as a form of knowledge production and a consummate vantage point for embodied research9, one that goes beyond the hackneyed characterization of eccentricity10 or the facile allure of transgression.11

The majority of selected examples are from after 194512 and often took place outside of established institutional contexts, such as a commercial gallery, laboratory, university, or similar space. Several of the individuals mentioned are well-recognized self-experimenters, while others are those who have not outwardly presented themselves as such. Some works have benefitted from public recognition13, whereas others actively curtailed their renown. Without exception, all cases are accessed through the examination of some form of corresponding documentation, such as photographic records, audio-visual production, academic articles, legal reports, memoirs, and eye-witness accounts. In focusing on the production of “self-evidence”—a term I borrow from historian of science Simon Schaffer and his article by the same name, which examines public scientific demonstrations involving self-experimentation in the 18th century14—I prioritize the heterogeneity of technical and non-technical approaches involved in “making evidence out of the person of the experimenter,”15 a growing catalogue that will continue to develop well beyond this essay.

Before moving on to the presentation of examples, I offer the following personal disclaimer. The motivation for this article lies in a project that began as an artwork and has expanded into applied and written reflections on self-experimentation. In 2013, I germinated a begonia seed in my right eye. For this purpose, I used a silicone punctal plug, a miniscule ophthalmological device that, when placed in one’s tear duct, blocks the drainage of lachrymal fluid and collects this moisture in a hollow interior. I deposited within the plug’s opening the seed of a Begonia semperflorens, a species chosen to fit the internal dimensions of the plug. I then positioned this plug within my lower right tear duct, using the provided applicator. Following this, I began a waiting period for the sprout to appear. For the better part of two weeks, I laid on top of a table located underneath a skylight and stayed there during the course of the day and night. I covered my eye with a perforated eye shield in order to prevent accidentally touching the implant and also to control the access of sunshine, as begonia seeds grow optimally under mottled light conditions. I remained indoors and fairly motionless, moving only occasionally to stretch, eat small amounts of food, and go to the bathroom. After approximately twelve days of this process, I finally noticed the appearance of a tiny sprout emerging from the edge of my eyelid. When I realized that the new growth would not be able to develop further because of the limited capacity of the plug and the flattening weight of my eyelid when blinking, I took a photograph of my eye with the sprout and removed the plug with the same applicator I employed for its placement. I titled this project Inoculate, a word that is now most commonly used in reference to medical vaccination, but which originally described the grafting of plants to create hybrids in horticulture. More significant than the individual instantiation of Inoculate in my own body is the communication on how the project_ _was carried out. This has led to the preparation of a manual providing step-by-step instructions that will be presented online in the future under the domain name

Inoculate is based partly on a phrase written by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1835 essay Nature: “The ruin or the blank, that which we see when we look at nature is in our own eye.” It was through this idea of a “mutual implication of self-knowledge and knowledge of nature”16 that I began to examine the roots of U.S. Transcendentalism in British and German Romanticism, leading me to self-experiments in their interconnected scientific, artistic, and literary traditions. First-person accounts in the use of opium and nitrous oxide by Romantic scientists and poets offered a significant reprieve to the rigidity of contemporary disciplinary demarcations.17 Galvanic self-experimentation, or the intensive application of electricity to different parts of the body, also provided compelling examples beyond psychoactive chemicals. German physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter, arguably the most committed follower of this practice,18 investigated the application of poles from a voltaic pile on his hands, tongue, ears, nose, and genitalia. In addition to his high-voltage experiments, Ritter was known to pursue other types of bodily investigations as well: in one instance, he pinned each eyelid open to stare at the sun, an experiment inspired by a similar attempt from poet and physician Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather. Ritter reported to Danish chemist Hans Christian Ørsted: “Through looking into the sun for 20 minutes, I have gone so far that for 26 days (until today) I have in each eye a place which has no more sense for black and white, and which sees colours reversed: red [as] blue and blue [as] yellow or red.”19 Ritter’s expansive approach to self-experimentation, ocular and otherwise, has served as a continuous touchstone for Inoculate and its ongoing derivations.

In looking for contemporary projects akin to Inoculate, I came across several interpretations of botanical implants by contemporary artists. Yang Zhichao’s piece Planting Grass (2000) consisted of the surgical placement of water grass shoots into his shoulder, a gesture informed by his forced transplantation to Beijing as a migrant from a rural province in China. This work harkens back to Petr Štembera and his performance Grafting (1975), in which the Hungarian artist implanted a small offshoot from a fruit tree under the skin of his left arm. Imitating the methods used by farmers to cut and bind parts of plants to produce new varieties, Štembera conceived this work to express his unity with nature, claiming his desire to “make contact with the plant, to put it in my body, to be together with it as long as possible.”20 Accounting for more invasive forms of botanical insertion, both Štembera and Zhichao photographed their pieces prior to the predictable infection caused by their bodies’ rejection of these foreign organic elements. A different representational approach was taken by Estonian artist Ene-Liis Semper in her work Oasis (1999). In collaboration with the artist Kiwa, Semper recorded a close-up shot of herself lying down and facing the camera. In the video we see Semper have her lips opened by a different set of hands that slowly fills her mouth with soil and then sets a flower plant inside. The piece ends with the watering of Semper’s face and the plant held inside her oral cavity.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no previously documented attempts of voluntary intra-corporeal plant growth as a form of self-experimentation. Medical reports of bodily germination are rare, although unconfirmed examples tend to trigger copious press coverage (similar to the media frenzy provoked by the aforementioned sweat bee encounters). A recent case of a plant growing in living human tissue is Ron Sveden, a 75-year-old retired teacher from the United States who in 2010 had a 1.5 centimetre pea plant sprout removed from his left lung by thoracic surgeon Jeffrey Spillane at Cape Cod Hospital in Massachusetts.21 Although not an intended self-experiment per se, Sveden is an example of a “first patient”—people who by virtue of exceptional circumstances are the subject of inimitable “natural experiments,” unique medical conditions with treatments often designed and tested for the first time on them. This description also fits the sole case of ocular germination I have found thus far in the medical literature. In 1979, Julian Fabricius, an eight-year-old boy from Worcester, South Africa, complained to his mother of not being able to see properly out of his right eye. Upon medical inspection, a small sprout was discovered inside his iris. The hypothesis is that, while playing outdoors, Fabricius would have accidentally created a corneal lesion large enough for a stray seed to become embedded therein. Solomon Abel, the ophthalmologist who removed the sprout (recognized subsequently as belonging to the Compositae family) stated that “the aqueous environment of the eye appears to be a favourable hydroponic medium.”22 Inoculate resembles this opportunistic germination of a seed through the eye’s lachrymal surface moisture, albeit one mediated by a self-administered procedure of insertion and removal, as well as other circumstances described as follows.

  1. 1

    See Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Doctors Discover Four Live Bees Feeding on Tears Inside Woman’s Eye,” The Guardian, 10 April 2019; Tiffany May, “Four Bees Living in Her Eye, Feeding on Her Tears,” New York Times, 10 April 2019; and Timothy Bella, “She Went to the Hospital for an Infection; Doctors Found Four Bees Living in Her Eye, Eating Her Tears,” Washington Post, 10 April 2019. 

  2. 2

    See Hans Bänzinger et al., “Bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) That Drink Human Tears,” Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society 82 (2010): 135–150, and Hans Bänzinger, “Congregations of Tear-Drinking Bees at Human Eyes: Foraging Strategies for an Invaluable Resource by Lisotrigona in Thailand (Apidae, Meliponini),” National History Bulletin of the Siam Society 62, no. 2 (2018): 161–193. 

  3. 3

    Bänzinger et al., “Bees That Drink Human Tears,” 164. 

  4. 4

    Allan Walker Blair, “Spider Poisoning: Experimental Study of the Effects of the Bite of the Female Latrodectus mactans in Man,” Archives of Internal Medicine 54 (1934): 831–843. 

  5. 5

    Justin O. Schmidt, The Sting of the Wild (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2016). For a refinement of Schmidt’s “sting pain index” by pain variability of honey-bee stings in different parts of the body, see also Michael L. Smith, “Honey Bee Sting Pain Index by Body Location,” PeerJ 2 (2014): e338. 

  6. 6

    For more information and still images of Springtime, see

  7. 7

    U.S. animal trainer Mark Biancaniello held the world record in bee bearding from 1998 until 2014.  

  8. 8

    A notable exception is the edited work by Katrin Solhdju, Introspective Self-Rapports: Shaping Ethical and Aesthetic Concepts 1850–2006 (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Pre-print 322, 2006), a volume which includes texts on self-experimentation by both scholars and contemporary artists.  

  9. 9

    An exceptional document for self-experimentation as embodied philosophical reflection is Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 2013 [2008]). 

  10. 10

    See, for example, Mel Boring and Leslie Dendy, Guinea Pig Scientists: Bold Self-Experimenters in Science and Medicine (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005); Alex Boese, Electrified Sheep: Glass-Eating Scientists, Nuking the Moon, and More Bizarre Experiments (London: Boxtree/MacMillan, 2011); and Trevor Norton, Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth: A Celebration of Scientific Eccentricity and Self-Experimentation (New York: Pegasus Books, 2012). Amidst these conspicuous titles on self-experimenters as idiosyncratic mavericks or historic curiosities, two book-length studies stand out: Lawrence K. Altman, Who Goes First? The Story of Self-Experimentation in Medicine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), and Arsen P. Fiks and Paul A. Buelow, Self-Experimenters: Sources for Study (Westport, USA: Paeger, 2003). For two dynamic articles surveying eighteenth- and twentieth-century self-experimentation, respectively, see Londa Schiebinger, “Human Experimentation in the Eighteenth Century: Natural Boundaries and Valid Testing,” in The Moral Authority of Nature, ed. Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal, 384-408 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), and Andi Johnson, “‘They Sweat for Science’: The Harvard Fatigue Laboratory and Self-Experimentation in American Exercise Physiology,” Journal of the History of Biology 48 (2015): 425–454. Finally, for a critical self-reflection on self-experimentation, sees the excellent article by British dietician Elsie M. Widdowson, “Self-experimentation in nutrition research,” Nutrition Research Review 6 (1993): 1-17.  

  11. 11

    Recent monographs on “endurance art” offer little departure from earlier studies on performance from the 1960s and 1970s, with the partial exception of works by Patrick Anderson, So Much Wasted: Hunger, Performance, and the Morbidity of Resistance (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), and Lara Shalson, Performing Endurance: Art and Politics since 1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018). These texts tend to extol the artist’s heroic stamina, martyr-like sacrifice, or iconoclastic extremity—tones that, ironically, do not ring far from the extravagant or feat-like terms in which scientific self-experimentation has also been habitually presented. For writing on “hardship/ordeal art,” see Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1993); on “masochistic performance,” see Kathy O’Dell, Contract with the Skin: Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), and Roselee Goldberg, Performance: Live Art Since the 1960s (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998). For artists as martyrs, see Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics, trans. Saskya Iris Jain (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2008); Marla Carlson, Performing Bodies in Pain: Medieval and Post-Modern Martyrs, Mystics, and Artists (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); and Karen Gonzalez Rice, Long Suffering: American Endurance Art as Prophetic Witness (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016). More recent examples on endurance as extremity include Francesca Alfano Miglietti, Extreme Bodies: The Use and Abuse of the Body in Art, trans. Anthony Shugaar (Milan: Skira Editore, 2003), and Dominic Johnson, Unlimited Action: The Performance of Extremity in the 1970s (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019).  

  12. 12

    This timeframe matches the establishment of international principles on human subject research, such as the 1946 Nuremberg Code and the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki (the latter with its multiple revisions). Although neither directly regulates self-experimentation, these instruments nevertheless bear significant relevance to single-subject research. See George Annas, “Self-experimentation and the Nuremberg Code,” British Medical Journal 341 (2010): c7103. 

  13. 13

    This essay does not go into depth examining Nobel Laureate self-experimenters; for further information on this, see Allen B. Weisse, “Self-Experimentation and its Role in Medical Research,” Texas Heart Institute Journal 39, no. 1 (2012): 51-54. 

  14. 14

    Simon Schaffer, “Self-evidence,” Critical Inquiry 18, no. 2 (1992): 327–362. Schaeffer’s text examines the instrumentalization of the body in the eighteenth century, where scientists using their bodies for the public performance of science—physical demonstrations of devices, phenomena, and natural laws—gradually gave way to the “disembodiment” of the scientist and the “embodiment” of scientific, self-registering instruments.  

  15. 15

    Schaffer, “Self-evidence,” 330.  

  16. 16

    Stuart W. Strickland, “The Ideology of Self-Knowledge and the Practice of Self-Experimentation,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 31, no. 4 (1998): 453. 

  17. 17

    See for example Noel B. Jackson, “Critical Conditions: Coleridge, ‘Common Sense,’ and the Literature of Self-Experiment,” ELH 70, no. 1 (2003): 117–149; Jan Golinski, The Experimental Self: Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); Emily B. Stanback, The Wordsworth Coleridge Circle and the Aesthetics of Disability (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); Larry Stewart, “Pneumatic Chemistry, Self-Experimentation, and the Burden of Revolution, 1780–1805,” in The Uses of Humans in Experiment: Perspectives from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century, ed. Erika Dyck and Larry Stewart, 139–169 (Leiden: Brill, 2017); and Neşe Devenot, “Medical Ecstasies: Chemical Synthesis and Self-Experimentation in Romantic Science and Poetry,” European Romantic Review 30, no. 1 (2019): 1–24.  

  18. 18

    For information on Johann Wilhelm Ritter, see Strickland, “The Ideology of Self-Knowledge and the Practice of Self-Experimentation”; Fergus Henderson, “Novalis, Ritter and ‘Experiment’: A Tradition of ‘Active Empiricism’,” in The Third Culture: Literature and Science, ed. Elinor S. Scaffer, 153–169 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1998); and Jocelyn Holland, German Romanticism and Science: The Procreative Poetics of Goethe, Novalis, and Ritter (New York: Routledge, 2012). 

  19. 19

    Strickland, “The Ideology of Self-Knowledge and the Practice of Self-Experimentation,” 459. 

  20. 20

    Kristine Stiles, “Inside/Outside: Balancing between a Dusthole and Eternity,” in Body and the East: From 1960s to the Present, ed. Zdenka Badovinac (Ljublana: Moderna Galerija, 1998), 28; cited in Maja Fowkes, The Green Bloc: Neo-avant-garde Art and Ecology under Socialism (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2015), 226. 

  21. 21

    Although picked up by multiple media sources, the original article reporting this case was Colneth Smiley Jr., 2010, “Sprout Grows in Brewster Man’s Windpipe,” Boston Herald, 10 August 2010. See also Steve LeBlanc, “Docs Discover Sprouting Pea in Massachusetts Man’s Lung,” Associated Press, 12 August 2010.  

  22. 22

    Solomon Abel, “Germinating Seed in Anterior Chamber: Report of an Unusual Case,” Archives of Ophthalmology 97, no. 9 (1979): 1651.