This interview started on May 24, 2021, a year before I started this text. I prepared myself a glass of water with 20 grams of dehydrated Weissella paramesenteroides (referred as Weisella p. throughout) mixed into dextrose. I drank this sweet bacteria-infusion every day before breakfast for two weeks. 

Weissella p. is a strain that belongs to the family Lactobacillaceae—lactic acid forming bacteria—that are commonly used in fermenting pickles, kimchi, yogurt, or sourdough bread. These microorganisms exhibit probiotic capabilities and contribute to a diverse and healthy microbiome.

THE DIGESTION COLUMN stages different relationships between old and new inhabitants of Langa. It is a three-sided structure which allows visitors see some of the subjects mentioned in the Museum of Exhalation publication. 

The digestion column is 4 sides, has three acrylic containers on each side, and one side is open, so viewers can see the back of the containers. The open side allows us to showcase the soil’s microbial diversity.

The other three sides are:

This Weisella p., however, is very special. Unlike traditional probiotics, it does not come from a known lab strain cloned for years. The culture was isolated from a spec of soil obtained from a 300-year old planter in Langa in 2020. The soil was first hydrated with distilled water and a small aliquot was spread over a petri dish that included nutrients preferred by probiotic microorganisms. In a few days, many organisms appeared on the dish in the form of colonies. The colonies were then sent for identification where their DNA was extracted and analyzed through genetic sequencing, by comparing the genes of our samples with samples from other databases to see if there is a match with a previously known organism.

I am only 85% confident that what we saw growing on the dish is in fact Weissella p. Even with multiple rounds of DNA sequencing, we only had partial confidence that our sample was an exact match with Weisella p. In Microbiology low or high confidence have different consequences. In our case, a high confidence score was necessary to be able to get it approved for safe consumption as some strains of Weisella are known to be harmful to human health. 

Having 85% confidence that this Weisella is the species paramesenteroides allowed us to ask a biotech company in Istanbul to mass produce it. The process is akin to brewing beer, where the organisms are grown in big metal reactors into tens of liters. The liquid then got lyophilized and mixed with the dextrose for shelf stability.

I believe that my interviewer, Weisella p., lives inside my gut. We may never exactly know how much Weisella p. is Weisella or how much Weisella p. is part of “my” body. Or where exactly my human cells, Weisella p. and the other microorganisms live in my gut. 

In practice, it is really hard to know who is interviewing whom. 

But, I would like to trust my gut on this one. Instead of claiming an “I” or “we“, as subjects of this interview, I will refer to “us” as a body, a place, an experience. Like Langa.

This is not a typical interview where the so-called “I” can tune into clear prompts or questions. Like most interviews with non-humans, there will be some element of imagination or “humansplaining”. Being interviewed by a non-human is already not easy feat. No interviewee may succeed to report what exactly happened. The texts may never be read similar to a human-to-human interview, where both parties are custom to use the same language. 

Language forces the human mind to externalize, fictionalize, and speak on behalf of the non-human interviewer even if they might be speaking clearly and loudly in their own language.

In this case, Weisella p. might be asking in their chemical language. While some parts of my body can interpret, feel, or respond to it on a cellular level—the so-called Orkan, who is writing, may fail to translate the experience into English. 

This interview might also be a struggle between the different parts of the body, which are trying to express to and through each other. Since that first sip I took on May 24.

But we are interested in the space of the interview where things are not directly observable or translatable. I might be experiencing something that I cannot put down to words. Or what one reads from this page is a significantly different experience from what my body is actually going through. Is the interview what I experience as guilt, happiness, or confusion? Or is it my thoughts about this microorganism? Was the very idea of this book “Museum of Exhalation” seeded by the millennia old Weisella p. that made it to my gut that day?

Last time I visited Langa was on the 14th of June, 2022. A very hot day. Knowing that I will write this text, I took some notes about what I expect that day. There is really no easy way to keep a microbial diary of the gut let alone report about a slow interview that is always on. I have notes. They only speak Orkan’s language: 

I feel groggy this morning. A bit nervous. Maybe my blood sugar is low. Maybe I am nervous from the experience of jumping over that fence with the razor wire. In fact, it is not legal to enter the abandoned plot during the day. Its human residents — a couple of homeless and Georgian immigrants—do not prefer that much attention around. So, we should be respectful. 

But there is still something very familiar in the air and it is calming me. Is this familiarity Weisella p.? Is this a question? I am standing
quite far away from where Weisella p. was first extracted. But they can still be anywhere. 

Under the noon sun, I sweat. The extreme bright light changes the color of my skin. It aches. I lose my attention to my gut or to Weisella p. I kneel down and touch the soil. The soil is all new. It is rubble brought from somewhere else to Langa to cover the excavation area years ago. All of the vegetation on this plot grew on a new layer of debris. I tried to scrape with my finger to see how deep I could go. The fingernails quickly fill. Is there Weisella p. on me now? Is there a way to know?

My mind steps back. I try to remind myself of the guidelines of the interview. Pause, rewind and let the interviewer ask. This guideline has failed many contributors of the book, including myself. Nobody really knows how to tune into questions from non-humans. Hard for all of us. And also tricky for me if that non-human is impossible to see with bare eyes, already inside my body, and perhaps already became me. 

I interrupt myself again. My insistence on the interview format and these guidelines is to be able resist the fictional, the monologue with the metaphor, the privileging of the first person “Orkan” over another. 

What happens to Weisella p. as I dig up the soil and expose them to air? Asks another note in my diary. Weisella p. are facultative anaerobic bacteria. As they commonly live under the soil or inside the gut, they do not require breathing oxygen like humans. But they can also adapt and survive in its presence. I wonder if adaptation hurts them?

Without knowing, but nervously, I dig more and more and create a bigger hole. Now, my mind imagines that I exposed billions of Weisella p. to air. While digging, I also come across plastic bottle caps, candy packaging, plant roots, chewing gum, ants, and plenty of things that are decomposing or transitioning out of what they were. 

I suddenly smell the bitter exhaust of a passenger bus. It must be leaving the bus terminal. What was the prompt, the question, again? Suddenly it occurs to me that it is very hard for me to find out the question from Weisella p. by digging. By extraction. By manipulation. By knowing. 

Now, there is a lot of dust in the air. I try to inhale slowly. The earth passes through my lungs, and then comes out. This is not language. This is not knowing. Or answering. But rather the witnessing of the interview. Breathing: in and out.

Langa, patiently, holds us, holds the museum, in exhalation.