Image source: Exploring the Invisible
Thanks to a friend who specialises in knowing about free things in London (thanks, Ron!), I found out about the Tesla art-science group at UCL and their free talk series, facilitated by Gordana Novakovic and Amanda Egbe. Conveniently close to the British Library where I’d been hovering over some books for most of the day, their most recent talk, ‘Creative Collaborations with Superorganisms’ also made a convenient break from reading/writing routine. The talk was given by Dr. Simon Park, a microbiologist from the University of Surrey, who became interested in engaging people with field through art-science.
I think the talk would have been equally interesting had he just talked about microbes for hours. After all, one doesn’t get exposed to the intricacies of the field through mainstream media very often, apart from the one half hour of ‘The Material World’ once a week if you’re lucky or, somewhat second hand, through a food scare or the like. Although I do listen to ‘The Material World’ as often as I can, there were quite a few things in his talk I did not know about or had ascribed to the latest fantasies of social scientists or science fiction writers. The biggest surprise, perhaps, was that we can culture and study only a small part of bacteria ‘out there’ (I think it was around 1% !) – there is a vast area of what Park terms ‘Dark Microbiological Matter’ of which we don’t know what they do in the environment.
At the beginning of the talk, Park traced the joint human-bacterial history and co-evolution. Obviously, humans entered the picture a bit later and remain ‘a process instead of becoming a finished beast’ (I think he was quoting W. Hou Je Bek there). Park showed how our body is made up of distinctly separate, but symbiotic bacteria and cell territories. A telling example later on about our relationship with bacteria was death by cyanide: cyanide is not harmful to the body, but kills the bacteria in such a fashion that the bacterial exodus kills the body.
In terms of our human-bacterial future, Parks pointed towards the current climate change debate. He lamented that we only know that bacteria can have huge effects on the climate, but about the ‘how’ we can only speculate.
Next, we were given an insight into bacterial life which is ‘not as simple as people think’. For instance, they can respond to their environment, order themselves into formations, communicate with each other, pack hunt, ‘vote’ on a decision (e.g. sporulation) and grow into different shapes according to their environment. Their behaviour ‘in the wild’ also differs from their behaviour in controlled laboratory environments (must be one hell of a job to study them!). It was interesting to hear that bacteria sometimes ‘form patterns that scientists don’t understand yet’.
Park then moved on to the ‘art side’ of the talk, drawing attention to the fact, that microbiology already meets art (the word ‘bacteri-art’ came to my mind…) in both useful and annoying ways: all art has invisible microflora growing in or on it (which can destroy artworks or be the purpose of them at the same time), and there is, of course, an overlap of artistic and technical representation in science illustration. We were shown some examples of ‘art directly or accidentally portraying microbes’ – examples of illnesses or notable absence of bacteria – and some more recent examples of artworks where microbes were used as part of the artistic process, starting from Alexander Fleming’s ‘germ paintings’. Other artists included Daro Montag, Edgar Lissel and Susan Boafo (who used algae and light for her project ‘Speaking with the Sun’).
In the last part of the talk, Park presented some of the outcomes of his own collaborations. In the first of these, the ’60 Days of Goodbye Poems of Ophelia’, artist Jo Wonder and Park tried to recreate the John Everett Millais painting with bacteria to document the painting’s life cycle. It was quite amusing to hear Park talk about ‘finding a suitable bacterial palette’ for the ‘morphing painting’. I wonder what Millais would have though about this endeavour…
Other projects included the ‘Microcosmos’, an installation using the colour, shape and even DNA sequences to created sounds and moving visuals, ‘Cybernetic Bacteria’ which explored links between organic and digital forms of communication, a project amplifying ‘bacterial fingerprints’, ‘Exploring the Invisible’ during which bioluminescent bacteria were grown in such quantities that they could run their own photobooth, and ‘Creative Collaborations with Natural Unruly Forms’, a project using Park’s ‘favourite’ species: slime mould. The latter explores the slime mould’s capacity to move over objects in search of food, creating ‘intelligent biogenic designs’. If I remember correctly, slime mould can even find the quickest way out of a maze (which I probably wouldn’t ;) ).
The Q & A was also very fascinating. We all came from quite different backgrounds with different interests in the subject matter, so the questions and comments ranged from our body’s design based on cell death to the ‘geology of blood’ (how iron and other ‘inorganic’ substances evolved into the body from the environment). The latter prompted Park to talk about the ‘arms race’ between the body and bacteria to bind iron during an infection.
So, by the end of the evening, we all ended up with a positively weird picture of hungry, ambitious, sociable, hitch-hiking, exploring, communicating bacteria which artist are helping to ‘express themselves’ in different sort of ‘collaborations’, for instance, by making them grow on and in different materials (I most vividly remember the growths in the agar agar jars and the shockingly exquisite bacterial fabric designs). It made me very curious about what kind of ‘collaborations’ there will be in the future between different forms of live – in and outside of art. Watch this space!