Microbes as Material Artist Residency Workshop

For microbes as material, read 'life as object'.  It's a statement I find somewhat paradoxical but it's at the heart of my reasons for participating in this workshop.  'Object' is a human construct.  A sign, of division between that which is self and that which is other.  Division between that which is territorialised by the human and that which is not.  Without attempting to navigate within this text the broader philosophical discourse on being and consciousness that the word object conjures, instead I simply replace the word 'material' with 'object' in an attempt to open up my line of enquiry.

 

It is the instinctive nature, is it not, of the human, to treat anything within our grasp as an object or tool for our purpose.  Take the example of the child witnessing a butterfly settling on a leaf before her. Even if her purpose is initially simply one of wonder or amazement, her second reaction is either to take it and hold it and her third might be to dismantle it, in order to understand it better or simply to see what the difference will be once she has done so.  We are an inquisitive species and instinctively the compulsion to respect 'things' is not always the strongest.  That is a learned behaviour.  The child may not touch the butterfly, realising that it is something that does not 'belong' to her and that it may be 'wrong' to hurt it, but belonging and morality are human behavioural constructs that have little to do with raw instinct.  Instinct is more likely to drive even the most gentle-natured child to touch an object, just to "see what happens" when she does.

 

It is our desire as scientists and artists to "see what happens" which leads to a greater understanding of life, both our own and that of other species.  I can't help but wonder what our endless searching will lead to, if not the destruction of the butterfly.

 

In the age of the anthropocene, we consider our position as a species in relation to deep time egocentrically, as if it were important somehow to define our mark on the planet, geologically, and yet there is so much that we still know so little about.  In working with microbes as material, we (complicitously) begin to understand a deep, deep pocket of 'life' that can potentially give us a new perspective on our role within the wider sphere of all that is 'living'.  We embark upon the role of revealing both object and subject simultaneously.  The more we uncover about the other, the more we may ultimately reveal of the self.

 

Microbial life is the 'pale blue dot' of the 21st century.  It is a world within a world and we are only beginning to understand the extent of the symbiotic / parasitic relationship that we (and other species) have with these tiny forms of life.  The Eden Project's recently opened five year Invisible You exhibition starts to hint at the depth of this relationship and ArtLaboratoryBerlin's [macro]biologies and [micro[biologies] Library provides a good source of material around the subject.  If, like me, you are really interested in plumbing the National Enquirer style depths of the relationship, you might want to read about the fungus that creates and thrives on zombie ants or how cat parasites may have the power to control our minds.

 

In my research I investigate ways to make tangible the biological mechanisms and processes that define life and in doing so, plumb the depths of the relationship between 'object' and 'subject'.

 

The highlights of the 'Microbes as Material' workshop for me were twofold.  The individual projects that we were able to begin on Day 1 and the conversations and group work that led to a pop-up exhibition on Day 2.

 

In preparation for our individual work, we were introduced to the research of molecular biologist, Bonnie Basler, whose TED talk suggests a potential alternative to antibiotics through appropriation of bacteria's signalling mechanisms.  Bonnie's research has implications beyond our instrumental aims however, allowing speculation on how the phenomenon of social communication develops in non-sentient organisms.  I decided to explore the extent of this social communication by building social infrastructures from within which a variety of bacteria could interact.  Creating sculptural tower-blocks, or, to be more visually accurate, shanty towns or favellas (the technicalities of constructing agar gel towers were not to be mastered in the space of an hour), I attempted to mirror human social structures and explore whether the bacteria could communicate between levels and across spaces.

 

We were supplied with a range of bacteria that 'communicate' via quorum-sensing: 'talking' and/or 'listening' to each other through chemical signals, depending upon their density and proximity to other bacteria.  My experiments used Serratia marcescens (Sm), a swarming, red pigment producing bacteria, commonly implicated in a range of hospital based infections; the less aggressive Chromobacterium violaceum WT (CV0) which produces a violet pigment at high density and a mutant strain of the same (CV026) which normally produces a white colony but on 'hearing' CV0 or Sl, produces violet pigment; Serratia liquefaciens (Sl) a bacteria with white colonies that has the capability to turn CV026 violet, and Serratia plymuthica (Sp) which produces a red pigment, but does not swarm.

It took longer than anticipated to cut blocks of agar and assemble them, so my quick pre-planned diagrams of where to place each bacterium were not followed entirely in the time we had to develop the work.  It's something I'd like to develop given the chance to come back to Lancaster which I hope to do later in the year.  The following images of Day 1, Day 2 and Days 5/6 show some indication of the relationship between physical space, structural hierarchy and communication, and given time, I'd like to develop the work more thoroughly.

 

Day 1

 Day 2

Day 5/6 

On Day 2, we moved to LICA and worked in groups in the afternoon to synthesise our practice-based endeavours from the lab into some form of creative output.  Our group discussed the level of technical instruction that is required and also the repetitive nature of many of the actions undertaken within the lab (bringing to mind Dr Rod Dillon's rapping to 10-fold dilution technique, which cannot go unmentioned).  Using simple resources we decided to symbolise these actions through process, leading us to perform the act of folding paper according to a simple set of instructions to see what this might reveal about the result of such actions.  

The outcome, although not visually compelling, was conceptually revealing.  Three different folding actions were observed amongst seven individuals, leading to three 'groups' of folded paper.  We opted to display these on glass, as if bacteria in the petri dish, perhaps in communication with one another.  Two sheets had regular square folds, two were folded in a triangular pattern and one seemed to contain squares, triangles and a myriad of other angles.  In arranging the composition, we decided that perhaps this solitary sheet 'bacteria' might act as translator to the other two groups, prompting our scientist collaborator, Dr Jackie Parry to consider the role of bacterial translator as a potential new research project.

Whilst two days makes for a short residency, the structure of the workshop was well planned and we were able to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time, also giving us room to allow ideas to grow and develop post-event.

 

I mentioned two highlights of the workshop, but the third and possibly most important highlight was the opportunity for each of us to meet and interact, quorum-sensing to pick up each other's signals and find out if there were further reasons to co-operate.  

 

There are two projects that I hope to pursue, originating from this workshop: I aim to return to develop my sculptural bio social structures in late June and also, a chance meeting with bioinformaticist, Dr Derek Gatherer over lunch on Day 1 has turned into a collaborative venture in relation to my broader thesis research, exploring the sound of evolution. 

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