Forget paint – bacteria can bring art to life (literally)

How artists and scientists are working together to challenge our views of microbial life

The Art of Science – Part 1

Scientific images adorn homes around the world, not as sources of information but as aesthetic focal points. From the mathematical Möbius strip to Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, their popularity continues to grow.

But the relationship between art and science is more than just inspirational and visual; it can be collaborative and fruitful. Our new series The Art of Science looks at different aspects of art and science, how artists and scientists are working together, and what the (sometimes surprising) outcomes have been.

The first story is about bacteria as art.

ProkaryArt: bacteria as a material for living art

Don’t try this at home. (You’ll soon see why.) But don’t tell that to the artists here; they’ve already welcomed our microscopic friends into their studios and living rooms. Their work begins with a familiar staple of the microbiology lab: the petri dish.

Peta ClancyPetri dishes are brimming with nutrient-filled agar in a variety of colors, which depend on the ingredients needed to feed the bacteria. Stacked on benches, in cupboards and in incubators, they await the appearance of tiny colonies. While the bacterial colonies living on the agar can themselves be beautiful, it’s their use as a sort of living paint and a somewhat collaborative medium that has attracted attention in recent years.

“Working with bacteria is almost like working with photographic paper,” said artist Peta Clancy of Melbourne, Australia. “When you treat photographic paper with chemicals after exposure to light, the image becomes visible. With bacteria, you need to incubate the image before it begins to appear.”

Clancy is one of a growing number of artists using bacteria in their work; a field dubbed ProkaryArt by one of its practitioners, Dr. Simon Park, Senior Lecturer of Molecular Biology at the University of Surrey in the UK. The word comes from prokaryotes – the group of single-celled organisms that includes bacteria.

“I was interested in exploring the sense of the fragile and mutable body, and giving a tangible and visible form to that,” Clancy said. Her project Visible Human Bodies is a series of images of the human figure, drawn on agar using live bacteria and then photographed for her light box works for exhibitions.

Peta Clancy's <em>Visible Human Bodies</em> (VHB), 2007. Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney. Duratran, Perspex, fluorescent lights, 80cm diameter (each image). (Photo: Xain Milke)

Detail of Peta Clancy's <em>Visible Human Bodies</em>, 2005. 80cm diameter. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Peta Clancy's <em>Visible Human Bodies</em>, 2005. Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, UK. Duratran, Perspex, fluorescent lights, 80cm diameter (each image). (Photo: Phillip Carr)

Sonja BäumelThe petri dish has provided a canvas for many artists, but perhaps the largest example of this technique is featured in a project by Sonja Bäumel, in collaboration with the Wageningen University in the Netherlands, in which she grew an image of her own body’s bacteria. The project came about after Bäumel was introduced to microbiological techniques during a 10-day internship at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“I told the scientists I found their seven centimeter petri dishes quite small, so I said I wanted to make a petri dish half the size of my body for me to lie in,” said Bäumel. Over the course of a 7-month collaboration, she made one half-body petri dish (Oversized petri dish, 2009). A few years later, Bäumel worked with bacteriologist Erich Schopf to make one petri dish of her entire body print (Expanded Self, 2012); together, they studied, documented and analyzed the bacteria that grew.

Oversized Petri dish by Sonja Bäumel, 2009

<em>Expanded Self</em> by Sonja Bäumel, 2012

Controlling challenging materials

The Oversized Petri Dish project was a nod to the fashion industry, birthplace of Bäumel’s interest in the human microbial flora. One of their first challenges was transporting the dish: at 70 x 45 cm, it was difficult to carry. Their first attempt to take it out of the lab to its incubation site (Bäumel’s living room) ended in disaster; they carried it through the door at an angle and the whole thing crashed.

“We did it again, and managed to get it home safely the second time,” she recalled. “It was crazy, and my flat mates were extremely pleased, of course, with all the smells that were emerging. For me it was mentally very impressive; understanding that a part of me was living and growing without my body on an external medium was mind-blowing.”

Because of its size and location, it was difficult to keep the dish sterile. Eventually, small insects started to visit; flies would crawl on the agar and lay eggs. As the image matured, Bäumel noticed lines across the agar, which she later discovered were footprints made of the bacteria living on the flies’ feet. “It turns the whole petri dish into a really abstract painting of its environment,” said Bäumel.

There is an element of relinquishing control when working with bacteria as a material; artists can manipulate their growth to some extent but are also constrained by the way they live and grow. “Bacteria need to be supported by an environment conducive to their growth,” Clancy explained. “The bacteria I worked with would only grow as much as the agar would support that growth. As I worked with the bacteria, other bacteria from my body were also transferred to the agar, so bacteria living on my body also grew on the plates.”

Science informing art

Knowledge of the materials is key to a successful project, and both Clancy and Bäumel worked closely with scientists on their work with bacteria. Clancy completed a short residency at SymbioticA at the University of Western Australia – one of the first labs of its kind, set up to enable artists and researchers to engage directly with wet biological processes. She then joined the Cell and Gene Therapy Laboratory at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Melbourne, as an Artist in Residence, supported by grants from the Australia Council for the Arts and Arts Victoria.

“I would go to the researchers’ weekly meetings, discuss their research with them and observe their work in the lab to gain a deeper understanding of their research,” said Clancy. “I worked with a microbiologist to work out which bacteria and agar to use. I wanted to work with species like Serratia marcescens, which can cause respiratory infections, and E. coli, which helps us digest food and can also cause illness. I was interested in exploring the idea that our bodies and bacteria form a system and that people will be affected by different bacteria in different ways.”

But there’s a limit to how much scientific knowledge is helpful to the artistic process, as Bäumel explained:

Of course, I don’t speak the language of somebody who studied science — that’s my advantage. I can question things which the scientific community takes for granted. In recent years, I have sometimes been blocked in my creative process by focusing too much on scientific facts; I experienced the importance of balancing imagination and the extraordinary with factual technical knowledge.

Art and science: a two-way exchange

The art-science collaboration also brings new perspectives to the research; Bäumel believes it’s not simply a case of visualizing the science in an attractive way. “In my projects I don’t want simply to visualize scientific knowledge and act as a promoter for science,” she said. “In my opinion, interdisciplinary collaborations should be beneficial for both sides. The exchange with scientists keeps my mind open and allows me to see things from different perspectives, making it possible for initial thoughts to change direction.”

“It’s always a two-way exchange between artists and scientists,” said Clancy. “I’m curious and fascinated, hungry to learn about different processes and ways of seeing the world. I go into these environments to get an understanding of them and the research in an experiential way, as opposed to learning from secondary sources. The researchers were very open, and some people were really interested in teaching me about their work and having a dialogue about it.”

Manuel Selg, PhDIn 2012, Bäumel took part in a project called Living Logic at the Ars Electronica Center in Austria. During the project, she told Dr. Manuel Selg, Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria, about her idea for a project looking at bacterial communication. A year later, Bäumel returned to the Ars Electronica Center Futurelab and BioLab as an Artist in Residence, to work with Dr. Selg on the project Metabodies.

After reading about an agar layering technique to study quorum sensing – the way bacteria “talk” to each other – Bäumel proposed a technique to monitor communication between bacteria in handprints.

“We wanted to see how the bacteria communicate on hands, but we didn’t succeed,” said Selg. “I’ve been playing around with the technical aspects since then, to work out how we can optimize the techniques.” He teaches molecular biology students, who also benefit from the collaboration, as they get the possibility to work on a research project. “There are two more approaches I’d like to work with my students to test now.”

Art inspiring science

Bäumel has an unusually positive view of bacteria, which has surprised her collaborators in the past. “Most of the research I see – for understandable reasons – is driven by finding cures for diseases. One of my deepest objectives is defining possibilities for symbiotic interactions to happen between different life forms. One of the scientists I approached said it’s really interesting how positively I see bacteria. That can be valuable, trying to give the research a different perspective.”

Dr. Selg said he agrees and that working with Bäumel has helped him refine the way he teaches. “Sonja knows quite a bit about microbiology, but she doesn’t see the world from a scientist’s eyes,” he said. “This is important to remember in teaching; it helps me broaden and reset my focus, especially when I start with new students.”

He is involved in many art and engagement projects at the Ars Electronica Center. “The scientists are here to answer questions about their specific research topic, and the artists are here to raise questions about what the scientific field might do for society in the future. Far too few scientists use these different approaches – many think they’re a waste of time. In my eyes it’s a very good approach, and it would be great if more scientists were open minded.”

Dr. Selg said the alternative perspectives could be beneficial for science and the public by communicating about the research to a wider audience and by involving the public in decision-making around scientific legislature:

It’s important for people to know and understand what scientists are doing; they’re paying for it with tax money. It makes me angry when scientists don’t present science to public because they think it’s too complicated. A lot of people don’t necessarily want or need to understand the details of the science. Arts are a great entrance point to engage people in the process.

ProkaryArt projects

Visible Human Bodies (VHB), by Peta Clancy – developed during an artist’s residency in a genetics laboratory, using live bacteria as a drawing medium to create a metaphor for the fragile and mutable human body.

Oversized Petri Dish, by Sonja Bäumel – scientific data transfer and a visualisation of individual skin bacteria attempt to make people aware of the fact that we are a hybrid, a super organism, only able to exist if the different forms of life on the body cooperate.

Metabodies, by Sonja Bäumel – investigates the unexpected diversity to be found on the human ecosystem and its 'social network' by focusing on the language of the billions of bacteria that populate it.

Cartography of the Human Body, by Sonja Bäumel – a project that deals with the skin bacteria on a human body and the bacteria absorbed on a specific day in a specific area of Vienna.

Microcosmos, by Simon Park – close-up images of bacterial colonies used in an installation; the soundscape was derived directly from the colour and shape of the colonies, and the DNA sequences of each individual bacteria species.

Living Drawings, by Hunter Cole – controlled line drawings using bioluminescent bacteria, which then grow in the host environment. Bacteria become collaborators in the art as it grows.

Sonja Bäumel

The inspiration for Sonja Bäumel’s creative process and research lies in the human body, the unexpected diversity of the human ecosystem and in our changing perspective on the human body.Sonja studied Fashion Design at the Fashion Institute of Vienna, Austria, and holds a Bachelor in Arts from the University of Arts of Linz, Austria, as well as a Master in Conceptual Design in Context from the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Her projects have been exhibited internationally in MAK Museum of Applied Arts; Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei and the Anthology Film Archives New York (USA).

Peta Clancy

Peta Clancyis a Melbourne, Australia-based artist working with photography, video and installation. Her artwork has been exhibited at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts; National Centre for Contemporary Art, Baltic Branch, Russia; Science Gallery Dublin; Powerhouse Museum, Sydney; Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney; Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, UK; and in the Pingyao International Photography Festival, China. In 2012 she was awarded an Honorary Mention in the Prix Ars Electronica in Austria for her ambitious collaborative work The Body is a Big Place with Helen Pynor. She currently holds a position as Fine Art Lecturer at MADA, Monash University.

Manuel Selg, PhD

Dr. Manuel Selg is Professor of Molecular Biotechnology at the Upper Austrian University of Applied Science. His interest in science communication and public outreach projects led to an involvement in building up the BioLab at the Ars Electronica Center. He designed workshops for pupils, focusing on creating a lab-learning experience outside of the school setting in a Center that crosses the borders of art and knowledge transfer.


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Lucy Goodchild van HiltenAfter a few accidents, Lucy Goodchild van Hilten discovered that she’s a much better writer than a scientist. Following an MSc in the History  of Science, Medicine and Technology at Imperial College London, she became Assistant Editor of Microbiology Today. A stint in the press office at Imperial saw her stories on the front pages, and she moved to Amsterdam to work at Elsevier as Senior Marketing Communications Manager for Life Sciences.

She’s now a freelance writer at Tell Lucy. Tweet her @LucyGoodchild.

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