Bacteria are grown in the lab on media containing nutrients and water, which is converted into a firm gel by the addition of agar. The media feels quite solid to the touch and provides a good surface for bacterial growth despite comprising 98.5% water. When this water is carefully removed, the agar and the bacteria form a thin transparent film in which the agar has become a glassy state and the bacteria embedded within it forming a novel bio-crystalline state. These forms retain the essence of the originating bacteria, but as they are inactivated by the process, they are safe, and make ideal embellishments and accessories for arts projects of all kinds.
There is a suble juxtaposition here of the micro- and macrocosm. These images, which at first, could be imagined as cold and distant exoplanets, or moons, are actually visualizations of my body’s bacterial flora, and in reality then, intimate revelations of self. In the context of our current understanding of the microbiome (the huge bacterial ecology that is part of our bodies), in which bacteria have been shown to influence our health, metabolism, development, moods, and even intelligence, these images represent revealing self portraits that are mindful of the microbiological aspect of my humanity.
Like we do, most bacteria respire, that is they convert carbon containing compounds, into carbon dioxide and water, and as an outcome of this process generate cellular energy. Unfortunately, for us there are far more bacteria on the planet that there are people and as a consequence bacteria produce rather a lot of carbon dioxide. In fact the microbes that break down plant matter in soil release 55 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year into the atmosphere, which represents around eight times the amount that humans are putting into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels. As the temperature of our planet increases, we will inevitably alter the activity of planet’s microbes and through this fundamentally their impact on the Earth’s climate. They might respond in a number of ways, by respiring at a greater rate, and thus producing greenhouse gases at a far faster rate than they do today, or alternatively, they may lessen impact of climate change by absorbing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These patterns are formed by the respiration of bacteria in soil, as its end products condense onto a specially cooled and prepared hydrophobic surface. As you explore the image, remember, the planets microbes have already decided our future, in the context of climate change
Healthy cells of bioluminescent bacteria produce light, those that are damaged are dimmer, and those that are dead are dark. Because of this, they are commonly used in laboratories as sensitive and effective monitors of pollution, for testing environmental samples and drinking water for example. Here coins have been placed onto a confluent layer of bioluminescent bacteria. These have given rise to obvious zones of darkness around the coins which means that chemical toxins have diffused from these into the media and killed the bacteria. Most likely this toxic effect is due to the presence of metals like copper and sliver in the coins. There is also an obvious metaphor here.
This is an ongoing project which seeks to use photosynthetic and phototactic (move in response to light) microorganisms in natural waters to make images and text. With appropriate illumination and masking this should be possible using differential exposure of the organisms to light, since they will organise themselves in response to this. This is a time-lapse of the enrichment process. The organisms are too dilute in the original samples to make images, so I enrich the water by shining light onto it, and when the microorganisms have moved towards the light I can decant the water that is enriched with photosynthetic and phototactic life. This process itself is intriguing as the organisms can be seen to respond and move in relation to the illumination, and form complex patterns as they do so (at the end of the video).
Urban microbial ecologies (like the algae here) are easily overlooked. Microgeography is not afraid to partially and temporarily destroy such ecologies if it results in their revelation, and if in the process, city dwellers are jolted off their predictable macroscopic paths. Ecocidal Graffiti is a novel microgeographical technique which differentially destroys parts of microbial communities so that images, glyphs or text are created within them and as a result, the ecologies themselves become highlighted by their own absence. The initial application is invisible but as the treated parts die, the images or text mysteriously appear over a period of 1-5 days. These are tests for the process which clearly show its efficacy. Please comment should you be interested in joining me on a national campaign of Ecocidal Graffiti.
In pursuit of their aims and conveying their message, microgeographers (explorers of the urban microbiology) should not shy away from controversy and risk taking. ProkaryPosters are a novel way of conveying microgeography’s message. The print on these posters is made entirely from living and pigmented bacteria (in this case Serratia marcescens). The posters offer great benefits over traditionally printed posters in that the print is entirely natural, biodegradable, and endlessly renewable. Further to this, the use of living biological agents adds a certain frission to the message, means that the posters must be labelled as a biohazard, and cannot be simply removed in that removal requires a specialist biohazard team!
The snow is melting. Its white symmetry is beaking. Water’s obedience to gravity is restored. I placed a Petri dish containing anhydrous (lacking water) Copper Sulphate under dripping snow. With the lid on at first, but when this was removed the metronomic note of the freed water is replaced by heat and hissing. The water is being absorbed into the Copper Sulphate to form its blue hydrated form (Blue Vitriol) in an exothermic (heat releasing) reaction and again returned to an immobile crystalline form.
Covered in dust, in a neglected storage area in one of our laboratories is a box labelled “AHLC Rock Lichens”. As you might expect, the box contains collection of rocks, but each one is embellished with a Lichen colony. These beautiful, almost crystalline life forms blend seamlessly with the rocks as if in this instance, geology and biology were a single entity. I’ve discovered that many Lichens fluoresce under ultraviolet light, that is they absorb its energy and then re-emit it at a different and visible wavelength. In simpler terms, they glow in many different colours when exposed to UV light and there appearance is transformed entirely so that they now look like precious minerals or gems than biological life. I am minded of Spar-Boxes , a type of folk art unique to the North Pennines, and which were simple cabinets built by miners to display glittering fluorspar crystals and other minerals unearthed during lead mining. This is my Biological Spar Box, made using Lichens and the property of fluorescence, and is a memorial to the late Dr Tony Chamberlain whose Lichen samples they were.
Over the years, I’ve collected melt water from glaciers wherever I’ve found them and have taken this home intending to isolate ice-nucleating bacteria from the samples. I never actually got around to doing this but in the intervening years I began to appreciate what the samples could represent. I began to see them as premature memorials for a type of geology that is destined for extinction as our planet warms. So that they might become truly appropriate memorials, I developed a process that regenerates the glacial form, transforming the melt waters into a unique crystalline form that is stable at room temperature. The process captures the essence of the original glacial ice, its flow, and internal tensions , but now in a form that is resistant to the impact of climate change and delightfully warm to the touch. Examining the forms closely, it is easy to imagine a time when the Earth’s glaciers have disappeared, and when we might visit these memorials in a museum, and consider them as we do the mounted and fading husks of long extinct animals today.