InC02, An Artistic Medium for the Anthropocene: On the Aesthetics of Futility

Introduction

In short, InC02 is a medium that has been designed to sense and respond to the presence of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere, and in doing this turns from a deep blue colour to being colourless. Any art made with it then is necessarily ephemeral, fleeting, and perhaps even futile, provided it is exposed to our planet’s atmosphere which contains both natural, and anthropogenic carbon dioxide. As in the video above, poetry written with InC02, drawings made with it, or textile designs printed with it, will all slowly disappear as it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. Intriguingly, this greenhouse gas also becomes incorporated into any work made with the ink. Conversely, if any art made with it is stored in an atmosphere, or gas mix devoid of carbon dioxide, then under such conditions the works will be permanent.

The Carbon Dioxide Sensing Mechanism

The key component of InC02 is the pH indicator thymolphthalein which is blue at alkaline pH but turns colourless when exposed to acidic conditions. In a dilute solution of sodium hydroxide the pH indicator then will be a deep blue colour. However, as the carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is absorbed into the ink it reacts with the water in the solution to form carbonic acid, which then in turn reacts with the sodium hydroxide form sodium carbonate. This reaction series lowers the pH of the solution, with the alcohol also acting as an acid, to turn the indicator into its colourless form

Instructions for making InC02 (at your own risk) 

  1. Begin by adding 1g of thymolphthalein to 100 mL of ethanol and then stir to dissolve all of the powder.
  2. Next add 900 mL of water to the solution and stir. At this point the solution will become white and cloudy because the thymolphthalein indicator is not soluble in water.
  3. Finally, slowly add 10 mL of 3 molar sodium hydroxide to the solution to turn the liquid a dark blue.

The fading time can be prolonged by adding more sodium hydroxide. In addition, a red coloured version of InC02 disappearing ink can be made using phenolphthalein in place of thymolphthalein.

Urotypes: Piss Flowers

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The invention of a process to repurpose my own (and willing participants) urine into a light sensitive photographic medium.

This new work has numerous inspirations, for example, in the tradition amongst early microbiologists for self-experimentation and self-inoculation, and most recently by Nobel Prize winning scientist Barry Marshall’s selfless ingestion of Helicobacter pylori  which resulted a paradigm shift in our understanding of the bacterial aetiology of gastric ulcers and cancer. It is also influenced by the many artists, including Helen Chadwick and Andy Warhol who have used human bodily fluids, and in particular urine,  in their work. Finally, I see it is an act that reflects Yves Klein’s work at Le Vide in which “Special blue cocktails were served: a mixture of gin, Cointreau and methylene blue prepared for Klein by La Coupole, the famous brasserie. As Klein intended, the cocktails caused the urine of drinkers to turn blue”

On its own, and unaltered, there is no usable light-responsive biochemistry in urine and so, in order to instil such a function upon my own urine, I ingested 100 mg of  Riboflavin.  This vitamin is naturally fluorescent so when it is exposed to Ultra Violet light it glows with a yellowy green light.  Moreover, the dose is unnecessarily high, and such that, the majority of the Riboflavin that I consumed passes unaltered through my gut, into my blood, and then into my urine making it fluorescent. The image below shows a time course of my urine taken before (far left bijou), and then at 30 minute intervals after consumption (bijous to the right of the first one), and the long wavelength UV light  (365nm)reveals the appearance of the fluorescent vitamin Riboflavin, and then its disappearance.

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Whilst exhibiting fluorescence, Riboflavin is also sensitive to, and degraded by UV light, and so in order to generate an image using my doped urine, I soaked paper with it and I placed a fern on it to protect  UV-sensitive vitamin beneath and then exposed the paper to short wavelength UV (254nm) light for one hour. The resulting Urotypes of the fern leaf can be seen below. Intriguingly, the image is invisible in daylight as it requires UV light to generate the fluorescence, and because Riboflavin is degraded by this type of light, the act of observation destroys the work.

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Ant Art: Swarm Intelligence

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Ant Art. Seeing so many flying ants recently reminded me of an old work exploring social intelligence. I labelled a food source for ants with a harmless fluorescent marker. A UV lamp then revealed an ant trail up a wall and back to the nest. Formed by collective behaviour and the footfall of hundreds, perhaps thousands of ants.

The BacterioEncephalon: a quorum sensing-based bacterial computer

This is a living and wet computer thats basis is bacterial quorum sensing. This type bacterial cell-to-cell communication enables bacterial cells to coordinate their behaviour, imbuing them, like ants and bees, with a form of social intelligence. Moreover, quorum sensing allows these sophisticated life forms to work together in teams,  to overcome obstacles to great for the few, to hunt prey as microscopic wolf packs, and to build biofilms and other complicated structures.

The BacterioEncephalon comprises two living bacterial components, a signal emitter, the bacterium Erwinia carotovora that produces the autoinducer C6-Homoserine Lactone (C6-HSL), and Chromobacterium violaceum CV026, the signal detector. In wild type strains of C. violaceum, the production of their characteristic purple pigment, violacein, is controlled by a quorum sensing.  In the system here,  the protein LuxI produces the quorum sensing signal C6-HSL, and then  a second protein, LuxR, detects this and then coordinates changes in gene expression so that the production of the purple coloured violacein only occurs at high concentrations of C6-HSL,  and thus at high bacterial cell densities.  The signal detector in the BacterioEncephalon is CV026, which in a sense is a bacterial mute, in that it is a luxI mutant that cannot produce its own C6-HSL. Because of this, in pure culture, it grows as a white colony (and not a purple colony like wild type strains) because it doesn’t generate any C6-HSL for the LuxR component to detect.  However, in CV026 the quorum sensing signal detecting mechanism remains intact so that if CV206 is grown in proximity to a C6-HSL producing species of bacterium (such as E. carotovora here) it is capable of detecting and responding to this by producing violacein.

In the BacterioEncephalon E. carotovora and CV026 have both been inoculated into swim agar which has a reduced agar content and thus is semi-solid. This provides them with a freedom beyond normal bacteriological media,  allowing the two species of bacteria to swarm, move and interact with each other. Where the two species meet in the agar and interact, the media turns purple because of the production of  C6-HSL byE. carotovora and then its subsequent detection and response to this by CV026.

The BacterioEncephalon After Overnight Incubation. The movement of the two bacterial species is evident but there is limited interaction and thus limited production of the purple pigmented (below).Mur1

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The BacterioEncephalon After Three Days Incubation. The production of the purple pigment is now extensive and reveals manifold interactions and computations  of billions of living bacteria cells (below)

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Just wish I could understand what the bacteria are trying to tell me!

Parallel Worlds

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The microbiology of Four Marks” Pond forms the basis of this work

These works explore the basis of the reality of the world that we see through our unaided eyes, with that our technologies reveal. They compare images of natural water courses as our eyes would seen them with the reality that the microscope reveals. To better reveal the activity of the microorganisms living in these waters , I’ve developed a novel process, that rather than recording micro-videos in real-time, reports instead the paths taken by microscopic creatures under the microscope. The images generated, result from the accumulation of the activity tracks of these usually invisible life forms and reveal the hugely complicated dynamic of their manifold activities and interactions. The process generates images that are reminiscent of those of radioactive decay, or atomic particle collisions, as they are seen using cloud or bubble chambers. The process is transformative, in that it converts the mundane and disregarded, into something remarkable, not by changing it, but by revealing another level of reality that is usually withheld from us. In this way each natural water sample generates a unique energy signature of accumulated biological wavelengths and frequencies.

The works also challenge our macroscopic bias, as this microscopic life forms, and bacteria which are smaller still and cannot be seen at 200-times magnification, underpin all earthly ecologies. Without this life that our unaided eyes cannot not see, there would be none of the more familiar life that we can observe.

The microglyphs generated by the process are below:

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Parallel Words

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The microbiology of a green and murky pond in in Exmouth forms the basis of this work

 

These works explore the basis of the reality of the world that we see through our unaided eyes, with that our technologies reveal. They compare images of natural water courses as our eyes would seen them with the reality that the microscope reveals. To better reveal the activity of the microorganisms living in these waters , I’ve developed a novel process, that rather than recording micro-videos in real-time, reports instead the paths taken by microscopic creatures under the microscope. The images generated, result from the accumulation of the activity tracks of these usually invisible life forms and reveal the hugely complicated dynamic of their manifold activities and interactions. The process generates images that are reminiscent of those of radioactive decay, or atomic particle collisions, as they are seen using cloud or bubble chambers. The process is transformative, in that it converts the mundane and disregarded, into something remarkable, not by changing it, but by revealing another level of reality that is usually withheld from us. In this way each natural water sample generates a unique energy signature of accumulated biological wavelengths and frequencies.

The works also challenge our macroscopic bias, as this microscopic life forms, and bacteria which are smaller still and cannot be seen at 200-times magnification, underpin all earthly ecologies. Without this life that our unaided eyes cannot not see, there would be none of the more familiar life that we can observe.

The microglyphs generated by the process are below:

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Some Thoughts On The Totipotency Of Air

 

Taken with NightCapP2

Deep underground in the old limestone mines at Beer, Devon accidental and light driven ecologies emerge around the artifical lighting whilst everywhere else in the dark mine the walls appear to be lifeless. The ecologies above comprise mostly microscopic algae and cyanobacteria.  It strikes me, that in some sense, that the air itself is infused with a totipotent energy of biological ideas and intent, that permeates everywhere, patiently awaiting an opportunity to germinate and then to flourish. Here a simple light bulb and the damp limestone walls provide such an opportunity.

The ecologies above are relatively simple, but elsewhere, and deeper into the mine, I find more complex ecosystems containing higher plants (see images below). These are very complicated ecologies, which rely on successive arrival of    many different kinds of interacting life but again all of this must have been carried in by the air, and through this, in the absence of direct contact by the mine’s many human visitors too. Another accidental ecology feeding on dim artificial light, and another example of the totipotent potential air.

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