The Exemplary Life of Soil: visualising the Cryptosphere: In his painting, “The Exemplary Life of Soil” Jean Dubuffet sought to give an impression of “teeming matter, alive and sparkling”, which he could use to represent soil. His portrayal, was the inspiration for this work in which I sought to reveal his “teaming matter” in the sense that soil harbours massive populations of minute but intensely active animals. Called the Cryptozoa these small animal-like organisms play essential roles in soil, as decomposers, and also as vital food sources larger organisms. Despite this, the world that these organisms inhabit, the Cryptosphere, is often overlooked because of its inhabitant’s small size. The works here are all derived from a novel process that I developed to allow us to retrospectively witness the activity of these minute life forms.
Bioluminescent bacteria (naturally light producing bacteria) were inoculated onto the surface of a device containing agar which was then implanted into soil so that cryptozoa could walk over its surface. As they did this they inadvertently collected the bioluminescent bacteria on their feet (or other bodily parts depending on their means of locomotion), and as they continued on their journey, and walked over the uninoculated agar surface, they left behind a trail of the bacteria in their footsteps. Because of the microscopic nature of the footprints, and the small initial numbers of bacteria, these tracks were at first invisible. However, after a day or so the bacteria grow into visible points of light that reveal the otherwise invisible tracks of activity. In a sense, the growth of the bacteria, and their production of light, acts as an amplification process to reveal what is normally invisible. This process also gives an excellent visual assessment of biodiversity as the patterns formed from intensively farmed soils are far less complex than those from old woodlands.