Rare Earths: The Law of Conservation of Mass


“After the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, this is the age of Rare Earth” – Boris Ondreička and Nadim Samman

This new work explores the so-called “rare earth” elements of the periodic table, a group of often overlooked metals, that unbeknownst to most of us, have empowered many aspects of the modern technological revolution, from precision-guided weapons, GPS-systems,  electric cars, Lasers, X-ray machines and modern consumer electronics. For example, Neodymium is used in the magnets that make speakers vibrate to create sound, and Europium and Terbium,  are phosphors   that provide brilliant red and green colours on mobile phone screens.

The rare earth elements are a group of seventeen metallic elements that occur together in the periodic table. Rare earth elements are not as “rare” as their name implies but these metals are very difficult to mine because it is unusual to find them in concentrations high enough for economical extraction.During the past twenty years though, there has been an explosion in demand for rare earth metals as the market for mobile phones, computers, electronic cameras and tablets has grown.

When the natural minerals containing the rare earth metals have been mined, the metals themselves are extracted from them, for use in industry and technology, by acid baking with sulphuric acid.  In this work here, I have used this same acid baking process to extract and to reclaim rare earth metals from an iPad, and to return them ,once more, to their more natural mineral form. The process obviously destroys the iPad, and thus an object of technological desire, but at a more fundamental level away from the relentless demands of consumerism,  matter is neither created or destroyed, but simply transformed. The work thus echoes the Law of Conservation of Mass and  illustrates Antoine Lavoisier’s famous dictum: “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.”


The Bone Poems


At the moment, I have a thing about found skulls, and in a Cornelia Parker-like way, and also with shades of inspiration from  Simon Armitage ( This book, this page, this harebell laid to rest. Between these sheets, these leaves, if pressed still bleeds a watercolour of the way we were.). In preserving these touchable and three dimensional objects,  and rendering these organs, that harbour identity and being, into two simple 2 dimensional forms and very literal dimensions,  I feel that they become, like chalk and limestone,  their own biological and  calcium based lexicons. Rather than the obvious three dimensions that we are familiar with, these now 2 dimensional forms concentrate their own carbon-based aesthetic into a two-dimensional text  so that the  resulting paper-based  forms directly  become bone poems.

Infected Light


My work is very much driven by the development of processes, that for me, are as important as the aesthetic of the final work, and so it’s vital that these, and their journey into being,  have their own inherent elegance.  This new project explores a couple of themes that are central to my practice, serendipity, and the need to allow natural processes to co-author the work.

When agar plates are left for too long in a warm incubator, by a forgetful microbiologist perhaps, they dry out. Rather than this being a disaster, I noticed these dried forms have their own unique aesthetic. Dried in this way, the agar enters a glassy state which incorporates and  preserves the bacterial colonies. The now translucent bacterial colonies become  biological lenses, so that when I shine light through them, it acquires characteristics derived from its interaction with the bacteria that is passes through, allowing me to invert scientific practice, and to project what would normally only be visible under a microscope, into the world that we can see (please follow the link below to view this early work).

The Extended Self

I’ve now revisited this work using a number of designs made by  bacteria as they grow on agar and converted these into glass-like films (please see images below)

Examples of the glass-like films containing coloured bacterial lenses.


These glass-like films are the placed onto an overhead projector the bacteria become lenses and the light that passes through them becomes becomes a portal, allowing observers to engage directly with a bacterially modified form of energy and to experience moments of intense intimacy with organisms that usually invoke disgust and revulsion (please see examples of the projected light below).


The glass-like films on the overhead projector


The glass-like films on the overhead projector


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Bio-Patination: incorporating the human microbiome into sculpture?



It’s difficult to believe that these explorations are six years old now. They were made with artist Sarah Craske and myself, and I can’t remember how we both ended up doing this, but we did, and that’s the wonder and joy of an artist and scientist working together. You both end up somewhere that you never envisaged at the beginning, and totally unexpected and unique processes can emerge from this interaction. . The images here are of bronze coupons that Sarah brought to the lab, and which we inoculated with strains of bacteria from my culture collection. The image above is of the opportunistic bacterial pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa spread onto the bronze surface where it can be clearly seen to be reacting with the copper in the bronze to form blue copper salts. Patination is a widely used process of applying various, and usually harmful and environmentally damaging, chemicals to the surface of the metal in order to achieve a visually appealing  stain on its surface. Here it seems that bacteria are able to carry out a more sustainable kind of  BioPatination.

Below are images of the BioPatination generated by a mixed culture of soil bacteria and the bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens

Soil bacteria interacting with bronze



Pseudomonas fluorescens  interacting with bronzebiopat3

In the age of the microbiome is it now time to revisit this process,  and to begin to generate bronze “sculptures” that are patinated with, and which will uniquely  incorporate the human microbiome into their form?

p-Couture: A BioFunctional Purple


An agar plate containing a culture of the purple pigmented bacterium Chromobacterium violaceum.


Here is an another example of what I term added BioFunctionality. The bacterium above, Chromobacterium violaceum produces the natural pigment violacein.  As a source of natural colour there is an obvious link to the use of this bacterium  in other art and design speculations where colour is important, for example in their use to provide textile designs or dyes for clothing. Indeed, I used this bacterium and also the red pigmented bacterium Serratia marcescens, in a collaboration with artist Anna Dumitriu, to make the beautiful  BioArt dress below.


However, beyond its use just to generate colour above, violacein has also been shown to have antibiotic activity against Staphylococcus aureus, and so a handkerchief impregnated with it (below), would not only be purple in colour, but the use of it could potentially  remove MRSA from the nostrils of human carriers. Thus, beyond providing colour, violacein has additional BioFunctionality.


A simple handkerchief impregnated with the bacterium Chromobacterium violaceum.

Moreover, one can imagine a therapeutic tee-shirt which protects its wearer from developing malaria, as this purple pigment has also been shown to have powerful antimalarial activity.

Finally, this purple bacterial pigment might halt a devastating disease that threatens the world’s amphibians. In the context of species extinctions, and  the associated  decline in biodiversity, chytridiomycosis is quite possibly the most devastating  disease in recorded history. First identified in 1998, this  lethal skin disease of amphibians  is caused by the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. The disease caused by this fungus,  Chytridiomycosis,  has caused dramatic declines in the amphibians in Australia, South America, North America, Central America, New Zealand, Europe, and Africa, and this microorganism is  likely to be responsible for over 100 species extinctions since the 1970’s. In a number of recent studies violacein has been demonstrated to possess anti-fungal activity, and   consequently, to protect frogs against Chytridiomycosis.

pCouture: BioFunctional Design

When bacteria grow as colonies on agar, most form circular forms that are cream or    off-white in colour.  An occasional bacterial species though will grow as a vividly coloured colony. In 2016,  I collected a unique palette (16 different bacteria) of living bacterial colour (see images below) which were used by artist JoWonder to paint an interpretation of John Millais’  famous pre-Raphaelite painting “Ophelia”.


Streak plate cultures of the living bacterial paints used to paint Ophelia

As a source of natural colour there is an obvious link to the use of these  bacteria in other art and design speculations where colour is important, for  example in their use to provide textile designs or dyes for clothing.  What is not often appreciated here though, is that these bacterial pigments aren’t just simple replacements for synthetic dyes, because bacteria produce these chemicals for other purposes,  and they just accidentally happen to be colourful to our eyes. In this sense then, these bacterially generated compounds offer far more than just  colour to the world of materials and  textiles. Yes, they do provide vivid  colour but they can also imbue materials with additional functionalities far beyond what conventional synthetic dyes offer. I’ve called this BioFunctionality, and an example of this  concept follows.

Kocuria rhizophila, formerly known as Micrococcus luteus, is a very common yellow pigmented human skin inhabitant that has adapted to be able to survive in this unexpectedly harsh environment.


An agar plate with a culture of the yellow pigmented skin bacterium Kocuria rhizophila


A flowery design made from the yellow pigmented skin bacterium Kocuria rhizophila.


Like human skin is, bacteria are also susceptible to the damaging effects of Ultraviolet light (UV) and so exposed to sunlight on a daily basis K. rhizophila synthesises a pigment that absorbs wavelengths of light from 350 to 475 nm. This pigment then absorbs damaging UV light and protects this bacterium from its bactericidal effects. Exposure to these wavelengths of UV, commonly referred to as UVA, has also been correlated with an increased incidence of skin cancer, and so textiles dyed with this bacterium, in addition to being a vivid yellow would possess a BioFunctional sunscreen that would protect the wearer against UVA. Coming soon a BioFunctional and yellow tee-shirt for summer………


A textile swatch impregnated with the yellow pigmented bacterium Kocuria rhizophila. The red colour is due to a second red pigmented bacterium called Serratia. marcescens. The white ring surrounding the yellow pigmented bacterium is due to Kocuria rhizophila producing an unidentified antibiotic which inhibits the red pigmented bacterium and reveals an additional layer of BioFunctionality.

The Art of Resistance




A purple and red pigmented bacterium move and swarm through cotton fabric to colour it. The top half of the fabric is impregnated with the antibiotic Cloxacillin. Purple is resistant to Cloxacillin so moves into this section of the fabric without a problem. Red however, is sensitive to Cloxacillin and initially cannot move into the antibiotic zone. It is though beginning to evolve resistance to Cloxacillin…….

Polkerris Beach, Cornwall: Microscopic/Macroscopic

Polkerris Beach Cornwall. The Macroscopic view, 25th January 2017


On the way back from a microbiology workshop, that I recently ran for The Eden Project, I stopped off at Polkerriss Beach with my portable, with the hope of revealing another layer of reality that exists beyond the resolution of the human eye.

I began by examining beach sand at 100-times magnification and revealed small slivers of rock,  and minute fragments of shell that make up the sand.

Polkerris beach sand at 100-times magnification


I then also collected micro-litre samples of water from the sea itself, and also from briny rock pools and recorded the tracks made by microscopic organisms that inhabit the sea and which underpin all other life that exists in the Earth’s oceans.

Tracks made by microscopic seawater organisms

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 23.62 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 27.05 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 17.23 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 7.12 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 60.59 second exposure.

Taken with NightCap Pro


Tracks made by microscopic organisms found in a rockpool

Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 6.89 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 23.68 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 10.17 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 18.73 second exposure.Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 23.62 second exposure.

I’m struck by the differences between the images made from seawater and those from rock pool water, and how these microcosms reflect the macroscopic. The images produced by the cold and grey seawater are very different to those generated by water from a vibrant and colourful rock pool.

I’ve used this same process to reveal microscopic life in my own garden, and in buckets of collected rainwater, and here there is a far greater level of microbial activity compared to those above.

Tracks made by microscopic organisms found in a bucket of collected rainwater in my garden. Taken with NightCap Pro. Light Trails mode, 45.76 second exposure.

Biology. Tracks made by infusoria. 45.76 second exposure