Inked: notes on garden gastropod molluscs, the anthropocene, and cellulytic bacteria

We accidentally left some spent wine bottles out in our garden, and through doing this, unintentionally provided a medium for its snails and slugs to modify. In eating the labels on the bottles our garden gastropod molluscs have edited their human narratives to produce there own art but at the same time they have also absorbed the anthropogenic materials present in the label’s inks. Do these human made materials persist in the faeces of the creatures or even colour it. The major source of nutrition in the paper of the labels will be cellulose, and to gain sustenance from it, the slugs and snails must degrade this resilient biopolymer. However, on their own they cannot do this and thus have to rely on symbiotic and cellulytic bacteria present in their guts. How do these react to the presence of the human made inks?


Just one damp night later the label on one of the bottles has been edited further and one of the “artists” is present (image below).


A Spectrum of Nine Waters


Water covers 70 per cent of the earth’s surface and is the solvent of life. The chemical properties of pure water however, are universal, defining, and unchanging. What then gives different natural water courses their unique identities, exists within water, and in-between the spaces of its polar molecules. This work explores these defining elemental signatures through a process that colorimetrically reveals one of the most important of these, the concentration of hydrogen ions present. When a pH indicator is added to the water samples, its colour changes according to concentration of hydrogen ions, and thus reveals this otherwise invisible yet defining chemical signature. The nine water samples in the image here range from those taken from Surrey’s acidic and tannic marsh waters (red), through neutral river waters (green), to the alkaline and clear waters of Hampshire’s famous chalk rivers (blue).

Of note here, there is also one seawater sample present which at the moment is distinctly alkaline (blue). However, with the oceanic acidification brought on by elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration this water will become more acidic and its influence on sea-life and the pH indicator will inevitably change.


BioBatik: the aesthetics of the emergence of antimicrobial resistance

This is a project that uses naturally pigmented bacteria, and their differential resistance to an antibiotic to generate colourful and autogenic designs on textiles. Similar to the Batik process, the antibiotic here, by killing the sensitive bacteria, acts as a resist.

In the first part of the project the sensitivities of two strains of bacteria to two antibiotics,  Cloxacillin and Kanamycin,  were investigated (see images below).


Two paper letter shapes impregnated with the antibiotics Cloxacillin (C) and Kanamycin (K) on agar plates containing cultures of a red pigmented bacteria (Serratia marcescens) and a purple pigmented bacteria (Chromobacterium violaceum). The zones of inhibition reveal that red is sensitive to both C and K, whilst purple is resistant to C but sensitive to K.



Two paper letter shapes impregnated with the antibiotics Cloxacillin (C) and Kanamycin (K) on agar plates containing cultures of a red pigmented bacteria (Serratia marcescens) and a purple pigmented bacteria (Chromobacterium violaceum). The zones of inhibition reveal that red is sensitive to both C and K, whilst purple is resistant to C but sensitive to K. The distinct red colonies in the inhibition zone for red and C are mutants of red that have now become resistant to C.


To generate the BioBatiks, agar plates containing a concentration gradient of Cloxacillin were prepared, and these overlaid with cotton fabric (see image below).


BioBatik. Agar plates containing a concentration gradient of Cloxacillin (C) were prepared (lowest concentration at the bottom), and these overlaid with cotton fabric (see image below). Red and purple were inoculated at the bottom and then begin to grown and move through the cotton, where the encounter ever increasing concentrations of C. Initially,  red is sensitive to C and stops growing and moving when it encounters the Minimum Inhibitory Concentration of C. On the other otherhand purple is resistant to C and continues to grow and move in ever higher concentrations of C.


Overtime, mutants of red that are resistant to C emerge, and these eventually move into and grow in the areas of higher C concentration giving a direct visualisation of the emergence of  antimicrobial resistance.


Blut und Boden: A Blood Fermentation and In Vitro Bruise

Bs4iThis new work is the beginning of a series of projects that respond to recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and my seeing of the white nationalists and right-wing protesters, chanting “blood and soil,” a phrase which invokes the Nazi philosophy of “Blut und Boden“.

 Blut und Boden, actually predates Nazi philosophy, and referred to an ideology which held that ethnicity is based solely on blood descent and the territory that a people occupy. Moreover, it celebrates the relationship of a people to the land that they occupy and cultivate, and also places high value on the virtues of rural living. The idea also painted farmers as national heroes who protected the purity of Germany.

Hitler believed that true Germans “came from the soil” and wanted all Germans to identify themselves with a glorious historic past based on descendants who worked off the land. With his support, the Nazi Party embraced Blut und Boden as one of its chief ideologies and this concept also helped the Nazi Party blame the decline of Germany’s rural class on Jews.

Ironically, and irrespective of race, ethnicity, or creed, we all come from the soil in the sense that it supports all of the plants that sustain us, and also the animals that we eat. Moreover, soil is biology-based system that also transcends these questionable human constructs in that it is a complex ecology in which thousands of different species interact and collaborate together.

A superorganism is an ensemble of living organisms tightly integrated with their immediate material environment, so that the whole system behaves and is recognisable as an entity”.

Our modern understanding of soil is that it is a superorganism (please see quote above), that is a complex and living physiological system in which billions of microorganisms, inorganic particles, and water all act together as a self-regulating entity. In this context, it’s also easy to imagine soil as a global and pluripotent tissue from which all of the Earth’s higher plant life emerges.

At first, in terms of its construction, and the media used to make it, the work here appears to be simple, and as it directly reflects the concept of Blut und Boden, it comprises just blood (my own) and soil. In reality though it reports the manifold interactions between two incredibly complex systems. In natural environments the microbial activity present in soil is constrained by competition for limited concentrations of essential nutrients. In Blut und Boden however, the microorganisms encounter an unexpected and essentially unlimited supply of nutrients in the form of my own blood. As the microbes grow, they deconstruct my immunology and disassemble my biochemistry, and then incorporate the biological building blocks that make up my own body into their own forms. What ensues then is a complex and colourful blood fermentation, which challenges the boundaries of my own identity and ethnicity. As a bruise becomes a polychromatic memory of some violent act against the body (a consequence of the gradual disassembly and recycling of leaked blood), similarly Blut und Boden becomes an in vitro bruise harbouring its own potent residue.




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


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



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.


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.



Ant Art: Swarm Intelligence


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.