Living Lace: a textile that seeks its return to soil

Living Lace: before incubation

Living Lace: before incubation

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The unique patterned and spreading growth of the bacterium Bacillus mycoides

This cotton lace (please see image above) has been impregnated with spores of a bacterium called Bacillus mycoides (please see image above), that I isolated from the soil of my own garden in Hampshire. In doing this,  I have BioFunctionalised this material, that is, given it complex living functions far beyond that of ordinary cotton material.

In the image above (before incubation), it looks no different from cotton, but when it is cut and placed on a wet surfaces the bacterial spores germinate to form “intelligent” fibrils that explore the environment,  and  in a sense seek to repair the cotton, so that it becomes a living cotton/bacterial hybrid lace (please see images below taken after just 12 hours incubation at 25 C.

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From scientific research that we have done in my laboratory, I know that these fibrils are sensing their environment and responding to stress and tensions in the agar, and so their movements and the patterns that they make are informed by the pattern of the cotton itself.

I also get a very strong sense that the bacteria are actively seeking something and thus perhaps a return to the soil where both the and the cotton textile originally came.

 

 

 

Synthetic Ecologies

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A couple of weeks ago we visited Peppercoombe Bay in North Devon, UK. At the entrance to the beech, next to the footpath that brought us here, there  was a large pile of sea-scratched plastic, and so the beach had obviously been cleaned recently by environmentally aware volunteers.  Despite this and their altruistic efforts, amongst the pebbles and boulders,  the beach was still littered with smaller clots and fragments of this human-made material. The images below show just some of this plastic, which I collected over a period of just 20 minutes.

Unlike the majority of the natural material present on the beach, plastic melts and readily turns into a liquid form when exposed to high temperatures, and so when I returned home, armed with a blowtorch and my found plastic, I transformed this material into this gaudy and synthetic marine ecosystem. The different types of plastic respond very differently to the caress of the transformative butane flame, and this informs my use of them in this work. Some plastics form low spreading forms that coat the rocks like Lichens would, whilst other types autogenically  curl up into forms that resemble the clustered eggs of sea creatures,  or generate structures like the anemones and filter feeding organisms found in the sea here.

 

If I were to pick a pebble from a rock pool here on Peppercoombe Bay Beach, it too would be encrusted,  in a superficially similar way,  with a vast diversity of colour and form. This natural and living ecology however is fragile and could be destroyed by the same materials from which my showy synthetic, and also marine ecology is made.

Rare Earths: The Law of Conservation of Mass

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“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.”

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The Bone Poems

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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

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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).

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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.

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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).

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The glass-like films on the overhead projector

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The glass-like films on the overhead projector

 

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Bio-Patination: incorporating the human microbiome into sculpture?

 

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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

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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

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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.

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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.