Recovering The Rare Earth: iPad Sulphates





In February I underwent major open heart surgery to replace a leaky aortic valve so have been recovering slowly at home. I also suffer from a Mixed Anxiety and Depressive Disorder, which periodically triggers episodes of severe depression and I use the work and processes described in my blog here to help with my recovery. My heart surgery triggered and episode of cardiac depression, and I’m using the process here to help my recovery from this. This and the process are reflected in the title of the work.

Recovering The Rare Earth: iPad Sulphates

The Rare Earth elements are a group of 17 metallic elements that underpin the unrelenting global demand for new technological products. Materials derived from them have unique properties that are essential for the function of the high-tech consumer products that are now part of our everyday lives such as computers, smart phones, hybrid cars, smartphones, and televisions. The minerals containing the Rare Earth elements are extracted through opencast mining and via chemical processes that have a high and long lasting ecological cost.

In this work, an iPad has been immersed in a solution of concentrated and highly reactive sulphuric acid. Over a period, greater than a year, the acid has reacted with the components of the iPad, including the Rare Earths, to convert them into salts and new minerals of sulphate. In this process, the once thin iPad has expanded due to crystal formation, to thickness of a paperback book, and in which new geological strata to have developed, and so the elements appear to have returned once more to the earth.



The mineral rich solution of acid and Rare Earth salts have also infiltrated cracks in the screen of the device, forming mineral rich seems, in a mechanism that parallels the natural and geological formation of quartz and metal rich seams, that might be mined and exploited to recover valuable elements.


The Extended Self: the cosmos within



Traditionally what we consider to be “self” is restricted to the collection of 10 trillion or so familiar eukaryote cells that make up our bodies and well-known organs such as our skin, the heart, and the liver. However, the “omic” technologies of the 21st century have radically redefined this view, so that “self” can now be seen to extend well beyond the traditional precinct of our visible form, and to now include our resident bacterial community, that is its invisible human microbiota. These bacteria that reside on or in our bodies are not merely present as passengers and we exist in a state of dynamic and mutual symbiosis with these inhabitants. Moreover, it seems likely that these organisms are able to influence our wellbeing, our mental health, and even our ability to learn. Such findings are challenging radically our anthropocentric view of life and are revealing a new kind of microbiologically influenced subjectivity.

In the work here my gut microbiome was cultured as bacterial colonies on a number of Plate Count Agar plates. Next the water, that makes up the major component of the media, was carefully removed so that the agar entered a translucent glassy state which incorporates and transforms the bacterial colonies so that they become biological lenses.

The glass-like films containing aspects of my micro biome (below)


When light is passed through these it is transformed and acquires characteristics derived from its interaction with the bacteria that it passes through. The process inverts normal  microscopic practice, in the sense that what would normally only be visible under a microscope, is now projected into the world that we can see allowing the observer to interact with my multitudinal bacterial otherness.

Aspects of my microbiome projected into the visible world (below)

Behold The Sea Itself


Interacting With The Sea Lens Projection

This work explores the anthropocene in the context of the changing and vital  chemistry of our oceans. Central to the process, is the notion that the chemical properties of pure water are universal and constant, and what gives natural water courses their identity, and what influences what else can live in them, exists within water and between the spaces of its polar molecules. In the process here, water, this universal and unchanging solvent, has been removed and the usually hidden chemistry concentrated and condensed into a thin glass-like lens. When light is passed through the lens, it becomes altered by this defining elemental signature, projecting it into our reality so that we may gaze upon it and interact with it.

The Sea Lens

The Sea Lens


A Projection Using The Sea Lens

A Projection Through The Sea Lens

A Projection Using The Sea Lens

A Projection Through The Sea Lens

‘If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water’

‘If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water’ Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (1957).

Tracks, and biological frequencies and wavelengths,  made by microbes in scant micro litre samples of many different natural waters. A national atlas of invisible microbiological life.


Blood Miracle: the infected page

In this work a page from a book has been deliberately wounded, and then infected with bacteria. In this context, it was cut with a scalpel,  then inoculated at the site of the lesion with the blood red pigmented bacterium Serratia marcescens, and finally placed onto bacteriological growth media. The bacteria used here are able to communicate with each other, collaborate in numbers to overcome obstacles to great for the few,  and can swarm and  move together in a coordinated manner through the paper of the page. The spreading lesion thus reveals an uncomfortable reality, that our world is dominated by invisible microbiological life. Moreover, the bacterium used here produces haemoglobin, the same oxygen transporting mammalian protein that colours blood red, and it thus harbours the evolutionary origin of our own blood.


I Am Legion: microbiomic tissue


In the works here, the contents of my gut microbiota have been separated away from other faecal material by filtration in order to purify its bacteria. To reveal the bacteria the samples are staining using the Gram stain which  reveals the bacteria of my microbiome.  The works invite the observer to consider the human microbiome as a complex and integrated human body tissue. Each tiny speck is a bacterial cell and one of the multitudes that I share my body with.


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).