Some Thoughts On The Totipotency Of Air

 

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Deep underground in the old limestone mines at Beer, Devon accidental and light driven ecologies emerge around the artifical lighting whilst everywhere else in the dark mine the walls appear to be lifeless. The ecologies above comprise mostly microscopic algae and cyanobacteria.  It strikes me, that in some sense, that the air itself is infused with a totipotent energy of biological ideas and intent, that permeates everywhere, patiently awaiting an opportunity to germinate and then to flourish. Here a simple light bulb and the damp limestone walls provide such an opportunity.

The ecologies above are relatively simple, but elsewhere, and deeper into the mine, I find more complex ecosystems containing higher plants (see images below). These are very complicated ecologies, which rely on successive arrival of    many different kinds of interacting life but again all of this must have been carried in by the air, and through this, in the absence of direct contact by the mine’s many human visitors too. Another accidental ecology feeding on dim artificial light, and another example of the totipotent potential air.

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Microgeography: Bus Stop Algal Ecology

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An algal ecology on a bus stop roof revealed after a snail has fed on part of it and left behind marks made by its radula.  

The microbiological world is a vast domain of life occupied by organisms which are too small to be seen with the naked eye. Because of their diminutive size, its denizens are largely ignored, yet in terms of impact and numbers, they represent the predominate form of life on earth.

In the familiar settings of our towns and cities, the same microorganisms have established thriving and complex ecologies that are almost always overlooked, yet the very existence of these and the extent of their vigour, can act as a powerful barometer for the health of our own urban environments.

Microgeography, is an approach that explores the relationships between urban environments and their microbial and human inhabitants through walking and informed observation, and often via a variety of playful and inventive strategies. Its overriding aim is to take pedestrians off their predictable macroscopic paths and to jolt them into a new awareness of the vast, but nearly always disregarded, urban microbiological landscape. These microcosms of microbiological life reflect the health of our own cities and towns, and thus through the process of microgeography, the observer is invited to question the influence of human activity upon this urban microbiological landscape, and hopefully through this, to extrapolate the impact of our actions on to the more visible world beyond.

Microbial life is everywhere if you know how to look. Here an ecology of algae on a glass bus stop roof in Farnham is revealed after a snail has fed on part of it and left behind marks made by its radula.

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Purified and Yellow Bacterial Happiness: Mycobacterium vaccae

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Mycobacteria are an important group of bacteria which includes pathogens known to cause serious diseases in humans, including tuberculosis and leprosy. Whilst the diseases caused by this genus of bacteria can be devastating, in contrast one of its harmless members, Mycobacterium vaccae, is ubiquitous in soil, and exposure to it has been shown in many studies to reduce anxiety, and through this effect, even improve the ability to learn. Here this natural bacterium with powerful anxiolytic properties has been converted into a persuasive glitter or dust, that incorporated into clothing, food, or an art gallery’s air ventilation system, would make the wearer, eater, and observer of the art happier.

Parallel Worlds

These works explore the basis of the reality of the world that we see through our unaided eyes, with that our technologies reveal. They compare images of natural water courses as our eyes would seen them with the reality that the microscope reveals. To better reveal the activity of the microorganisms living in these waters , I’ve developed a novel process, that rather than recording micro-videos in real-time, reports instead the paths taken by microscopic creatures under the microscope. The images generated, result from the accumulation of the activity tracks of these usually invisible life forms and reveal the hugely complicated dynamic of their manifold activities and interactions. The process generates images that are reminiscent of those of radioactive decay, or atomic particle collisions, as they are seen using cloud or bubble chambers. The process is transformative, in that it converts the mundane and disregarded, into something remarkable, not by changing it, but by revealing another level of reality that is usually withheld from us. In this way each natural water sample generates a unique energy signature of accumulated biological wavelengths and frequencies.

The works also challenge our macroscopic bias, as this microscopic life forms, and bacteria which are smaller still and cannot be seen at 200-times magnification, underpin all earthly ecologies. Without this life that our unaided eyes cannot not see, there would be none of the more familiar life that we can observe.

A Many Meaning Cypher

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The bacteria living on the pages of a near 300-old version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses begin to reveal their identify through their DNA sequences. A biological code of just four letters embedded amongst the visible letters of the Latin to English translation. As expected there are bacteria from the microbiomes of individuals who have read the book, but also oddities like bacteria that have only before been isolated from the very edges of the Earth’s atmosphere. A many meaning cypher. With artist Sarah Craske and Professor of Science Humanities Charlotte Sleigh . More detail on the AHRC funded project here: Metamorphoses In Art and Science

Shards From A Synthetic Glacier

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I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Iceland three times, over the past 20 years, and even in this relatively small timescale, I’ve been able to observe the dramatic impact of climate change on its many glaciers. I’ve also got a small collection of glacial melt water from a few of its glaciers.

One such water sample is from Vatnajökull, the largest and most voluminous ice cap in Iceland, and one of the largest in area in Europe. As the glacial ice melted, the ordered and crystalline form of water would have been converted into the disordered liquid state that I collected. Back in the United Kingdom, I’ve developed a process that converts the glacial melt water back into a crystalline state once again, but one that is now heat-stable and will not melt in my hand,  and thus converted the glacial into a vital blue form that will resist the impact of climate change.

The crystals first emerge as small plate-like forms (below)

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which grow and then merge into the larger shards that can be seen below

 

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Blood Flowers (2017). Media: My Blood and Anhydrous Copper (II) Sulphate

There are various inspirations at play here, which all share a generative and autogenic origin. Helen Chadwick’s “Piss Flowers” and Roger Horns’ “Untitled Works”  and “Seizure”. The process is simple, my blood drips onto a thick layer  of Anhydrous Copper (II) Sulphate (a chemical once used to test for anaemia). On contact with the substratum, my blood immediately forms a bright red “bud”. Then slowly, as my blood interacts with, and feeds the cupric chemistry, a small chimeric flower, comprising  copper and my own blood, begins to  blossom. Aesthetic beauty created out of an alliance of the fundamentals of self and of chemistry.

 

 

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Project Cladophora 2017: the Bramfield Strain.

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A culture of the algae Cladophora 

Many different microorganisms (such as fungi, cellulose producing bacteria) are being explored as the sources of  sustainable materials, and especially for textiles. Almost without exception though, these organisms are, like ourselves,  chemoheterotrophs, that is they are unable to fix carbon to form their own organic compounds and have to obtain energy and biochemical building blocks by ingesting those produced by other organisms. For example, the fungi and bacteria that are used to grow textile materials require a food stock, that is a   rich soup of nutrients, that derive from other plant and animal products, and thus their sustainability might be questionable. To the contrary, photosynthetic bacteria and algae, are photoautrophs being able Such organisms derive their energy for food synthesis from light and carbon for the synthesis biochemical building block from atmospheric carbon dioxide. Consequently, photoautotrophs can produce biomaterials from little more than sunlight, water  and air. It is my belief then, that only photoautotrophs can offer a truly sustainable source for future biomaterials and textiles. An example of such a holophytic approach is detailed below.

Cladophora is a genus of reticulated filamentous and photosynthetic green algae. Commonly known as blanket weed, this is a very common and cosmopolitan pond algae, and the dense growth of its hair-like green strands that float under, or on the surface, can be a major nuisance in decorative ponds.

Now seems the time to reconsider this organism, to repurpose it and to make use of its remarkable properties.  Cladophora is an extraordinarily fast growing filamentous algae and can grow up to two meters a day. It is also photosynthetic and thus removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This algae also grows in the form of long microfilaments that form a dense green mat which naturally suggests that it could form a sustainable and carbon dioxide abstracting source of fibres for clothing which might be used to replace polyester, wool or cotton, for example (see below).

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A dense mat of algal microfibres of Cladophora

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Algal microfibres of Cladophora

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Algal microfibres of Cladophora

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Scientists at C-MOULD are investigating different strains of  Cladophora for their suitability for the production of sustainable textiles, for example, for growth rate, ease of culture and tensile strength. The strain here is the Bramfield strain, isolated from the pond of friends who live in this Suffolk village.

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A Cladophora ceedling. A small section of fibres teased from a natural mat of the Blanket Weed.

The process begins by teasing out a small section of a natural mat of the Blanket Weed (Cladophora) called a Ceedling (this name derives the fact this small part of the mat acts a clone and seed from which further mats are grown.

The Ceedlings are then introduced into shallow growth containers where they form dense mats over a period of 4 weeks (see below).

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Growth of the Bramfield Cladophora strain after a week.

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Growth of the Bramfield Cladophora strain after 4 weeks.