Six Observations On The BioArchitecture Of Soil

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If a soil sample is placed onto a receptive surface the vast microbial community within  slowly emerges from it to form a complex design that reflects the microbiological properties of the orginal soil. In these particular images the generative form resembles frozen water and seeing such BioCrystaline state emerge in this way reminds me of both Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”  and Ballard’s “Crystal World”

Unbloom: in memory of my mother Judith Park

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Here’s another brief interlude away from microbiology.  In the modern laboratory, the process of chromatography is very widely used to separate or to analyse complex mixtures.  In the process, the mixture to be investigated is dissolved into a fluid (usually an organic solvent) called the mobile phase, which is then passed through a solid and porous medium called the stationary phase. As the various constituents of the mixture travel through the system at different speeds, they eventually separate. Using this same underlying principle sophisticated laboratory devices can purify, or identify, any soluble or volatile substance provided that the correct conditions are employed.  

I was driven to explore chromatography, in an artistic sense, during the time that my mother, Judith Park, was terminally ill with breast cancer. I took flowers as the subject matter for this work as they are associated with funerals and have also attracted the eye of many an artist. At this time, I was also deeply aware that beautiful flower is only a temporary and fleeting state and so decided to use chromatography as a means to speed up its transformation into a decayed form. Immersed into a powerful solvent, the chromatographic mobile phase, the flower became the corresponding stationary phase. Within seconds it began to bleed, loosing that that had once made if beautiful to the surrounding liquid and as if releasing Munch’s red embedded eternity  

“From My Rotting Body, Flowers Shall Grow, and I Am in Them, and That Is Eternity” Edvard Munch

Whiter-than-white: threads of conspiracy

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This is the control. A pristine section of snow that can be used as a reference to compare the other images

This is the control. A pristine section of snow that can be used as a reference to compare the other images

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My hope is that this work will highlight the casual and very unnecessary ways in which we pollute our environment and how we seem to be content to live within in a ubiquitous miasma of chemical deception.  Because we are drawn to the bright and the white, many of the commodities of our daily lives are manufactured to artificially express these properties and in particular, to make these look cleaner or newer than they actually are. As a consequence of this, much of what we make or own contains synthetic compounds called optical brighteners.  These chemical agents work by fluorescing, that is by absorbing natural (from the sun) or artificial (from standard lighting) ultraviolet light and converting it into other colours of visible blue light, to make objects appear whiter and brighter than they otherwise are. Optical brighteners are thus commonly found in our clothes, washing powders, paper, plastics, and paints.  These compounds are very simple to detect because they fluoresce (emit various colours of light) when they exposed to ultraviolet light. With this in mind, I travelled to Swedish Lapland to an apparently pristine environment 200km north of the Arctic Circle and used an ultraviolet torch to search the snow and ice for traces of pollution. The images above are what I found. Small threads of textiles or fragments of plastics or paper, normally invisible, but revealed here by the presence of the fluorescence caused by optical brighteners that they contain. I was really struck by the frequency at which I found these glowing specks of pollution in what should be a relatively pure environment. It’s a depressing thought that wherever we go, and beyond, we unwittingly leak chemical pollutants, designed merely to satisfy our vanity, into the natural world around us.

Pathways of collective endeavour: visualizing swarm intelligence.

 A single ant cannot be considered to be “intelligent”, but when many interact as part of a colony, intelligence arises as an emergent property of their collective communication. Within the colony, each ant follows very simple rules, and although there is no centralized control structure dictating how individual ants should behave, interactions between ants lead to the emergence of an “intelligent” global behaviour. Thus, whilst the ant colony exhibits what might be called swarm intelligence, individual ants are completely unaware of this. In this sense, an ant colony is similar to a human brain where the many neurons, each of which can only perform a limited number of processes, combine to give intelligence and consciousness. Here I developed a novel process which uses in situ fluorescent tagging to plot the accumulated footfall of the many thousands of ants within a colony so that its emergent collective intelligence is revealed. In future, I plan to selectively place food sources, so that the ants might draw figures as a child would complete a dot-to-dot picture.

Microbial Celebrities

In May 2012, the BBC OneShow featured a short video of my work with bacteria and art. In a broadcasting  first, I managed to get a living work of bacterial art onto live television in front of an audience of more than 3 million people. The most rewarding aspect for me though was the fact that I managed to get the living bacteria into the One Show Green Room, and where Kylie Minogue or David Cameron and many other celebrities had once been, there they now were, silent but alive and breathing.