Cocktails and Culture

For my final series of experiments with culture, I decided to make some culture “cocktails”by mixing some of the fungal samples together before spreading them onto the agar jelly. I wanted to see if I could grow a variety of cultures which were visibly different (on the same plate), before photographing them again in Birnam Wood.

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I grew three more successful cultures, in each one I included a swab of a different variety of jelly fungus, along with a mixture of other fungi as well.

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Above : In situ, in Birnam Wood and Below: Contrast altered and image enhanced in Photoshop

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Although the bacteria on these plates was visually quite interesting, I wasn’t happy with the photos, as I felt the lighting was not good enough, as they had been shot on a dull day. Also, because of this, the bacteria in the first photo was too dominant and looked too much like a snake. I kept the cultures in my studio, and decided to try again the following week when the weather was brighter…

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The shadows do a great job of breaking up the large spreads of bacteria, creating unusual and interesting shapes within the dish. I picked different foliage, such as the fern used above, and held them at varying angles to create the shadows that I wanted.

I’m much happier with these results, and feel that they illustrate the “exotic place tinged with danger” that Gamwell (2003, p.49)* describes in her article on microscopy. They perfectly capture the impression that I want to give of Birnam Wood- a sort of overgrown “paradise”, my “garden of earth delights”, which has the potential to be just as fascinating as a tropical rainforest if one knows where to look.

I envisage these final 3 pieces, along with my favoured image that I took a few months ago, printed onto aluminium dibond and hanging in close proximity to one another in my final MA show.

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*Gamwell, L. (2003) “Beyond The Visible–Microscopy, Nature, And Art”. Science [online] 299 (5603), 49. Available from: http://science.sciencemag.org.useservices.com/content/299/5603/49.full

Scientific studies

I’ve been making some pencil studies of some strange species of fungi and lichen that I’ve found in Birnam Wood. Some of these drawings have been made with the aid of a magnifying glass, which has helped me to observe some of the very small details which I may otherwise have missed. I have purposely drawn these specimens as near to life size as possible, fitting them onto postcard sized paper, and have spent time carefully observing them to try to capture their forms and texture as accurately as possible.

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Ramalina Fastigiata Lichen

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Milk White toothed polypore

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Jew’s Ear Fungus

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Black Jelly Brain Fungus

I haven’t done this type of detailed analytical drawing since I was at college studying Illustration over 20 years ago, when I remember doing a rather impressive drawing of a rabbit skeleton for a scientific illustration module.  Although these drawings are small, they have taken many hours, yet there is something really satisfying about just drawing…especially to this level of detail. It is a process which requires intense concentration, observation and precise rendering, but the results at the end of it are very rewarding.

I am attempting to do 9 of these studies, and so far have completed 5. I was lucky to find some real glass petri dishes recently at a car boot sale, which are really beautiful objects compared to the plastic ones I have been working with. I would like to insert prints of these drawings into the petri dishes and mount them in a square formation, perhaps as an exhibit in my show. The petri dishes seem appropriate as a way of presenting the drawings, as they reference science, and the small aspects of nature which are often unnoticed or overlooked.

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Above: Presented in a petri dish…the shiny, new glass dish makes a beautiful container for these weird species, trapping them and keeping a barrier between them and the viewer.

An Interview with Liz Douglas

Liz Douglas is a contemporary artist who works in a variety of media, especially painting, but what I find really interesting about her work is the fact that she incorporates scientific techniques into her process to describe parts of the landscape.

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Fen Pools  © 2011 Liz Douglas                                                                                   Mixed media on canvas  820mm x 820mm

Liz began turning to science by looking at microscopical geological images when her art school tutor encouraged her to bring other disciplines into her work to enrich and inform her landscape painting. Since then, she has worked with ecologists and biologists on various projects including work which she produced for her‘Mire’ exhibition in 2011, which was the result of 3 years work at Whitlaw Mosses nature reserve near Selkirk. When I look deeply into this painting, I feel a floating sensation, unsure if I am above or under the water,  as if I am looking through a glass-bottomed boat. There is a shadowy image just below the centre, which is not unlike a mysterious ghostly figure standing over the pool, or perhaps we are looking down into the depths of the pool at objects lying below. The abstract shapes which float on or near the surface look like they have been inspired by microscopic views of the algae in the pond. The subtle monochromatic colour scheme has a calming and serene effect, broken only by the mysterious dark shapes which are carefully placed within it. Ettrick-Series---willowlines-slow-thaw-1.5mx1.5m-mm-on-canvas-large

Slow Thaw (2006) © 2012 Liz Douglas                                                                             Mixed media on canvas 1.5m x 1.5m

Slow Thaw, 2008 above shows three semi-transparent tube-like forms, which lie against a warm, lilac background. The ambiguous shapes may be slightly sinister, but the warm background reassures us against fear, and their transparency gives them a delicate and fragile beauty. For me, this is an example for the sublime – the uncanny attraction which we keep staring at despite an unsettling undertone.

I contacted Liz to find out more about her practice, and she kindly agreed to answer a questionnaire for me, as I find her work very relevant to what I am researching and writing about.

When and why did you begin to use the microscope as a method of studying the landscape?      I was encouraged by a tutor in my final Masters of Fine Art painting year to consider looking outside art to inform my landscape work. I began by looking at Geology in relation to a site of special scientific interest that I was working on where microscopic elements existed in the rocks which had a visual quality. I also work with Biologists and Ecologists.I find the collaborative element and the information that I get opens up whole new worlds.

Why do you think artists are collaborating more with scientists – what advantage does a scientific slant bring to a body of work on landscape?  The scientists bring another perspective to landscape. They offer particular expertise in their field which allows the artist to explore aspects of the landscape in depth and creates new possibilities for making work. Over the last twenty or so years there has been an increasing concern about the environment and the collaboration between artists and scientists has developed. 

What do you enjoy about viewing the landscape/nature through glass? Why do you think it is a suitable tool for themes of environment or the natural world?   I find it exciting to look through an optical or scanning electron microscope at structures that are invisible to the eye.I like the whole investigative process of being in the landscape -collecting material (with permission) organising, selecting, editing, as well as dialoguing with scientists and others to inform and extend my ideas at the research and development stage. These tools reveal hidden aspects of the natural world and provide possible new visual metaphors.

Do you think that having a parochial view (not meaning to sound negative here, just considering a focus on a small element of a particular landscape or environment) of a particular landscape brings more interest to a work, rather than trying to capture a vast area?  I think that working on microscopic material from sites informs the wider landscape. The ‘place’, which is local, is the focus, where universal processes occur –e.g. seasonal change, global climate/geological change etc. It is a microcosm.

 Do you think that studying the species of a particular environment can help to capture its ‘spirit of place’? Each habitat has its own unique ecological characteristics. It takes time to work through material from a particular environment at the micro level to find metaphors that add a new element to the work and say something else about the place – e.g. spirit/essence or something new and surprising.

One of the visions of the Romantic artists was to capture the sublime, and often terrifying forces of nature. Do you get a sense of this when you look down the microscope, are you ever unsettled by what you see?  It can be quite unsettling looking at the amount of microscopic creatures to be found in e.g. a drop of water and imagining their part in the larger whole. These creatures can be x35,000 what the eye can see. That can be unnerving and amazing at the same time. I constantly tussle with notions of the sublime and underlying invisible elements when making work.

Is there ever a health and safety aspect to what you are doing, for instance, do you ever work with potentially toxic or harmful aspects of nature?  I am immensely cautious about the harmful and potentially toxic aspects that exist when working in the natural world. The process of collecting living material is safe, if you know the terrain well, although the people on any particular site of special scientific interest know that I am working there so there is an element of protection. Working with an optical microscope, looking at material in the studio at x80 has no risk attached to it. The preparation of collected material for the Scanning Electron Microscope involves a lengthy process using toxic chemicals. This part of the process has to take place in a laboratory because it is hazardous and appropriate safety procedures are used. I have to work with a technician because I am not a scientist!

Do you use a camera to photograph the microscopic images before rendering them, or do you work straight from the microscope, or from your memory of what you have seen through it? I have a camera attached to my optical microscope which is great because I can download images onto a pc to work further into them. These images are at a high resolution.The S.E.M images of prepared specimens are taken by an internal camera attached to the scanning electron microscope. They reveal a much higher magnification of minute structures. I work mainly from direct observation in the landscape, drawing and photographing and from SEM images, in the development of my visual ideas.

Any other comments you would like to make, or useful information? The scientist is rarely interested in art and finding a way to dialogue with the scientist is not easy. They are the ‘experts’ and the artist is not. It is important to be aware of the history of art when working in the scientific field as it can be a bit overwhelming at times.. I always focus on the intention of making a piece of artwork.

Jelly babies

I found some interesting species of jelly fungi in the wood yesterday, so I picked a few specimens to take away and draw in my studio. The first that I came across was Exidia Glandulosa otherwise known as Black Brain Fungus. It was growing on a branch of a beech tree, and was in reach, so I gently picked off a few pieces. IMG_8930

Exidia Glandulosa or Black Brain Fungus

I find these jelly fungi really intriguing – on the one hand they are repulsive, brain-like, as if from another planet, but at the same time I think they are amazing and I am really excited when I find them.

IMG_9227I decided to make a study of this one, as it looked really strange…I also used a magnifying glass to try to get as many details in as possible.

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Neobulgaria pura var. foliacea Beech Jelly Fungus 

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 The same beech jelly fungus in a more shrivelled up state the next day

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Auricula Judae or Jew’s Ear Fungus

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Another Jew’s ear, but a bit less like an ear than the sample above

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I have kept some of the samples that I collected, as apparently they dry out, and can be revived again when moist. I’m going to experiment with this to see if I can revive them so that they also might be used in a cloche as part of my installation.

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Cultivating Oysters

Birnam Wood is ripe with fungi most times of the year, and i never cease to be amazed at all the different varieties growing there. Within the space of 48 hours, fungi can appear, then dry up, with only a few small traces of it ever existing. Some of the most impressive fungi was the Common Oyster, Pleurotus Ostreatus, which I found growing on a large log  just inside the entrance to the wood. This particular log has been host to a wide variety of fungi, and its occupants seem to change on a daily basis. For my show, I want to  try to bring some of the species growing in the wood into the gallery, so I managed to source an Oyster Mushroom growing kit online.

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I soaked a bag overnight (which was filled with recycled coffee grounds and compost) and left it for a few days. The surface of the compost started to become very white, and small textured bobbles and stumps started to appear after a few days. IMG_7374

After a couple of days of being soaked, small white bobbles appeared on the surface
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Within hours, the babies grew into much larger mushrooms, just like the ones I had seen in Birnam Wood

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I was so amazed that these mushrooms were actually growing in my kitchen! Although edible, I really didn’t fancy trying them, so I kept them there for a couple of weeks and then I harvested them. I laid them on a plate to dry, in hope that I might be able to use the dried mushrooms for something too.

The kit is able to grow a second batch too, so I soaked it again, and this time I have cut the grow bag down so that it fits under a glass cloche, as I want to see how the mushrooms look when pressed against glass.

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I need to find or make a suitable base for the cloche, but just wanted to try this out to see how it would look. I really hope the mushrooms grow, despite being taken out of their dark cardboard box and their grow bag. I have covered the cloche with a tea towel to darken their environment a little, so hopefully that might help.

If they continue to grow, and the experiment works, I will buy another kit and try this out for  part of an installation in my show. If this works I think it will be an interesting exhibit, especially if it appears that the mushrooms are pressed against the glass, trying to escape. I might even see if I could form a small hole in the glass and allow them to burst out, leaving the broken glass beside the cloche on a bench.

Dazzling Diatoms

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One of Klaus Kemp’s wonderful diatom arrangements

I recently came across the work of Klaus Kemp, a dedicated scientist-cum-artist who spends his spare time collecting and mounting diatoms; single-celled organisms which form algae. These tiny organisms cannot be seen by the naked eye, but under a microscope they reveal their beautiful forms through their cell walls which are made of silica. According to Burgess, in Under the Microscope (1990, p.120 ) the sea is full of these creatures, with a litre of water continuing up to 15000 diatoms. Klaus who is well known in this field of art and science, is one of just a few practitioners who are trying to keep this dying art alive.

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Klaus at home with this microscope

Diatom arranging was popular in the Victorian era, when the art of amateur (as well as professional) microscopy was very fashionable. The diatoms, which were collected from far flung corners of the globe would be arranged into stunning kaleidoscopic patterns on glass slides, which were sealed and sold to collectors for amusement.

A recent film was made by Matthew Killip called The Diatomist, in which Kemp discusses his obsession with these tiny organisms. It also shows stunning displays of his work accompanied by a fitting soundtrack, which includes fairground organ music, evoking in me a sense of childhood nostalgia and wonder.

I found his number online, and gave him a ring, and we chatted to about 20 minutes about his work and our mutual respect for Ernst Haeckel, who he coincidently is basing a project on at the moment. I asked him if he would answer a short questionnaire, and he kindly agreed, returning it to me the very same afternoon.

When and why did you begin to use the microscope as a method of studying parts of the environment?   1954, aged 16 at Flatters and Garnetts Biological teaching material supplier.

Were you ever inspired by the works of the “Romantic” scientists/artists such as Ernst Haeckel?  Yes, by his plates which are I believe astounding for their accuracy and so much so that it is easy to identify all the species he has figured.

What type of microscope do you use/ what are its capabilities?  My main microscope for mounting type slides and arrangements is a Biolam, which in the main uses low power objectives, but also has a rare X100 objective configured to work on dry uncovered specimens, ideal for working out the species being dealt with. I use a Leitz Orthoplan for careful study of any species, which has a Heine condenser and phase, it also allows me to use oil on the minute forms of diatoms.

Why do you think artists are turning towards science – what advantage does a scientific slant bring to a body of work on the environment? Art!!!Nature has it by the handful, and the best we can do is create art around Nature, even at quantum physics stage or Nano technology  we have to admire the complexity of nature and stand in awe.

What do you enjoy about viewing the landscape/nature through glass? Why do you think it is a suitable tool for themes of environment or the natural world?  Difficult question, but think of the number who have been or are now on the planet, and have never seen this awesome world and yet we are surrounded not only by the microscopic world but astronomy opens up another world, which then makes humankind the “pimple on a fleas leg”.

Do you think that studying the species of a particular environment can help to capture its ‘spirit of place’? Yes Darwin was right, everything is in its rightful place and if not Nature will modify the species until it is – evolution is just magic.

Is there ever a health and safety aspect to what you are doing, for instance, do you ever work with potentially toxic or harmful aspects of nature? Only in the cleaning process in getting rid of the organic matter in diatoms so that the silica is all you are left with. The cleaning process uses boiled Hydrochloric Acid which deals with any calcium present in the sample, and fuming Sulphuric Acid which removes the organic matter. Both processes are carried out in a fume cupboard.

One of the visions of the Romantic artists was to capture the “sublime”- the beautiful yet often startling forces of nature. Do you get a sense of this when you look down the microscope, or are you ever unsettled by what you see?  Mankind has the ability to manipulate only to a degree, but we are powerless against the forces of nature. We will ultimately either destroy ourselves by war, fooling around with physics, messing around with genes,or be destroyed by forces we are unable to control, the environment, global warming (not new), mass extinction (not new). The flip side to this is that Nature abhors a vacuum, so something else will take our place, we are at least fortunate in beginning to understand our position in Nature.

I was really grateful for Klaus taking the time to chat with me and to answer my questionnaire. The study of diatoms is yet another interesting aspect to microbiology, which highlights the hidden and wonderful invisible elements of the world around us, and I found it especially interesting that it was an art practiced in the nineteenth century, the latter end of the Romantic era and the Age of the Enlightenment.

Menagerie of Microbes – Talks and Workshops

On Saturday (2 days ago) I went down to Edinburgh to attend workshops for a whole day  in the ASCUS lab at Summerhall.  I had booked to attend the  lecture at 11am by all of the workshop leaders, and also booked onto the Microgeography workshop in the afternoon, but was delighted to learn that there were more tickets available for the other two workshops on Infected Textiles and Creative Slime Mould so I decided to make a day of it and attend them all.

The first lecture was a presentation by the workshop leaders, who spoke for about 20 mins each on their practice. 3 people at the top of their game, all in the art + science field, names which I knew and respected through following their work on their blogs and twitter feeds;  artist Anna Dumitriu, molecular biologist Dr Simon Park (who I contacted last year for my research) and Heather Barnett, the “slime mould guru” and artist. So you can imagine my excitement at being in the same room as all of them at once…incredible!

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The first workshop, Infected Textiles was led by Anna Dumitriu, an artist whose work hovers between art and science, and questions the ethics of how emerging technologies can affect and impact upon our lives. She discussed her current body of work, The Romantic Disease, which traces the bizarre relationship between humans and ‘the Romantic Disease’ Tuberculosis (TB). In her research, Anna has explored the superstitions and myths regarding the disease – a condition which was believed by many to heighten creative genius, to the point that some ladies wore make up to feign the illness to make them look artistic. She also explores the development of cures, such as “resting” through to antibiotics, and finally research into whole genome sequencing of bacteria. I was interested in her inclusion of Romantic in the title of this body of work and research – this was someone see who had made a connection between microbiology and the Romantics, which made me even more convinced that my own line of enquiry was valid and interesting.

Anna’s work for the exhibition was created by using bacteria to “dye” fabrics exhibition includes “Genius Germ”, “Blue Henry”, “Pneumothorax Machine”, “Where there’s dust there’s danger” and several framed works. As well as the “MRSA Quilt” and premieres the new work. A new film of Dumitriu’s own cells being infected in vitro with bovine TB was also being screened. These works were fascinating, yet at the same time unsettling, especially the medical apparatus on display of which I couldn’t bear to think of as actually being used on or by any human being.
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Above: Anna Dumitriu making up some agar using agar powder, skimmed milk, honey and marmite

After her presentation, we were given the opportunity to make some of our own infected textile experiments by swabbing any surface we wanted (within reason!) and then wiping it onto a petri dish filled with agar made from Dr Simon Park’s own recipe. We could also add various coloured additives such as safflower and walnut husks, which contained anti-microbial as well as dyeing properties.

Next up was a workshop by Dr Simon Park, who gave us a talk about his work on exploring the micro-geograpies in the environment around us. Although they are often invisible, or so small that they are overlooked, microbial ecologies thrive in the environments around us, as if in a sort of parallel world that with similar infrastructures to our own. These microbes are all around us, many are harmless although some can make us unwell.  Simon’s work, which crosses between art and science, explores a number of threads that emerge from microbiology when it is placed in the context of the built environment.

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Above: Dr Simon Park with his prized field microscope

In the workshop he demonstrated his homemade agar recipe which he cooked on a small portable stove, and even ate some of it to our horror!  He invited us to swab areas around the building and then wipe the residue onto pre-prepared agar in petri dishes which we were allowed to take home. He also made use of his  field microscope, and asked us to spit onto slides, which were then left to dry before we added Methylene Blue to stain them, and then observe them under the microscope.

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It was really inspirational to watch Simon at work, casually explaining all the processes and imparting his knowledge in a very modest way. In my opinion Simon is very much an artist, and I would like to see more of his work done on an individual basis which would give him full credit for it.

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Finally, at the end of a long yet enjoyable day, I met the slime mould guru Heather Barnett. As an artist, researcher and educator working at the intersections of art, science and technology, Heather has held research fellowships, and worked with many diverse organisations. I had come across Heather when I joined the Slime Mould Collective a few months ago, and I would guess she is probably the most knowledgeable artist on the intelligent slime mould, Physarum polycephalum.  She gave us an interesting presentation on her work with this mysterious single cell organism, and then invited us to make miniature habitats for it using filter papers, felt and food to lure it in various directions.We were all given a couple of small pieces to take away with us, so I’m hoping I have more luck with this batch than the previous one I tried to grow.

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The “intelligent” slime mould, Physarum polycephalum

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A “pet” slime mould to take home with me!

This event was thoroughly enjoyable, and I felt privileged to meet Anna, Simon and Heather, all scientific artists at the cutting edge of their practice. It made me want to go home and get started on my essay with a new enthusiasm, and also gave me a few creative ideas which I might toy with for the exhibition.