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.

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