About Microorganisms

Microorganism / April 27, 2016

Artists can substantially contribute to debates in scientific research. The so-called “microbial art” dates back to one of the founding fathers of microbiology, Alexander Fleming, who used petri dishes as canvas and pigmented cultures as “paint” . Almost a century onward, an increasing number of projects involving artists, curators and institutions have been developed under the common “art & science” label. However, artists working within this field are often pressured to fulfil the role of bridging the gap between the humanities and the sciences. Undeniably, C. P. Snow’s evaluation on the separation between the two cultures has been a recurring reference to emphasize the necessity of collaborative approaches between artists and scientists . We argue that such collaborative work can be achieved in more than one way and can be beneficial to everyone. Artists should feel encouraged to intervene in topical issues by questioning the ethical impacts on the society regarding the implementation of new technologies or by querying the collective understanding of scientific concepts and facts.

More specifically, artists have been exploring the possibilities offered by the implementation of biotechnologies. For example, the “Hu.M.C.C.” (for Human Molecular Colonization Capacity) project by Maja Smrekar (Fig.

) consists of a yogurt produced with a genetically modified microorganism containing the artist’s enzyme [

]. At first glance, the work appears as a moral forewarning about speculative applications of genetic engineering on food production. On the contrary, it is primarily an ironic comment on the increasingly obsessive demand for flawless and wholesome food by consumers and the encouragement to this demand by manufacturer [

]. During the 2016 edition of the Transmediale festival in Berlin, artist François-Joseph Lapointe engaged in 1000 handshakes with the visitors, while regularly collecting and analysing the microbiota of the palm of his hand to generate varying “Microbiome Selfies” [

]. His work is not so much concerned with questions about lack of knowledge on the occurrence of such organisms on our skin, but rather aimed at denouncing the use of antibacterial products for everyday care. A group of researchers, artists and hackers have created a platform to engage in citizen’s science projects such as public workshops and networking events with the purpose to facilitate the understanding of scientific research in the field of biotechnologies, but also to develop open-source and DIY/DIWO tools [

]. By turning to alternative models of knowledge sharing, members of the “Hackteria” collective refuse to distinguish between artistic production and scientific research, affirming the possibility of other solutions that are not heavily dependent from financial support, and consequently from the endorsement of funding agencies and commercial partners, from which both the scientific and the artistic fields strongly depend. The power of synthetic biology is uncovered by the work of Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg “Designing for the Sixth Extinction” [

]. In her science-fiction-oriented scenarios, synthetic species counterintuitively provide a tool for bioremediation and preservation of biological diversity. Here, scientific concepts and artistic creativity merge for a shared endeavour [


Fig. 3

Views of the “Hu.M.C.C.” (for Human Molecular Colonization Capacity) project by Maja Smrekar at the exhibition “The Hydra Project” at Corner College, Zurich (Switzerland) in 2015. Interactions between science and the arts can contribute to the advancement of science and steer it into directions relevant for our modern society (pictures by Boris Magrini)

Artists should not simply act as translators of scientific ideas: they can shape them as well as the directions of the scientific research into areas that are more relevant and urgent for our society. With the words of the recently departed chemistry Nobel Prize laureate and graphic artist Harry Kroto: “In science, the universe is in control; in art, you are” . The perspective is in either case both scaring and fascinating, the outcomes—much in good science as in good art—unpredictable and enlightening.

Source: fungalbiolbiotech.biomedcentral.com