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

oakmaossOak moss lichen

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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.

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_8930Exidia 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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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.

 

 

Interview with Michel Varisco

I came across the work of New Orleans artist Michel Varisco, whose photographs, assemblages and site-specific installations are based on themes of loss and regeneration. Her photographs explore the complex relationship between the natural and the engineered environment which is carved out of a delicate delta system.

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Effervescent Pond, New Orleans, (copyright) Michel Varisco

Through her work she depicts her homeland to educate, inspire, transform and heal what is essentially an ecologically and culturally rich place which is struggling for its survival.

She kindly agreed to answer some questions about her work.

Would you describe yourself as an environmental or eco artist ?  Yes, more and more I do. Often a theme arises, and I follow my interest through a simple question like: “as a species, how do we live with nature?” When humans see nature as a commodity to harvest, spoil, entrap, contaminate and so on, the outlook looks bleak for our future. If however we as a species used our intelligence to respect life and sustainability of resources, then my work would reflect that most likely. I title my work with adjectives that suggest a change is coming. “Shifting”, “Turning”, “Fluid States”. We need to be agile and see things as they are, without glorification or magical thinking. And we need to be ready to act- and be the change we want to see. I “act” through my art and through my purse. The natural world responds to our collective action for better and for worse. For instance, the melting of glaciers, the loss of lands due to engineering foibles, the climate changes underway, water scarcity and air and water pollution-for every action, there is a reaction. Unbridled capitalism is undoing the planet. I see environmental and social justice interwoven in many ways. In 2001, I studied housing issues in New Orleans in a series called “Displaced”. Little did I know at the time that the largest mass migration in the United States was just around the corner with Hurricane Katrina- and with it, a disproportionate displacement, larger than the Great Dust Bowl migration in the 1930’s.Going back even further, slavery in the U.S was the illicit “energy source” of its era. A war was fought over its end because the powerful couldn’t accept the inevitable. We are in another period of abuse, but this time towards the planet. What will happen now will be determined sooner than later- due to limited resources on a planet that’s facing the 6th greatest mass extinction in 65 million years-the Anthropocene extinction. What we do now matters, and to more than our own species. It’s about time to use every tool at our disposal to work towards a future worth its weight in gold- by leaving the gold in its place.

When did you first fall in love with the lens as a creative medium?  I fell in love with photography looking at a “Time-life Book -30 years in pictures” (Or something to that effect). And the Family of Man catalogue from a traveling show, when I was about 7 studying those books. But I didn’t shoot until much, much later. I drew all the time, and painted, studied sculpture and printmaking and graphic arts, even music. Eventually I learned photography in college and I felt like it was a great honor. I still draw and make sculpture. Some of my favourite artists are those that use multiple mediums in their works.

What do you love about the lens, or viewing the landscape through glass?  It’s a meditation. When I shoot, I like to let life lead me although there’s a lot of conscious reflection in the process. To observe changes the observed. I treat the viewfinder as a way to appreciate and “feel” what I’m looking at in that moment with complete attention. Cartier Bresson said “it’s where the heart, the mind and the eye align”. When I’m excited about the subject I can shoot far longer than I probably should. I become almost like a hound dog in hot pursuit on a trail, or a cat that sits and watches the light change. It’s no fun to be with me when I’m shooting because I’m a terrible host to people. I have wonderful friends that understand this about me, and don’t mind the long, long silences. The ineffable comes in unexpected moments.

You describe your photographs as events – does the camera act as a personal diary for you?  The camera is like a journal or sketchbook of sorts- or a field notebook. I learn about something, through observing and returning, and moving through the landscape of experience. I do learn from photographing-almost like a scientist with an artist’s eye.

Your work touches on some serious environmental issues – yet I see a sort of mystical beauty and tranquillity in your images – am I correct in thinking that you try to capture the spiritual aspect of landscapes (genius loci) within your work?The land and rivers and waterways teach me about how to live amidst change. (“To bend and not break like bamboo” like the Tao Te Ching instructs). But when I see our damages to the lands and waters, it’s like returning to the bedside of a dying friend…too painful to mention, but too deep a love to walk away. It’s also about looking deeply. Just when I think it’s too late, the land teaches me that it’s not. I find refuge in deep time- and study how things change over millennia. This helps me to relax in the thought of the planet’s ability to self-correct. What’s alarming though is that humans may not be in the future equation though if we don’t self-correct around limited resources and the protection and sharing of replenishing resources.

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Ballet Trees, New Orleans, (copyright) Michel Varisco

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Marshland Bones, Lafourche Parish (copyright) Michel Varisco

The trees in your ‘Fragile Land’ photographs (above) seem to be trying to communicate with us – as if they are have their own “presence” or spirits within them, they remind me of some of the photographs of British Neo-Romantic artist Paul Nash. Have you come across his work, and if so, do you share a similar vision to him?  Thank you for reconnecting me to his work. I think one thing we had in common is that we both suffered from post-traumatic stress- World Wars 1 and 2 for him and Hurricane Katrina and BP oil spill disaster for me. We both retreated to nature in order to heal. Nature taught me about regeneration and grit. Yes, the trees seemed to be communicating to both of us, because we were paying attention to the intense changes around us at the time. I truly don’t know how he survived seeing what he saw. I couldn’t have walked the road he walked. After reinvestigating some of his writings about his process- I can relate to his despair. To be an artist during this century is a delicate tightrope walk between sensitivity and toughness. To foster the ability to bend and not break.

Have you explored any other lens-based media, such as video/ film/ projection? If so, how do you rate using it compared to the medium of photography? I’m using video too now- and I am just as engrossed with it- although I previously preferred the darkroom to the computer. Now computer is an inevitable part of my practice- despite all resistance. My neck and back can tell you more about that. To heal from the tools of the trade, I swim, and then shoot video and stills of the beauty of water or its inhabitants. I tell you while I seem grim in some of my comments, I do find the world riddled with incredible beauty. Oftentimes beyond lens based anything!

Do you think that the use of lens-based media/technology can connect this generation of youngsters to nature, or help to re-enchant the landscape?  That’s a great question. It could go either way…but I don’t think it necessarily connects them- they can avoid nature because of or in spite of technology. Many in America complain that the harried life they live with all it’s technological advances has them on a short leach of time and they end up sacrificing some of their time in nature as a result. It’s with encouragement and guidance, inspiration and education that they venture into the wilderness. I take them there sometimes- into some muddy tangled woods and get their cool clothes all messed up-and they seem to like it in the end. I think they “remember to remember” when they enter into nature. (“Oh yeah, I forgot I liked nature” kind of thing). Sometimes they ask to shoot film instead of digital media- because they want the risk of messing up and the challenge of crafting a difficult print. But digital or analog, the important thing is that they encounter the landscape and come out of the experience enamoured even more by it. The important take away is that they will want to encourage, (and demand even) a cleaner more sane future that respects nature- that gives us life. And more than the medium used, and I think a great act of resistance, is the crafting of one’s time. Make time for nature, and it will payback those moments in infinite returns.

Any other comments you would like to make, or useful information?  Thank you for your interest in my work. I enjoyed looking at your blog and photographs very much as well. Your own sense of discovery and process is magical and inspiring. I love the way you blend science and art!

Some great resources in the form of books are:

  • Rachel Carson- The Sea around us
  • Naomi Klein- This changes Everything (book over film)
  • Kate Orff and Richard Misrach: Petrochemical America (the maps are incredible)
  • John Barry’s Rising Tide
  • Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest

Let me know if you have any further questions- and I hope your research paper turn out successful.

Cultural Identities

I grew some more samples from fungi in the lab last week, and some of them proved to be really interesting. I took them back to Birnam Wood to photograph them within the landscape where they were found, as I did previously with the jelly fungi. The results are below.. it was a lovely, sunny (yet cold) afternoon and I had to play around with the positioning of the petri dishes and the camera angles to try to get the best possible clarity of the culture and of the landscape.

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Coprinus Comatus (Lawyer’s Wig)

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Auricularia Judae (Jew’s ear fungus)

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Coprinus Niveus (Snow white ink cap)

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Cortinarius Sodagnitus (Bitter Lilac Web Cap)

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Neobulgaria Pura (Beech Jelly-disc)

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Ascocoryne Clichnium (Large purple-drop)

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Typhula Erythropus (red-stemmed tuber club)

I want to enlarge a few of these images, and envisage them being printed onto aluminium, around 70cm square. I feel that they might be a key feature in my final show.

To ‘scope or not to ‘scope?

I’ve been reading lately about the dilemma which faced the Romantics in relation to the practice of microscopy. As the Romantic movement  was a reaction to the rigid and objective based Newtonian science in the Age of Enlightenment, some Romantics struggled with their conscience when using the same scientific instruments which were used by Newton and others of his ilk. The use of these instruments was problematic, as they separated the subject from the naked eye – the preferred method of viewing the world by many Romantics. Goethe, an important figure of the era known for his writings and his own controversial form of Romantic science was one such example who, it would seem, held mixed feelings on the use of this optical device. His ‘delicate empiricism’ sought not to control or bend nature to his will, but to “…understand a thing’s meaning through prolonged empathetic looking and seeing grounded in direct experience” (Seamon :1998).  According to Seamon (1998). Goethe was not overly enamoured by the use of the microscope to view nature, as he felt that it could separate the student from its subject of study, leading to “an arbitrary or inaccurate understanding,” which can “…confuse man’s innate clarity of mind” (Goethe, cited in Seamon, 1998, p.2).

Bohme (2005), however, argues that as a youth, Goethe had “…eagerly consulted the microscope, in particular, in his botanical, zoological and mineralogical studies.” (2005:355) Bohme also points out that Goethe recognised the benefits of using such instruments to view nature’s phenomena, and he “…blesses their inventors from the heart” for bringing closer what he considered to be “…the greatest and smallest worlds of ‘metaphysical appearances’. (2205:355-358) Having owned at least four microscopes, all of which are held in the collection of at Goethe-Haus, Weimar (Otto,1976), Goethe obviously  recognised the need for such a tool, despite the fact that it made him uneasy. I would therefore suggest that his relationship with the instrument was a more private affair, and one which he preferred not to be made public for fear of compromising the integrity of his beliefs.

Coleridge and Emerson also took inspiration from ‘Romantic science’, which combined scientific studies of the planet,astronomy,  humans and nature with their own concepts of metaphysics and their reverence of nature.  Although Emerson is also said to have had uneasy feelings about the use of the microscope, he visited the workshops of microscope manufacturer Giovanni Battista Amici in Florence, where he purchased one for himself to view the wonders of nature through the achromatic lens (Wilson, 1999).

Ernst Haeckel however, who was one of Goethe’s greatest admirers and an important scientific artist of the Romantic era, found the microscope an invaluable tool for the beautifully intricate studies of natural history which he produced.He keenly promoted Darwinism, and was was particularly interested in the evolution of life forms, although many of his theories have since been proved inaccurate or exaggerated.  The microscope allowed him to reveal the wondrous unseen forms in nature which were previously inaccessible to the general public. His most famous works- Art Forms in Nature, feature stunning lithographic prints of his beautiful intricate drawings of Radiolarians; microscopic life forms which live on the ocean floor.

So, to summarise, it seems that some of the Romantics were in denial regarding the benefits of using scientific instruments, although they did partake in amateur microscopy, and owned at least one of these instruments themselves. Perhaps if more Romantic artists had taken an interest in science, we would have seen many more “Ernst Haeckels” of the day. It would have been interesting to see what Turner’s and Caspar David Friedrich’s work would have been like had they turned from the macro to the micro for inspiration.

Bohme, Hartmut. The Metaphysics Of Phenomena:Telescope And Microscope In The Works Of Goethe, Leeuwenhoek And Hooke. 1st ed. Web. 4 Apr. 2016. http://www-alt.culture.hu-berlin.de/hb/files/HB_Metaphysics_Phenomena.pdf

Otto, Ludwig. “Goethe’s Four Microscopes In Weimar”. Journal of microscopy 106.1 (1976): 71. Print.

Seamon, David. “Goethe, Nature, And Phenomenology”. Goethe’s Way Of Science: A Phenomenology Of Nature. David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc. 1st ed. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2016. Print.