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Living Inquiries into Art and Design

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Angela McQuillan is a mixed-media artist and curator based in Philadelphia. Her art practice as a whole is a study of various ways that art and science intersect and inform one another. Her ideas involve experiencing the living world with infinite curiosity and appreciation, while coming up with unique solutions to problems through artistic and scientific investigation. Angela is a former member of the Little Berlin collective and currently works as the Curator of the Esther Klein Gallery at The Science Center in University City.

In a previous piece that I wrote for Curate This, I mention that compared to other cities Philadelphia does not have many opportunities for artists to utilize biological materials as an art medium. As the potential of this medium becomes more recognized worldwide, our city has begun to take interest. A new course at the University of Pennsylvania responds to this issue and offers a curriculum integrating both disciplines. Starting its first class in fall 2015, Biological Design, taught by Orkan Telhan and Karen Hogan, investigates ways that biological materials and processes can be used creatively by designers and artists.

At the beginning of the semester, students were assumed to have no background in biology. Over the course of a few months, they were exposed to various laboratory research methods and concepts that culminated in a final project and an exhibition. In December 2015, this exhibition opened to the public at Penn’s Morgan Gallery featuring the work of students who had taken the very first biological design course. BYO: Four Inquiries into Biological Design presented four unique and diverse projects exploring the interface of biology, art and design. I was able to attend this exhibition to get a closer look at these projects.

STABILIMENTUM by Mónica Butler, Rebecca Van Sciver and Jiwon Woo

Named after the structure of a spider’s web, Stablilimentum is a wearable plastic face mask that wraps around the head, with a small dome-shaped compartment strategically placed in front of the mouth housing a single orb-weaver spider. The idea is for the spider to construct a web that acts as an air filter for the wearer. The Oxford Silk Group at the University of Oxford recently discovered that the “glue” coating on threads of spider silk not only sticks to insects, but also toxic aerosols and pesticides. Effectively, spider webs can remove toxins from the air and act as naturally produced air filters that are completely biodegradable. Additionally, these webs can also be used as pollution monitoring devices, since the shape of a spider’s web changes depending on the types of pollutants it has ingested.

When not being worn the mask is placed onto a “recharging” station where the spider is fed with flies and is able to regenerate a new web. A symbiotic relationship is created between human and spider while creating a (very) unique fashion statement.

The presentation of this project included a physical prototype of the face mask containing a live spider, and various containers displaying an assortment of webs and flies. I was struck with curiosity on what it would be like to wear a live spider on my face. Any time I encounter a spider, I am terrified and I have the overcoming urge to get as far away from it as possible. I wonder if this is an instinct that can be easily overcome through exposure, or is arachnophobia deeply ingrained in my psyche as some sort of evolved trait? This piece provides an interesting commentary on the way that humans typically react to arthropods, whether rational or not. While many spiders are dangerous, most are harmless and can actually be beneficial to humans if we can find a way to overcome our fear and allow them into our personal space. I just can’t get over the idea of one accidentally crawling into my mouth . . .

Mouth spider! Image by Angela McQuillan

KHITOPHONY by Jenny Ho and Wing Dyana So

Inside of a plexiglass terrarium, small tambourines made out of chitosan (a bioplastic that dissolves in water) were laid out on a bed of soil surrounded by plants. A musical number was performed live for the audience which included the chitosan tambourines accompanied by guitar and clarinet. To activate the tambourines, one of the artists poured water onto the top of the terrarium structure, causing it to drip down directly onto the chitosan. The water droplets created a soft and peaceful rhythm that was amplified into speakers, evoking a feeling of tranquility reminiscent of the calm after a rainstorm. At the end of the ensemble performance, the water dissolved the tambourines, turning them into plant fertilizer. The ephemeral nature of performance was emphasized by the temporariness of the instruments themselves, which only last for a single song.

Chitosan is a derivative of chitin, a sugar obtained from the exoskeletons of shellfish including cicadas and considered to be one of the most abundant organic materials on earth. Researchers at the Wyss Institute at Harvard recently developed a new way to process chitosan so that it can be used to fabricate large complex shapes by casting or injection molding. Not only is this plastic fully biodegradable, but it is actually beneficial because it releases nutrients back into the soil upon degradation. With all of the negative environmental effects of traditional synthetic plastic, chitosan offers a promising alternative for the future of plastic . . . and music.

Stabilimentum. Image by Angela McQuillan

SEEPSCAPE by James Bartolozzi, Sarah Krueger and Morgan Snyder

One of the more technically complex projects, Seepscape is a product made out of 3D printed plastic that aims to expand the surface area of deep sea ecosystems while reducing methane emissions. A “cold seep” is an area on the ocean floor where methane-rich seepage can occur. These areas are devoid of sunlight, causing organisms to rely instead on chemosynthetic derived energy. More simply, organisms use methane as a resource. Seepscape is a modular structure designed in a continuous gyroid shape, intended to be placed on the ocean floor at the site of a methane seep. Methane eating bacteria are the first organisms to colonize the structure, followed by mussels who derive their nutrients from the bacteria and deposit calcium carbonate.

After a period of time the structure would be removed from the ocean allowing humans to harvest the mussels for sustainable animal feed, and to harvest the calcium carbonate for sustainable plastic production. When calcium carbonate is used as filler in plastic manufacturing, less energy is spent in fabrication and the carbon footprint is dramatically reduced.

Seepscape was displayed as a fabricated 3D printed structure, placed inside of a tank as a mock-up of the ocean floor. Its gyroid surface is fascinating because it contains no straight lines and has the ability to reflect light and function as a photonic crystal, which can be seen in the iridescent appearance of the scales of a butterfly’s wing or the shell of a Japanese beetle. This creates a labyrinth of pathways to slow down the travel of light or gas through a designated space. Seepscape is a completely man made object that is designed to integrate seamlessly with nature. It reminds me of Makerbot’s Project Shelter, where 3D printed plastic shells were created for hermit crabs in need of new homes. The line between what is artificial and what is “natural” is easily blurred, and we are reminded of one of the most amazing traits of biological organisms: their ability to adapt to their ever-changing surroundings.

Seepscape, image by Angela McQuillan

PROBIOME by Rebecca Hallac and Vincent Snagg

The common conception that all germs are bad is antiquated. Probiome is a probiotic spray containing the S. epidermidis bacteria designed to promote a healthy microbiome on the user’s hands. S. epidermidis is closely related to S. aureus, the bacteria known for causing a staph infection. When both types of bacteria exist on the skin surface, S. epidermidis has been shown to have the ability to promote the production of a skin barrier that inhibits the growth of skin pathogens such as S. aureus. In a nutshell, the “good” bacteria wins when put in competition with the “bad” bacteria.

The implications of this are huge. In a world where antibiotics are overused and resistance is increasing, a product that provides competing bacteria as an alternative is promising. Probiome is designed for use in the health industry where staph infections occur frequently. A motion-sensored spray bottle containing the bacteria is strategically placed at a shared computer in a hospital, and every person who uses the keyboard gets a spray as a preventative measure. Additionally, Probiome can be placed inside of a wearable device, kind of like a fitbit, so you can have your S. epidermidis on the go.

Probiome image by Angela McQuillan

This entire exhibition was interesting and thought provoking because each piece took a different approach to biotechnology and manipulated it creatively in order to perform a specific function. All of the projects were based in relevant areas of scientific study, and the designs were imaginative while also being plausible. (I use the word “plausible” because while these designs were executed physically they were not tested for longer term functionality). The most impressive aspect is that these designs were made in a relatively short period of time by students who were newly acquainted with the material. This type of cross-disciplinary approach to art and design is very important, and something that we need more of in Philadelphia. This work is important because it provides commentary and explores the cultural implications of biotechnological advancement, as well as presenting creative applications of technology to come up with unique solutions to problems.

BYO: Four Inquiries into Biological Design is unfortunately no longer on view, as it was a one night only event. If you would like to see more intriguing projects using biological design, you will have to wait until the next student exhibition at the end of the Spring semester. Until then, pick up a copy of Biobuilder by Natalie Kuldell, Rachel Bernstein, Karen Ingram and Kathryn M. Hart. This text provides hands-on lessons in synthetic biology for teachers and students, and is one of the primary texts used by Telhan and Hogan in their biological design course.

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