Disposable Life

Studio Floor Chaos

Caitlin and I were both members of Little Berlin in 2012, and the first piece of her artwork that I encountered was a beautiful white dress that she made for our member show that year. Since then Caitlin has grown to be an extremely successful artist, and her intricate and beautiful crochet creations have captured the hearts of many. Caitlin has a really unique aesthetic and when I look at her work I am amazed by the amount of detail, precision, and time that goes into it.

-Angela McQuillan, curator

Cats at a bar! Image by Annette Monnier_small


Meow Meow Meow, Pew*

I first met Annette when we were in a show together at Little Berlin in 2011 called It was focused on science-inspired art, and Annette’s contribution was to make artisinal hydrogen in tiny little jars that people could take home. Since then, I have been a big fan of Annette’s writing on art, especially when she was doing “One Review A Month.” I love her honest and witty approach, she always has something smart to say and she doesn’t tread lightly. Annette does a variety of great things, she has been a key member of the Philadelphia art scene for many years. Annette is one of the Co-Founders and Curators at Practice Gallery and she is also the current Director at The University City Arts League.

-Angela McQuillan, curator

A couple of instances combined over the course of a few months to lead me to the brilliant conclusion that your correspondent would love to interview a Pew Fellowship Top Secret Nominator (let’s use PFTSN from now on) for her Curate This rumination. The first instance was that over drinks with civilians (here meaning people not strongly connected to the arts community in Philadelphia), I became aware that not many civilians actually know what a Pew Fellowship is. The conversation went something like this. I was explaining that so and so was a notable artist in the community and as part of my description fell back on “they won the Pew,” and the rest of my party replied, “huh?” This led directly to the second instance, which was my becoming aware that I use the Pew as a yardstick to measure notable artists without being all that conscious of doing it, a method I found to be not exactly scary but a little suspect. The third instance was that artists who have been nominated to apply for the Pew Fellowship this year were just informed of their status in December and the 2016 applications were due on January 22nd. This means folks were just nominated by the PFTSNs.

A little history and background: The Pew Fellowship is an unrestricted award given directly to an artist in the sum of $75,000 (people often make a comparison to the much better known MacArthur “Genius Grant”). The award has been given to about 12 artists a year since 1991 in a range of artistic disciplines, including (but not limited to) poetry, visual art, theater, dance, performance, film and craft. At its inception the application was open to any artist who was a resident of the five-county Philadelphia area, but in 2010 Pew changed to the secret nominating process. This year there were 30 secret nominators and each of them nominated two artists. Those 60 applications will be evaluated by a group from outside the region and given a ranking. Applications that are ranked highly then go on to a review panel, composed of people who are also from outside the region. The review panel comes up with the final 12 who get the award money and professional development opportunities.

Important to note: The PFTSNs are the only part of the selection process that may reside in the five-county Philadelphia region. According to the Pew Fellowship application guidelines they are “. . . nominators with a deep knowledge of artists working in this region and representing a wide range of expertise, experience, and points of view. . .”.

All this leads to what this article is about, which is 30 secret people—living and breathing among the artistic community, 30 secret people whom the general populace don’t even know or care to know exist—get to give an amazing gift to an artist. Any artist who has left the cushy enclosure of art school knows that art can be a lonely path, devoid of feedback or recognition or anyone giving two shits. Unsolicited recognition is pretty much unheard-of, so for an artist to be told, without asking for it, that they have been nominated . . . one imagines that must feel pretty good. (One of the irritations of this are the stories about those artists who get nominated every year—one story I heard had an artist receiving two nominations in one year, after being nominated once in the previous year—and never receiving the award. This would be fine if there was no work involved in being nominated, but every nominated artist must send in a lengthy application for consideration.)

In order to interview a PFTSN, one must find one, and your correspondent found a handful—which was no easy feat, requiring a vast amount of slightly ridiculous e-mails and an awful lot of swearing of secrecy. No nominator I talked to took their position lightly, and all were wary of disclosure, having signed some forms (some made the forms sound very lawfully binding and others shrugged them off), but most were just concerned that if they were discovered to have talked, they would never be asked to nominate again. In order to protect my sources to the best of my ability no one in this article will be named.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the largest percentage of people I talked to had never been a PFTSN; those who were, however, often expounded with a great deal of vitriol about the Pew in general, which gives out a great many grants—most of them to arts and cultural organizations—of pretty sizable chunks of money, enough so that they have a lot of power and influence over the sector. One of the most recurrent criticisms concerns this power, and the fact that the Pew waves it around pretty ham-fistedly, basically telling organizations what they want from them, which leads to the organization shaping themselves into the mold the Pew creates, instead of the Pew allowing the orgs to present their own individual ideas. One person I talked to said Pew came to their organization and basically told them what they would fund and encouraged them to apply with that idea. The overall picture presented is of a funder who lives high up in an ivory tower who sort of Eye of Saurons everyone into creating clone armies.

This evil-empire bit fits into the PFTSN narrative because all of the TSNs I talked to genuinely believe the Pew is all-seeing and the very fact of 30 TSNs hanging about means that artists have a good reason to believe this as well. Aside from them being top-secret, interviewing a PFTSN turns out to be a bit of a non-story. The whole process seems pretty fair and basically banal. A nominator gets to nominate two artists by answering a couple of questions in writing about why this artist fits into the Pew Fellowship criteria. The main point of this criteria seems to be that you are judging the merit of the art created, not the artist that created the art. The nominator cannot be related to the person they nominate nor can they have any conflicts of blood, sex, or money. One of the difficulties of the nomination process is that you have to write a great deal about an artist without contacting that artist about their work. Nearly everyone struggled with this part, having to rely on what they already knew and what they could find on the internet. As compensation for the good deal of time it takes to write one of these nominations, the PFTSN receives a stipend of $200-$250 (this varied from story to story). Once the nominator turns in their nomination they hear nothing else from Pew. They are informed of the winners the same way the general public is. No one I talked to had been asked to nominate more than once.

The most interesting part of this whole thing is, all-seeing Pew or not, absolutely no nominator I talked to has kept their status 100% secret. They always told a trusted civilian, roommate, wife or husband (who wouldn’t?). Everyone received a great deal of satisfaction out of being able to nominate someone whose work they respected—especially those whose artists actually won. Everyone also received a great deal of frustration from not being able to tell their nominees they had nominated them, but were sort of ultimately happy to stay anonymous. Being a nominator of a successful Pew winner is a lovely thing, but having all your friends wondering why you did not nominate them is not.

By way of conclusion this leaves us just about nowhere. The Pew is a foundation with a great deal of power and influence and they may be guilty of not listening to Peter Parker’s surrogate father**. Any organization that sends out 30 TSNs into the world can expect to be seen as somewhat shadowy, but the TSNs themselves seem to be great friends to artists, often claiming to have picked people they doubt the Pew would have any interest in. Perhaps the shadowy network we should be more concerned about is that star chamber of evaluators and panelists from “outside the region.” Why put an emphasis on these folks coming from the outside? Wouldn’t a mix of perspectives be more valuable during each part of the process?

Ultimately $75,000 to an artist seems good for building the caliber of art in this region, it would be even better if we could be sure the Pew wasn’t Pygmalion, falling in love with only their own creations.

*Please note that I would never use the word “meow” lightly.
**”With great power comes great responsibility”

Illustration by Annette Monnier.

Musical stuff_small


Living Inquiries into Art and Design

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.