Bacterial Art Starts a Debate on Money and International Borders

We have been told over and over that bacteria are everywhere around us, especially on your smartphone screen. But most of us haven’t stopped to reflect on the fact — and consequences — of bacteria being all over our money.

A scientific study by the New York University called the Dirty Money Project revealed in 2014 the presence of 3,000 different types of bacteria living on 80 $1 banknotes circulating in New York. These bacteria came from human skin, mouths and genitalia, and, like money, they could be freely transported and exchanged across the world.

Artist Ken Rinaldo explores the many consequences of bacteria living on money in his project Borderless Bacteria; Colonialist Cash. Rinaldo cultured microbes on agar plates containing banknotes from currencies around the world that were collected at the international border at the Lisbon Airport. After letting them grow for two weeks, the pieces are exhibited to spark the debate on bacteria, money and borders.

Bacterial cultures, fungi, and viruses finding transport on monetary exchange systems do not respect or understand borders,” states Rinaldo. “There are no visas or passports for microbes that hitch rides from hands, noses, and genitalia.

The artist compares how bacteria use money as vectors to colonize new places to how Europeans colonized America, wiping 95% of native populations by bringing with them the germs that cause diseases like smallpox, measles or influenza. He calls microbes “the original colonizers,” since according to the evolutionary theory of Lynn Margulis, the eukaryotic cells that form our bodies evolved long ago from prokaryotes.

Jumping back to 2017, Rinaldo wonders how our economy and politics will influence the distribution of bacteria around the world. Do Chinese yuens and US dollars share the same bacteria given the extensive trade between both countries? Will bills from Palestine have less microbes because of the Israeli blockade? Do different microorganisms live on money from rich and poor countries? Could then microbes become a sign of wealth and status?

Given the fact that money could one day be a vector for the rapid distribution of dangerous microbes resistant to antimicrobials, the answer to these questions could actually help us understand and fight the spread of deadly diseases, especially as antibiotic resistance becomes an increasingly pressing issue.

Works from Borderless Bacteria; Colonialist Cash New Art Festival are currently on show at the in Lisbon until November 30th and will be at FACTT in Berlin from November 29th.

Borderless Bacteria; Colonialist Cash at BioArts Lab School for the Visual Arts, New York

Images via Ken Rinaldo’s website

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Bioart from the Ocean Depths: Underwater Sounds

What can art tell us about the mysteries of underwater life? Robertina Šebjanič explores the fascinating world of jellyfish, shrimps, fish and sea urchins.  

Robertina Šebjanič is an artist and researcher fascinated by underwater life. Her work explores the relationship between humans and animals, often through an unusual medium: sound.

Šebjanič collaborates with other artists, philosophers, and marine researchers to explore the unexplored and complex world of underwater inhabitants, taking her audience closer to nature and encouraging us to reflect on our influence and relationship with other forms of life.

Aquatocene / Subaquatic quest for serenity

Armed with a hydrophone, Šebjanič has sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and the Aegean, Adriatic, and North Sea, recording a myriad of sounds coming from different species living underwater. The resulting soundscape compositions are beautiful immersive pieces that reveal there’s much more going on underwater than most of us tend to think.

But Šebjanič’s work also highlights how much sound pollution from humans there is in today’s aquatic ecosystems. “The more I recorded and listened to the material, the more I realized that these sounds are today’s sonic reality of the ocean and that there are not many places that are free of man-produced sounds,” the artist said in an interview.

Life underwater relies on sounds as much as terrestrial species to communicate, and their habitats can be severely affected by the ubiquitous use of ships, sonars, and sound cannons for oil exploration. Researchers studying this phenomenon have linked it with the beaching of whales and the Lombard effect, by which certain species become louder to overcome background noise, ultimately increasing the volume of the whole habitat.

You can listen to the audio compositions here.

Aurelia 1+Hz / proto viva sonification 

The collaborating performers Robertina Šebjanič chose for this project are moon jellyfish. As the animals go about their business in an aquarium, a camera captures data of movement, contraction and interaction, which is then processed and used to navigate sound archives, coming mostly from underwater recordings of jellyfish bloom the artist did herself in Izmir, Turkey. The result is an audiovisual display in which the jellyfish and the artist perform together.

Jellyfish have existed for over 500 million years, adapting and surviving many changes in their habitat. Some species are known to be immortal. Not even human activity seems to disturb them, as it is happening with corals or fish. Šebjanič writes on her website that this could make this animal “one of the rare organisms that seem perfectly suited for the Anthropocene era,” able to survive the next mass extinction.

Through the project Aurelia 1+Hz / proto viva sonification, the artist looks into redefining our attitude towards interspecies collaboration. She reminds us that we humans are not the only ones on the planet with complex communication systems that equate to our language. To describe the piece, Šebjanič quotes Paul Celan: “There are still songs to sing beyond mankind.”

Upcoming events by Robertina Šebjanič

Performance: Aquatocene / Subaquatic quest for serenity
Tesla Award at City Museum Ljubljana, Slovenia
8 November 

Exhibition: Aurelia 1+Hz / proto viva sonification
Cynetart festival, Dresden, Germany
16 – 19 November

Lecture: Sounds of Troubled Worlds = Songs for Serenity
Nonhuman agents in Art, Culture and Theory conference, Art Laboratory Berlin, Germany
26 November

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Biomaterials Take the Stage at Dutch Design Week

The Dutch Design Week featured several biodesign projects that explore how the future will be shaped by the advance of biotechnology. Let’s have a look at some of them. 

Celebrated annually in Eindhoven, the Dutch Design Week has become a hotspot where designers share the latest trends and technologies. In the last few years, biodesign is increasingly drawing the attention as synthetic biology techniques are revolutionizing the way we produce and work with materials, often as a sustainable alternative to traditional methods.

Adidas is already producing biodegradable silk sneakers made in bioreactors and Coca-Cola is working on renewable bioplastic bottles. So what were the latest innovations presented this year at the Dutch Design Week?

Bioanarchy in the UK

Synthetic biology techniques become more and more accessible. For example, thanks to Bento Bio, you can already buy your own kit to analyze DNA samples at home. But what will happen when anyone can edit DNA at home?

In a workshop titled Biodesign for Social Impact, a team of students from the University of Edinburgh presents the potential of biotechnology to take over the social and political landscapes in the near future. Their project UK 2029, which won the runner-up award at the BioDesign Challenge 2017, imagines a future where the United Kingdom allows the release of GMOs, leading anarchist biohackers to use genetically modified fungi to fight gentrification and to create skin implants to hide microbial factories from the government’s microbial surveillance technology.

Biocurrency and fungal paint

The Material Sense LAB in Eindhoven develops biomaterials adapted to the needs of the future. “We want to leave behind as little waste as possible,” says founder Simone de Waart. At the Dutch Design Week, one of the projects it presents is a new form of bio-based currency. The coins, made of bioplastic PLA, have already been successfully used as payment during the Gebouw-T festival.

Another project is Xyhlo bio-finish, a black paint made out of a type of fungus called Aureobasidium pullulans. This black fungus can tell how healthy the wood of the trees it lives on is, depending on how dark its color is. This allows assessing when the material is at the end of its lifecycle, which can then be re-used for other applications. Three buildings in the Netherlands have already been painted with Xyhlo bio-finish and the Material Sense LAB is following how it holds up.

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Blood Takes the Stage at a Science and Art Exhibition in London

An exhibition “not for the squeamish” at Science Gallery London explores the fascinating world of blood: its history, the science and our relationship to it. Blood is essential to keep us alive. Our own language shows us that it has …

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BioArt and Bacteria Exhibition is Coming to Oxford

A new exhibition in Oxford features the beautiful art of Anna Dumitriu, exploring the complex world of microbes and how we interact with them.  Anna Dumitriu, prolific bioartist that works with bacteria, will show some of her best work at …

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