This picture, for example, is one of many found In the Eshel Ben-Jacob Galllery. These remarkable images are actually patterns. Not the kind we played with in lab, (the making of jackolanter faces with paper and UV radiation) but by manipulating the adaptive responses of colonies. “Laboratory-imposed stresses that mimic [natural] hostile environments” are used to shape the billions of microbes. While the patterns are all based on bacterial communication, the colour and shading are all artistic additions.
However, the laboratory tests aren’t all for the sake of art. They are actually used to test the coping capabilities of bacteria. The main result of which is a pattern of responses. The responses elicited by the bacteria show the cooperation and communication used by bacteria throughout a colony and between colonies. Responses which have in the past thwarted our best efforts and our best antibiotics. By watching these patterns carefully we are able to create great art and discover the mechanisms behind the intelligent design.
Yet, this is not the only method of creating art with our oldest and newest media on agar based medium. A Bulgarian artist, Houben Tcherkelov, is reaching out - away from the testing based art - and back into the more traditional forms of art such as classical etching. Tcherkelov explains that his goal is “ to create something which does not exist, a remarkable, manipulated bioproduct” and “I use bacteria to do the etching. I want to present a color image of our biologic coexistence.”
While Tcherkelov popularized the bacteria-art movement in 2001, Anna Dumitriu has continued it with her “The Normal Flora Project.” “The Normal Flora Project” is heavily inspired by medical science, cell biology, supplements (such as vitamin C) and their effects, as well as the concept of immortality; All of which, culminated into the culturing of bacteria and moulds in domestic environments. Dumitriu concentrates on the friendly and harmless bacteria for her exhibits. Some of her bacteria art is even available for phones. A series of cell-phone wallpapers are based on Dumitriu’s light micrographs of bacteria and mould spores at 1000x magnification (as seen below). Though she is best known for her phone wallpapers, her exhibits have also shown needle points and patterns carved into chairs based on the patterns taken from bacteria on the chair.
Much has happened in the scientific and art worlds in the last decade. But a word or warning to anyone looking to combine the two in the near future. You have to suffer for great art. Some of our scientific artists have gone through much in the last decade alone. Steven Kurtz can attest to that – and probably has testified it in court. Kurtz is one of the founding members of the Critical Art Ensemble which was supposed to demystify and “alleviate inappropriate fear[s] of transgenic science and redirect
concern toward the political implications of the research” by concentrating on benign bacteria. Though the artists followed all of the correct procedures and there were no health hazards, they were still subpoenaed for “possession of biological agents.” Escherichia coli can be hazardous to one’s health if handled improperly but all of the proper measures werein place. “The group's works… include websites and mock newspaper ads touting fictional biotech companies, and shows in which the audience has the chance to drink beer containing human DNA.” I can understand how this would put up some red flags, but this does not merit prosecution for the ''possession of biological agents.''
So just in case you too would like to begin a career in bacterial art, keep in mind the risks involved.