BioArt: Infective Textiles, Synthetic Evolution and the ‘Romantic Disease’ by Anna Dumitriu

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From the UK, Anna Dumitriu is a Brighton-based Bioartist whose work explores humanity’s cultural and intellectual relationship to the microbial world and the history of medicine and the future of biomedicine, by fusing craft and biotechnology.

Anna is the artist in residence on the Modernising Medical Microbiology Project at the University of Oxford, as well as a research fellow in the Wellcome Trust Brighton and Sussex Centre for Global Health (at Brighton and Sussex Medical School) to investigate the nature of infectious disease.

Here we asked Anna about some of her work – and decided to outline a couple of her projects in particular.

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Infective Textiles (2011)

Usinggarage science‘ methods and DIY microbiology, Anna collaborated on the creation of a textile-based artwork: A Regency style dress was stained with bacterial pigments and patterned with antibiotics using silk thread.

The ‘Infective Textiles’ Dress  went ‘viral’ in popularity – and was showcased as part of the “Laboratory Life” Project (2011), a 10-day open workshop which was curated by The Arts Catalyst, Lighthouse in Brighton and Andy Gracie.

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Left: Regency Style Dress stained with bacterial pigments and patterened by antibiotics (Source: Anna Dumitriu). Right: Frame of the Laboratory Life Project in progress at the Brighton Lighthouse (Credit: Melissa Grant for Recording, Alex May for Editing and Anna Dumitriu).

By placing the dress in a ‘giant petri dish’ (filled with a DIY culture medium from supermarket products) environmental bacteria were grown – selected by the attractiveness of their natural pigments such as burnt oranges and rose pinks.

The dress had been pasteurized before the exhibition, killing all the living bacteria, so that it could be observed closely without the perceived risk of infection (quite an obstacle for BioArtists working on the Microbiome).

The Bacteria Light Lab (2015)

Another one of Anna’s intensive projects was The Bacteria Light Lab exhibited at the Wellcome Collection (UK) last May. Visitors were guided through different participatory stations showing fusions of art, microbiology and the history.

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Anna Dumitriu’s Bacteria Light Lab. Bioluminescent bacteria in nature, a visitor basking in the light of bioluminescent bacteria and the historical use of sunlight in the treatment of tuberculosis. (Source: Anna Dumitriu)

Participants even had the chance to bask in the light of bioluminescent bacteria, whilst at the same time learn about the the history of using light as a therapy for certain diseases and infection (like Tuberculosis).

Bacterial communication is a pioneering area of current research, in that blocking it could serve as a novel treatment for diseases ‘as it may be possible to stop bacteria from producing toxins or becoming virulent‘.

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Left: Bioluminescent bacterial cultures with Simon Park and Right: Participants were invited to make their own Winogradsky Columns ( self-sustaining microbial ecosystem which react differently with light) (Credit: Anna Dumitriu)

WETWARE: Synthetic Evolution (2016)

The exhibitionWETWARE – Synthetic Evolution  is running until the 7th May 2016 at the Beall Center  for Art and Technology in California. It shows the final outcomes of the intensive artists residency in the Liu Lab for Synthetic Evolution that Anna has undertaken at the University of California Irvine (US).

The ‘Engineered Antibody‘ and ‘Necklace‘ (2016) pieces are part of the WETWARE exhibition, displaying a metaphor for amino acids structuring proteins in the form of a ‘string of beads’.

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WETWARE: Synthetic Evolution, Necklace made up of 452 hand-made beads containing the actual 21 amino acids of an antibody purified from the blood of a HIV positive patient. (Credit: Anna Dumitriu)

This concept was also materialised down to the genomic level of an engineered antibody. The ‘beads’ themselves were handmade and contain a single amino acid, which when come together form an antibody, which binds to HIV.

The Romantic Disease: An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis (2014)

The Romantic Disease (2014) was a major project and exhibition by Anna, first exhibited in London (at Watermans) and funded by The Wellcome Trust.

Leading the observer through the different stages of Tuberculosis (TB), it explored the early superstitions surrounding the disease, to the development of antibiotics and an expression of the latest research to show ‘Man’s strange relationship with TB’.

The pieces of The Romantic Disease consist of a combination of textile art, altered objects, sculptural installations and biological matter, including Mycobacterium vaccae (a non-pathogenic species of bacteria that lives in soil).

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Another interesting part of the exhibition showed tiny lungs made from wool and dust, named ‘Where there’s dust there’s danger’, visualizing the early 20th century misconception that dust was the main causative of TB.

Level 3 containment was then used (the highest level possible with bacteria) to extract the sterile DNA of TB and incorporate it into the felt lungs.

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‘Where there’s dust there’s danger’ lungs made from wool and dust into which DNA of killed Mycobacterium tuberculosis was incorporated. (Source: Anna Dumitriu)

Shortly after, the exhibition started touring globally, also visiting the Art Laboratory Berlin (Germany) in September until November 2014. It will also be shown at Ediniburgh International Science Festival from 26th March to 13th May 2016.

Anna’s work has been exhibited at The Picasso Museum in Barcelona (Spain), The Science Gallery in Dublin (Ireland), The Museum of Contemporary Art Tapei (Taiwan) and The V & A Museum in London. It has also featured in several major public collections, such as The Eden Project (a National Biome in South-west England).

Would you not also love to be part of this? See the video tour of the ‘The Romantic Disease’ at the Waag Society with Anna.



Feature Image Credit: Remix of Graphics by Claire Braun @ Labiotech (Source Credit: Photo of Anna Dumitriu from WIRED UK / Other works from Anna Dumitriu)
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