Artist-Scientist Statements & Method

Text from exhibition catalogue:  
"Growing Impressions"
Serrano Contemporary, NYC
February 19 to March 28, 2009

Method: Painting with Bacteria. We present the first progeny of a collaboration between artist and scientist. Our images, which may resemble traditional watercolors, oils or drawings, are actually paintings made from growing microorganisms. Our paint is E. coli bacteria. Our canvas is agar in a petri dish. When we paint, the brushstrokes are nearly invisible.  The blue designs emerge only after a night spent growing in a warm incubator. The developing images contain pools, lines and dots that fill our brushstrokes yet grow in unpredictable patterns. Each dot is a living colony, a tiny mountain of billions of bacteria that grew from a single bacterial cell when it fell from brush to canvas.  When the brush is full, many bacteria fall close together and the colonies converge into continuous regions of blue.  At the ends of brushstrokes fewer organisms remain, so lines dissipate and single colonies emerge.  This effect would be nearly impossible to achieve with non-living, chemical paints. Because the media is still clear when we paint, it presents unique challenges. The artist cannot edit or repair an errant stroke. The scientist worries that the paint may have died. After a long day of painting, we must wait until the next morning to open the incubator, not knowing if we will see anything, much less the images we had hoped to create. If we find success, we print the images from agar to paper and encase these bacterial “still-lives” in resin.  With particularly compelling images, we continue growing the original dishes or re-print the original design onto fresh agar.  Both methods produce “replica paintings” that resemble the original yet are unpredictably distinct because random biological processes control where the paint grows.  We compile related replica paintings into single works – studies of natural variations on a theme.

Artist: Amy Chase Gulden.  I am drawn to processes I can’t fully control. Many images in this show are born from my work with shadows.  I will seek a plant in the sun, capturing that moment by tracing it onto paper; nature provides an outline that I fill.  In this collaboration, I work with living E.coli bacteria – I provide the outline on a petri dish and the medium grows to fill it.  Here you can see the polarity of these efforts; where the bacteria has run free and bears little mark of my hand, and where it is more contained within the imagery I’ve chosen. To amplify certain images, I employ the sun to create cyanotypes.  Finding the balance that lets the material “speak” is what proves most interesting.  We’ve enlisted an organic material to depict other living things, and in so doing I’ve been surprised to learn how similar the structures of plants are to that of our perceptual machinery (neurons) and my own way of working to that of a scientist.

Scientist: Kristin Baldwin.  As a molecular biologist, I spend my days in the lab with E. coli bacteria, our artistic media.  This microscopic workhorse lets us manipulate DNA so that we can understand what genes do.  My research aims to use molecular biology to answer questions originally posed by philosophers and artists.  Why do we like what we like?  Why are certain things innately compelling or beautiful or disgusting?  Modern biology suggests that our shared tastes may derive from our shared genes. I ask, which genes, and how?  My interest in art stems from a hypothesis - that artists are people who intuit which images or ideas will speak to the common neural part of all of us. If genes build these common neural representations, it is through the hand of evolution. Here we exploit the natural patterns of growing microorganisms to produce images that are unpredictable yet biased to be compelling to the eye, perhaps because they resemble things of strong evolutionary interest to our ancestors.

Deepest thanks go to Andrew M. Rosen for sponsoring this catalogue.