Lead image: Flowers (2014), the latest image in the Colonies series. Courtesy Vik Muniz and Tal Danino.
The last thing Brazilian multidisciplinary artist Vik Muniz imagined upon meeting MIT postdoctoral fellow, and self-described "bacteria enthusiast" Tal Danino, was that the process of art creation would begin right then and there.
Months later, from healthy cheek cells to cancer cells, Danino and Muniz were creating image after image of biogenerated beauty. Muniz, the 52-year-old artist responsible for using focused ion beam technology to etch sandcastles onto single grains of sand, explains: "I always love to collaborate with scientists because it gives me an idea that we can perhaps meet in the middle somewhere and make this perfect piece of art that's exactly this combination between matter and meaning. Colonies is a collaboration between a scientist and an artist, trying to make pictures out of living things— tiny, tiny living things." Crossing as many disciplines as the project did boundaries for both the artist and the scientist, it was an experiment wherein the rigid scientific method was complemented by the fluidity of the artistic process, and vice versa.
An image of a cat created from cancer cells
Danino outlined for us the three steps required to make the duo's bio artworks:
The process for making these images consists of three steps. The first step is to make a master image wafer using photolithography techniques. The second step is actually to cast a rubber stamp from this wafer, and use that stamp to make a sticky image on a dish that cancer cells or bacteria can stick to. The final step is to apply cancer cells or bacteria to this dish, and allow them to bind to the sticky material, and then take images on a microscope. You can actually see the individual bacteria and cancer cells with this high-powered microscope. But then if you zoom out, you can actually see the image in its entirety.
After developing their specialized "printing" process, the sky became the limit: the duo turned to a number of Vik Muniz' photographs as inspiration for what they'd grow, and began creating Colonies. As increasing trials proved that the bacteria and cells used could hold up to the image-making process, it became a bountiful challenge for both artist and experimenter. Admits Muniz, "I never would have expected that I would meet someone working with that level of complexity. To my surprise, he could do it, and to his surprise, it was a lot harder than he thought."
Continues Muniz, "We started with very simple patterns that would pair something that is in our minds very chaotic, to something that's very orderly, something that is created by the minds of man. But as soon as we started doing that, we felt tempted to try different patterns, like crowds and sports events, traffic jams, circuit boards… It's like somehow trying to pair mind and matter together and seeing what comes out of it."
Despite their tremendous successes with their images, however, both artist and biologist admit that audiences could be challenged by the mediums the image series' presents. In fact, Danino's own relationship with the disease was fixed in the abstract until his sister came face-to-face with cancer. It's the type of globally-affecting issue that only artistry could have the power to aesthetically subvert. States Muniz, "It's quite beautiful to have a picture of cancer cells— something so scary, and so otherworldly— into something that can inspire beauty […] For these things to become part of everybody's life, you do need a picture. You need a way to experience. That's a way for artists to partner with scientists— they can provide a vision."
But while some of their mediums may be challenging to talk about, Muniz had humorous things to say about the other creepy-crawlies used to create Colonies: "We think of bacteria as something bad, but in fact they rule the world. We have more bacteria than human cells in our bodies. If we didn't have a small portion of these, we would be dead. It's a lifelong collaboration."
It's the kind of collaboration that shows just how far the human sciences have come. Explains Danino, "In synthetic biology, we reprogram life. And we start thinking about the ways that nature designs life, and the ways that we can imagine redesigning life to do the things that it doesn't normally do." It's a grand project, but not without a generous goal. The scientist continues, "Here at MIT, what I've been doing is actually engineering bacteria to detect cancer. The idea behind that is that bacteria can actually grow within tumors. Once they grow within tumor environments, you can get them to sense that environment, and produce a molecule that allows you to easily detect the presence of a tumor."
It's the fascinating result of what happens when the two dissociated disciplines of science and art find harmony in one another. And with Creators like these, we can only anxiously await what they'll grow next.
'HeLa cell Pattern 1.' Courtesy of Vik Muniz and Tel Danino.
Vik Muniz's original bacteria portrait.
Proceeds from the 'Colonies' series will go towards funding cancer research. To learn more about the project, visit Tal Danino's personal website.