Behind the Gorgeous Microorganismal Art of Nurit Bar-Shai's 'Chemical Tweets'

Biotech meets art on a petri dish.

Feb 2 2014, 2:35pm

Nurit Bar-Shai’s Objectivity [tentative]  is a movement inspired by the biochemical work of Professor Eshel Ben-Jacob of Tel Aviv University in the artist’s native Israel. The project celebrates the convergence between art, science, and technology by showing off the visual results of the “chemical tweets” that take place between social microorganisms when they are placed in different settings. Bar-Shai’s latest exhibition, Sound to Shape, is a live performance art installation in which sound stimuli works as the chief variable catalyzing these living works of art.

The show appeared all last year in international galleries such as the Dublin Science Gallery and universities such as Colorado College, and has also visited less formal locales like West Café in Brooklyn last December.

Injecting Paenibaciullus vortex bacteria into agar (seaweed-based gelatin used in petri dishes to foster bacterial reproduction) with a syringe, Bar-Shai simultaneously executes different sound frequencies and musical strains that stimulate the microorganisms. The synesthetic signal combining visual and audio elements prompts the microogranisms to grow into images.

This particular type of bacteria has been specifically noted by the science community for “cooperative motility” and advanced colonization; communicating with one another to creating singular formations. These “smart” qualities have made P. vortex a prime choice for industrial, agricultural, and medical development, for synthesis of products ranging from cosmetics to biofuels.

But what makes art possible from this weird science is the sensitivity of the living medium, which produces radically different and complex results even when environmental conditions vary only slightly. This adaptability seems apropos to P. vortex’s natural occurrence in the more mutable organic features such as soil, water, vegetable matter, grasses, roots, and insect larvae.

Bar-Shai regards her spectrum-spanning bacterial colonies as a “visual representation of communication systems.” It just so happens that these representations of cell to cell messaging are hypnotizingly gorgeous. This reminds us a little of Sarah Schoenfeld's recent photo exhibition, All You Can Feel!, that spotlights nefarious chemicals (ahem, hard drugs) under a microscope to reveal a surprising array of shapes and colors. 

As the co-founder and Arts and Culture Program Director of Genspace NYCa brain tickling bio-tech library and science education community organization in Brooklyn that allows regular people to take lab crash courses that produce funky resultsBar-Shai works frequently with biological technologies and microorganisms in non-artistic ways as well.

One of her overarching missions is to spark and perpetuate dialogue about ethical issues behind the fact that DIY biological experimentation and genetic manipulation are becoming more and more accessible. However, exploration in this area often yields beautiful data, further blending the lines between science and aesthetics until they seem one and the same; an indeterminate series of miraculous phenomena to please both the eye and the intellect.

This post originally appeared at our sister site the Creator's Project.