Leora Farber :: Research process

In 2017, my artmaking practice shifted from an interest in how emergent forms of selfhood give rise to identity-making in South African visual representation, to engagements that fall under the umbrella term ‘creative bioresearch’(bioart): the fusion of biology, biotechnology, life sciences and visual art. Bioartists engage with scientific processes, using living and non/living matter as media. Biological materials such as cells, tissues, organisms, bacteria, yeasts, and fungi are explored using a combination of artmaking processes and scientific procedures, protocols, and tools. My bioart practice to date involves the use of bacteria, yeasts and Physarum polycephalum (slime mould).

I began experimenting with a biomaterial made from a cellulose-fibre produced by the symbiotic action of the bacteria Gluconacetobacter xylinus and yeast, which feed off a mixture of tea and sugar. The biofibre is grown from a syntrophic culture, wherein anaerobic ethanol fermentation (by yeast), anaerobic organic acid fermentation (by bacteria) and aerobic ethanol oxidation to acetate (by bacteria) occur along an oxygen gradient. During the growing process, a gelatinous, cellulose-based biofilm forms at the air-liquid interface. Once the biofilm (hereafter ‘skins’) reaches the desired thickness, it is removed from the liquid, cleaned, and dehydrated. The dried skins remain in organic stasis and regenerate if returned to the feeding solution or if rehydrated. In its dried state, the biofibre bears uncanny resemblance to traces of sloughed off human skin.

From 2017-2019, I conducted practical and technical research into the scientific properties of bacteria and yeast. The practical research involved extensive experimentation, testing different formulae, and observing how these cause variations in its growth patterns and the structure of the material. I tested their growth under different environmental conditions (room temperature, lighting); worked with different mother cultures and various kinds of tea (black, green, white); substituted honey for sugar; and introduced natural materials such as cotton into the biofilm for tensile strength. Once I had gained working knowledge of what the optimal growth procedures and materials were for my application, I attempted to use the dried skins as material to produce casts or ‘impressions’ of domestic objects such as crockery, cutlery, and glassware. The material was therefore used as a sculptural medium, in ways that resemble moulding wet leather or vellum over a 3D form.

As biofibre as an artmaking medium is relatively unprecedented, its use as a casting material also involved considerable experimentation. There are no training manuals, workshops, or online courses that one can attend to learn how to work with the non/living material – everything depended on trial and error, play and, finally a conscious decision to ‘let go’ of preconceived ideas of what constitutes ‘success’ and rather to embrace ‘failure’. The research methodology is therefore explorative, where the result is not the proof of a predetermined hypothesis but rather the investigative process of praxis. In this type of research, variables are not known – they are manipulated, and subjective observations can be made.

The steep learning curve included learning to work with (rather than against) the mutable qualities of the organic material; coming to terms with its unpredictable behaviours; accepting the idea that the material, although not alive, has its own agency; anticipating its propensity to change structure and form according to external factors; observing structural and colour changes over time and being open to the unpredictable ways in which the material might react to other substances applied to it such as paint and sealants. A major challenge was how to make casts of objects that kept a semblance of shape and form once removed from the source object – the impressions tended to collapse as the material, even when relatively thick, was not strong enough to support a 3D form. External factors such as moisture in the air caused the material to become soft and soggy, whereas in dry weather, the skins would become too brittle to handle. Numerous attempts were made to find varnishes that would be UV and water-resistant, with mostly unsuccessful results. Another challenge was how to work with the fragile material without it breaking or disintegrating. I preferred to work with skins that were less than 1mm in thickness, as these gave the sense of weightlessness, immateriality, and heightened translucency. The processes of handing the skins, extracting them from the object and painting onto them thus necessitated extreme care at every stage. I experimented with finding ways of delineating pattern onto the skin surface using stencils, painting, printing, and drawing techniques, building up surfaces into relief, scraping away or piercing the material, and using patterns from paper serviettes, which formed a physical and metaphorical ‘tissue’ or ‘membrane’ over the skin. Many of these processes refer to domestic practices historically associated ‘women’s work’, which support feminist and gendered readings of the work.

Experimentation with the biofibre prompted a curiosity to see what further work could be done using bacteria as media. As my knowledge of working with non/living material was limited, it seemed logical to collaborate with a microbiologist who could bring in scientific expertise. I approached Prof Tobias Barnard (Director, UJ Water and Health Centre, Faculty of Health Sciences) in 2019. He introduced me to a technique of painting with pigmented bacteria onto agar in petri dishes. After 6 months of working in Prof Barnard’s lab, I undertook a 5-month residency (Sept 2019-Jan 2020) at the prestigious SymbioticA Centre of Excellence in Biological Art, School of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia (UWA). The residency enabled me to work in a PC2 microbiology lab in the School of Biomedical Sciences, UWA, under the supervision of Dr Kate Hammer (Deputy Director, Graduate Programs in Infectious Diseases). Under her mentorship, I extended the work that I had begun in Prof Barnard’s lab from flat 2D bacterial drawings in petri dishes into 3D casts of domestic objects made from agar.

My time in Dr Hammer’s lab was enormously stimulating and productive. I had the freedom to explore techniques and practices usually reserved for scientists in an artmaking context. I was trained in lab practices; given access to equipment and facilities that would otherwise have been unavailable to me as an artist; and provided with scientific and technical expertise tailored to the specifics of my project. The combination of these factors resulted in the production of an extensive body of highly experimental work.

The work comprised impressions made from a mixture of agar and bacterial nutrient, onto which live, pigmented pathogenic bacteria were painted. It took time for me to realise that, unlike most artmaking media, the bacteria are not inert matter, but have their own life force. Rather than being the product of my creative efforts alone, the work became a collaboration between the microbes and I; they happened ‘with’ the agencies of the microbes in a dynamic process of unscripted, reciprocal exchange.

The translucent casts read as if they have been made of layers of exposed subcutaneous tissue. Devoid of a protective epidermis, they are materially present, yet simultaneously ethereal, almost spectral. They are constantly in varying states of change – even when the bacteria’s growth had been chemically curtailed, the surfaces are susceptible to contamination from eukaryotic micro-organisms. As the impressions can only be stored in a refrigerator for 3 months before contamination set in, I had them documented and photographed as artworks to be used as prints and still images for digital animation.

In 2021, I produced 5 videos in which photographs and video footage of the work made with biofibre and those rendered in agar were edited using animation techniques. Animation was used to imaginatively simulate the growth of the microbes, suggest the mutability of the material and its ability to transform, or evoke a sense of a surreal, otherworldly landscape. In their material states, the impressions already occupied an ever-changing, liminal space of becoming, slipping in-between corporeality and ephemerality. This sense of liminality is heightened as the impressions are transposed into video - a medium which foregrounds the transientness of light, time, and space. In the videos, the impressions flit across the screen as ephemeral, transient forms; they become fleeting semblances of presence which simultaneously unfold into absence.