Artists to explore waste, evolution, climate change and more through UB bioart residencies

“Conformations,” an exhibition by Laura Splan, in the Esther Klein Gallery in Philadelphia. Photographer: Jaime Alvarez

Release Date: October 25, 2019

“These artists’ creative research informs public science literacy, helping to make the science more accessible, and has made UB a top research destination for biological art. ”
Jennifer Surtees, GEM co-director and associate professor in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Artists from Brooklyn to São Paulo will travel to the University at Buffalo to beautify open water sewers, engineer living perfumes, construct an evolutionary tree of skulls, craft sculptures made of bacteria-dyed llama wool and more.

The seven artists are the fourth cohort of art residents in the UB Coalesce: Center for Biological Art, which helps artists, scientists, architects and designers explore and examine the cultural meanings of their work.

The residents will have the opportunity to form partnerships with UB faculty in the life sciences, gain access to laboratory equipment, and are provided the creative space and technical support to study genomic and microbiomic concepts.

“Artists selected for this year’s residency embrace projects situated within the Anthropocene, our Earth’s most recent geological era defined by overwhelming evidence of dramatic human alteration of atmospheric, geologic and hydrologic systems on our planet. The theme is explored through projects that begin both inside and outside the laboratory, and also inspire questions about the human and non-human divide,” says Paul Vanouse, Coalesce director and professor in the Department of Art in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

Coalesce is a collaboration between UB’s Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM) Community of Excellence and the Department of Art. An initiative of GEM, the program aims to expand public understanding of and participation in the life sciences.

“Over the past four years, the UB and Western New York community has benefited from thought-provoking installations, workshops and discussions focused on social and ethical questions surrounding the genome and microbiome,” says Jennifer Surtees, GEM co-director and associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. “These artists’ creative research informs public science literacy, helping to make the science more accessible, and has made UB a top research destination for biological art. I look forward to seeing how this year’s projects evolve and develop through artist interactions at Coalesce.”

In-progress projects and explorations will be on view during a Coalesce open house from 1-3 p.m. on Nov. 1 in the Coalesce BioArt Lab, 308 Hochstetter Hall, North Campus. The event will feature previews and experiments of ongoing projects by residents and associated researchers.

The 2019-20 class of artists-in-residence includes:

Zeelie Brown, “The world’s most beautiful septic tank”

Thousands of people nationwide, many of whom are among the country’s poorest, are believed to live near open sewers. The unsanitary conditions are prevalent in rural African American communities in Alabama, where Brown was raised.

“The world’s most beautiful septic tank” seeks to resurrect these areas by converting open sewers into lush septic gardens filled with lavender, basil and various flowers. The garden will also contain mosquito repellant plants to counter the risk of mosquito-borne illnesses, one of many diseases that people face living near the putrid waters.

Made from commonly found materials, the permaculture septic garden will filter and recycle human waste. The project aims to increase public thought surrounding how waste is managed and experienced, as the management of waste products has increasingly become one of society’s greatest social, scientific and aesthetic problems.

Brown is a Brooklyn-based, interdisciplinary visual artist and cellist.

Tiare Ribeaux and Ruth Schmidt, “Microbial Scents and Olfactory Prosthesis for the Future”

As climate change threatens to alter the habitats in which humans live, “Microbial Scents and Olfactory Prosthesis for the Future” hopes to preserve nature’s scents for future generations through living perfumes and 3D-printed filtration masks.

The project will recreate geosmin — a compound with an earthy aroma that is produced by bacteria in soil — and other natural scents, as well as craft new odors using communities of microbes. The scents will be encased in vials as living perfumes.

The artists will also place the scents in 3D-printed filtration masks and prosthesis that can be worn under the nose or around the neck. The devices could improve air quality or be used to house customized familiar aromas.

Ribeaux is a San Francisco-based new media and interdisciplinary artist, and Schmidt is a Montreal, Canada-based microbial ecologist.

Sun Young Kang, “Human’s place in the evolutionary tree of life”

Humanity’s location in the evolutionary tree will be explored through “Human’s place in the evolutionary tree of life,” a display of hundreds of hanging primate and human skulls made of paper materials aged at varying degrees.

At Coalesce, Kang will focus on discovering soil and paper qualities that facilitate aging and decay of the paper, as well as understanding the roles of microbes. Using time as the central theme, the skulls will be hung from the ceiling in a tree-like arrangement, and organized based on genetic and physical similarities between the species.

Ancestral skulls will be situated at the roots, genetically younger species will occupy the branches, and hypothetical skull shapes — representing theoretical evolutionary paths for humans and primates — will radiate from the tree as rays of light.

Kang is a book and installation artist based in Buffalo. She is collaborating on the project with evolutionary anatomist Jack Tseng, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences in the Jacobs School; and Patrick Ravines, associate professor and director of the Art Conservation Department at Buffalo State College.

Laura Splan, “Conformations”

Using photography, video, sound, digital animation, sculpture and textiles, “Conformations” will examine the institutionalized notion of boundaries, and the hidden materiality and labor of biotechnology through a performance of language, image and movement.

The project will include sculptures made from 200 pounds of hand-spun, laboratory llama and alpaca wool. The textiles will be dyed with pigments extracted from bacteria harvested for drug development.

The wool will serve as a synecdoche — a figure of speech in which a part is used to reference the whole — for the use of immunized animals to produce antibodies for human drugs.

Splan is a Brooklyn-based mixed media artist.

Cesar Baio and Lucy H.G. Solomon, “Thinking within Ecosystems: Collective Cell Consciousness”

The project will explore what is human through an artwork that merges cellular and digital networks to enable communication between microbiomes, the human body and machine.

The artists aim to better understand the relationship between human and non-human entities through a pragmatic rethinking of a human-centered ontology, which is the philosophical study of being and existence.

To explore what they call “collective cell consciousness,” Baio and Solomon will draw on computer science and engineering approaches to create an integrated cellular and technological network that would accommodate cross-network or inter-species communication.

Baio, a Brazil-based media artist, and Solomon, a California-based media artist, form the art collective, Cesar & Lois.

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