The ‘InterfaCE’ of Nano and Art

Recently on display at the Tang Museum at Skidmore College, InterfaCE is a collaboration between New Zealand artist, Claire Beynon and Dr. Samuel Bowser, an American microbiologist based in Albany, NY.

The project brings together cutting-edge electron microscopy with Antarctic-inspired artistic works to study the behavior of Foraminafera, single-celled organisms increasingly recognized as fundamental to the ecological health of our planet.

In a process of collaboration, the two “kindred disciplines” found new platforms upon which to experiment, thereby strengthening the layered understanding of the world around them.

Foraminafera – otherwise known as “Forams” are one of the simplest lifeforms on the planet. Ranging from the micrometer to as much as 10 centimeters in length, these unicellular organisms claim a 500 million year lineage and are found today throughout the world’s oceans.

Despite their apparent structural simplicity, Forams very carefully select mineral and organic particles from their environment to build protective outer layers – called Tests. Some Forams avoid certain materials while others mix-and-match particles of different size and consistency. Charles Darwin commented in 1872 that this ability “is almost the most wonderful fact that I have ever heard of. One cannot believe that they have mental power enough to do so.”

In many ways, InterfaCE owes as much to the pioneering innovation of microchip developers as it does to the collaboration between science and art. Recent technological developments have allowed engineers to create micro- and nano- sized surface topographies upon which to build electronic circuits and switches. Molecular Ecologists such as Dr. Bowser caught on that these custom nanoscale surface topographies could provide unique platforms for microbes to be grown; potentially creating new insights as to how single-celled microorganisms such as Foraminafera grow in nature.

In 2005, Beynon, an artist from Dunedin, South Island, met Dr. Bowser and his team of molecular ecologists as they were traveling to the McMurdo station in Antarctica. After several discussions the two decided to team-up, with Bowser and his team diving into sub-zero ocean depths collecting samples while Beynon documented the continent around her – drawing inspiration from the ice and snow for her Katabatikos series.

Mixing elements of poetry with charcoal and paper, Katabatikos borders on abstraction built around a core of landscape realism. The series echoes the wind-swept ice and snow of Antarctica – a fertile habitat for the unicellular Foraminfera despite being the one of the most inhospitable continents for multi-cellular life forms. Beynon’s work was reproduced in Dr. Bowser’s lab on the nano-scale as abstract repeated shapes and patterns to create a unique topographical template upon which grow and study Foraminafera.

In a clever and poetic turn, the shapes and forms found from the polar environment for InterfaCE provided a synthetic platform for new life to grow in the laboratory. The Forams grown from the this cross-disciplinary collaboration furthered Dr. Bowser’s research and inspired Beynon to produce new artistic works.

InterfaCE will soon be on display at the Wadsworth Center in Albany, NY.

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