Culture as Medium
Curator, Margaret MacDonald describes the intricate embroidery and crochet of Anna Dumitriu’s pieces on exhibit at BUGSS.

If you are in the Baltimore area between now and May 20th and haven’t experienced an aspect of the science-art exhibit – Culture as Medium – time is running out! Culture as Medium, celebrates Baltimore as a growing and thriving biotechnology and artistic hot spot, while encompassing the complexity and diversity of the city. The exhibit explores the intersection of art and science through exhibiting art by internationally recognized scientists and artists, as well as several performance art/science opportunities. Culture as Medium is an “evolving” exhibit inviting visitors to explore and merge the boundaries of art and science, the visible and invisible portions of our world.

Opening at the Motor House

Curated by Margaret MacDonald of the Maryland Institute of Art (MICA), Culture as Medium, spans different areas of the city. The first installation of the exhibit opened at the Motor House in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District on April 1st. Dr. François Joseph Lapointe from the University of Montreal conducted a performance “microbiome selfie” collecting microbiome samples from his tongue every 10 minutes after eating kimchi for an hour. Kimchi was chosen for his food microbiome selfie to honor the Koren population in the surrounding area. Visitors were mesmerized by a glowing wave of bacteria and images of a cat and other patterns made by Tal Danino using cancer cells. In another part of the room Paramecium Symphony was performed by microscopic organisms moving between electrical fields. Made by the interdisciplinary Baltimore artist Ryan Hammond, this interesting living exhibit fascinated many and inspired conversations about free will and living organisms. Delightful fermented products from local company, Hex Ferments, were sampled by guests while chatting with the scientist/artists.

1000 Handshakes:

From Lexington Market to the Inner Harbor

The performance art piece, 1000 Handshakes, followed the Motor House opening on April 2. François-Joseph Lapointe and a group of assistants walked from the Lexington Market Metro Station to the Inner Harbor, shaking 1000 different people’s hands and talking about art and microbiome science as they went. Bearing signs reading “Free Handshakes” and “You are What You Touch”, in addition to François Joseph, the group included a film maker, photographer, the exhibit curator, and myself. Needless to say, the procession garnered a diversity of interesting glances and questions. It also gave me a greater appreciation for the kindness of Baltimore citizens.


Gut Microbiome Science Cafe

The remainder of the exhibit and activities have taken place at the Baltimore Under Ground Science Space (BUGSS), a non-profit science maker space in the Baltimore Highlands neighborhoods teaching citizens about the world-changing potential of synthetic biology and biotechnology. April 4, Dr. Claire Fraser of the Institute for Genome Science at the University of Maryland School of Medicine discussed the advances in genome and microbiome science to a packed audience for a Science Cafe sponsored by Project Bridge. Excellent questions were raised to Dr. Fraser, who sequenced the first bacterial genome and is a world class leader in the genomics field.

It’s YOUR Culture at BUGSS

A second open house on April 21st celebrated the works of fabric artist Anna Dumitriu, Tal Danino, and François-Joseph Lapointe displayed at BUGSS. These pieces include Sequence Dress, and On the Origins of Batman. The exhibit space at BUGSS lies between the 3-D printing space and the molecular biology research lab, creating a magical, inspiring interlude between the scientifically creative spaces in the BUGSS research lab. From Lapointe’s making of his “batman” microbial selfie, to Dumitriu’s fabulous crocheted bedspread inspired by microbial cultures made from her own bedsheets, these pieces reflect the importance of microbes to our lives. Audience involvement and place are essential components of Culture as Medium. The family oriented event – It’s Your Culture – on April 30th at BUGSS encouraged interactions. People from 9-99 were invited to paint their own agar art using bacteria, make a Winogradsky gradient using soil and eggs to create a microbial soil culture of their own to take home, play music with Paramecium, look at pond water and prepared slides, stain bacteria purple and pink, and participate in a microbiome play about healthy eating. A diversity of people came out for the afternoon and everyone enjoyed creating their own microbial art while enjoying the exhibits.

Wrapping it up

It’s not too late for you to join in on the fun and see the exhibits. Two more events take place before May 20th when the exhibit closes. The first is this weekend at BUGSS. From noon until 4 pm, “Art with Jeans/Genes” will be conducted. All ages are invited to bring old blue jeans in need of repair to the fabric artist Fischer. In the BUGSS molecular lab you can extract DNA (genes) from strawberries, use magnetic beads to move colorful pieces of genes into bacteria, and see different sizes of DNA separate in a gel. On May 20th, Culture as Medium culminates with a closing panel of microbiome scientists from the Baltimore area as well as the owners of Hex Ferments for an exciting discussion about the importance of microbes. Microbiome scientists on the panel include: Dr. Owen White and  Dr. Emmanuel Mongodin (Institute for Genome Science), Dr. Noel Mueller (Johns Hopkins University), and Dr. Nancy Regan (University of Maryland School of Nursing). I will be moderating the microbiome panel discussion, so if you have questions for the panel,  feel free to send them to me (mostlymicrobes at gmail dot com).
Culture as Medium explores the importance of microbes as it crosses disciplines of art and science. However, this exhibit is unlike many exhibits in that it doesn’t come with a guide telling you what each piece means. Like its microbial focus, Culture as Medium grows over time, changing with different environments and interactions. It is an evolving exhibit that in its two month run here has grown to be uniquely Baltimore – uniting different regions of the city and incorporating visitors experiences. There’s still time for you to add your unique signature to this fantastic exhibit.

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