Macroscopic Topics on a Microscopic Scale:
The work of Amanda Baum and Rose Leahy
By Joe Ferguson, contributor
There have been many feeble attempts to understand the small. Not easily-palatable, Matt-Damon-blockbuster small - I mean the really, really tiny.
Let’s start with the most obvious - Fantastic Voyage.
This film debuted in 1966. It’s about a submarine crew who is shrunk to microscopic size and ventures into the body of an injured scientist to repair damage to his brain. If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, you can watch the original trailer here. It’s good in that campy, actors-hung-on-wires sort of way, but there is no real science.
Then there’s Honey I Shrunk the Kids. There was the movie in 1989, and more recently a TV series. They’re both typical, family-friendly fare - good special effects and politically-correct capers. Nothing cerebral.
Horton Hear’s a Who! is a Dr. Seuss classic - the original 1970 animation was way better than the 2008 remake. The problem is that - just like the recent Matt Damon movie I mentioned - the small are just diminutive counterparts of the larger world. The small are not different or unique - we don’t struggle to understand them in any way.
All of these attempts fail because they place humans - or something with very-human traits - as the center attraction. They don’t demand that we appreciate or attempt to understand something truly foreign. Because of this, we never really learn to empathize with the other.
Science is our attempt to understand nature, and art provides a context for that acquired knowledge. Without encounters with such fusion, our intellect atrophies and we are left with limp, weak mental faculties. In order to navigate our diverse, modern world, we need less Hollywood entertainment, and more intellectual challenges.
Enter Rose Leahy and Amanda Baum. Together they have constructed a body of work that reimagines the microscopic world in intelligent and tactile ways. From touchable, microscopic reconstructions to language-centered, narrative-driven tiny worlds, their work forces us to confront alternate perspectives that co-exist - or could co-exist - with our own sense of reality and therefore provides us with some real intellectual and socio-ecological conundrums.
We caught up to these two, very busy artists and here’s what they had to say about their work.
"Cellular Sanctum" (2018) by Baum & Leahy. Installation with ode and algae ritual, evolutionary clock disk,
foam, strings, sand, water beads. Images courtesy of the artists.
Joe Ferguson: Tell us a bit about your background in art and science, and how you came to this work.
Amanda Baum: I have always been drawn to biology, chemistry and all matters of life. Reading about the symbiotic dynamics of ecosystems, mycelial networks, or the crystalline structure of silk inspires me in a very visceral way. Also, my mum is an artist and my dad is a classical musician (and science geek), so I feel at home in these fields. Before coming to London to study at The Royal College of Art (RCA) and work with Rose, I did my BA in product design in Copenhagen. During this time my focus was primarily on sustainable materiality, biomimicry, and solution-driven design, while the work I did outside of my studies grew from much more visual, intuitive motivations and the urge to combine this drive with the practicalities of sustainability. Following my BA I found resonance with people working across disciplines in the citizen science labs of Copenhagen, and started creating more experiential, interactive works driven by the symbiosis between art, design and science.
I met Rose at RCA in 2015 and we began sharing our intuitions and ambitions about the potential of combining artistic and scientific fields. It’s been the most life-affirming, creative experience to meet someone who’s equally serious about working with the life sciences, while at the same time not restricting ourselves to scientific epistemology. I think our shared enthusiasm shows, and this has been beneficial in art-science collaborations, where the scientists we meet are usually as keen as we are to discover and imagine new ideas.
Rose Leahy: I would say I have more of a lifelong fascination with the living world, as opposed to a background in science. Ever since I was a child I’ve been interested in other species, biodiversity, and humans' impact on the planet. I also grew up in a creative home and so the artistic - along with the environmental - feel rooted in my being.
I studied for my BA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martin’s in London, where I became interested in the intersection of art, technology, and science. Discovering the potential for artistic research to engage directly with emerging technologies, the ethics of working creatively with living systems, and the cross-disciplinary impact that collaborative practice can have, all resonated with the sense of urgency that I was trying to cultivate in my artistic practice. While I was at St Martin's I became interested in working with organic materials, trying to create self-sustaining systems, and the vibrancy and unpredictability of working with living organisms.
Before this, I took a year out of formal education to complete an internship at the Puppet Theatre Barge, learning how to operate long-string marionettes and stage theatrical shows. This was a valuable experience which is now feeding back into our current and upcoming projects that are based in the performing arts.
I met Amanda in 2015 in the Information Experience Design MA program at the RCA, and together we crafted our collaborative approach and ecological vision. As a result we have combined artistic with scientific research in a way that has felt continually more fulfilling and invigorating.
"Host" (2019) by Baum & Leahy in collaboration with Richard Beckett. Hand-blown glass, Recycled textiles, Wool, Hemp, Rehomed doormats, Buckwheat, Flax seeds, Kapok, Porous bio-receptive concrete, Resin, Silicon tubes, Air pumps, Mist makers, Geosmin molecule, Kombucha, Garden soil, microbes in Elephant West and of the body.
JF: So, in 2015 you met and began to work together?
AB: We assume we met a couple of billion years ago in a warm soup, and then had to wait for our human bodies to get attention about the work we do...
Or, in human time, yes, we met in 2015 at The Royal College of Art studying our MA in Information Experience Design - a program combining different explorative disciplines and perspectives across art, design, science, and technology.
RL: We started collaborating in the first weeks of our studies, creating a spatial sound installation emulating ant’s navigation through pheromones. Working through slime mold workshops, wet projections, bioremediation rituals and quantum computing, we shared a vision, an aesthetic, and way of working started growing between and beyond us.
After collaborating on both our dissertation and graduation piece at RCA, we did a year-long residency at the Florence Trust in London. Having that year to create work unrestricted by the framework of education allowed us to ground our practice together, let loose our hairy-otherworldly-microbial aesthetic, and reflect on our long-term aims and which planetary messages we were hoping to convey.
AB: The Florence Trust residency is based in a beautiful, silent neo-gothic church, which inspired us to further develop the ceremonial, ritualistic aspects of our work. We see great potential in collective rituals as a means of seeding new ecologically and culturally healthy, regenerative systems. This collectivity is also reflected in the art of collaborating across different perspectives. Creating symbiotic feedback loops between form and content is something we keep pursuing, so the practicalities, pleasures, and challenges of working collaboratively is for us a central part of practicing a more biologically, evolutionarily inspired way of being, thinking and doing.
"Interterrestrials" (2019) by Baum & Leahy in collaboration with Sofie Birch and Pernille Kjaer. Sound and film installation with microscope camera sensing movements of live cultures of C. elegans and B. subtilus, computer running live script, solenoids,
mallet, symphonic gong, steel, wood, textile.
JF: Some of your pieces are very tactile. Why do you think this is important, and how have viewers responded this work?
RL: Sometimes, the best responses we get are from children. They intuitively interact with the work, uninhibited by the rules of the 'learnt mind'. The most unexpected response - in a great way - we’ve had to the tactility of our work was when we exhibited Another Intelligence Sings in collaboration with Rob Walker at V&A’s Digital Design Weekend. The piece was a machine learning algorithm's rendition of a dataset of wildlife sounds from the British Library’s archives. We created a space with soundproofed, cushioned seating and long hairs hanging from a dome where the sound played, so visitors could sit and listen to the work in an intimate setting. We had imagined the work being quite a slow, meditative experience, and so we were surprised, yet enjoyed, when children reacted by climbing inside it, playing on it, stroking the hair, all while listening to the AI-Earth soundscape. Not only was it a valuable reminder of how brilliantly unpredictable your audience can be, but it was interesting to see how tactile, playful materials could encourage young people into engaging with art installations, emerging technologies, and environmental themes.
AB: We often combine tactile, sensorial materiality with ceremonial practices such as meditation, ritual and writing. Our experience is that this makes people enter into a shared space of reflection and honest, intimate responses, which opens up to, or enables, emotional response-ability for organisms we can’t see, yet live all around, on, and within us. Cellular Sanctum (2018), and The Red Nature of Mammalga (in collaboration with Naja Ankarfeldt, 2018), exemplify this approach. In both installations, people are invited into landscapes of tactile biomorphic, microbial forms and take part in collective rituals of transubstantiation.
Host, a project which we recently created for Elephant West in London, is another example of how we use tactility in our work. The installation responds to the lack of microbial biodiversity in our built environments and imagines a future space of 'domestic rewilding'. It’s an example of how the tactile surfaces and materials, here in the form of buckwheat filled cushions, hemp hair, and open glass vessels with live cultures of soil microbes and kombucha, are not just aesthetic but also functional - they host, distribute, and receive microbial life. The installation also consists of misting, bio-receptive tiles made in collaboration with architect Richard Beckett. Working with Richard has been particularly exciting to us, as he’s working in depth with research on how these kinds of systems could be implemented in the near future, while also welcoming our more speculative, poetic and critical approach.
The tactile, the sensuous, and the playful are all essential to our practice. Whilst attempting to create work that responds to, or centers on more-than-human lives when we make work, we are always working with how this entangles with the past, present, and future of humankind. Our practice is driven by the idea that current environmental, systemic shifts will have to happen in parallel with shifts in our perspectives.
In our research, we often come back to quantum physicist and philosopher Karen Barad, who argues - scientifically and philosophically - for the entanglement of mind and matter. We continually find inspiration and potentials to create new connections in the liminal spaces between experienced, material reality and the ephemerality of consciousness.
"The Red Nature of Mammalga" (2018) by Baum & Leahy in collaboration with Naja Ryde Ankarfeldt. Installation with red algae Rhodomonas, steel, textile, water beads, glass, algae schnapps ritual and mantra.
JF: Microbiocene confronts us with the idea of a non-human aesthetic. What do you think (or hope) viewers come away with from an encounter with this piece?
RL: We always hope to inspire and share the curiosity, wonder, and awe that the more-than-human ignites in us. In Microbiocene, we are also interested in the idea of microbiophilia - of people falling in love and awe with something they are constantly, intimately entangled with, yet cannot see with the naked eye. Increasingly, we are becoming aware of how monumental the impact of microorganisms impact is in how we operate as human beings. Relinquishing control of the narrative to the microorganisms, we see as an action that could be scaled up over systems.
AB: We also hope that viewers notice the suggestion that technology - in this case 3D-printing and biotechnologies - can evolve with and encourage ecological care. Our work often emerges from the chaotic, subconscious, or non-logic of dreams in symbiosis with scientific research and/or technological tools, weaving together these fields. What often emerges is a form of worldmaking, in which we create speculative cultures, as a tool to explore different ways of cohabiting the planet. Microbiocene is very open-ended in the sense that it symbolizes the relic of a monument found in a far-future archeological site. What happens between now and then is something we hope viewers will wonder, imagine, and, with time, be part of creating.
JF: What is a microbe-centric language? How did you arrive at it? How is it similar or different from human language?
RL: As part of the world-making/scenario building of Microbiocene: Ancient ooze to future myths we created a speculative language system of 'microglyphs' with our collaborating scientists. Their research centers on molecular data found within microbial fossils in sea sediment samples, which can be used to understand past environmental conditions. This inherent human desire to translate across species, eras, disciplines, etc. was the catalyst behind making the microglyphs. Inspired by the multitude of forms that language, communication, and translation take, we drew on a range of cultural and historical references, from the Rosetta Stone, to alien communication attempts, to Babel fish. Through discussions and workshops with our scientific collaborators we used both scientific and cultural associations to create the microglyphs. Some are more literal, such as the sea symbol, or the double bond in a molecule meaning cold, while others are more complex like the Microbiocene microglyph, which refers to life beginning on earth.
The microglyphs are an initial iteration into working with the materiality of language, which we continue to explore in workshops, and our other projects. By consciously molding language, or sign making, into new biologically informed structures, we begin to weave our mammalian minds into the Microbiocene. The microglyphs have become part of our overarching Microbiocene project, appearing across our related projects as signifiers of the microbial age.
AB: We are still trying to work out what a microbe-centric language is - it will probably be a life-time study (which we’re happy to take on). Basically, it comes from the urge to transform human language in order to transform our human minds - or challenge our perspectives to become more resonant/in tune with our planetary ecosystems. We’re fascinated with the chemical, multimodal language of microbes, their secretive quorum sensing communication, and constant adaptability. The multi-directional, non-linear ways of communicating is inspiring to us. Our explorations into the de/re-construction of language really started when we wrote our dissertation together with Rob Walker and an AI mediating between us. Since then we’ve been working with biologically inspired/informed language in various projects.
JF: Your work requires significant collaboration. Tell us how those partnerships developed, and some of the challenges of collaborating with scientists and technologists.
RB: These partnerships come about in a wide range of ways. Usually, when we find an area of research interesting and have an idea for a project, we contact researchers in that field that we feel might share our art-science symbiotic vision.
What we’re enjoying more and more are the projects where we can work long-term with our collaborators - such as the Bio Art & Design Awards - which takes eight months of concept development, project creation and production, or our current project, Mikrobia, which we have been developing with the director, writer, and one of the actors since 2017.
One of the challenges is how to approach a subject in a critical way. Sometimes this is something that researchers or experts are happy to discuss, yet other times it can be difficult to critique an institutional approach to a subject whilst collaborating with somebody from within it.
AL: Another challenge is usually the language, metaphors, analogies, and images we talk through. As artists there is a leniency that comes with language, it is more acceptable for us to play with words - mutating them, moulding, sculpting, and carving to shapes which represent what we’re trying to communicate.
This challenge of working across-disciplinary terminology and communication was, in a great way, very apparent when we collaborated with quantum computer scientists Sam Morely-Short and Jeremy Adcock while creating The alien present with Rob Walker.
Quantum physics is, of course, notoriously complex to grasp, and also extremely difficult to explain. During that collaboration the five of us sent drawings, images, diagrams, and calculations to one another, trying to communicate and understand one another's approach to the subject. That communication became almost a body of work in itself - a sketched, scrawling, expressive cluster of concepts and dialogue.
Cross-collaborative communication was also part of the thinking behind the previously mentioned microglyphs. The languaging that occurs when working collaboratively on a project, as different expertise and modes of thinking come together.
RB: As well as scientists and technologists, we also enjoy collaborating with other creatives. When discovering practitioners with shared intuitions for a subject, being able to bring these visions together across multiple media has always been a rewarding, enjoyable, and valuable experience for us. We’ve recently been working with Richard Beckett’s shared microbial architectural vision during Host, Sofie Birch’s dreamy soundscapes and Pernille Kjær’s psychedelic visuals for Interterrestrials, Greg Orrom Swan and Deborah Mora’s conceptual, graphic and practical collaboration on many recent projects, with Rob Walker during AI and algorithmic creations, Naja Ryde Ankarfeldt on algae rituals, and now our current work with theatre director Ellen Jerstad, playwright Amalie Olesen, and actors Vincent Vernerie, Huy Le Vo and Kjersti Aas Stenby. Time after time, as demonstrated by the living world, symbiosis leads to richer creations, unexpected outcomes, and a deepening of shared visions.
"Microbiocene: Ancient ooze to future myths" (2018) by Baum & Leahy in collaboration with Julie Lattaud, Laura Schreuder and Gabriella Weiss. 3D printed sculpture containing sea sediment from Black and North Seas, sand, projection.
JF: What can we look forward to from you both? Where do we find it?
AL: We’re currently working on creating the scenography for a multimedia performance with Øyteateret in Oslo. The piece is called Mikrobia - in a sense a pendant to the Microbiocene, a world experienced through the perspective of the microbes. The play is written by danish playwright Amalie Olesen, who has managed to condense the entire evolution into a really fun, surprising, thought-provoking, and moving theatrical experience, immersing the audience in the history of (microbial) life on Earth and potential, speculative futures. The play will involve a blue algae drinking ritual, a giant tardigrade, apocalyptic meditation, and transformative rebirth. In this project we really get the opportunity to work in depth with the theatrical, performative, and ceremonial ritualistic as mediums through which we can materialize, question, and challenge scientific ideas and our (human) perception. Mikrobia premieres on January 16th at Vega Scene in Oslo.
RB: After this, we are creating our contribution for 24 hours in Uchronia, an event by Helga Schmid at Somerset House Studios, which will explore alternative rhythms and cycles through which we can experience time, while questioning "What should time be?"
Later in 2020, we’ll also be returning to Oslo for a continuation of Mikrobia as a dance performance for 0-3 year-olds at Dansens Hus. For this, we’re really looking forward to building on our experience of creating tactile environments to engage the 'audience' in complex scientific ideas.
AL: As well as working on various exciting projects and exhibitions in London, Copenhagen, Berlin, and Oslo in 2020, we’ll be focusing more on running workshops and teaching, and also spending more time on pursuing research and publication opportunities.
We’re planning to continue our collaborative work with Richard Beckett, working with probiotic architecture from a speculative, tactile perspective. We’re currently in dialogue about exhibiting and presenting Host at the Bartlett School of Architecture.
It feels like we’ve been working very intensively for the past couple of years with producing new work and ideas, and we’re now looking to deepening and reflecting on the content we’ve generated together. Somewhere by a mountain lake. Of course we’re also always open to and looking for new collaborative adventures.
"Mycohive: Telling the Bees, Shrouding the Soil" (2017) by Baum & Leahy. Bioremediation installation with wood, turmeric,
beeswax, textile, beeswax-coated paper, soil, oyster mushrooms.