Extra Credit - Invisible Earthlings - Miki Koga

It is easy to remain ignorant about something when we do not witness its significant, pressing impact firsthand. This unfortunate reality applies to war, global issues, environmental problems and more, but how about to microorganisms? Interdisciplinary artist and researcher, Beatriz da Costa, creatively brings microbes into the limelight in her Invisible Earthlings project. I learned a lot by attending her exhibition’s opening reception on February 27th at CNSI. (On a side note, if you still have not checked out the CNSI facility, it is a must. Many of you have probably passed the new building on the way to class, but the inside is even more state-of-the-art. It has sound and explosion proof, steel walls, among much more sophisticated laboratory and imaging features.) The single upstairs CNSI suite was a suitable location for the exhibition.

Before browsing the seven individual installations in the exhibition, I took the time to first read an excerpt printed on a spotlighted white wall. da Costa’s clearly stated objective was to increase the visibility of microorganisms that co-exist on Earth in order to bridge the relations between these earthlings and humans. In her words, “our interest and willingness to form associations with non-human living organisms is usually restricted to higher level species – animals and plants that we more readily associate with affectual modes of encounter.” Microbes often escape our awareness since they are not visible to the human eye; however, they play important roles in the ecosystem and even inside our bodies. Often the only time that we notice them, as we do other “invisible” things, is when they cause macroscopic problems. da Costa wanted to explore microbes’ many other functions by using her creative background as an artist and researcher.

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da Costa’s interdisciplinary studies translated into her work. Drawing on her research skills, she collected bacteria specimen from various locations in her backyard and identified them using microbiological techniques. However, when it came to presenting her research, she took a more artistic approach with interactive installations. Seven, sleek, touch-screen Nokia 5900 phones attached along two walls immediately caught my attention. As with most technological gadgets, my first instinct was to touch it. Luckily, that was da Costa’s intention. Using touch-sensitive pens, I started navigating the interactive features and read about the various microorganisms collected in the Petri dishes located on ledges below each phone. Though the Petri dishes were fogged up with condensation, the Nokia phones displayed clear images of the microbes. This artistic display of scientific research was an excellent example of combining strengths from both creative spectrums.

da Costa organized the installations by the microbes’ collection site, including a gate, bench, butterfly bush, porch, purple flower, inside the garage, and under a trash can. I come across such locations daily, so it was interesting to discover what microorganisms make them their home. Although da Costa could not identify some specimens, she identified an incredible amount: rhizopus, yeast, conidiobolus, enterobacteriaceae, gliocladium, lactobacilius, bacillus, scedosporium apiospermum, corynebacterium, serratia marcescens, chrysosporium, bacillus, staphylococcus, fusarium, penicillium, and some mixed cultures. Wow. The only ones that I was vaguely familiar with were penicillium, yeast, and bacillus. The extent of my experience actually investigating microorganisms is a fungus/bacteria project in junior high school where we collected, cultured, and identified different molds on food items. Who knew that if investigated and presented creatively like da Costa did, microbes could really come to life? da Costa refers to microbes as “social actors”. They exist all around us. They change the social environment. I can confidently say that I have a new understanding of their existence and role in my environment after attending Invisible Earthlings.

Corynebacterium, which can be found under trash cans

Corynebacterium, which can be found under trash cans

Too bad I don’t have cool pictures from the event like Jason down there! The more reason to check out the installation for yourself, right? It’ll be set up at CNSI Suite 5419 until March 20.

To learn more about Beatriz da Costa’s projects, visit: http://www.beatrizdacosta.net

To learn more about CNSI or events at CNSI, visit: http://www.cnsi.ucla.edu/

By: Miki Koga

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