#SXSW2013: Bioart and Bacteria—The Next Medium?

By Tom Kelshaw, Director of Technology for Metalworks

Daniel Grushkin, Genspace

Daniel Grushkin, Genspace

I've seen enough bad sci-fi to know that playing with genetically modified bacteria and fooling around with life-forms is dangerous. Doesn't that stuff belong in a lab, supervised by professionals?

But consider the Personal Computer's creation myth: A young Bill (Gates) or Steve (Jobs or Wozniak) tinkering in a garage with fellow hobbyists, bringing the power of computing from mega-corporations and universities into the home. Computers used to belong in a lab too, under the supervision of geeks in white coats, and now they're in our pockets (and soon our glasses).

At SXSW 2013, I met with geek in a labcoat who's doing for biology and genetic engineering what Bill and Steve did for computing.

Duncan Grushkin is VP and Founder of community biolab Genspace, a "hackerspace for bio-tech" in Brooklyn, NY. GenSpace is a collection of bio-hackers, biologists, geneticists and bio-artists interested in pursuing advances in bio-technology. Some use Genspace as an alternative to university labs that aren't keeping up with demand, others are just exploring the possibilities of growing something in a test tube, for art's sake.

Genspace was demonstrating interactive bioart from their exhibition CUT/PASTE/GROW - exploring the concept of art and beauty in genes and bacteria. I brushed a liquid containing genetically modified bacteria onto a medium (petri dish). The bacteria will grow where it's "painted", and GM cells will exhibit a colour, and also glow under UV light.

How can we use this?

A key trend at SXSW2013 is about "making" - the opening up of manufacturing of software and hardware, from 3D printing to Mars missions. Will "growing" be the next "making"?

  • Could we "paint" billboards with coloured bacteria - let them colonise - and then "clean" them by mopping them with a [SC Johnson] disinfectant?
  • G.M bacteria are being grown that conduct electricity - essentially forming circuitry. Hooked up to Arduino or other microcontrollers, they could connect (communicate?) with the internet. How long until we can "grow" highly engaged Facebook fans?
  • Imagine a logo that is not a permanent, crafted form, but instead a bacterium that grows and changes and publishes its kalaedoscopic shape each day, Instagram-style? Sony experimented with shifting, crowd-sourced logos in 2001.
Making a CUT/PASTE/GROW bacterial art form.

Making a CUT/PASTE/GROW bacterial art form.

Maxus “m”, poorly rendered in genetically modified goop.

Maxus “m”, poorly rendered in genetically modified goop.