Latest Miller Gallery exhibition adds scientific twist to art

Daniel Tkacik Jan 23, 2012

Mushrooms are used as building materials, mosquitoes are genetically modified to help prevent the spread of malaria, and other collisions of art and science are displayed at the most recent exhibition at the Miller Gallery, titled “Intimate Science.” Last Friday, the exhibition opened its doors to the public.

The exhibition is the product of collaborative work, curated by Andrea Grover, a 2010 Andy Warhol Foundation Curatorial Fellow in residence at Carnegie Mellon’s Miller Gallery. In her current project, Grover endorses creativity to address some of the world’s pressing problems.

“They both have an end goal of revealing some kind of truth,” Grover said about art and science. “I want people to take creativity more seriously, to see that creativity is not just a kind of frivolous pursuit, but that it can have value towards answering these bigger questions about humanity, like how are we going to survive, how will we provide food and energy, transportation, and shelter for growing populations.”

Grover’s research on the project began in 2010. She examined artists who placed themselves in industrial or scientific environments to conduct their work in the 1960s. However, in today’s internet age, artists have greater access to information and more opportunities to conduct their work with science and technology. Creating new building materials and performing provocative biological experiments is now a reality for some artists.

Philip Ross, a San Francisco-based artist and one of six artists whose work is featured at the exhibition, used fungal materials, specifically the fungus species Ganoderma lucidum, to create building materials. To do so, he cultivated the soma, or the body of a mushroom. A mushroom’s soma is typically hidden from view in the wild.

“A mushroom is actually just the reproductive organ of a much larger organism,” Ross explained. “When you pick a mushroom or see a mushroom, it’s just this tiny percentage of what’s often hidden from view, which is inside of a tree or hidden in the ground.”

To cultivate the fungi, Ross uses a pasteurization process which involves steam cooking a material containing cellulose and adding a living mushroom to it. The fungi then colonize the material by eating all of the cellulose and transforming into chitin, the main component of fungal cell walls, which provides its strength properties. After about two years of growth in a vessel chosen by Ross to control the eventual shape, the result is a mushroom-brick with remarkable strength.

“Their dynamic resistance will stop a bullet and will crush metal,” Ross said. Ross built various structures using this material, and suggested that not only is the material a possible wood or plastic substitute, but that it’s a natural material in the wild and therefore has little impact on the environment during and at the end of its life.

Another project within the exhibition illustrated ways of using the natural environment to perform intricate tasks, like producing laser-cut glass objects. Markus Kayser, a German collaborator in the exhibition, achieved this by making a machine that consisted of a laser cutter that amplified natural sunlight via a magnifying glass bulb and using it to melt sand into glass. Kayser took his “Sun-Cutter” into the Sahara Desert in August 2010 to test out his machine, which produced glass objects using the abundant supplies of sun and sand in the Sahara.

In addition to new sustainable building materials and processes, the exhibition also displayed the work of a series of biological experiments aimed at solving ecological problems, such as the dwindling American chestnut tree population and the spread of malaria through mosquitoes. The results of these experiments were shown by the Pittsburgh-based Center for PostNatural History, which acquires and maintains “postnatural” organisms that have been modified through selective breeding or genetic engineering.

“The organisms we have on display here all have something in common,” said Richard Pell, a Carnegie Mellon professor of art and director of the Center for PostNatural History. “These are all transgenic, for one; that means they have DNA from some completely different kind of species added to their DNA.”

Pell explained that the American chestnut tree population is dwindling because of the spread of a certain species of fungus that kills them. The researchers and artists are experimenting with injecting the trees with genes that kill off the fungus.

To address the spread of malaria, researchers at the University of California at Irvine modified the mosquitoes, which carry and spread malaria, by injecting them with genes that destroy the mosquito’s ability to carry Plasmodium, the parasite that causes malaria. These injected genes are able to propagate more easily than the natural mosquito genes, in theory eliminating Plasmodium ’s ability to survive, and the threat of malaria to humans.

Similar to Ross’ fungi-based building materials, these experiments address big issues, which may raise some eyebrows.

“Both of these are specifically being designed not just to exist in a little plot of earth, but to repopulate an entire ecosystem, which is kind of a provocative idea,” Pell said. “It’s certainly one that we should be thinking a lot further about.”