Chemist & Artist Team Up to Show How Bacteria Communicate

By Tatum Lyles Flick
Communications Specialist

Scientists spend countless hours at the lab bench, scrutinizing data, and working to solve problems and uncover new information. These often complicated topics can be challenging to share outside of the scientific community, but a chemist/artist team has discovered that creativity may be the key.

“Where does environment begin and end?,” asks Sonja Bäumel, an artist who’s interest lies in the microbial layer, a second layer that can be found on top of all bodies.

For more than 10 years she has been collaborating with scientists, artists, designers, cultural historians, anthropologists, philosophers and filmmakers to find out more about this microbial layer. One of Bäumel’s fascinations is bacterial communication. Through her own artistic research she became aware of the work of UW-Madison Professor Helen Blackwell, which has now evolved into a fruitful collaboration for many years.

“As a chemist, I am really interested in the molecules bacteria use to communicate with each other,” Blackwell said. “We study these molecules in my lab and retailor them using chemistry to make molecules that Nature can’t make. Then we reintroduce them to the bacteria to see what that does to them and how the bacteria behave and interact.”

Blackwell currently has a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to support that fundamental research – making compounds, studying them, and understanding how they work in bacteria using both chemistry and biology. However, one of the other goals for the NSF award was to demonstrate how the research would impact the world beyond the scientific community. She chose to do so through art, collaborating with Bäumel.

Agar plate with a body's worth of bacteria growing.
Expanded Self by Sonja Bäumel – Since 2008, Sonja Bäumel is exploring human skin and its potential. This project is part of her on-going research and creative process. She has found a unique way of visualizing the invisible surface of the human body. Sonja uses a gigantic petri dish as canvas and the bacteria living on her own body as color. She develops and speaks a language combining art and science and thus creates a biologically living whole-body picture.[Photo by Maurizio Montalti]
Blackwell and Bäumel worked together on a performance art piece that serves to communicate aspects of their scientific and artistic research, called “What would a microbe say?”, which was shown in October 2019 at the Frankfurter Kunstverein in Germany. People in Madison will have a chance to see a further development of the project at the Design Gallery in the School of Human Ecology from April 20 through June 7, 2020.

“Sonja likes to expose the microbiome, how microbes are in you and on you and changing your health, through her art,” Blackwell said. “It’s good for people to have general knowledge that bacteria are not all bad, and that not every microbe is going to cause strep throat. They do lots of great things that we don’t understand yet, and fundamental science is necessary to try to build that knowledge.”

“Bacteria can do things differently as a group than individually,” Blackwell said. “We want to understand how groups engage and impact the health of the host.”

Feet with crocheted fabric
Crocheted membrane by Sonja Bäumel – How would a piece of clothing, which is defined by personal physical needs or, for example, our body temperature look like? The crocheted membrane translates scientific data into crochet pieces representing a visual language in-between art and science. [Photo by Maurizio Montalti]
In turn, Bäumel’s artistic work stages encounters with these beings living inside and on us to explore possible futures for further coexistence.

“If 50 percent of the cells that constitute our body are not human but microbial, who are we and how can we get in touch with our co-habitants?” asks Bäumel.

Bäumel is investigating the influences scientific knowledge has had on the way we have perceived and interpreted the human body historically and how this affects our current society and the cultural contexts in which we act. As an example, to show people this connection, Bäumel created a life-sized petri dish of her body’s bacterial colonies by using a full-body sized agar slab.

“Sonja wants to make the hidden universe of the microbe tangible to the average person,” Blackwell said.

In the new dance piece for the exhibition in Madison, conceptualized in Frankfurt, Bäu mel will collaborate with a local choreographer and dancers. The piece will investigate and showcase the movement of bacterial communication.

Not only does this project bring science to the public, it is also a great example of the Wisconsin Idea in action. In addition, the project shows how scientific and artistic research can merge together, learn from each other and enrich each other’s world.

“We are giving back, as the borders of the University are indeed the borders of the state,” Blackwell said. “The exhibit will be open to everyone, we hope to attract people across many disciplines and outside the University.”