School of Human Ecology and Department of Chemistry bring artist/scientist collaboration to Ruth Davis Design Gallery

Upcoming Exhibit: What Would a Microbe Say?

By Laura Sims Peck
School of Human Ecology

crochet artAn exhibition coming to the Ruth Davis Design Gallery in the School of Human Ecology at UW–Madison will make visible the largely invisible world of microbes, inviting viewers to consider non-linguistic interspecies forms of communication, to question human exceptionalism, and to envision healthier relationships with their micro- and macrocosmic fellows. Running from April 29 through June 7, 2020, What Would a Microbe Say? will feature pieces including cultures of people’s skin-surface microbes, crocheted membranes of various human body parts, and a dance performance.

The project is a collaboration between artist Sonja Bäumel, who works and teaches in Amsterdam, and Helen Blackwell, of the UW–Madison’s Chemistry Department, whose research includes the “quorum sensing” language of microbes that Bäumel examines through her art.

“I’m very invested in the liminal spaces of exchange and connection that most people don’t think about regularly,” says Bäumel, who has spent more than a decade working with scientists, fellow artists and designers, cultural historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and filmmakers to learn more about the topic. “We think that our physical selves stop at our fingertips or maybe momentarily expand with a sneeze, but in fact we are continually in relationship with our environments, shaped by and shaping one another as we move through the world. What if we thought and acted in a way that honored that?”

This question and others will be the focus of a “Crossroads of Ideas” event at the Discovery Building the evening of Tuesday, April 28, where a group of scientists and artists, including Balcwkell and Bäumel, will explore the interconnect between art and science, and microbes and humans.

“Sonja’s work really demonstrates the dynamism of our existence,” says Blackwell. “I’m excited to see her work engage more people in understanding that phenomenon that I—along with my students and postdocs in my research lab in Chemistry—get to work with every day.”

What Would a Microbe Say? was developed with the generous support of a grant to Blackwell from the National Science Foundation. To learn more, visit or sign up to receive the latest gallery news and events by email.