Art & science exhibit goes virtual

By Caroline Cole
Department Communications

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]
COVID-19 has universally disrupted the way humans interact with other humans and the environment. With stricter enforcement of face coverings, handwashing and physical distancing, individuals and microbes are interacting differently.

Nearly three years ago, Artist Sonja Bäumel and UW–Madison Prof. Helen Blackwell teamed up to research microbial communication. Now, their exhibit, “What would a microbe say?” has become ever more important with the onset of the novel coronavirus.

Originally developed as a performative showcase in Germany at Frankfurter Kunstverein that debuted in October 2019, dancers symbolized the movement of bacterial communication.

“The performance seeks to point out that a living being cannot be reduced to its DNA and that its exploration of social relationships requires, among other things, an artistic and philosophical extension of scientific tools,” the exhibit’s description states.

With the onset of COVID-19 and regulations for in-person events, the exhibit moved to an online format in April.

“We are all well aware of viruses these days,” Blackwell said. “Giving the viewer an appreciation of bacteria was our initial motivation, but now we are starting to explore a broader swath of microbes you cannot see but have dramatic impacts on us and how we interact.”

Their book of the exhibit is set to release in early 2021 and it will explore Blackwell and Bäumel’s three-year-long collaboration and their online exhibit.

The “What would a microbe say?” online exhibit will be available until December 31, 2020.