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Art under a microscope: CMU's Intimate Science brings new approach

By Katherine Mansfield
On January 25, 2012

  • “Intimate Science,” the newest exhibit Carnegie Mellon University's Miller Gallery, opened Friday, Jan. 20. Jenna O'Brien/Photo Editor
  • The art of Intimate Science combine science and technology in the exhibit. Jenna O'Brien/Photo Editor
  • The art of Intimate Science combine science and technology in the exhibit. Jenna O'Brien/Photo Editor
  • The art of Intimate Science combine science and technology in the exhibit. Jenna O'Brien/Photo Editor
  • The art of Intimate Science combine science and technology in the exhibit. Jenna O'Brien/Photo Editor

Bulletproof mushrooms. Reincarnated flowers. Glow-in-the-dark fish.

These are just three of the wonderfully weird works on display through March 4 at Carnegie Mellon University's Miller Gallery.

"Intimate Science," sponsored by the CMU Human-Computer Interaction Institute, opened to the general public last Friday, Jan. 20.

Shortly before the gallery doors opened at 5 p.m., a large crowd gathered outside of the gallery, located off Forbes in Oakland. Before the gallery tour began, guest curator Andrea Grover explained that "Intimate Science" aims to educate visitors on the beauty of science and the real-world applications of art.

"The overarching theme," of the exhibit, explained Grover, is that "most of these works couldn't have happened 10 or 15 years ago."

Thanks to the plethora of free information online, artists are able to ask questions and formulate tangible answers, instead of simply creating pretty things while the academic world conducts and publishes research about the natural world. More and more, Grover said, artists are finding themselves working in what was traditionally a scientific environment, while scientists spend more time creating, a typically artistic endeavor. The two worlds are colliding.

"It's a very curious time full of potential," Grover said.

"Intimate Science" is the result of four months of research that Grover conducted while working at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at CMU in 2010. She considers this exhibit the sequel to a previous exhibit that she curated at Miller Gallery. That exhibit, "29 Chains to the Moon," displayed artists' creative proposals for producing the energy, transportation, food and shelter needed to sustain life in space, in response to a growing world population.

"Artists continue to publish solutions for solving [the world's problems]," she said.

It is difficult to fathom how large, ethereal mushroom walls and archways can solve world problems, but artist Philip Ross explains how his beautiful fungal creations actually do just that.

Ross's fascination with mushrooms sprouted during his time as a hospice worker in the 1980s.  

"One of the only things that worked on patients before strong AIDS drugs" to extend and improve their quality of life was the fungus Ganoderma lucidum, Ross said. After extensive, independent research on the fungus, Ross began to experiment with it. He eventually learned how to modify the fungus to create large-scale works.

"It was a very slow process," he said.

Ross spent years trying to go from growing a brick to a column to a building block of a fungus. His patience and perseverance have helped him create bricks that can smash metal and fungus blocks that are bulletproof. He has a patent pending for his super strong fungus; the material is a natural, eco-friendly alternative to plastics.

Like many of exhibit's visitors, Mike Montante, a architecture student at CMU, found the implications of Ross's works fascinating.

"It's intriguing," Montante said. "The bricks…are essentially a sustainable building element."

The Center for PostNatural History, a natural history museum slated to open in Pittsburgh's [Penn Avenue] in early March, which is presenting an exhibit at "Intimate Science," offers another artistic solution to one of the world's problems. The Center displays genetically modified or engineered organisms.

A large photograph of a mosquito (which viewers can experience in 3D by wearing 3D glasses) and a small, glass-cased mosquito solicited "oohs" and "ahhs" from the crowd when Rich Pell, one of the exhibits representatives, explained that researchers have found a way to engineer mosquitoes that do not carry the gene for malaria. If this manmade mosquito were to replace natural mosquitoes in the wild, malaria could eventually be defeated, Pell said.

"The idea is…innovative and something I hadn't thought of," said Alyssa Moore, a CMU student pursuing a Ph.D in engineering. She was fascinated by the works of the PostNatural History Center, which also included a genetically modified chestnut tree and a glow-in-the-dark fish.

Although not genetically modified, photographs of cultured leaf tissue more closely resembled watercolor paintings than microscopic images. These installations are the works of Allison Kudla. Kudla has a Ph.D in interdisciplinary art and began her career as a painter and animator. When she first heard about the intersection of art and science, she found herself intrigued with the patterns in science, especially the repeating fractal patterns in leaves, she said.

After doing research, Kudla discovered how to culture leaf tissue.

You "take cutting from a leaf that's still living, put it in a petri dish" with chemicals, and "grow more leaves," she explained. Patterns don't always appear, but when they do, the results are stunning visuals that the artist photographs and displays.

Also on display was Kudla's 3D printer, a machine that she designed and then built with the help of friends. A metal piece deposits green goo filled with seeds onto synthetic material and, after a few days, seedlings begin to sprout in beautiful patterns.

Another 3D exhibit on display was artist Markus Kayser's "SolarSinter," which uses solar power to melt and transform sand into beautiful glass objects. Because Kayser works on-site in the Sahara, his process was displayed as a video with a few of objects for viewers to admire.

Among the other artworks on display are bio-hacked carnations; once dead, the flowers were injected with chemicals and brought back to life by the Tokyo-based art group BCL.

Reviving plants from the dead and turning lab experiments into art would not be possible without technology, the Internet or the public's receptivity to seeing the beauty in science.

"Most people feel alienated from science and nature," said Ross. He believes that this alienation from both art and science stems from our technology-crazy world. Thanks to projects like "Intimate Science," though, visitors can reconnect with the arts involved in scientific pursuits, and can see the scientific advantages of artistic thinking in action.

"Art that combines science and art endeavors—it's a wonderful feat," said Cynthia Cooley, a local artist and guest at the opening day events. "This may not be the best way to do it, but we need to find a way to stop copyright infringement."


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