I collaborated with the very talented Matthew Gale on his mysophobia project, exploring the idea of visible germs and perceptions of cleanliness and our response to microbes or environmental contamination.
Matthew sent me some tiny plastic microorganism sculptures to use how I please. My work centered around the idea of “contamination” and what that means as opposed to “dirty” or “filthy” or “unclean.” For me, contamination means something has harmful aspects that cannot be sensed normally or isn’t readily apparent. It’s the difference between looking at a garbage dumpster and seeing the obvious presence of microorganisms vs swimming in the ocean or visiting a beach that may have radiological or heavy metal poisoning, or harmful cyanobacteria blooms. My project steps are outlined below.
- Visit a Superfund site or otherwise environmentally endangered site and photograph the location with the sculptural microorganisms.
- Collect larger specimens from the site and use a dissecting microscope to explore the nature of visible contamination on the site.
- Take swabs of the surfaces and surrounding areas of where the microorganisms were placed, and then growing those microorganisms in a petri dish for one week.
- Collect water samples from site to examine microorganisms present in the water source.
- Paint a botanical drawing like composition of the organisms found.
Visit a Superfund Site
The first part of my multiple step collaboration with Matt Gale was to take the plastic microorganisms he sent me and put them in a place to explore the idea of contamination.
What makes something “contaminated” as opposed to simply dirty, filthy, foul, or some other term for no good? I decided contamination implies an imperceptibility. Foul or dirt or filthy can be sensed with our senses of smell, taste, touch, sight, etc. What makes contamination insidious is that you can’t tell without further knowledge or super human examination. Contaminated water looks and smells fine, contaminated food tastes good; the harm is hidden.
I struggled with this a bit, but thought our many Superfund sites, places of grievous pollution, would be a great place to explore this concept. The confluences of the Puget Sound at Harbor Island and the Duwamish River in Seattle represent two bodies of water with incredible environmental challenges.
Jack Perry Memorial Park sits at the meeting of these two waterways. The beach seemed industrial and trash was there, but not anything out of the ordinary in a big city. Seaweed, crabs, barnacles, and normal signs of life were everywhere. Yet yellow signs posted there warned about eating fish caught at the beach. Lead, mercury, harmful algae blooms, and other heavy metals are present in the water.
Do broken warning signs, trash, and physical manifestations of microbes set off alarms for this site or are they too a part of the normal urban industrial landscape? Is this normal for our working waterways?
Collect and Examine Large Specimens
The second part of my Mysophobia project was to collect items that were a visible part of beach contamination on the site. Jack Perry Memorial Park sits in the industrial district of Seattle at the confluence of the Puget Sound and Duwamish River. This beach had the contaminants that an urban park commonly has: liquor bottles, cigarette buts, food wrappers and waste, plastic bags, and really, plastic everywhere.
I chose to collect a crab molt and a piece of dried seaweed to look at under the microscope. Not only did I really not want to touch the gin bottle or cigarette butts, I also wanted to pick something was was supposed to be on the beach but would still show it as “dirty.”
The above images were taken with my phone down the lens of my dissecting microscope. I particularly like the ominousness of the crab molt. These images turned out like stills from 50′s B Horror Movies, views of monsters through portals. What horrors lurk in the deep? The crab monster, formed by radiation, comes to kill humanity!
It’s not unnoticed that monster movies share a narrative of environmental contamination and destruction. Something terrible happens, be it a chemical spill, radiation, or some man-made accident (and sometimes space too) that brings avenging death in the form of mutants.
One of the things I like best about dissection microscope images is that they are just abstract enough to be fantastic but just big enough to be recognizable. This gives them that cinematic, real but not real feel. I also love the circular frames the microscope gives these, like old timey fades in silent movies.
Above are pictured day 3, 5, and 7 of petri dishes that grew from swabs taken at the Mysophobia collection site. I prepared these dishes with typical nutrient agar. This part of the series was designed to explore what was actually hidden and growing on the surfaces.
It’s easy to identify contamination that is visible, as was the case with the presence of trash, liquor bottles, and more. The essence of this project is to put sculptural microorganisms in place to highlight there is a hidden microbiome completely unseen to us.
So, what is that hidden microbiome? The above dishes were grown from 2 swabs taken at the site we staged the mini bacteria sculptures, one from a rock in the interior of the park and one from a beach rock. I am still working on identifying these colonies are.
These were very fun to grow and show how alive our surfaces are.
Examine Water Samples
This part of the project honors my own artistic process and allows me to include the Mysophobia project in my ongoing Cell Portrait series. While at Jack Perry Memorial Park I collected a small amount of water to view the microorganisms present in the sample. I then made a gouache painting that creatively replicated what I saw with a lot of artistic license.
Several types of diatoms were present along with my other plankton, algae, and other organisms. It was incredibly interesting to see what was present in a site known for its pollution and considered a “dead zone.”
At this level of size, most of the structures and organisms are very abstract. They sparkle in the artificial microscope light, they photosynthesize or reproduce before our very eyes, and generally bump around doing their own thing. The slides themselves are like little dramatic movies with the cycle of life and death played out under glass.
Make a Painting
This was the most fun part of the project aside from visiting the site and posing the mini bacteria sculptures. I truly love painting, and making fantastic drawing of hidden creatures is a treat!