thinkScience at the Auckland Arts Festival – Biolumination II

By Siouxsie Wiles 23/03/2015


Saturday the 14th March saw the debut of thinkScience as part of the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival. As part of the day’s events, I organised a number of activities/installations involving a harmless marine bacterium that naturally glows in the dark. I got involved for many reasons, including putting science in places people weren’t expecting it, providing a space for the public to interact with scientists and also to show people that while they may be repulsed by the idea of bacteria and ‘germs’, these creatures can also be beautiful.

Biolumination II

In Biolumination II, I acted as curator, challenging artists/illustrators Helen Beech, Julia Marchwicka, Cinzah ‘Seekayem’ Merkens, Hope Sutherland, Rodrigo Vidal, Laura Ward and Katherine Yang, to each come up with a work of art using just a solution of harmless bioluminescent bacteria and a collection of 25 x 25 cm square petri-dishes. To give you an idea of scale, most of the pieces were 1 metre high by 1 metre wide. That’s a lot of agar!

Unfortunately for the artists, the bacterial solution is essentially invisible, and the artists weren’t able to see their creation until the bacteria had grown the next day. The works were displayed in the Vault, part of Q Theatre. The exhibit was open from 10:30am till midnight and was visited by over 1600 people.

biolumination summary

From left to right, top row: Helen Beech, Julia Marchwicka, Cinzah ‘Seekayem’ Merkens; middle row: Hope Sutherland, Rodrigo Vidal, Laura Ward; bottom row: Katherine Yang. Photographs by Benj Brooking.

I’ll post better pictures and more info about each of the artists over the coming week. Overall, I am really pleased with how Biolumination II turned out. It was just amazing to see the beautiful creations each of the artists coaxed out of their bacterial solution. A huge thanks to my lab, most notably Benedict Uy, as well as James Dalton and Hannah Read, for preparing the litres and litres of media needed to make this exhibit a reality. Thanks also to Gareth Baston, chief petri-dish wrangler, for turning the Vault from a bare theatre space into an art gallery for the day.

Update – For better pictures and info on each artist visit the links below:
Helen Beech
Julia Marchwicka
Cinzah ‘Seekayem’ Merkens
Hope Sutherland
Rodrigo Vidal
Laura Ward
Katherine Yang

So what did the public think?

Dr Rhian Salmon, of Victoria University, Wellington, suggested using post-it notes to gather feedback from visitors to the exhibit. The ‘Illumination Board’ was born and 160 messages were left there throughout the day.

illumination board

These are just some of the messages posted:

“As an artist, I love the out-of-box-thinking and integration of science and art – most inventive.”

“Mindblowing glowing art science wonder.”

“I found that intreging (sic) and interesting, scary at the same time. Overall I enjoyed it.”

“Amazing example of art and science combining to create an amazing learning experience.”

“Fascinating and so creative. Well done. Never thought I would see something like this.”

“Science alive – every child (and big child) should see this.”

“This was cool. To think that’s bacteria. It’s amazing. I had a wonderful experience.”

As a scientist, my intention with Biolumination II was to bring people to science through art, but one message showed me the opposite was also true:

“Wonderful. The only time my scientist daughter (11) enjoyed art.”

These activities wouldn’t have happened with the financial and/or logistical help of everyone involved in thinkScience, the Auckland Arts Festival, the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, the University of Auckland, the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Discovery, and Tile Space. And of course the never-ending patience of my lab!

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