Collateral Effects: Biofilms

By Anna Dumitriu

1st September – 31st October 2022

This series of new artistic experiments by Anna Dumitriu explore the unexpected impacts of biofilms: interconnected ecosystems of bacteria that can colonise teeth, ponds, wounds, or even the inside of the human gut. From ancient, fossilised microbes, to antibiotic resistant bacteria, biofilms have changed history, and through the ability of cyanobacteria to capture carbon they may help mitigate climate-change in the future.

Artist Biography

Anna Dumitriu is an award winning internationally renowned British artist who works with BioArt, sculpture, installation, and digital media to explore our relationship to infectious diseases, synthetic biology and robotics. Her past exhibitions include ZKM, Ars Electronica, BOZAR, The Picasso Museum, HeK Basel, Science Gallery Detroit, MOCA Taipei, LABoral, Art Laboratory Berlin, and Eden Project. She holds visiting research fellowships at the University of Hertfordshire, and Waag Society, as well as artist-in-residence roles with the Modernising Medical Microbiology Project at the University of Oxford, the National Collection of Type Cultures at the UK Health Security Agency and the Institute of Epigenetics and Stem Cells at the Helmholtz Zentrum in München. She was the 2018 President of the Science and the Arts Section of the British Science Association. Her work has featured in many significant publications including Frieze, Artforum International Magazine, Leonardo Journal, The Art Newspaper, Nature and The Lancet. Current collaborations include the EU CHIC Consortium, the EU CAPABLE Consortium, the University of Leeds. Her work is held in several collections including ZKM, The Science Museum in London, The Computer Arts Society CAS50 Collection, Eden Project, and the Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum.


 Collateral Effects: Biofilms

Dental plaque is formed by bacteria which join together to build complex, multi-layered, three-dimensional structures on teeth. This textile work comprises of silk that has been placed in Petri dishes in the laboratory at Birmingham Dental Hospital and inoculated with diverse dental bacteria which were allowed to grow into biofilms. The silk pieces were then stained using dyes normally used to look at bacteria under the microscope, and sterilised. They have been stitched together in mixed layers, as they would be in a biofilm, the tiny stitches representing different bacteria. The silk pieces were then quilted onto a background of curcumin dyed silk. Curcumin is a natural antimicrobial substance. The darkening of the fabric is made using tannin derived from oak galls, a common mordant used in natural dyeing. Tannins are also present in food and drink, such as tea and wine and enable stains stick to teeth as they help dyes bind to fabric.

The soft, comforting quilt belies the hidden impacts of increased antibiotic use that took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was not possible to visit dentists in person, and considers the impact this may have on levels of antibiotic resistance in dental bacteria and continuing research in this area.

In collaboration with Dr Sarah Kuehne and Dr Melissa Grant, University of Birmingham. Supported by Arts Council England.

Materials: Quilted silk grown with dental biofilms and stained with microbiology dyes and natural antimicrobial dyes, embroidery.

Year: 2022

Spindle II

In “Spindle II” three-dimensional solid sculptural appendages, which resemble drop spindles, have been created using the interaction between crocheted linen lace and biofilm producing bacteria from the human gut including spindle-shaped ‘superbug’ Clostridioides difficile. These have been twisted onto an antique French linen spindle.

Linen is made from the flax plant through an interaction with bacteria, including some from the genus known as Clostridium, which swarm over the plant stems and help to separate the fibres often creating bacterial biofilms which help the microbes cling together. In the case of disease-causing Clostridioides difficile bacteria these biofilms form in the human gut making the bacteria harder to treat. Clostridia can also form spores that are resistant to antibiotics. The word Clostridium is derived from the Greek word for spindle, and alludes to the fact these bacteria are spindle-shaped.

In collaboration with Dr Jane Freeman, University of Leeds. Supported via Outreach Funding as part NIHR/HEE ICA Clinical Lectureship awarded to Dr Jane Freeman (Funder: National Institute for Health Research/Health Education England), and by Arts Council England.

Materials: Antique French spindle, hand crocheted linen lace, epoxy resin

Year: 2022

Unruly Objects: Living Latex

Cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae) live in all types of water and are believed to be the origin of plants. Through their carbon capturing properties and oxygen production, they have a huge impact in the history of the earth. They are responsible for capturing around 10% of the world’s carbon.

In this artwork cyanobacteria have been encapsulated into ‘living latex’ biofilms in order to capture carbon and help mitigate climate change. Encapsulating these bacteria into synthetic latex allows them to be coated onto any surface, therefore creating functional paints.

These experimental sculptural works build on Anna Dumitriu’s series entitled Unruly Objects and Biological Conservation and continue to explore the relationship of conservation of antiquities, and the potential collection and conservation of contemporary living biological sculptures by museums, such as her own BioArt works. 

The project also investigates the possibility of conserving antiquities through the enhancement of their microbiomes, the place of BioArt within museums, and the use of blockchain technologies to store conservation data.

The use of latex in the work also references a 2014 paper by Fernando Domínguez Rubio “Preserving the Unpreservable: Docile and Unruly Objects at MoMA” in which he discusses whether Eva Hesse’s latex artwork “Expanded Expansion” should still be displayed, saying “the original translucent and ethereal sculpture has now become a yellow, brittle artifact. The physical transformation has been so radical that it has prompted a wide controversy in the art world as to whether this piece should be exhibited at all.” This is ironic as the white marble classical sculptures that fill our museums are also radically different from their original forms, as brightly painted decorations which adorned sites of antiquity.

The work here also builds on her collaboration with the Department of Antiquities and Works of Art University of Western Attica in Athens which explores their research into ways to augment and enhance the microbiomes of sculptural antiquities to prevent or arrest their further decay (CO2 damage is a particular issue).

In collaboration with Simone Krings, Dr Suzie Hingley-Wilson and Professor Joe Keddie at the University of Surrey. Supported by the National Biofilms Innovation Centre, an Institute of Advanced Studies Fellowship from the University of Surrey, and by Arts Council England. Additional collaboration with the Department of Antiquities and Works of Art University of West Attica.

Materials: Marble and fossilised stromatolite, cyanobacteria encapsulated in latex, acrylic paint, pen, varnish

Year: 2022