Bio-installations have been around for quite a while. Usually they try to bring awareness to the capabilities of bio-engineering, thus engaging the public in a discussion about the extent humanity is able to alter its biological surroundings.
The project proposed in this paper tries to do something different: to create a piece from biological material, that does something that is usually associated with machines. The aim is to show that the distinction between living organisms and soulless machines is an arbitrary one.
Naturally all works are created in a context, and the proposed project is no exception. The work GFPixel by Reinhard Nestelbacher and Gerfried Stocker is strikingly similar. It is a static display made of fluorescent and non-fluorescent bacteria. The bacteria are organized in petri dishes – the dishes with the fluorescent strain are the pixels turned ‘on’, while the others are the pixels turned ‘off’. The fluorescent bacteria in the piece contain GFP – Green Fluorescent Protein. The shortcoming of this work is that the display is static – it is pre-rendered, and can not change. Also, as time lapses, the bacteria eat up all the food in the petri dishes, and die.
The proposed concept is the following: to create a display made of bacteria, that changes its contents with time. This might be achievable in a number of ways, but the basic concept is the same for all: on a plane, there have to be localities of bacteria of two different properties: one that either emit light or let light through, and another that either doesn’t emit light, or blocks light. The localities emitting or passing through light are the pixels turned ‘on’ – the other localities are the pixels turned ‘off’. The light-emitting or -passthrough properties of the bacteria is to be changed with time – thus creating an active display.
As appearant from the above, the display might have two different sources of light:
- the bacteria itself as the light source (e.g. fluorescence)
- an external backlight, with light being passed through
It is also visible, that in both cases there is an ‘active’ state of the bacteria: either to emit or to block light; and there is a ‘passive’ state of the bacteria: not to emit or block light. As a simplistic approach, one might simply stimulate bacteria growth where the active state is needed, and obstruct growth or directly kill bacteria where the passive state is needed. A more advanced approach would turn on and off some features in the bacteria that puts it into the required active or passive state. This would have the advantage of not having problems with over-population or extinction.
For the display to have recognizable pixels, localities have to distinguished among the bacteria. This can be achieved in a number of different ways:
- separating bacteria physically (e.g. putting them into petri dishes)
- putting the bacteria onto one huge solid living ground
In the latter case, solid living ground is needed, as in a liquid environment diffusion would cause the bacteria and the possible chemical controls to spread over the entire display area.
As discussed earlier, the bacteria have to change states in different localities. This is either simply enhancing or disrupting growth, or having the bacteria change in some property. The obvious ways to affect bacteria are:
- changing the chemical nature of the living ground
- using light to stimulate or suppress bacteria growth
in either case, changes need to be made on a lot of different positions simultaneously. Also, for the display to be permanent, nutrition has to be supplied continuously.
The change in the state of bacteria might be slow when compare to a traditional display having up to 100 changes per second. This might not be a problem though – if the information to be displayed has a corresponding timescale. For example, displaying the lunar cycle of 28 days requires a considerably slowly changing display. Displaying the approximate time of day may also be possible.