Artist Screen-Prints Fabrics With Bacteria

Natsai Audrey Chieza
Natsai Audrey Chieza

Is there nothing bacteria can't do? Under the careful eye of researcher and designer Natsai Audrey Chieza, the itsy-bitsy organisms have taken on an unexpected new role in the fashion industry, offering a beautiful and environmentally friendly alternative to commercial dyes.

Fashion is currently facing "an existential crisis," Chieza told Mental Floss, "around the fact that it's the second-most polluting industry in the world." It's got problems coming and going: Textile production uses huge amounts of water and yields high amounts of petrochemical waste. 

Contemplating these issues, Chieza began to wonder if the solution could be biological. She began tinkering with Streptomyces bacteria, coaxing them to release their own rich natural pigments into small swatches of silk.

Closeup of fabric inoculated with vivid purple bacteria.
Natsai Audrey Chieza

It's unlike any other printing process she's ever experienced, she explained, because the living bacteria are both invisible to the naked eye and somewhat finicky artistic collaborators. Room temperature, pH levels, and the size of their petri dish home all influence the way the microbes lay down their dye.

Chieza's background is in art and design, so once she knew she'd hit on something interesting, she started looking for scientific collaborators. After a stint working with synthetic biologists as designer-in-residence at University College London, Chieza crossed paths with Christina Agapakis, creative director at the self-described "organism design platform" Ginkgo Bioworks.

"Our expertise is in microbes and how to work with them and keep them happy," Agapakis tells Mental Floss. "We think that biology is such an amazing way to make stuff."

Two pieces of bacteria-dyed silk, one brown, one purple.
Natsai Audrey Chieza

The artist and the organism designers are now "developing a lot of different things all at the same time," Chieza says. One of their biggest questions is scale—how a microscopic process could be enlarged to dye entire garments and yards of cloth, moving "from the biological to the body to architectural."

"At Ginkgo," she continues, "we're wondering how much we can make so that it can actually plug in to the demand for material resources. How do we bridge the difference between 250 milliliters and 50,000 liters?"

Part of the puzzle involves building all-new technology to house the all-new dyeing process, and ensuring that both are environmentally sound and resource-conservative.

At every step of the process, Chieza says she asks herself, "What does this all mean? How does this relate to society? Is it actually going to solve this problem?"

We're looking forward to finding out.

Wish You Could ‘Shazam’ a Piece of Art? With Magnus, You Can

Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images
Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images

While museum artworks are often accompanied by tidy little placards that tell you the basics—title, artist, year, medium, dimensions, etc.—that’s not always the standard for art galleries and fairs. For people who don’t love tracking down a staff member every time they’d like to know more about a particular work, there’s Magnus, a Shazam-like app that lets you snap a photo of an artwork and will then tell you the title, artist, last price, and more.

The New York Times reports that Magnus has a primarily crowdsourced database of more than 10 million art images. Though the idea of creating Shazam for art seems fairly straightforward, the execution has been relatively complex, partially because of the sheer quantity of art in the world. As founder Magnus Resch explained to The New York Times, “There is a lot more art in the world than there are songs.”

Structural diversity in art adds another challenge to the process: it’s difficult for image recognition technology to register 3D objects like sculptures, however famous they may be. Resch also has to dodge copyright violations; he maintains that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act applies to his app, since the photos are taken and shared by users, but he still has had to remove some content. All things considered, Magnus’s approximate match rate of 70 percent is pretty impressive.

Since the process of buying and selling art often includes negotiation and prices can fluctuate drastically, Magnus gives potential purchasers the background information they need to at least decide whether they’re interested in pursuing a particular piece. Just like browsing around a boutique where prices aren’t included on the items, a lack of transparency can be a deterrent for new customers.

Such was the case for Jelena Cohen, a Colgate-Palmolive brand manager who bought her first photograph with the help of Magnus. “I used to go to these art fairs, and I felt embarrassed or shy, because nothing’s listed,” she told The New York Times. “I loved that the app could scan a piece and give you the exact history of it, when it was last sold, and the price it was sold for. That helped me negotiate.” Through Magnus, you can also keep track of artworks you’ve scanned in your digital collection, search for artworks by artist, and share images to social media.

One thing Magnus can’t do, however, is tell you whether an artwork is authentic or not. The truth is that sometimes even art experts have trouble doing that, as evidenced by the long history of notorious art forgeries.

[h/t The New York Times]

'The Far Side' May Be Making a Comeback Online

tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus
tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus

For the first time ever, it’s looking increasingly likely that cartoonist Gary Larson’s "The Far Side" will be available in a medium other than book collections or page-a-day calendars. A (slightly ambiguous) announcement on the official "Far Side" website promises that “a new online era” for the strip is coming soon.

From 1980 to 1995, "The Far Side" presented a wonderfully irreverent universe in which hunters had much to fear from armed and verbose deer, cows possessed a rich internal life, scientific experiments often went awry, and irony became a central conceit. In one of the more famous strips frequently pasted to refrigerator doors, a small child could be seen pushing on a door marked “pull.” Above him was a sign marking the building as a school for the gifted. In another strip, a woman is depicted looking nervously around a forest while cradling a vacuum cleaner. The caption: “The woods were dark and foreboding, and Alice sensed that sinister eyes were watching her every step. Worst of all, she knew that Nature abhorred a vacuum.”

Unlike most of his contemporaries, like Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County") and Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Larson has resisted reproduction of his work online. He famously circulated a letter to "Far Side" fan sites asking them to stop posting the single-panel strips, writing that the idea of his work being found on random websites was bothersome. “These cartoons are my ‘children,’ of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me,” he wrote.

Many obliged Larson, though the strip could still be found here and there. That he’s seemingly embracing a new method of distribution is good news for fans, but there’s no concrete evidence the now-retired cartoonist will be following in Breathed’s footsteps and producing new strips. ("Bloom County" returned as a Facebook comic in 2015.) The only indication of Larson’s active involvement is a new piece of art on the site’s landing page depicting some familiar "Far Side" characters being unthawed in a block of ice.

Larson’s comments on a return are few and far between. In 1998, he told The New York Times that going back to a strip was unlikely. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Never say never, but there’s a sense of ‘been there, done that.’” In that same profile, it was noted that 33 million "Far Side" books had been sold.

[h/t A.V. Club]

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