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.

Lost Sketches From The Little Prince Have Been Discovered in Switzerland

Oleksandr Samolyk, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Oleksandr Samolyk, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, published in 1943, has long been regarded as one of the most compelling books of the 20th century. Drawing upon Saint-Exupéry's own experiences in aviation, the book tells the tale of a pilot who crashes in the Sahara and befriends a little boy who claims to have come from outer space. The book is accompanied by a number of illustrations by Saint-Exupéry. Now, Smithsonian reports that some of the original preparatory sketches have surfaced.

According to France24.com, the sketches—of the titular Little Prince chatting with a fox, a boa constrictor devouring an elephant, and a character called the Tippler—were purchased at auction in 1986 by an art collector named Bruno Stefanini, who tucked them away in a folder. When Stefanini passed away in December 2018, the artwork—drawn on airmail paper—was uncovered by workers at his non-profit Foundation for Art, Culture, and History in Winterthur, Switzerland.

Aviator and 'The Little Prince' author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is photographed inside of an airplane cockpit in 1935
Aviator and The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in 1935.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The organization intends to share its findings with the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, which currently houses the original book manuscript (including drafts of the book's most famous phrase, "What is essential is invisible to the eye") and 35 other sketches.

The Stefanini collection also includes a particularly personal piece of material. One of the sketches includes a love letter made out to Saint-Exupéry's wife while the pilot was in New York in 1942 following Germany’s invasion of France. It was there he wrote The Little Prince, which was published the following year. In 1944, Saint-Exupéry was shot down by a German pilot over the Mediterranean.

[h/t Smithsonian]

The Definition of Museum Could Be Changing

The Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
The Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
roman_slavik/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve always casually defined museum as “a place to see art or historical objects,” you’re not necessarily wrong. But the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has a more specific, official guideline that defines a museum as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment.”

ICOM’s 40,000 members have been adhering to this definition for almost 50 years to represent more than 20,000 museums around the world. Now, The Art Newspaper reports, some members want to change it.

On July 22, the organization’s executive board convened in Paris and composed a new definition that Danish curator Jette Sandahl believes better suits the demands of “cultural democracy.” By this updated description, a museum must “acknowledg[e] and addres[s] the conflicts and challenges of the present,” “work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world,” and “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality, and planetary wellbeing.”

The proposal immediately elicited harsh reactions from a number of other members of the museum community, who felt the text was too ideological and vague. François Mairesse, a professor at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and the chair of the International Committee of Museology, even resigned from the revisory commission—led by Sandahl—earlier this summer when he realized the new definition wasn’t, by his standards, really a definition. “This is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant,” he told The Art Newspaper. “It would be disastrous to impose only one type of museum.”

The current plan is for ICOM members to vote on the definition at the general assembly on September 7 in Kyoto, Japan, but 24 national branches and five museums’ international committees have petitioned to postpone the vote—they’d like some time to create their own definition for museum and present it as a counter-proposal.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]

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