Another kind of common garden experiment

In art and in science (we could take this further…), the process is just as important as the finished product, if not more. A few months ago, I was exposed to a filmmaking technique that came about by common garden experimentation. I mean: by literally experimenting in a garden. It was German filmmaker Jürgen Reble and his group Schmelzdahin who were first to dig a hole to plant some film. I think they were first to try this…corrections are welcomed!

Film, like the algae I study, is also a light-capturing organism. It has a base (usually polyester or acetate) upon which multiple emulsions are layered, each of which is sensitive to different parts of the visible light spectrum. These emulsion layers also contain “dye-couplers” which produce the color complements to blue, red and green (yellow, cyan and magenta). There are also filter layers with dyes, layers that function as UV protectants, layers that function as scratch protectants… My point is that there is a lot of stuff making up film, and by burying film in a garden, Reble was deliberately sentencing the images on his film to a slow death-by-microbe… because microbes like to eat all of this stuff. This microbial corrosion results in films that are worn down to the point of most images being incomplete (in the literal sense) or abstracted. The films appear aged, indicating that they have survived the test of time.

example of corroded film

We call our lab “home of the charismatic microfauna”, which means I am naturally interested in microscopic organisms and all of their incredibleness. I became immediately intrigued and inspired when I learned of microbial corrosion being used in art. Because this is the first time I am posting about art in science, here’s why I am inspired: In college, I used to apply scientific principles/methods to personal art projects. I worked for a photographer, and I considered getting an MFA until I realized I loved the actual science. I have used science to inspire art—but never art to inspire science (or science appreciation). I want art to be a part of my science career, and getting excited about this microbial-corrosion process was a good reminder of that.

So I just started experimenting with this process, but with film photography instead of film film. I took photographs of microbes, anything “natural”, and human representations of some of these things (e.g. stuffed animals or historical paintings that represent the beauty of nature). Then I bought a bag of soil and threw in the film negatives after spritzing them with sugar water… then I threw a rotten banana on top.

Without artistic fluff, some poorly organized thoughts: The corrosion process is supposed to be a long one (months), but I am actively trying to enhance microbial activity to speed it up. So, what if it only takes days to render the photographs unrecognizable? The duration of time over which change occurs always matters. The physical act of burying the film means that I am aware of the consequences of my actions. Are the microbes really destroying something beautiful and recognizable underneath? Or is something just as beautiful being created? Don’t we tend to care less about things we can’t see? I think that I hope for something abstracted, but recognizable—to be able to see both the evidence of the process and still know what used to be there… but am excited to find out.

Film is something which is always in a state of flux… the images, ‘real’ in the beginning, gradually disintegrate and the gelatin layer, where the chemicals are embedded, dissolves. All that’s left in the end is the ‘raging of the elements’. -Jürgen Reble

some negatives about to get buried

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