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Cybernetic Bacteria 2.0: Investigating the sublime in bacterial and digital communication

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Cybernetic Bacteria is an ongoing transdisciplinary investigation that brings together art, philosophy, microbiology and digital technology to examine the relationship of the emerging science of bacterial communication to our own digital communications networks, looking in particular at ‘packet data’ and bacterial quorum sensing. The project seeks to compare philosophical notions of the sublime with a kind of bacterial sublime, demonstrating the greater complexity of the interactions taking place at a microscopic level, when compared to human communication technologies such as the World Wide Web (with particular focus on scale-free networks). The first artwork in the series employed a clear plastic tube of liquid agar jelly planted into earth to allow the soil bacteria beneath to grow upwards and become visible. A total of 100 ┬ÁL of Homoserine Lactone, a hormone used by bacteria for quorum sensing (a form of bacterial communication), was then added by the artist as part of a performance lecture, with her in effect saying: ‘I’m here’ to the bacteria below. The microbes that have been communicated to then pass the signal on to their neighbours and so on. In theory this enables the signal to travel around the planet. However, the main issue with this work is one of Hermeneutics; the bacteria, which receive the communication, will not identify the artist as human – simply as another (albeit very large) bacterium. The project has subsequently evolved into a multiple screen digital artwork showing network traffic taking place in real time (web traffic, RFID and Bluetooth), a film of bacterial communication in progress (using two strains of genetically modified bacteria) and an interactive conceptualisation of the data from both sources generated using artificial life. The project continues.

Keywords: art; bacteria; cybernetics; philosophy; science; sublime

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Hertfordshire and University of Sussex

Publication date: March 1, 2013

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  • Technoetic Arts focuses upon the juncture between art, technology and the mind. Divisions between academic areas of study, once rigidly fixed, are gradually dissolving due to developments in science and cultural practice. This fusion has had a dramatic effect upon the scope of various disciplines. In particular, the profile of art has radically evolved in our present technological culture
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