“What if we could just grow the thing that we want?”
Ryan Hoover is asking a radical question. What if, instead of cutting down a tree, pulping its wood, compressing the pulp into sheets, and chemically bleaching the paper—a process that uses natural resources and a ton of energy—we could grow paper from scratch, at room temperature?
Hoover is sitting in a room called the Materials Lab, located on the ground floor of the old converted train station on Mount Royal Avenue, when he asks this. The space is unassuming. Wood paneling lines the bottom half of cream-colored walls, and big plastic tubs in the closet hold mysterious substances. Were it not for the metal shop and artist studios in the hallways outside, one might forget this building is home to the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Interdisciplinary Sculpture Department, where Hoover is a professor.
An art school may not be the typical site for genetic engineering and biological experiments, but Hoover teaches biofabrication, an approach to creating materials that works with living organisms. The intent is to move away from industrial and extractive procedures which are harmful both ecologically and sociologically.
Installation by Angel Cole and Mia Dexter, from Sympathetic Biology, an April 2019 exhibit featuring work by Hoover’s biofabrication students. (Photo by Nora Belblidia)
“What we’re looking for is a fundamental shift in how we make things, and why we make things, and our relationship to the rest of the planet as we make these things,” he says.
He shows me what he describes as a “strange, fleshy sort of material” called bacterial cellulose, a slimy, opaque, thick white disk floating in a white tub. Students grew the substance from a lab strain of bacteria in a process similar to cultivating kombucha. When dried, it can be made into a paper-like substance. Students have also grown a Styrofoam-like material from mycelium (the root structure of fungi) and sawdust, and researched how to grow animal fibers, such as wool, without the animals.
Hoover speaks about collaborating with organisms and employing a “relationship of care,” which extends down to the micro-level such as when working with bacteria to solve the problem of decimated oyster populations. When given a calcium source, S. pasteurii bacteria can produce a calcium carbonate byproduct that binds sand to make “biocement,” a material remarkably similar to the real thing but much less polluting.
Using molds to create biocement castings of shells where oyster larvae can latch and grow, Hoover is conducting experiments with scientists from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science on how best to repopulate the oyster habitat in the Chesapeake Bay.
Ryan Hoover loading Cyanobacteria into an incubator with a grow light; part of Tyler Brunner’s exploration of photovoltaic microbial fuel cells. (Photo by Nora Belblidia)
When asked why artists might tackle these sorts of scientific projects, Hoover responds, “I think we just don’t know any better.” Whereas a scientist might approach a problem systematically, moving from A to B to C, an artist might jump from A to J to Z to C. “We have a curiosity that makes us ignore disciplinary boundaries,” he says.
Stephen Bradley, a Baltimore-based artist who investigates ecological issues through sound, video and found objects, believes those jumps allow for more breakthroughs and innovation. “There’s an intuition [artists have] that I believe we don’t have a lot of respect for sometimes,” he says.
Like Hoover, Bradley is involved with the Baltimore Underground Science Space, otherwise known as BUGSS, a volunteer-run nonprofit in southeast Baltimore that aims to make science more accessible by holding workshops and providing lab space for residents.
“We saw that there was a need for a place where the community could do science and hear about science and actually practice and try things,” says executive director Lisa Scheifele, who has been involved with the organization since its founding in 2012. “We’re driven by the needs and interests of the community. We don’t really have our own kind of agenda except for educating the public and increasing access to biotechnology.”
On a hot Saturday afternoon, 11 people sit in a dark and cool classroom at BUGSS to discuss “Barcoding Life in the Inner Harbor,” an effort to identify organisms in the Chesapeake Bay in collaboration with the National Aquarium and the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology. The crowd has a mix of backgrounds—biologists, computer scientists, students, and artists—and they throw out ideas on how to organize the data they’ve collected and engage the Baltimore community, their voices intermingling with the sound of a blue marker squeaking against a whiteboard.
Among the crowd is Sasha Fishman, an artist who grew up in Baltimore but learned about the do-it-yourself biology (DIY bio) community when she lived in New York last summer, where a poorly ventilated studio was the catalyst for researching less toxic alternatives to resin and other materials. She connected with Genspace, a community lab in Brooklyn, and learned how to make materials on her stove. A sheet made from gelatin, water, and glycerin feels just like plastic.
Sasha Fishman’s experiments, using mycelium, bioplastic, eggshell, phycocyanin (blue green pigment), blown glass, damar resin, tempera paint, seaweed bioplastic, ceramic, silicone, paper pulp, avocado pit dye, watercolor paint. (Photo by Matthew Genecov)
As a recent college graduate, Fishman is just starting to dive into the world of melding art and science and connecting with community lab spaces such as BUGSS, where she met both Bradley and Hoover. Her work veers toward grotesque and alien-like sculptures shaded in elementary-school primary colors, much of it playing with a juxtaposition of the natural and artificial, “disgusting and desirable things all at the same time,” she says.
Bradley is at BUGSS this afternoon to do research for a community project in Masonville Cove, a polluted part of the Patapsco River near Brooklyn, Maryland, for which he is documenting microplastics (little plastic fragments that are just a few millimeters long) found in the waterway and the organisms that grow on discarded material.
A week later at his home and studio in Catonsville, he’s eager to share his artwork and quick to go on tangential stories about microplastics found in the bellies of shrimp seven miles deep in the ocean, or the bioacoustics of cicadas, or how falling asleep to the sound of the refrigerator as a kid inspired his interest in sound.
Stephen Bradley and Edward Ruchalski, “SpiderCricket (Sp+Cr),” collaboration at Wave Farm residency (photo courtesy Stephen Bradley)
“Sound is pretty much a misunderstood medium. People think it’s invisible, but actually, it’s very visual to me,” he says. His conversations loop around like a curlicue, doubling back and forth like a chorus. A mild twang and comments peppered with “gosh” reveal his adolescence spent in Biloxi, Mississippi more so than his childhood in Spain and Korea as the son of an Air Force officer. In college, he studied marine science before switching to art. “When I changed my major, I said, ‘Well, there’s two years wasted,’ and turns out it haunted me for the rest of my life in a beautiful way.”
With audio cords and petri dishes and little experiments scattered around, his studio resembles a science lab as much as it does an artist’s play space. Black wires crawl out of a fish tank on his desk, an attempt to translate the electrical signals of aquarium plants into synthesizer sounds.
Stephen Bradley, “Invasive Materials” on view at UMBC (photo courtesy of the artist)
Recently, he collaborated with Edward Ruchalski at the Wave Farm artist residency to create “SpiderCricket (Sp+Cr),” a sound sculpture that uses harps, piano strings, and FM receivers to turn wind energy into ambient music, which is then broadcast on the radio. It reminds me of Quintron’s “Weather for the Blind,” which feeds sun, rain, wind, and temperature changes through an analog synthesizer (an iteration of which, “Weather Warlock,” is also installed at Wave Farm).
While Bradley works in many forms of media, his work is tied together by an interest in the invisible, and the potential consequences of ignoring those unapparent forces. With the project on Masonville Cove, he says, “I’ve been looking at the material more as a reflection on the consumer,” taking what he calls an archaeological approach, seeing trash as evidence of our societal customs and making guesses about the lives behind debris.
Stephen Bradley and Edward Ruchalski, “SpiderCricket (Sp+Cr),” collaboration at Wave Farm residency (photo courtesy Stephen Bradley)
He worked with Dr. Tagide deCarvalho, director of the Keith R. Porter Imaging Facility at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to create images of microtrash and their accompanying microorganisms. The photographs of magnified bacteria and algae feature illuminated neon green, red, and teal abstract shapes which burst from a black background and resemble a biological version of Yayoi Kusama’s work. One of those images is incorporated into the piece “Invasive Materials,” which will be on display at the upcoming faculty exhibition at UMBC, Spectrum, along with other sound, video, and ecosystem installations.
Bradley appreciates the collaborations that institutions such as BUGSS foster. “It’s really, really interesting to me and invaluable to have scientists who are empathetic to the curious like us,” he says.
In 2015, Rian Hammond was curious about hormones. At the time, they were exploring options for transitioning, but were frustrated by a medical establishment that is often exclusionary and expensive for trans people to navigate. Hammond, who is nonbinary, also notes the medical system is slow to understand gender diversity and accept people who don’t want to exist at either end of the spectrum, as either a man or a woman. “My interest in using hormones doesn’t fit into the way that most people think about transition,” they say.
They had heard about the Open Insulin Project—which aims to democratize insulin production and make it more accessible—and wondered if something similar could be done with hormones. So they got involved with BUGSS.
After graduating from MICA, Hammond started taking workshops at the lab, connecting with scientists, and became a part-time lab manager. “I was exposed to all of these new technologies that I had never even heard about before,” they say.
Rian Hammond, Open Source Gender Codes
They developed Open Source Gender Codes, a project which emerged from their initial curiosity in DIY bio and has since evolved into an ongoing research inquiry into increasing hormone accessibility. They’re driven more by asking questions than by finding any absolute solution, but note that hormones produced at home are not usually safe to ingest due to the complex purification process and specific dosing requirements, and so alternative methods of production would most likely need to occur at trained community lab spaces.
As an artist, Hammond isn’t driven by producing objects, but rather sees their work as the interface to explore scientific concepts and ideas with the public. For example, a 2017 collaboration with the artist Mary Maggic consisted of a workshop/performance in which they collected people’s urine and inoculated it with Schizophyllum commune, a species of mushroom that has over 28,000 sexes—an example of “the queerness of biology,” as they put it.
The mushroom can also break down endocrine disruptors, which are environmental toxins that can affect a person’s hormonal balance. BPA, for example, is often used in plastic food containers and functions similarly to estrogen. It makes its way into our bodies through our diet, and then into our waterways—where mainstream media frames endocrine disruption as a polluting threat to nature via sensational headlines about sex changes in fish. “The focus is always on these chemicals as a threat to heterosexuality and reproductive sanctity,” Hammond observes, “and usually a panic politic about gender bending and sex change.” Inoculating urine was a way for Hammond and Maggic to explore these relationships between bodies, chemicals, and nature.
Rian Hammond, isolated mycelium from schizophyllum commune collected off a tree in Charles Village, Baltimore
Hammond considers Baltimore a home base but now lives in upstate New York, where they are pursuing their MFA at the University of Buffalo. “I just want to do interesting stuff and not worry about what bucket it fits into,” they say. “It’s less important to me that I am viewed or thought of as an artist than that I gain access to a certain way of thinking that artists are afforded.”
I ask them about the division between art and science and where those boundaries lie. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they respond, “I guess I think it’s completely unhelpful to think of it as a binary at all.”
They make the correlation between the gender binary and other ways our society tends to categorize individuals. “We think about people as left-brained or right-brained, and artistic or scientific, and that physical, anatomical feature of us allows for a really convenient conceptualization about how thinking patterns work.” But, they continue, “when you take a deep look at the science it doesn’t work that way.”
Hammond is respectful of the science—they do their homework—but they’re also critical when they need to be. “We know that the notion that science could discover ultimate truth or could have access to some ultimate material reality that we can’t experience in our subjective lives is just bullshit. But science is still valuable and it’s still worth doing because it’s one form of truth,” they say.
They attribute their interest in challenging objectivity to their arts background, as well as their queer community. As a nonbinary person, they’re well aware of how objectivity can be manipulated for power’s sake.
Rian Hammond, Mary Maggic, and Paula Pin’s S.commune fanzine
Hammond and I talk via Skype for over an hour, and over the course of our conversation they explain concepts I’ve previously thought I understood (e.g. gender is a social construct) in a way that is so refreshing and edifying, I feel as if I’ve eaten a cake after staring at the recipe.
A comment they make when talking about the gender binary sticks in my head. “It prevents people from being able to experience the fullness of what it means to be alive,” they say. It’s a simple sentiment, but one similar to how they describe being an artist. “There’s a little more freedom in the arts,” they say.
Art and science are often framed as polar opposites, but it wasn’t that long ago that the two domains were more entwined. Leonardo da Vinci created technological inventions as well as paintings and sculptures. Naturalists in the 1800s drew and also catalogued new specimens.
Today, science is a discipline of rules and boundaries, usually with good reason. The scientific method is the closest system we have to removing subjective bias, but the rigidity of institutions and pressures of peer review can narrow viewpoints, muting new ideas and innovations at a time that feels ever more critical.
“We can’t tackle climate change and the ways in which western society is literally crumbling at the moment with science alone,” says Hammond. “People are realizing that we have to recognize that western modes of thought are not the only valid ones.”
Hoover echoes this idea and points out that most of the world’s simple issues—the ones that can be solved by just one discipline—have already been tackled. “The complex problems that we’re really facing at this point require this interdisciplinary approach,” he says. “I feel like [collaboration] is an absolute necessity.”
When I ask Hoover about such a future, he emphasizes the need for a “more shared ground where it isn’t necessarily one person forced to operate within the framework of another. I think that’s where things start to get more exciting to me.”
Art and science might take different routes, but they both originate in curiosity and dream of discovery. The next question, then, is how to respect each field’s process and expertise, while collaborating to create a truly new approach.
Mold Ryan Hoover used to make oyster shells out of biocement (Photo by Nora Belblidia)
You can learn more about the Baltimore Underground Science Space and see upcoming events via their website. Stephen Bradley’s work will be on display at the UMBC Faculty Exhibition, Spectrum at the Center for Art Design and Visual Culture (1000 Hilltop Circle, Fine Arts Building). There will be a gallery opening September 5, 5-7pm. Bradley will present an artist talk October 2 at noon.
Featured image: Sasha Fishman’s experiments, made with mycelium, bioplastic, eggshell, phycocyanin (blue green pigment), blown glass, damar resin, tempera paint, seaweed bioplastic, ceramic, silicone, paper pulp, avocado pit dye, watercolor paint. Photo by Matthew Genecov.