Our new exhibition, Ingenious and Fearless Companions explores the quest to find microscopic life in space. The title is taken from a letter from French poet Victor Hugo to chemist and aeronaut Gaston Tissandier (1869), on the future of ‘air navigation’ to our hybrid ways of working across science and art. It is also a reference to the bacteria that travel into space inside and on the bodies of astronauts and spacecraft, as well as the extremophile bacteria that the HAB team have been seeking in the upper atmosphere.
The BBC’s most recent Horizon programme was about the search for life in our solar system. Scientists believe that the best place to look for life is in the strange seas that might be found on other worlds. It’s likely that this life, if it exists, with be in the form of simple organisms like bacteria.
Bacteria are found throughout our planet. They are the most extraordinary lifeforms, often extremely resilient and able to withstand extraordinary environmental conditions that nothing else can survive. Higher lifeforms on earth rely on symbiotic relationships with bacteria; the newspapers have been full of information recently about the so called ‘good’ bacteria in our guts which it has been discovered are vital to our overall health and wellbeing.
Because bacteria are so ubiquitous, resilient and relatively easy to propagate, there is great interest in them from the science and tech industries. Bacteria are used in medicine, food culture, mining, the creation of various plastics and in the sewage industry.
The HAB collective formed in 2010 when they met through Nesta’s Crucible Labs programme. Initiated by biochemist Dr Melissa Grant from the School of Dentistry at the University of Birmingham, lab robotics researcher Oliver de Preyer and mathematician Paul Shepherd, they have searched for microorganisms adapted to life in space in order to consider their novel uses in biotechnology.
Together the HAB team developed a remotely operated robotic device to sample the air for such microorganisms, investigating the effects of space travel on bacteria. They collaborated with NASA and civilian space authority The Rocket Mavericks, to launch the device into the stratosphere.
Ingenious and Fearless Companions incorporates video-mapped archive films and sculpturally altered relics of the original launch, such as weather balloons, environmental samples from the black rock desert and extremophile bacteria. The original launch did not go well however; bio artist Anna Dumitriu and media artist Alex May are collaborating to produce a series of artworks that re-live the excitement of the original rocket launch in the Nevada Desert, the horror of a failed parachute and the despair of a crushed robot.
The exhibition contains photographs and video footage of the mission along with artefacts, a book about the project (also available here) and the results of an ongoing project to bio-prospect BOM itself.
For more information about bacteria in science and technology visit the Science Daily website.
The remains of the wrecked robot will be autopsied in a unique performance lead by internationally acclaimed performance artist Kira O’Reilly, and the exhibition will be accompanied by Space Biohack weekend from 13 – 15 May 2016.