Biology and art come together at ASU Night of the Open Door event EMERGE: a festival of futures

The Frankstein-themed event brought students from across the University to the sci-fi meet-up

Art enthusiasts, science students and sci-fi fans alike gathered at last weekend’s event EMERGE: A Festival of Futures to explore science through art. 

The event, themed "Frankenstein," took place at the ASU Night of the Open Door on the Tempe campus Friday. The annual event hosted by the University Club mixes biology and art to create a multitude of unique exhibits called “bio- art.” May of the exhibits featured budding science research experiments on campus.

“You won’t see that many green monsters with neck bolts roaming around, but instead you’ll see a lot of themes that are introduced in the novel replayed in the exhibits here," Ruth Wylie, faculty co-director of the event, said. "... Mary Shelly herself was a great futurist when thinking about these questions so we borrowed a lot from those questions and explore them in these different exhibits you can see."

The theme "Frankenstein" showcased the benefits and consequences of newly developing technologies. Although the festival was aimed toward students in The School for the Future of Innovation in Society, it was was open to the ASU community. Entering into is sixth year, EMERGE is an annual trans-media art, science and technology festival created by the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination.  

Cynthia Selin, assistant professor and head event director said the twist on Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein that the event aims to share innovative stories about trial and error with onlookers.

"This is a story that is all about invention and at the same time the unexpected consequences of invention, and how we take better care of these new technologies that we’re producing," Selin said. "Many of the art and scientists collectives here are staging these performative experiment pressing forward just beyond the horizon of what’s possible with science and technology.”

At the event, students could imagine what their contributions to the future could be through various activities. The event also played host to scientists with leading research that is supported and funded by EMERGE. 

Karolina Sobecka, a scientist from New York studying aerial biology, was one of those leading researchers.

Her project “Cloud Services,” envisions a new information infrastructure and different way to think about how knowledge impacts physical reality. She explained how data can be downloaded and and uploaded into the atmosphere through vegetation such as clover by using a wind tunnel displayed in her exhibit.

“So if you imagine one gram of DNA, you can store seven hundred terabytes of data, now imagine the sort of data storage capacity that the atmosphere represents with this amount of bacteria," Sobecka said. "When the bacteria is in the clouds and it comes down in the rain, it rains down literally, you know … this is how the data is downloaded."

She said the clover then amplified the data — or bacteria — so it can multiply and aerosolize back into the air. 

"So, here in this little wind tunnel, we’re looking at the air flow of air when the shape of the clover interferes with the flow the movement becomes turbulent, moving the bacteria from the clover up into the higher levels of the atmosphere," Sobecka said.

This experiment could “sort of literalize this cloud services metaphor," Sobecka said jokingly.

She said because aerial biology, the study of bacteria in the air, is a relatively new field, researchers don't know a lot about the distribution of microbes in the atmosphere and their interactions. Those things are just beginning to be studied, Sobecka said.

The also event showcased scientific experiments that were technical in structure but playful in their overall nature. University of Minnesota art professor David Bowen’s exhibit “Fly Blimps” was an example of that type of tongue-in-cheek exhibit. His display featured blimps that harness the power of motion sensors and flies to make them fly. Inside the basket of each blimp were live files and motion sensors that camptured their movement to make the blimp move.

“It has no practical application, it’s just about thinking," Hannah Rodgers, bio-art curator, said. "The important thing to think about here is 'What is a natural system? What is a mechanical system? Where is failure? Where is success?' We are always interacting like this, we are a natural system that’s dealing with technical objects.”

Following the theme of Frankenstein, the “Frankenbucha” exhibit mixed together tasty art in the form of Kombucha, a fermented sweet tea, with pathogenic and bacterial growth research. 

The exhibit was run by ASU Center for Evolutionary Medicine researchers Athena Aktipis and Carlo Maley. The exhibit showcased the unusual properties that Kombucha has in relation to defense against bacterial growth, pathogens and even invasive species. 

“So, this project began in our kitchen technically, in the sense that we started making Kombucha and were watching it and just became fascinated by what was going on and how it was working," Aktipis said. "As we began learning more about it, we realized it could be a really great model system for understanding cooperation and maybe even understanding multi-cellularity and how multi-cellular life works —especially when you have many different species all interacting together.”

However, Maley said there were real world implications to their findings that could have an impact on the science community over all.

“One of the things we’re trying to look at is preventing invasions of pathogens, invasive species, and harmful bacteria," Maley said. 

He said the implications of their research could be widespread because preventing invasions of pathogens could be helpful in the medical field in terms of keeping things sterilized.

"There is evidence that Kombucha prevents the various bacteria from your hand from growing," Maley said. "After a few days in the sweet tea, it's nasty in all kinds of ways — it's fuzzy it's yellow, it's white and green — on the other hand Kombucha is beautiful, pure and clean."

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