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BioArt – Fine Art Meets Biology

Fascination BioArt

Have you ever heard about BioArt? Did you know that microbial biofilms and fungal cultures on Petri dishes can become pieces of art?
All this and much more you can discover in my interview with Uppsala based artist Amanda Selinder.

In her work Amanda fuses her background in fine art and her passion for textiles and natural pigments with her curiosity for biological processes. The latest outcome were fascinating pieces of artwork that give a glimpse into the life and biology of endophytic fungi isolated from leaves.

In this podcast interview we talked about
– How her interest for fine art emerged
– How she discovered bioart and what can be done with it
– Why she decided to go back to university to study biology
– How she dyes silk with natural pigments from fungi
– How this arts project has developed into a scientific study

Brew yourself a cup of tea and enjoy listening to the interview with Amanda Selinder here below or on our Youtube, Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Podcast or Deezer channels.

The Start Of An Artistic Journey

Amanda discovered the area of  fine arts through a year of orientation after having finished school. While she was working with fibers and textiles during her studies, Amanda got curious about the origin of the material and how it was dyed. Was it possible to dye textiles with compounds found in nature? This was probably her first step towards BioArt. Digging into her question of textile dyes, she discovered her interest for botanical dyes and pigments and started to experiment with them. Whatever she had around her, like onion skins or red cabbage, was a great starting material for this explorative phase. During a dyeing class she found a cabinet with old pigments from the 1970s that she could experiment with, even without knowing what these pigments were. In the first phases she skipped different processes such as opening the fibers, respecting temperatures and treating the fabric to make the dye stable. What counted was to see what these pigments could do to the material. Today, depending on the artwork and whether the dye needs to be stable over time, she is using more sophisticated procedures.  

Four glass jars with liquids in different colour and associated stained fabrics
Amanda's experiment of dyeing textile with extracts from rose plants. Depending on the pH the colour of the solution and the resulting textile colour changes. Picture by A. Selinder.
A sample book by Amanda of fabrics and threads dyed with fungal pigments
Just a collection of samples from dyeing experiments with mushrooms can already be a pleasure to the eye. Photo by A. Selinder.

BioArt Labs In Art Schools

The first real encounter for Amanda with the field of BioArt was in 2014-15 when she studied in New York at the School of Visual Arts. To the school belonged a lab for artists, supervised by a biologist who would support the artists with scientific know-how. BioArt community labs give lots of opportunities and they are becoming more and more common, says Amanda. Artists are working for example with fluorescent bacteria and petri dish art or like Amanda with biofilms using Kombucha cultures. Instead of adding sugar and nutrients to the growth medium, she emersed her own body into the substrate and realized that the cultures grew much faster. Staining the biofilms with natural dyes reveals artistic patterns due to their heterogeneous composition.To my question how she gets her ideas, Amanda said that she started from natural dyes and got intrigued by new phenomena in her ongoing projects that she wants to explore deeper in the next project. In a way, that makes her process of art very similar to a scientific project.

Pigments From Endophytic Fungi

In a commissioned work by Uppsala commune, Amanda transformed the biodiversity of fungi living inside tree leaves in a local park into visible artwork. Together with scientist Anna Rosling, Uppsala University, Amanda decided that endophytic fungi are a great resource for her bioart project. Because they live in the sun-exposed leaves, they often produce pigments to protect themselves from radiation. These pigments were what Amanda was out after for dyeing textiles. Amanda isolated numerous endophytic fungi from different plant leaves from the part. That on its own is a tedious process. She then sub-cultured those fungi that excrete pigments into the media or that retained the pigments in the mycelia. In the interview she shares that not all pigments will in the end bind to and dye the fabric, so lots of trial and error was required for her to get to a result.

Petri dishes with fungal cultures exposed at Uppsala Art museum
The fungal cultures with their colourful range of pigments were part of Amanda's work for the exposition at Uppsala Art Museum in 2021/2022.
Amanda in the lab holding a petri dish with fungi on
Amanda with a fungal culture on a Petri dish under the flow hood, a device dedicated to sterile work. To dig deeper into the biology within her fungal BioArt project, Amanda cultures and DNA sequences the fungi for identification. A project in collaboration with scientist Anna Rosling.

From Fungal Cultures To Textile BioArt

The choice of textile for pigment dyeing can largely influence the outcome of the result. Amanda likes to work with silk because it’s easy to dye with natural pigments, and it has a shininess and transparency that makes it beautiful in expositions. It captures the light, and it moves when people move around it. I wondered how Amanda got from her fungal cultures to the beautiful panels of dyed silk exposed at Uppsala Art Museum. Amanda explained that she used different ways. For some pieces, she folded the fabric and put it into the media or she put the fungus on the silk and let it grow there. In some fungal cultures the colour changes from yellow to more reddish brown when the mycelium ages and can lead to different shades on the finished textile. Another technique that Amanda used was inspired by the Japanese Shibori technique. Amanda folded the fabric, emersed it into a bag with nutrition media and added fungal inoculum. The structures that emerge are of different colour and depend on the distribution of air and bubbles and age of the fungus inside. Such a fascinating ways to capture the life and development of a fungus in form of BioArt on silk, isnt’ it? More about the project and processes that Amanda has used can be read on the webpage associated to this project.

Silk dyed with fungal pigments. Exposition at Uppsala art museum
Exposition of Amanda Selinder's work at Uppsala Art Museum. The silk panels were dyed with fungal pigments. Picture by Pär Fredin.
Judith admiring Amandas artwork at Uppsala Art Museum
I (Judith) at Uppsala Art Museum admiring the beautiful structures that the fungal pigments have created in Amanda's skilful hands. Picture by Marcus Lundberg.

From BioArt To Biology

Today Amanda is also doing a Bachelor in biology. This allows her to find new inspiration and to investigate the fungi more deeply that she has used for her artwork. Working in Anna Roslings’s lab she investigates now the genome sequence of her fungal isolates to identify these fungi. Identifying the fungi allows to find more information about them in the scientific literature, if these fungi are already known – which many are not. Amanda really enjoys doing and learning the labwork behind to reach her goal. She also says that it’s a luxury to have access to all the lab equipment at the university. And even if she was not having a connection to Uppsala university, there are also community labs in Uppsala where some of this work would still be possible for non-scientists.

Bridging Fine Art And Biology

To my question which doors the choice of BioArt has opened for Amanda’s development as an artist, she responds “I am not working in the typical art area, the fun thing is to hang out with people that are knowledgeable about fungi and plants and it makes me curious”. Amanda’s dream is to create labs for artists in Sweden to make it more possible for different artists to work in the area of BioArt. Creating a place where science and art can meet is also one of my own dreams. Maybe Amanda’s and my path will cross each other again in the future…. 🙂

If you want to learn more about Amanda, visit her upcoming exposition on natural dyes at Sörmlands museum. You can also find her on her website and on Instagram.

We at Flora-L Design have our background in plant biology and create textiles with patterns from plants and fungi under the microscope. If you want to learn more about how we do this, visit our About Us page. If you want to see how the outcome of our creative scientific work looks like, pass by our webshop.