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'Living Mirror': Bacteria as human portrait (pictures)

Two science-minded artists combine magnetic bacteria, electronics, and photo manipulation to create real-time liquid images of people. See how they did it.

Leslie_Katz.jpg
Leslie_Katz.jpg

Leslie Katz

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1 of 13 Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK

Beautiful bacteria

Bacteria can do a whole lot of things. Two London-based artists have taken advantage of the fact that some types can be rotated in ways that cause light to scatter, creating a visible shimmer inside liquid, to bring a novel imaging technique to life.

Laura Cinti and Howard Boland combined magnetotactic bacteria, which can orient itself along Earth's magnetic fields, with electronics and photo manipulation to create real-time liquid images. They call their interactive installation "Living Mirror," as the manipulated cells form a "living mirror" within liquid that essentially mimics images captured of people.

"Multiple pulsating waves of bacteria can be made to form a pixelated but recognizable image using tiny electromagnetic coils that shift magnetic fields across surface areas," explain Cinti and Boland of the art-science collective C-Lab. "By taking pixel values from darker and lighter areas in captured images, 'Living Mirror' attempts to programmatically harmonize hundreds of light pulses to re-represent the image inside a liquid culture."

The resulting image might not work for a passport photo, but it does represent a rather unusual blend of art and science.

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2 of 13 Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK

Pixelated portrait

The interactive "Living Mirror" is on display at the Naturalis Raamsteeg 2, the former home of the Dutch National Museum of Natural History in Leiden, through mid-December. C-Lab's novel portrait-making process involves a mounted camera that captures moving images of a visitor. Software translates the images into a pixel dimension corresponding to the final resolution of the physical grid. The real-time mirror images are then created in liquid using an electromagnetic grid that can pull or release bacterial cells.
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3 of 13 Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK

A mirror, of sorts

Look closely and you'll see a round display in front of the grid of magnets. The "Living Mirror" doesn't present a traditional mirror reflection. It's more of a giant artistic petri dish in which bacteria is made to rotate in liquid, causing light to scatter and create a visible shimmer.
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4 of 13 Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK

Magnet manipulation

"Living Mirror" is among the winning projects from the 2012-2013 Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award, which highlights the intersection of art and life sciences. Here, a magnet placed beneath a petri dish shows how the bacteria can be manipulated, ultimately forming specific shapes.
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5 of 13 Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK

Magnet reaction

The "Living Mirror" project took months, and a number of prototypes, to refine. In the early stages, C-Lab artists Laura Cinti and Howard Boland worked on developing a system that could produce a significant magnetic force to pull biomass. Here, fluid reacts to magnetic forces. The fluid forms the artists' liquid media.

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6 of 13 Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK

Bacteria on the move

Manipulating a magnet beneath a petri dish of magnetotactic bacteria causes the organisms to move in way that creates a light-pulsing effect. The completed "Living Mirror" relies on the same principle.
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7 of 13 Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK

On the grid

A prototype of the 3x3-grid the electromagnets used to manipulate bacteria for the "Living Mirror" installation.
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8 of 13 Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK

Testing, testing

A test setup for "Living Mirror" uses a 3x3 electromagnetic grid.
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9 of 13 Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK

Coils and more coils

For their novel imaging device, C-Lab artists Laura Cinti and Howard Boland ultimately developed electronic boards to control 252 individual magnetic coils.
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10 of 13 Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK

Electronic boards

Bespoke coil carrier boards. So many electronic components were used for the project that the C-Lab artists had to set up a small assembly studio.
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11 of 13 Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK

Mining for DNA

"Living Mirror" involved extracting DNA plasmid from a library of standardized DNA parts. The initial idea was to express fluorescent proteins to enable more detailed visualization of the images.
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12 of 13 Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK

Artist in the lab

Artist/researcher Laura Cinti of the art/science collective C-Lab prepares a culture for measuring the optical density of bacteria culture. "Producing large volumes of this bacteria is challenging as it is a fastidious organism," Cinti says. Read more about the science of their work in their Lab Book.
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13 of 13 Living Mirror (2013), C-Lab UK

Preparing the Kinect

Software engineer Marco Konijnenburg of Dutch biophysics institute FOM Institute AMOLF and C-Lab artist/researcher Howard Boland test an infrared sensor on the Microsoft Kinect to capture images of faces in the dark.

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