Bacteria, cancer cells, and cells infected with viruses aren't usually considered things of beauty, but in the hands of artist Vik Muniz and MIT postdoctoral fellow Tal Danino, that's exactly what they've become. The pair invented a three-part process in which they create an image, get the cells to stick to it, and then print the image using microscopy and photolithographic techniques. Their series, "Colonies," was carried out under The Creators Project, a venture by Vice magazine and Intel that seeks to nurture high-tech creativity.
For this image, titled "Flowers," Danino told Crave: "The 'Flowers' image was created with liver cancer cells called Huh7.5. They are infected with the vaccinia virus, a virus used both as a smallpox vaccine in the past, and one that I have been exploring as a treatment for cancer. The virus infects cells and makes them produce a red fluorescent color. 'Flowers' is one of the few images that are naturally colored in this way."
"We started with very simple patterns that would pair something that is in our minds very chaotic, to something that's very orderly, something that is created by the minds of man," artist Vik Muniz told The Creators Project. "But as soon as we started doing that, we felt tempted to try different patterns, like crowds and sports events, traffic jams, circuit boards. It's like somehow trying to pair mind and matter together and seeing what comes out of it."
An image of the circuit board Vik Muniz mentioned. About his collaboration with Tal Danino, Muniz told The Creators Project: "I never would have expected that I would meet someone working with that level of complexity. To my surprise, he could do it, and to his surprise, it was a lot harder than he thought."
Look closely at one of the pair's images and you can see its granular composition -- a result of the assembly of millions of individual cells. When you step back, the image comes into a different kind of focus, as is the case here, with a work of art simply titled "Traffic."
This pattern, which is created with liver cells, looks good enough to hang on a dining room wall. Unlike the "Flowers" piece, this one was colored by the creators, not by nature. "The original images look like the black and white photos shown on The Creators Project blog," Tal Danino told Crave. "These are called brightfield microscopy pictures. There are other images in the series that are naturally colored -- for instance 'Flowers' is infected with a vaccinia virus that makes the cells red. And another one of the images is made up of fluorescent colored probiotic bacteria."
This image, which is digitally colored like the liver cell patterns, was created using HeLa cells.
According to Tal Danino's website about the "Colonies" project, these are "the oldest and most commonly used cell line from research taken from a cervical cancer patient (Henrietta Lacks) in the 1950s."
About using cancer cells to create art, Vik Muniz told The Creators Project: "It's quite beautiful to have a picture of cancer cells -- something so scary, and so otherworldly -- into something that can inspire beauty [...] For these things to become part of everybody's life, you do need a picture. You need a way to experience. That's a way for artists to partner with scientists -- they can provide a vision."
Vik Muniz (left) and Tal Danino stand in front of a framed version of their "Flowers" creation. The "Colonies" series has been exhibited on three continents and the creators are donating any proceeds to cancer research.