Co-Corporeality of Humans, Machines, & Microbes

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Co-Corporeality of Humans, Machines, & Microbes

Barbara Imhof, Daniela Mitterberger, Tiziano Derme (Eds.) Co-Corporeality of Humans, Machines, & Microbes Birkhäuser Basel


Co-Structuring New Corpo-Realities

Foreword by Jens Hauser



Co-Corporeality: Responding, Observing and Sharing Knowledge

Introduction by the Editors


Microbial Communication with Humans

Heribert Insam


Co-Corporeality of/with Cyanobacteria

Judith Ascher-Jenull, Carolin Garmsiri, Heribert Insam


A [Micro-]Companion to Symbiosis

David Berry


Visualising Microbial Activity: Colorimetric Signalling Using E. coli with pH-Indicators and Chromogenic Substrates / Andi Heberlein


Living Material Systems

An Interview with Alexander Bismarck


Bacterial Cellulose Experiments


Intelligence of Living and Artificial Systems

An Interview with Robert Trappl


Neptun Yousefi


Facial Expression Recognition

Martin Gasser



Eye-Gaze Tracking Technology

Martin Gasser



Co-Corporeality Team


Degrees of Life

Co-Corporeality Team


Survival Perspectives on Cohabitation by Design

Petra Gruber


GROVE: Open Systems for Living Architecture


Rethinking the Common from Its Biological Roots

Alex Arteaga


Quo Vadis? Towards a More-Than-Human World

Rachel Armstrong


Biographies and Acknowledgements


Philip Beesley



Co-Structuring New Corpo-Realities


Addressing issues of ‘our’ and other-than-human habitats and post-anthropocentric forms of the oikos understood as ‘householding’ is a pressing issue today that occurs conjunctly, across disciplines and scales. Increasingly, we are aware of and acknowledge humankind’s entanglement with multiple living systems; but also climate change, ecocides and loss of biodiversity. In order to stage and reflect upon the potential that performative architectures generate, art, architecture, bio(techno) logy, artificial intelligence and machine learning, new materialist cultural theory, ecofeminism and performance theory – all traditionally dealing with genuinely different types of preoccupations and agencies – cross-fertilise in an unprecedented manner around the concept of Co-Corporeality.

1. Even a term like ‘con-struction’ conveys different connotations: beyond putting artificial structures together, the dynamic act itself of structuring together reveals its inherent performativity.


The concept itself deserves some etymological and epistemological scrutiny. Despite at first sight the hypocoristic suggestion by the prosody of its reduplication, Co-Co’s two components relate to two distinct and complementary facets. The first prefix ‘co’ comes from Latin, where it means ‘joint’, ‘shared’ or ‘auxiliary’, resulting in a kind of togetherness, something that different entities have or perform in common. As such, it melts into supposedly self-­ evident terms such as ‘cohabitation’ but is also present, adapting to its lexical context, in ‘communication’, ‘conversation’, ‘construction’ or ‘correalism’. The second ‘co’, corporeality, is reported to originate in Sanskrit krp and Proto-Indo-European krep, standing for ‘appearance’ and ‘form’, giving rise to the Latin corpus, ‘body’ but also ‘matter of any kind’. The term thus denotes organised physical substance but does not per se imply any scale or nature and is not anthropomorphic by definition. This twofold terminological ‘construction’ prompts various questions:1 First, which bodies are called to engage in t­ ogetherness? And second, what is a body today? We currently witness multiple attempts to escape standardised scale such as that represented in Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man, in which the human body and its supposedly ideal proportions establish analogies with architecture, other disciplines and the universe at large.



In this sense, Co-Corporeality parallels current trends in aesthetics, media and performance theory, which can also be described as microperformativity – a concept that questions the human scale as the crucial point of reference and contextualises other-than-human agencies, biological and technical ones alike. These in turn, challenge and subvert the mesoscopic tradition within which human phenomenological considerations are, philosophically, politically and aesthetically, still rooted. With regards to space and time, microperformativity allows for an analysis of techno-science inspired artistic practices that aim at increasing awareness for the invisibility of the microscopic and the incomprehensibility of the macroscopic.2 In these practices non-human agencies are staged in relation to techno-scientific or algorithmic systems, thus addressing contemporary dynamics linking the organic and the machinic – thus resulting in moist media, “comprising bits, atoms, neurons, and genes in every kind of combination” and in which “the dry world of virtuality and the wet world of biology” merge.3 The Co-Corporeality research project, its public exhibition and hybrid performative displays as well as this publication propose a challenging and materialised scenario of what experimental architecture and art can contribute to visions of trans-species interaction and living and adapting materials. It stages pigment choreographies and phototactic movements of microorganisms as a prospect for responsive architectures with flexible structures that adapt to bacterial change and future self-organising building techniques including biopolymers and 3D printing. With regards to the hype of ‘intelligent materials’, here a systemic and critical approach prevails in which intelligence may not just refer to the mimicking of human cognition but rather to the decentralised intelligence of ecosystems, systems which are even capable of cleaning up human-kind’s mess in times of major ecological and atmospheric crises. The research project compares and connects different modes of sensing in biological and technical systems, and confronts the contemporary fashion of artificial intelligence with biological intelligence; such hybrid constellations could be coined “naturally artificial intelligence” (NAI).4 Human presence becomes entangled with microbial ecologies via micro-movement observation such as eye tracking and face recognition. Here, in web-based displays of human/microbe interaction, principles of cognition defined as a general biological feature are being questioned and extended beyond the human realm, echoing Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana’s remark that “the observer is a human being, that is, a living system, and whatever

2. Hauser, J. (2020) ‘Microperformativity and Biomediality’, in Performance Research issue On Microperformativity, edited by J. Hauser and L. Strecker,25(3): 12. 3. Ascott, R. (2001) ‘Arts Education @ the Edge of the Net: The Future Will Be Moist!’, in Arts Education Policy Review, 102(3): 9–10. 4. ‘NAI?’ was been a neologism introduced at the occasion of the 4th International Open Fields Conference for Art-Science Research organised by RIXC in Riga in 2019



Responding, Observing and Sharing Knowledge

The Editors


How does one answer when the languages spoken and the temporality of the other is at odds with your own? When we communicate with one another, speech is accompanied by nuances of gesture and expression. If we do not speak the same language it is often gestures alone that enable us to understand the point of the other in a simplified sequence of physical


Co-Corporeality is an artificial word composed of ‘Co-’ a ­Latin prefix that creates a togetherness or mutuality in its neighbouring word Corporeality, the state of being or having a body. Corporeality when reliant on ‘Co’ means a mutual state of being is produced when two bodies are joined. The bodies of Co-Corporeality are not only human but of humans, machines and microbes. Co-corporeality examines the built environment as a “biological entity” and attempts to change the ways we understand, observe and communicate with it. The aim of the research is to discover a meaningful engagement and possible trajectories between two biological systems – humans and microbes. Which prompts the question – how can a mutual state of being be produced between veritable strangers? Theorist of education, Gert Biesta, suggests the presence of others who are initially strange to us demands a response.1 In the joining of humans with machines and microbes “what is done, what needs to be done, and what only I can do, is to respond to the stranger, to be responsive and responsible to what the stranger asks from me.” 2 The mutual state of being suggested by Co-Corporeality is not dependent on a shared experience but rather on the transference of understanding through a responsive and responsible language and environment. Biesta’s ‘I’ is possible to attach to all beings in the project. In other words, we are all strange to one another and in this strangeness demand/depend upon response. The mutual state inherent to the basis of the project is contingent on the presence of all three bodies [human, machine and microbe] to enable communication. These dynamics of continual interaction taking place between the human and his natural and technological environments is what Kiesler (1939) called “correalism”.3 In the development and implementation of biological systems made responsive through technological systems, Co-Corporeality challenges the idea of how “correalism” can be experienced by the individual.



actions. When we step outside we may be welcomed by sharp gusts of wind, torrential rain soaking through our clothes or the ­feeling of warm sun on the face, the environment around us sensorially c­ ommunicating the weather through changing temperature, levels of precipitation and pressure. When traversing through cities the audio landscape is often interrupted by the alarm of emergency vehicles sounding to ­ensure drivers and pedestrians make way. Communication often takes place beyond speech and is reliant on our other s­ enses to come to an ­informed understanding. Maurice Merleau-Ponty in P ­ henomenology of Perception wrote there is “an immanent or ­incipient significance in the ­living body [which] extends … to the whole sensible world … our gaze, prompted by the experience of our own body, will ­discover in all other ‘objects’ the miracle of expression.” 4 Highlighted as key communicators during the course of the project, both gaze and e­ xpression were relied upon as the nexus of communication between human and ­microbes. The living bodies of the project extend into the sensible world of the other via the state of mutual observation of the other. How human, machine or microbe express is dependent on the n ­ etwork of relations in each interaction; a subjective sequence of variables ­a ffect mood, subsequent reaction and response of each stranger in the creation of a wider discursive environment. This developed from the consideration of the observer in relation to the observed in the third order of cybernetics, with the knowledge that each ‘I’ will be changed in their inclusion in the system. The question of how to “become better observers” runs like a red thread through the research project.5 In line with contact improvisation, where bodies move together, anticipating each other’s m ­ ovements and sensitively adapting and reacting to unprogrammed situations, ­Co-Corporeality creates environments that enable these spontaneous situations. Improvisation as a mindset can instigate as acceptance of or a way of living that is what Fred Moten calls “consent not to be a single being.” 6 Because we are never really only ‘I’. As Lynn Margulis notes in Symbiotic Planet, “we, the beleaguered citizens of Earth, are intertwined with our host biosphere and its visible and ­invisible organisms. We thrive only via sustained interconnectedness. Like mobile forests, each of us is a self-contained ecosystem with deep integrations to other living beings. Billions of years of co-evolutionary collaboration mean that we can no sooner part company with Earth than we can with our brains. We are always woven of and woven in our environments, including the built environment.” 7


The theoretical aspect of the project began with Maturana’s – ­paper ‘The Biology of Cognition’ in which he writes “… o ­ bserving is both the ultimate starting point and the most fundamental question in any attempt to understand reality and reason as ­phenomena of the human domain. Indeed, everything said is said by an observer to another observer that could be him- or herself.” 9 In Co-Corporeality all bodies mix into one. Similar to political theorist Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things the wider Co-Corporeality project has generated “an awareness of the complicated web of dissonant connections between bodies.” 10 This intervention between humans, machines and microbes materialises how theories and technologies can ­activate a meaningful engagement between two biological systems and how this can change our perception of architectural space. Through the design of prototypical architectural machines


With advances in machine intelligence, synthetic biology, bioart and neuroscience, we have new tools that can be integrated into our environment and thus change our perception of how we d ­ esign and perceive space. Designers, architects, programmers and scientists can now create a living and augmented ­architecture. This shift is strengthened when we define humans, ­machines, biomaterials and microbes as co-corporeal agencies in terms of interaction, cognition and relational realms, opening up new possibilities for architectural systems. With the integration of architecture with biology and machine intelligence and the ­integration of biotechnological approaches the work questions our conservative notions of ‘natural systems’. The growing conditions of the microbes and living entities we worked with were affected by technological interventions. This merging of artificial methods and natural systems defines the characteristics of biofacts, which sits in opposition to artefacts – human-made objects.8 Biofacts are partially human-made and can be found in nature showing a hybrid character. This hybrid character is a result of the nurturing of life in laboratories. The observable dynamics of interaction on the part of the microbes were characterised by involving factors such as growth, environmental response, homeostasis and metabolism. C ­ o-Corporeality combined biofacts and the concept of performative spaces as discursive environments to expand the idea of architecture as a solely inert and passive entity.



and responsive environments, Co-Corporeality questions the meaning behind perceivable coexistence and the implications of a human-microbe relationship. By combining the field of architecture with microbiology, art and artificial intelligence research, Co-corporeality proposed new aesthetic and technological approaches. This interdisciplinary collaboration supports the development of new domains of description that redefine our definitions of natural and artificial, organic and mechanical, ­behaviour and consciousness through coexistence. Method • The Co-Corporeality methodology is defined by

working methods in the fields of materials science, chemistry, microbiology, machine learning, architecture and art. Within the project Co-Corporeality we accessed and worked in different laboratories, such as the University of Vienna Chemistry Department, the microbiology department at the University of ­Innsbruck and one in the University of Applied Arts Vienna called the ‘clean room’. Here, the studio served as an additional production space for 3D-printed structural elements and for the development of the sensing systems (facial recognition and eye tracking), it also functioned as the knot which tied the disciplines together. As Rolf Hughes said architecture is a laboratory of thought. And so, the laboratory functioned as a location, a method and as a platform to create an understanding of the matter and materials the team was working with. It functioned as a place to translate, communicate and learn an interdisciplinary methodology.11 The laboratories were part of a new model of interdisciplinary practice supporting the laboratory as a meeting place and space for knowledge transfer for all team members. The hands-on collaborative work built a relationship of trust between disciplines. This knowledge transfer was a cornerstone in becoming better participants and better observers in the C ­ o-corporeality ­research.12 The lab set-ups served for the development of ­larger set-ups in different contexts and architectural scales. The E-Feed/er was created through a sole online interaction in the midst of the pandemic and exhibited at the Angewandte Festival in 2020, while physical pieces were exhibited the following festival in an exhibition titled Excavations. These installations grew over time and culminated in the final exhibition Degrees of Life. All work produced was informed by conversations and panels with the advisory board members and other guests.


These panels or workshops were used as tools to test the ­development stage of the project with outside experts from the field, to bring in new insights and topical connections and to create stimulating exchange. “Stories about humans, machines and microbes” was initiated as Co-Corporeality board member workshop to investigate the potential of narratives in ­a rchitectural themes beyond the usual building project. “Alien Life – ­between brains, bacteria and matter” and “Embodied and ­extended sensing” involved international practices relevant to the topics of C ­ o-Corporeality. Contents • The book Co-Corporeality: On Humans, M ­ achines, & Microbes lays out the systems developed throughout the duration of the project – microbial, material, technological – contextualising them in a meeting of the fields of materials ­science, chemistry, microbiology, machine learning, architecture and art. The project team and its advisory board describe and speculate on the interaction of humans with living material systems and microbes in a series of essays and papers.

Microorganisms • Microorganisms are critical to our survival, but as Judith Ascher-Jenull writes in the second piece of our microbial series, we are not critical to theirs. Two model-bacteria, Synechocystis PCC 6803 (Cyanobacteria) and Escherichia coli were selected for the Co-Corporeality project due to being representative of key-bacteria outside and inside the human organism. Researchers in the Center for Environmental Research and Biotechnology at the University of Innsbruck worked with Synechocystis PCC 6803 (Cyanobacteria). Ancestral cyanobacteria was responsible for the first mass extinction event, otherwise known


The book is split into four sections: Microorganisms, Material Systems, Sensing Systems and Architecture. We begin in the laboratories of Innsbruck and Vienna. Each research laboratory of the project presents a pair of texts, the first introduces the reader to a consideration of the head scientist in relation to the research and the second, scientific, text outlines how the bacterial, material or sensing systems developed specifically in the context of the Co-Corporeality project. A final set of four texts consider the wider realities of Co-Corporeality within the discipline of architecture – our final laboratory.



as The Great Oxygenation, and now can be found in almost every environment on our planet. The Department of Microbiology and Ecosystem Science at the University of Vienna experimented with the capacities of Escherichia coli, a microbe commonly found in our gut. It is frequently used as a model-bacteria in the development of vaccinations and as a host for DNA sequences in biotech developments. Recent developments suggest that if they could survive on the Martian surface cyanobacteria and E. coli could be used in combination with local resources to create fuel on Mars. The microbial section begins with a consideration of how ­humans communicate with microbes in their every day. Professor Heribert Insam illuminates the multifarious sensory cues that microbes use to tell us about where we are, to warn us what not to consume and reveal how we are feeling. Judith Ascher-Jenull, apart from stressing our reliance on the microbial world and echoing Heribert’s insistence on how they make their presence known to us, describes in green-blue detail the use of “growth and photosynthesis-governing factors: light, temperature, ­nutrients, CO2 supply, pH and temperature as variables, to observe and interpret the related responses of cyanobacteria in terms of microbial ­activity.” In her state-of-the-art ­report she outlines the growth and photosynthetic performance of C ­ yanobacteria in three ­different settings – photosynthetic pigmentation, ­phototactic movement and photosynthetic activity. From Innsbruck to Vienna: David Berry, Professor in the ­Centre for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science, asks “What is symbiosis?” Comparing and contrasting the use of language in science and the arts and situating our understanding of the microbial world historically, David writes “There is a broad and conserved vocabulary in the microbial world, encoded by the genes, proteins and reactions of the cell. Communication was defined in a cybernetic framework by Claude Shannon in the mid-20th century as a process involving a sender and a ­receiver and a message.” A paper follows from the laboratory where Andi Heberlein experimented with the visual capacities of E. Coli, ­recognising that a detectable sensory signal was needed to ­establish a foundation for communication. Visual signalling was selected due to its easy detectability and the possibility of using it as an interface for digital processing.


Material Systems • Architecturally, living materials introduce material properties such as wetness, unpredictability and growth that are usually recognised to be detrimental to the life of a building. The architecture of Co-Corporeality is not only protection for humans but also protection for the microorganisms through the combination of novel material systems with specific sensor and image processing systems. The applied material systems must be able to support and integrate living functions. In an interview with Alexander Bismarck, head of the Polymer & Composite Engineering (PaCE) Group at the University of Vienna we ask – “Can we use living systems to actually create these things that we cannot incorporate from a mechanical or molecular perspective?” Answering with examples from his portfolio of work as well as the portfolio of nature Alexander discusses what living materials are, how we can better develop them in transdisciplinary circumstances and what he believes would be the best way to integrate living materials into our built environment. His recurring example of an oak tree leads into Neptun Yousefi’s experimentation with b ­ acterial cellulose. Within the scope of Co-Corporeality Neptun Yousefi was asked to “develop a biological and living material that involves bacteria with the potential to interact with humans and to react to their actions through their metabolic processes or metabolic products.” Neptun details the PaCE-groups development of an interactive system involving bacterial cellulose, which grows on a structure or object at a scale suitable for exhibition.

material systems the human in Co-Corporeality is dependent on a sensor system which was developed in collaboration with the A ­ ustrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Co-Corporeality ­developed a computational interface to connect the physical reality of humans with the physical reality of the microorganism. The field of artificial intelligence enables the project team to create an intelligent and adaptive interaction platform between human and non-human agents on different scales. In an interview with Robert Trappl, head of the ­Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Professor Emeritus of Medical Cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence at the Center for Brain Research at the Medical University of Vienna, we learn different interpretations of intelligence, how to differentiate ­between biological and artificial intelligence and the relationship b ­ etween ­observing, sensing and intelligence. Robert asks “Would ­intelligence be possible if there was no sensing? Do microorganisms really observe ­human


Sensor systems • In order to communicate with the microorganisms and



beings?” And “Do robots have personalities?” In two reports following this, software developer and media artist Martin Gasser introduces the reader to the sensing systems developed – Facial Expression Recognition and Eye-Gaze Tracking Technology. In the scope of the project, we focused on facial expression as a mode of non-verbal communication that can enable interaction with machines and relied on eye gaze as an important cue to demonstrate the importance of a visual impression or ‘noticing’. The algorithms developed were designed to recognise human emotions and familiar faces and to predict the direction of gaze. All these elements are interwoven in the interaction concept of the project. Architecture • Before the final section of the book two visual chap-

ters document the outputs of the Co-Corporeality project. The E-Feed/er and Degrees of Life exhibition are a culmination of the transdisciplinary collaboration of ­Co-Corporeality. During the E-Feed/er installation, visitors to the virtual space could affect the responsive growth and decay of bacteria through facial expressions. Degrees of Life interconnected microbial activity through a pupil movement detection system connected to a human visitor. Oxygen producing Cyanobacteria, metabolising E.Coli and bacterial cellulose were stimulated and changed by visitors in the midst of a living architecture and spatial installation. Broader context of Co-Corporeality • Co-Corporeality was guided by an advisory board who in the final section of the book reflect on the larger meaning of the project in a series that covers the integration of biology into architecture, designing buildings as open systems, a piece that materially feeds the growing body of research of ­Co-Corporeality and finishes with why we should be working towards architecture for more-than-human worlds. Petra Gruber in ‘Survival Perspectives on Cohabitation by Design’ suggests how with the reintegration of biology into architecture comes “the requirement to investigate our capacity to face ‘decay and limitation’ and to also accept the unknown and unpredictable into our lives.” The changes proposed by living in living systems does not only demand changes from the architect or the biologist but also changes from those who inhabit the spaces and changes in what they expect to do in terms of mainte­nance and care of their environment. Philip Beesley’s piece follows, complementing Gruber’s arguments with the physical


Co-Corporeality continues to reflect on the desire of ­“being in contact with the things of the world.” Being more sensitive to the things of the world as responder, observer and sharer of knowledge enables us to recognise the value “distance” can hold.13 ●

1. Biesta, G. J. J. (2006) Beyond Learning: Democratic Education for a Human Future. Routledge: New York. 2. Ibid. 3. Kiesler, F. J. (1939) On Correalism and Biotechnique. A Definition and Test of a New Approach to Building Design. Architectural Record. 86:3. pp. 60–75. 4. Merleau-Ponty, M. (2012) Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. D. A. Landes. Routledge: London & New York. 5. Co-Corporeality (2021) [podcast] Stories of humans, machines and microbes. Available at: https://cba.fro. at/507827. Accessed 28 March 2022. 6. Moten, F. (2017) Black and Blur. Duke University Press: Durham, NC. 7. Lynn Margulis (1998) Symbiotic Planet. Basic Books: New York. 8. Karafyllis, N. C. (2003) Biofakte. Versuch über den Menschen zwischen Artefakt und Lebewesen. Ethik in der Medizin. 17(1):73–75. 9. Maturana, H. R. (1980) Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. D. Reidel Publishing Co.: Dordrecht. 10. Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press: Durham, NC. 11. New Books in Architecture (2021) [podcast] Rolf Hughes and Rachel Armstrong, "The Art of Experiment: Artistic Research in Experimental Architecture" (Routledge, 2020). Available at: https:// podcast/rolf-hughes-andrachel-armstrong-the-art/ id425210498?i=1000534785634. Accessed 28 March 2022. 12. Co-Corporeality (2021) [podcast] Stories of humans, machines and microbes. Available at: https://cba. Accessed 28 March 2022. 13. Gumbrecht, H.U. (2004) Production of Presence – What Meaning Cannot Convey. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA. CO-CORPOREALITY

realisation of the biological architectural environment devel­ oped by the Living Systems Architecture Group for the 2021 Venice Biennale. Alongside intricate descriptions of the Grove installation, Beesley’s chapter offers “a meditation on closed and open boundaries; arguing that in the face of planetary environmental shifts, buildings should be designed as open systems. By viewing the open system as not in opposition to but embracing of current closed system approaches to architecture, it can be understood as flexible and porous in any circumstance.” Each approach to architecture reflects the wider message of Co-Corporeality, of integration in spite of common ways of being and knowing, of responding to the needs of wider ecological systems through the merging of disciplines and creating new open systems in architecture. In a poetic, living text Alex Arteaga inhabits a ­Co-Corporeal environment for the purposes of an inquiry into “organic matter, communication, construction, material, environment, anthropocentrism and aesthetic action/aesthetic cognition”; each facet of the environment builds into the next giving a visually rich exploration of separate but interrelated areas of the project. The book ends with a historical reflection from Professor of Regenerative Architecture, Rachel Armstrong, that leads the reader towards an imaginary image of what the approach of Co-Corporeality means for the making and accepting of more-than-human worlds. Rachel Armstrong convincingly suggests that the methods developed within the scope of the project, i.e. the development of knowledgeable material systems in the frame of communication “produces present and future knowledge, which develops along with the living realm. Going beyond innovation, Co-Corporeality suggests whole new ways of living by negotiating our terms of existence, which include: ethics, synthesis, legitimisation and valorisation.”



E. coli exhibited at the ‘Degrees of Life’ exhibition in Vienna, Austria, February 2022. Photo © Zita Oberwalder.


“Evolution has taught humans to understand microbial messages.”


Microbial Communication



with Humans

Heribert Insam DEPARTMENT








When the human eye looks at microorganisms, the responses we hear tend towards the extreme. On the one hand witnessing the worlds of microorganisms provokes inquisitive delight, and on the other, profound disgust. Macro photography of the Co-Corporeality microorganisms seen throughout this book show microbial patterns that resemble vast, otherworldly landscapes. These worlds occur at the microscopic level of bacterial or fungal colonies and can otherwise be found in bioreactors or photobioreactors. Such extreme responses to the visual make-up of microorganisms represent only one possible sensing response.

We have studied microbial communication with humans by triggering different sensory reactions. The first set of examples shows how pigmentation of a bacterium or unicellular alga can trigger human responses to an unexpected extent with significant ­implications for society. The presence of the bacterium S ­ erratia marcescens and prodigiosin – the red pigment it produces – has captured people’s imaginations for centuries. By growing on ­Eucharistic communion wafers and colouring them red, the real flesh of Christ was apparently made visible. This change of colour was often considered a miracle and strengthened the power of the church. As early as 332 BC, soldiers in the army of Alexander the Great sometimes found their bread dyed red.2 The soldiers ­interpreted this bizarre phenomenon as a sign that soon blood would flow and victory would be won. The visual presence instigated by the growth of prodigiosin possibly further encouraged their devastating conquests. In 1818 when British sailors sailed along the shores of Baffin Bay, in search of a northwest passage, they were amazed at the snowfields of “dark crimson colour”. As Captain Ross described, the

1. Insam, H. & Seewald, M. S. A. (2010) Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in soils. Biology and Fertility of Soils 46. pp. 199–213.

2. Gillen A.L. & Gibbs, R. (2012) Serratia marcescens, the miracle bacillus. Faculty Publications and Presentations, 138. Available at: https:// bio_chem_fac_pubs/138. Accessed 1 April 2022.


Following sense-based research, olfactory sensing of volatilomic signals appears to be much more important for microbe-human interactions.1 Communication by the microorganism is ­usually unintentional, whereas human perception takes advantage of involuntarily emitted visual or chemical signals. While communication is frequently bidirectional, communication between ­microorganisms and humans is mostly unidirectional. Very often this interaction ends fatally for the microorganism which is eaten, or killed by disinfection or the use of antibiotics.

© Birgit Sattler



dye penetrated the snow to a depth between ten and twelve feet. The ship’s officers examined samples under a microscope and found dark red, seed-like structures in them. The algae – Chlamydomonas nivalis – use chlorophyll for photosynthesis, which suggests they should appear green, but their astaxanthin turns them red. Astaxanthin is used for UV-protection of the cells, telling us that in this environment they are often exposed to ultraviolet radiation. Microbial misinterpretation and surprise are common responses when first encountering red snow algae. When the snowfields in the Alps turn red, the colour used to be thought to originate in the Saharan desert but these red slopes were the product of a microbial shift, not a geographical one. You may never have found the colour red during your encounters with the microbial world, but there are sensory scenarios where you may unknowingly be experiencing microbial changes. Close your eyes and walk down a path and suddenly you notice that you are in a forest. It is geosmin, a volatile organic compound (VOC), that conveys this message to you. Microbial ­actinobacteria thrive in the humus of the forest, synthesising geosmin. This compound also conveys the typical smell of fresh summer rain. However, when it emits from a glass of water, this molecule can indicate that the water is stale and warns us not to consume it. The sophistically nuanced interpretation of stimuli is a great achievement on the part of the human receiver. We owe many of the smells in this world to microorganisms. Evolution has taught humans to understand microbial messages. Take, for example, the typical stench of human faeces, triggered by Escherichia coli, which degrades the amino acid tryptophan to indole. Since E. coli is the guinea pig of microbiologists, we also encounter the smell when we stick our noses into a Petri dish. Can smelling faeces be vital for ­survival? Faecal contamination can cause disease, so our nose advises us to avoid it. Scent, created by microbes, can help us understand what is safe and what may be harmful. On the other hand, many foods lure us with their scent. Very often these are of microbial origin, like the characteristic yeasty smell from a glass of beer, swirled up and released by the buzzing carbon dioxide bubbles. These metabolic products of brewer’s yeasts such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae are aromatic compounds (e.g. acetaldehyde or ethyl acetate) which are formed during the breakdown of sugars and amino acids. The tantalising smell of


from yellow to blue. Since this is a process gov-

this would not be suitable for real-time r­ eactions

erned by chemical interactions and not growth

in an exhibition setting.

behaviour, the reversion occurred instantly. To investigate if E. coli still remains viable, three

In solid media using X-Gal, we were able to

different approaches were used: Addition of

­reduce reaction time from 48 hours at 37°C

lactose (10 g/L), glucose ( 6g/L) and LB-medium

to about 30 minutes at 22°C. The adaptation

containing glucose (6 g/L). In each replicate,

of temperature and time unfortunately meant

10 mL of aforementioned solutions were added

the reversibility of the colour reaction was not

and flasks were again incubated at room tem-

possible for either the X-Gal or the pH-indicator

perature. Within 96 hours E. coli cultures were


able to lower pH enough to produce a repeated colour change (Fig. 5). The best results were

In liquid media combined with ­pH-indicators,

obtained from addition of LB-media with 6 g/L

only a reduction of around 6 hours was achieved

of glucose.

at room temperature and the X-Gal experiments showed a very slow reaction time.


Using the colour change as a visual signal, a

In the context of Co-Corporeality, reaction time

next step in visualising communication could

is the most important followed by detectability.

be the implementation of a genetic reporter

Communication by microbes could occur at a

that would allow E. coli to send a visual signal

much slower speed, potentially affecting the

(e.g. expression of a green fluorescent protein)

behaviour of the bacteria through a change in

directly to indicate that its environment was be-

the parameters of experimentation, although

ing acidified and needs to be re-equilibrated. ●

Fig. 5. Incubation of MacConkey broth with E. coli. Repeated colour change after 96h incubation.



Fig. 6. E. coli in different growth stages, as shown by change of pH indicator from purple to yellow. Photo © Zita Oberwalder.






Living Material Systems



“How can we use a living organism to produce materials that work for us?”















Barbara Imhof

Alexander Bismarck

What are living materials? What is the criteria for a material to be understood as alive? When we consider a living material it is nature, all nature that surrounds us. Only, if we consider living materials, does it ­become more specific. Living materials are for instance – a tree, a living seashell, a whale swimming through the ocean, a bird flying through the sky. Living materials are always composites that consist of at least two distinct materials, which, when combined, exceed the properties of the individual constituents. These properties are needed to fulfil the function it needs for the species to live. A tree can only grow up to around 120 metres. The tallest California Redwood on record was about 115 metres. That is only possible due to the structural properties of cellulose fibrils and lignin, which holds them in place. Nature is always clever, it distributes material where it is needed. Nature can adapt. Consider a tree swaying in the wind with a wind load more on one side than the other – on the compression side the cellulose will be laid down differently than on the tensile side as it requires different microarchitectures than a tree that is not as exposed to the wind. In a whale you have the bones, you have the blubber, the fat, ­insulating it from the temperatures and it works. ­Everything we work with (when developing “living” better renewable mate­ rials) comes from nature and is only recombined using biomimetic ­approaches inspired by nature but is never living. If you consider Bacterial Cellulose – it is cellulose that is excreted by bacteria (nobody really knows why they do that). Cellulose helps to protect against UV, it also helps to keep predators or other microorganisms away from competing for the same food resources but it helps these aerobic bacteria to stay close to the surface of the medium they are growing in.


Alexander Bismarck is the head of the Polymer & Composite Engineering (PaCE) Group at the University of Vienna. His work with artists and designers has introduced living materials into textile design, furniture, large scale art installations and architecture. During the ‘Co-Corporeality’ project he has consulted the team on the abilities and restrictions of living material systems and their integration within larger scale architectural settings.


Barbara Imhof

Alexander Bismarck

Tiziano Derme

Alexander Bismarck


Can you tell us about one of the more artistic projects you have been involved with with living materials? For instance when working with Suzanne Lee we were trying to answer the question: how can we utilise waste materials to produce something wearable? Suzanne initially thought of waste sugars; so we began by using bacteria to ferment sugars to produce bacterial cellulose. In essence, you ferment the sugars, produce bacterial cellulose films, or gels, and these can then be processed like a textile into any form. Suzanne for instance made jackets and shoes. However, when you let a living thing become dormant (by removing its water content) the bacteria still remains along with residues of sugars. Then, under normal wear conditions, it becomes rather unpleasant because you start sweating and the sugars dissolve and then the bacteria start living again or die off and rot. It’s not nice. So the question then is: how can we use a living organism to produce materials that work for us? That would require killing the living aspect of it – the bacteria – and utilising what they produced – the cellulose. The beauty though, is that you can grow in any form and shape, which we can see in the co-corporeality project too. I remember when we first met and when we first explained co-corporeality to you, you had a completely different idea about what living material was. You showed us this example where an electrical stimulus makes the material behave or perform in a specific way. So, isn’t the feature of living related to performance and dynamic material systems? The biological organism always uses a ‘fuel’ of some sort and turns it into something else. In a natural state, we use whatever we eat and we generate energy, which we store and use to move. Plants absorb sunlight and grow and produce cell walls. Their fuel is carbon dioxide and water and is sufficient to build cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin and everything else powered by sunlight using photosynthesis. So biological systems metabolise, adapt, grow, multiply and die. If we take engineered materials we can produce materials for soft robotics and/or morphing structures, but we try to simulate what nature does in engineered materials by using a stimulus to trigger a change in materials behaviour. What I thought at the beginning of ­co-corporeality was that we would take inspiration from nature and use engineering materials and make them move, adapt or change: colour, shape, softness, hardness or stiffness. In that way – taking inspiration from nature but producing engineered adaptive systems.


© 2022 Zita Oberwalder


Bacterial Cellulose Experiments Neptun Yousefi


1. Introduction 1.1 Cellulose Cellulose as a material has been widely used for centuries in all kinds of practical applications, such as the production of textiles, paper, plastics, food additives and propellants. However, the chemical composition, structure and morphology were unknown for centuries. In 1837 Anselme Payen chemically identified cellulose from plants and since then, cellulose has been thoroughly investigated. Multitudinous controversial debates about the chemical and physical structure of cellulose during the modern history of cellulose chemistry reflect the complexity and uniqueness of this biomaterial. 1 Cellulose is the most abundant, renewable, biodegradable and ubiquitous biopolymer on earth and is the primary product of photosynthesis, which forms the skeletal component of green plants. It subsequently constitutes 15–99 wt % of all dried plant matter. 2 In plants, cellulose


© 2022 Zita Oberwalder



Facial Expression Recognition The study of human facial expressions has been a longstanding focus of research in the fields of psychology, communication science and evolutionary biology. Facial expressions are commonly associated with emotions; we interpret them as observable manifestations of hidden/latent emotional states. In Co-Corporeality, we focus on facial expression as a mode of non-verbal communication that can enable interaction with machines. In the realisation of the E-Feed/­er performance, facial expression is the primary form of recognised communication. The E-Feed/er directly translates the emotions suggested by facial expressions into machine actions in order to interact directly with bacteria. This translation of facial expression to emotions is an ambiguous one, as the assumption that there is a causal and distinct relationship between human emotions and facial expressions is heavily contested.

Martin Gasser



The E-Feed/er is a platform for interaction between humans and microbial life. With the help of a facial recognition system, visitors can communicate non-verbally with bacteria via their facial expressions. Communicating with microbes is a challenging task as it requires overcoming different experiences of time and space. Since the perception systems of humans and microbes are very different, direct, understandable communication is often impossible or misunderstood. Microorganisms usually communicate chemically or physically, by emitting signal molecules to attract or drive other organisms away. Humans can communicate non-verbally with microbes through the E-Feed/er installation by changing their environmental conditions and thereby triggering a microbial reaction.

The colour change of pre-grown bacterial cultures can be induced by the addition of X-gal or lactose, which is released with peristaltic pumps via distinct nozzles. These pumps and the following colour change is dependent upon and triggered by reading of a positive emotion in visitors, who are able to influence the growth and the development of the bacteria. X-gal, which is a pigment (X) attached to galactose (sugar), generates a blue colour. When the galactose is eaten by the bacteria, the blue pigment is released. When lactose, also a sugar, is consumed by the bacteria, they produce acid, which in turn changes the medium into a red colour. If a negative emotion is read, the use of UV-C light destroys the bacteria and prevents further bacteria growth on the UV exposed area. Following the action of the E-Feed/er the growth of the colonies is analysed through a digital microscope. This examination is done in order to determine the development patterns of the bacteria. The E-Feed/er is designed to be an interface between humans and bacteria able to translate each subject’s behaviour to the other.


A computer and machine vision controls the actuation mechanism of the E-Feed/er. More specifically, a face recognition algorithm is used to translate the user’s facial emotion into the physical actions of the E ­ -Feed/­er. Human emotions are collected from visitors by tracking their eyes and facial expressions, which are then processed by machine vision, fed into the feeder and thus influence the microbial cultures. The selected microbial species is Escherichia coli, an intestinal bacterium that can multiply every 20 minutes under favourable conditions; it is also valued for its robustness in laboratory environments. Once the facial recognition algorithm has read the expression of a visitor either growth is promoted, or selected parts of the microbial cultures (E. coli) are destroyed.


With the E-Feed/er, all essential features for human-microbial communication were combined for the first time in the project: –

human perception and reaction,

microbial perception and reaction,

hardware for enabling environmental changes and for recording reactions, and;

applications of machine learning that make it possible to bridge the gap between the differences in the respective communication channels.

The E-Feed/er has been shown as part of FeLT, part of the 4th Renewable Futures conference in Oslo; during the Angewandte Festival Wanderlust 2021 and was presented for the first time at the Angewandte Festival 2020. ●












© 2022 Zita Oberwalder


The environment ECo hosts the Escherichia coli bacteria. Human interaction allows the bacteria to grow through the addition of nutrients. This growth can be visualised through different colour spectrums through the addition of chemicals.


Rachel Armstrong

“The old world is dying regime struggles to be Now is the time for Co-


Towards a More-Than-H

Quo Vadis?

and the new born. -Corporeality.”

uman World