The Communicating Bacteria Dress (2011) combines bioart, historical textile techniques, such as whitework embroidery, and 3D mapped video projections. The work was created by staining textiles using pigmented bacteria, which change colour when they send and receive communication signals. Bacteria have intricate communication capabilities, for example: quorum sensing (voting on issues affecting the colony and signalling their presence to other bacteria); chemotactic signalling (detecting harmful or favourable substances in the environment); and plasmid exchange (e.g. for transfer of antibiotic resistance genes). This is now being investigated as a form of social intelligence as it is realized that these so called ‘simplest’ of life forms can work collectively, obtain information about their environment (and other cells) and use that information in a meaningful way. Using signalling chemicals such as Homoserine Lactone, the bacteria pass on messages to nearby cells, which can be either part of their colony or other living cells (including eukaryotic and plant cells).
The Communicating Bacteria Dress was stained using a genetically modified strain of the bacterium Chromobacterium violaceum called CV026. Chromobacterium violaceum is white in its natural state but turns purple when it receives a communication signal, since bacteria grow in colonies and individual bacteria are continually sending and receiving signals it always appears purple. But the CV026 strain is effectively mute. It can receive a chemical communication signal but cannot send one, so it only turns purple in the presence of a communication from another bacterium. When exposed to unmodified Chromobacterium violaceum it slowly turns purple as the chemical signal spreads. The bacteria were then killed as they were in the process of communicating. A time-lapse film was made of the process and video mapped on to the dress in order to “bring the dress back to life” (Dumitriu).
The project was was funded a Wellcome Trust Arts Award and has been exhibited at venues including ZKM (Germany), The Barn Gallery at the University of Oxford (UK), Art Laboratory Berlin (Germany), R-Space in Lisburn (Northern Ireland)and the Victoria and Albert Museum.