Bio Arts Birmingham Gets Local Artistic Babs Thinking Big (And Really Small)

Writer Emily Doyle / Photographers Mica Gray & Rob Lockley

The first edition of Bio Arts Birmingham Laboratory (or ‘BAB Lab’ for short) brought together open-minded creatives from across the region to experiment with, play with, and discuss the way living materials can be used to make art. The programme took a ‘kitchen science’ approach throughout a week in mid-August, making accessible workshops out of intimidating topics.

Working with biomaterials can sound intimidating. The perfect remedy to this was a Monday morning spent baking rye bread and challah at Stirchley’s beloved bakery, Loaf. Austrian bio-artist Günter Seyfried walked participants through his process of making ‘yeastograms’, images developed on agar plates by exposing yeast colonies to UV light to limit their growth.

Later in the week, Fred Hubble demonstrated his own methods of shaping living beings. He introduced his collection of bonsai, cultivated over years as meditations on seasonality.

Artist-biologist Matt Gale’s work exists on a much shorter time scale. He showed samples of rapidly growing wild fungi he has cloned (a more straightforward process than you would imagine) and the hardwearing mycelial materials he’s grown from the cultures.

Ceramicists Paul McAlister and Megumi Naitoh also used foraged materials, demonstrating their ‘Ceramic Commons’ 3D printing framework with wild clay gathered from Wyre Forest.

Arguably the most immediate living material for any artist to work with is the human body.

Performer and facilitator Roo Dhissou demonstrated this to great effect. Drawing on her Sikh and Punjabi heritage to embody her God/cyborg avatar, Dhissou coached participants through drawing their own larger-than-life ‘power beings’ to be displayed on the walls at BOM on the corner of Dudley Street and Hinckley Street.

The whole programme is a fusion of scientific methods, and free-reign creativity. Prop designer Cal Westbrook stitched whimsical soft-sculpture fungi. Playful artist duo Hipkiss and Graney led the group in an experimental game of ‘Mycelium Max: Fungal Road’ out in the baking sun at Hazelwell Park.

Inspired by the wood-wide-web described by the likes of Paul Stamets and Merlin Sheldrake, participants ferry large papier-mâché nitrogen and glucose particles along fabric walkways, all the while dressed in homemade costumes with more than a hint of The Wicker Man about them.

Microscopic lives also inspire miniaturist Eiair, who delivered their workshop via video call from Bangkok. Eiair’s tiny porcelain sculptures reflect the symmetric forms of microbial beings. The class provides mindful respite in a busy programme.

Meanwhile, microbiologist Connagh Redmond is zoomed in from Melbourne to talk the group through creating agar art, planting petri-dish gardens using swabs from the verdant South Loop Park.

Digital artist Rosa Francesca gave attendees a glimpse into an unseen world of her own. Wearing an EEG headset to monitor her brain activity, she spoke and sang in front of a projection she’s coded to visualise the electrical signals from her brain in a display of self-described ‘twenty-first century telekinesis’.

Over the week, various ethical debates arise. Dramaturg Rosa Postlethwaite introduced the group to the jar of sourdough starter they’ve been spending time with as part of their performance art, which examines collaboration with other-than-human species. Postlethwaite is still in the exploratory stages of the project, and seems prepared for some playful questioning.]

They’re immediately validated by the bakers at Loaf, who consider their yeast cultures as a powerful agent in the creative process.

Artist/writer and self-identifying cyborg …kruse sparked heated conversation with their proposal of an interspecies manifesto. An altar of feathers and sunflowers and cups of Darjeeling chai all round, the stage was set for a calm and reflective panel, but emotions ran high as talk turned to veganism, utopian thinking, and human rights for household pests.

Andre Reid cultivated a more easy-going atmosphere in the Modern Clay studio. Speaking about the various cultural and folkloric significances of clay, Reid invited attendees to explore the medium as a tool for community-building and reflection.

Inclusivity, commoning and shared responsibility are themes that are woven throughout the week. For Trixiebella Suen’s workshop on creating plant based paints and dyes, design activist Daniel Blyde took the group on a canalside walk to gather materials. Foragers were encouraged to take responsibility – never pick the first you see of something, never take more than half, and don’t disturb anything that’s home to wildlife.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s principles of the ‘Honourable Harvest’ guided the practice. The Potawatomi writer and biologist is well-loved by the community at Civic Square. Copies of her book Braiding Sweetgrass were given out as part of their book exchange and a hand painted banner with her affirmation that “All Flourishing Is Mutual” hangs over the warehouse space.

The weeks’ venues were all chosen for their principles; Loaf, Artefact, and Modern Clay are all cooperatives. Civic Square (formerly Impact Hub) is a regenerative business researching radical neighbourhood economics, and BOM, where BAB Lab founder Laurie Ramsell works as Learning Producer, is a sensory-friendly space that nurtures diverse talent in creative technology.

All these spaces offer the artists on the programme plenty of opportunity to share ideas, expertise, and food throughout the week.

As BAB Lab 2022 draws to a close, there’s a strong camaraderie among the group. From microbiomes to the global environment, everyone’s left with plenty to think on. I’m sure Interesting creative responses will surface soon.

For more on Rosa Postlethwaite visit
For more on Günter Seyfried visit
For more on Hipkiss and Graney visit
For more on Cal Westbrook visit
For more on Matt Gale visit
For more on Eiair visit
For more on Andre Reid visit
For more on the Ceramic Commons visit
For more on Connagh Redmond visit
For more on Trixiebella Suen visit
For more on Daniel Blyden visit
For more on Fred Hubble visit
For more on Roo Dhissou visit
For more on Rosa Francesca visit
For more on …kruse visit