December 1, 2010
Eat, Drink, Swab?
An experimental new chandelier combines lighting with a dose of amateur bacteriology
For most of us, family gatherings are captured in photos, anecdotes, and, more fleetingly, collective memories. But a New Jersey couple have found another way to enshrine their family dinners, by asking guests to leave behind a token of themselves—their bacteria, to be grown in petri dishes and later incorporated into a cascading chandelier.
The idea was developed with the New Jersey–based firm Madlab, which wanted to showcase the interplay between living beings and inanimate objects in a household environment. “We just put it out there, very loosely, to the clients: ‘What if we were able to truly see how present your family is, not just your family of humans but of your nonhumans?’” Madlab’s Petia Morozov says. She and her partner, Jose Alcala, developed a rudimentary biology kit that their clients could use to swab their extended and immediate family (three daughters and a dog), as well as their plants and bathroom sink.
The samples are cultivated in petri dishes, and the resulting bacterial and fungal patterns are dyed before being cast in a thin layer of resin to eliminate odors. Despite reports to the contrary, the colonies do not continue to grow once placed in the chandelier—which can now be ordered directly from Madlab as a set of modular parts: metal rods, caps and canisters for holding the petri dishes, and 15,000 feet of fiber-optic cable. The installation, the designers say, makes visible the minute organisms that underpin, rather than threaten, life. (Humans, for instance, contain ten times as many bacteria as they do human cells.) “The agency of bacteria is much larger than the agency of humankind,” Morozov says. “This is the more benign version of it, whereas it shows up in other ways—very large plagues and things that aren’t so swell and funny to talk about.” Right—those things that don’t make for especially appetizing dinner conversation.