There’s a tiny world living all around us, too small for the eye to see. A world of microbes, viruses, spores and other microscopic beings inhabiting our air, water, soil, and even our skin. It’s this world that art-science collective Scale Free Network seeks to illuminate.
Started in 2007 by conceptual artist Briony Barr and her partner, microbial ecologist Dr Gregory Crocetti, and collaborating with artist Jacqueline Smith, Scale Free Network’s interactive workshops, exhibitions and books are all about bringing the unseen into the light. “Our human eyes are really limited, we see the world from a human perspective and relate everything to ourselves,” says Briony. “Yet most of the diversity on earth, we can’t even see. We thought that was a really fascinating thing to try and illuminate through the arts.”
Microscopic drawing workshops form the lynchpin of Free Scale Network’s operation. Drawing on Briony and Jacqueline’s backgrounds in process-based art, the workshops take participants – usually kids, but adults too – on a journey deeper and deeper into the world around them. Starting with an overview of how art and science have interacted through history, the presenters then start to talk about scale, starting with kilometres and metres and moving on to centimetres, micrometres, nanometres, all the way down to the quantum level.
“We show them pictures of things you can find on each of these scales,” says Briony. “Once you get to micrometres, minds are blown.”
Next the group will start looking at different everyday objects through microscopes – coins, strawberries, pencil tips – and drawing what they see. “You can take a strawberry and see all this insane detail,” says Briony. “People leap away. Looking at dead insects, people just scream in fright and joy. They react really strongly to this sudden new perspective on even the most mundane objects.”
That’s the initial reaction, but being asked to draw what they see forces people to linger where they might otherwise move on. “The thing that I didn’t appreciate when Briony and I started doing this was that the act of drawing is an act of observation,” says Gregory. “Without the drawing component, children will just collect ten objects, bring them over to the microscope, and look for a minute or two before moving on to the next. If they make a drawing they slow down and observe. They notice the patterns and the shapes and the colours and it’s a much more authentic and meaningful observation.”
Looking at an everyday object that has become abstracted through magnification also helps some people overcome feelings of not being good at art. “Because it’s not meant to look a certain way,” says Briony. “People who aren’t that confident can still get into the process.”
The workshops usually end with a group drawing being created from a projection of a droplet of pond water, full of writhing, vibrating and jittering things. Capturing the movement is part of the challenge.
“We call that our collaborative movement drawing,” says Gregory. “There’s bacteria and nematodes and protozoa and all sorts of things swimming around in there that have all sorts of intricate movements that are really fun to capture.”
These microscope drawing projects have popped up everywhere from ArtPlay in Melbourne to Ipswich Art Gallery in Queensland. The goal is not to make beautiful art to hang on the wall, but rather to use the process of making art as a means to learn and engage with the science. Scale Free Network rarely exhibits their work in the traditional sense, but one exhibition that examined the act of observation – called the Elaboratorium – made its way from the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick all the way to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul. Another large-scale piece, called Hierarchy of Eddies, is now touring Australia as part of the Experimenta International Triennial of Media Art.
In 2014 Scale Free Network began a new adventure into the world of literature with their picture book series Small Friends Books. The idea “came from this observation many years ago that there were no stories whatsoever from the perspective of microbes,” says Gregory. “We are just a small part of a much larger movement of eco-philosophy and eco-literature, which is really seeking to find those non-human perspectives and narratives.”
Now co-published with CSIRO Publishing,The Squid, the Vibrio & the Moon, tells the story of the symbiotic relationship between a bobtail squid and the bacteria that helps it glow in the moonlight. Zobi and the Zoox: A Story of Coral Bleaching came next, bringing the world of a coral polyp to life with a cast of characters trying to save their home from warming temperatures.
Another book, published independently by Scale Free Network, is a graphic novel for older readers called The Invisible War and details the journey of a virus through the insides of a World War I nurse. All three titles have received publishing awards.
Two upcoming titles in the Small Friends Books series will take a look at the world of fungal spores and nematodes in our soil – “significantly larger than bacteria, but still microscopic and so still really important narratives for us to explore,” says Gregory.
“The centralising theme of all our books is not just that they’re set in the microscopic works, with microscopic narrators, but also that they explore a symbiotic partnership between microbes and larger forms of life,” says Briony. In other words, there are no good guys and bad guys in these stories – just a circle of life where every being, no matter how tiny, plays a part.