Don’t look now, but there’s something on your shirt… and your arm, and your… well, everything. Microbes. They’re tiny little passengers that do all sorts of things, and most people tend to ignore them, or think they’re incredibly gross — but not Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya.
Her newest exhibit, Community of Microbes, highlights eight invisible, microscopic communities in a wonderful celebration of color and science. Viewers can step into the space and use their phones to view the colorful, enlarged representations of microbes around them in AR.
Phingbodhipakkiya connects two communities in a way very few can. Her background as both a scientist, researching Alzheimer’s at Columbia, and an artist allows her to communicate complex ideas in thoughtful engaging ways. She’s teamed up with microbiologist Anne Madden and The Cooper Union to bring the wonderfully weird world of the microscopic directly to your eyes, phones, and tablets.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
How do you take a subject like microbes, which most people would think of in some kind of negative way, and turn it into something fun and accessible for people?
That was the reason why I took on this topic because I knew it needed a rebrand in a way. There is such an opportunity to share the stories of all these different invisible little species that are funny and interesting in their own way. So for example, in our gut there, there’s a microbe that goes into other microbes, multiplies and explodes. It’s like so savage down there. But if you can wrap it with color and story, and make it so that these microbes become these characters that you can kind of empathize and understand, then there’s opportunity for people to see the wonder in science.
What do you see as some of the strongest links between art and science?
I very much think art and design and science are ways to understand the world. There are different methodologies and processes and different outcomes. But we’re all really just trying to better understand our human experience. It’s like we’re trying to look inside our brains and understand how the blood flows so that we can understand activation or go even deeper and look at nerve cells, but also we’re trying to understand how connection works. And all of those things can be approached for many different ways. I think we can all embrace the different ways that we sort of approach understanding a little more.
What can each community learn from the other?
I think what is helpful is to step into each other’s worlds. Like really step into it — so for an artist and designer, go visit the lab and understand what tests are being run, understand the science behind now, all of these things that perhaps you haven’t even considered the way things work.
But I think involving each other in the process of creation, and in the process of innovation, and understanding that both fields have a high degree of creativity in order to make progress and move forward is probably common ground where we can all start.
How did you make the jump from researcher to artist?
At Columbia Medical Center, there was a moment where one of our patients asked me “So what was my contribution to science?” And of course, I completely bungled it. I was like, “Here, read our paper,” which is probably the worst answer that you can give as a researcher because no one wants to read a very dense paper if you’re not a researcher or very interested in science.
I started looking for tools and strategies to figure out, how do you become a better storyteller? How do you better communicate? And that’s how I got interested in design, because design allows you to communicate really complex information in a really digestible way and make it accessible for lots of broader audiences.
With my work, I try to have lots of points of access. So that if you came into this space, you can enjoy it for the color and the visuals. You don’t even have to learn a thing about microbes, but you could still have a good time. Or you could come in with the sort of intention of really learning about these eight microbial communities and kind of understanding them. So I did research on Alzheimer’s and aging brain — that was my focus until I decided to switch my path.
What are some of your design influences?
I love the visual use of color and shapes that Bruno Munari uses. I think the way he pairs color and shape, an idea is really interesting. But honestly, I’m one of those artists and designers that uses the subject matter to inform visual and how things take shape. So I’m really not beholden to one specific medium, like I’ll make a steel piece out of shock cord, and that sort of communicates a subatomic realm. I’ll do something like Community of Microbes where there’s no painting or really big welding steel kind of structure. It’s wood, it’s print, it’s vinyls. I think space and subject matter really inform the way I approach work. But it’s usually very colorful.
Who is the target audience for Community of Microbes?
I created it with the thought that it’s for everyone, which is why there’s so many access points. It’s fun, it’s colorful, its vibrant. Small children will love it. But also, millennials will love it because it’s like your Instagram palace here.
I think this is my response to the Instagram-worthy experiences that are out there. They’re basically being churned out and everyone loves them because it’s just a fun time. It’s easy to understand and I wanted to create that experience with this. But, you know, come for the colorful wonderland, stay for the AR and the microbiology and then leave with a deeper understanding of your connection to this invisible world that maybe you didn’t know that much about before.
What was the process for creating this exhibit?
Certainly step one was research. I worked with microbiologist Anne Madden, and along with everyone in her network, because she focuses on a specific subset of microbes, as most scientists do. They helped me kind of get a better understanding of which are the ones with the most interesting stories that are most relatable and accessible, and which are the stories and kind of shapes of microbes that might be interesting to highlight as well. Because it would be sad if every single community was like a pill, which is very common. There are other exciting shapes that we can highlight. So there’s one microbe that appears in your home often, called Aspergillus, and it branches out to these really beautiful flower-like things that kind of hit each other and release spores. It’s really stunning.
And just doing a survey of all of the kinds of microbes that are out there. But after that happened, then it was a matter of doing a color and shape exploration. You’ll notice that the AR animations are in 3D. But we needed flat imagery as well. So what I did first was the flat imagery to nail down the shape and the color. And then once I did that, it was translating that into a 3D kind of space so that we can create the animation in Unity.
Each of the microbe communities is given a different color palette. How did you decide on those?
Some of them are more for brand value and others of them are more for “these are actually different colors of pink.” So a really good example of this is in the shower community. You know, we all experience our white shower curtains turning pink, and it’s because of microbes and definitely using pink for that was like an intentional easy choice. Similarly, with the Bobtail squid community, there’s lots of blues because the microbes go into the light organ, once they have critical mass they glow blue, and that’s why the Bobtail squid glows because it hosts these lovely little critters that kind of just chill out until there’s enough of them and they’re like “okay, it’s time to glow.”
So you mentioned you used Unity to build the AR components.
Yeah, and building some of the 3D shapes in Blender. If I would do this project over again, I wonder if we would have used Vuforia as a platform, mostly because I think you discover things in the process of making and one of the things that we discovered was that Vuforia actually doesn’t really love vector shapes and that’s terrible. Because all of our visuals were vector so I spent an inordinate amount of time in the target library, uploading different targets and kind of like adjusting them just a little bit to see like, “okay, are we at two stars, three stars, four stars, five stars?”
What does AR add to the exhibit?
People have a little bit of a misconception about microbes being gross and icky. I wanted to put a layer of technology over everything. Because with AR you don’t have to touch anything icky, you can still experience it, you can still see it. You can get it in 3D without touching anything gross. Even though you’re in your shower every day, and there’s microbes on you every day. Honestly, chill. I would like people to think about it, though. Just appreciate what they do for you. It’s like the good bacteria. They kill the bad bacteria.
But you also designed the exhibit so you didn’t have to engage with AR.
I did. I think all mixed reality experiences should be designed in that way. Because if it’s truly going to be accessible to everyone, then you have to assume that a subset of the population just, you know, that curmudgeonly person might not want to download that app and it’s okay. They can still have a good time and they can still explore and discover and learn and enjoy.
In the VR and AR community, there’s a lot of talk about this concept of friction, of how quickly you get into something. How much did you think about that when you were designing this?
I considered a web app so that you wouldn’t actually have to download anything. But ultimately, I felt like it was better to keep it contained in an app form rather than use a web app because there’s just lots of variability there. With the sort of responsiveness, things might not look how they should, they might go out of field and disappear, like where’s the microbe? Off on the other screen somewhere. To control the environment and the experience a bit better, I ultimately decided to make an app that you do have to download.
I think sometimes friction can be good and a teaching tool. Sometimes if it’s so seamless, you sort of take it for granted a little bit and sort of don’t even understand that there’s this technology behind it, and that somebody works really hard to make this experience for you to enjoy. So, I think in this case, I wanted it to be intentional that you can experience the exhibition as is, but then there’s an extra layer. If you want to level up and participate, you can. And it’s also a way to kind of introduce new technologies to a diverse audience.
What do you think the immediate future of AR is? Do you see it more useful in this setting as a teaching tool that you intentionally come and experience?
I like intentional AR experiences because I think it can be disorienting if you’re not sure what’s reality and what’s not. For example, experiences in VR, sometimes your brain can’t tell the difference between what’s happening in VR and what’s happening to you in reality. And that to me is a bit scary.
AR is an amazing as a teaching tool, but I think a better way to describe it is it’s an amazing tool for discovery. There’s like an inherent playfulness in AR that you don’t know quite what you’ll get. It adds just a little bit of wonder and excitement to things that are flat. And because my work is a lot of flat graphics, AR is a way to build on that. With experiences, you can get a lot of depth with AR.
Community of Microbes can be found at 7 E 7th St, New York, NY, between Third and Fourth Avenues, and is running until Friday, November 22nd.