Their recent work (seen above), which they’re calling “the Eventual,” combines traditional silk-screening with synthetic biology. Geobacter bacteria grow on the surface of an electrode battery and, by feasting on rich soil, they produce electricity. That electricity powers the printed orb image, causing it to flicker and glow.
In designing the piece, Telhan says he and Neff strove for a “noir” look and feel. “We wanted an object you could place inside the Blade Runner house or the Minority Report house,” he adds. “We played around with different images, the look and feel of the glass container, how much dirt and the different ingredients in the dirt—it’s quite a bit more complex than it looks.”
Telhan began exploring synthetic biology—a field that fuses biotechnology with design, computation and electronics—when he came to Penn in 2010. “It’s a sub-field that is founded by computer scientists and engineers and designers,” he says. “They’re not necessarily interested in making medicine or human-related research, but rather in using biology as a way of investigating what other things we can do with living systems in relation to human needs, desires and wants.”
An interdisciplinary artist, Telhan has been working with Penn’s biology department for about six months to make art with microbial fuel cells. For the Eventual, which relies on just such cells, he had help from Karen Hogan, an instructional lab coordinator at Penn. While biological design has been gaining traction in the last five years, “it’s not an easy thing to do,” he says. “You need equipment, infrastructure, certain kinds of hazardous-material training. It’s a transitional period for the field, but it’ll probably be getting more and more popular.”
Neff, the silk-screening mastermind of the duo, teaches printmaking at Penn and runs the Common Press [March|April 2008, “The Leaded Word”]. The two artists created the Eventual for Gizmodo’s Home of the Future expo (May 17-21, 2014), but they’ll bring it back to Philadelphia next week, where it will be on view in Neff’s current show at The Print Center—Matt Neff: Second Sight—until June 7.
Telhan shared the following images of the Eventual, which range from early prototypes to final product:
—Molly Petrilla C’06