AMES, Iowa — Johnny DiBlasi, an Iowa State University assistant professor of art and visual culture, has been awarded a residency at the University of Buffalo’s Coalesce Center for Biological Art to develop a hybrid biological-technological installation featuring a bio-driven artificial intelligence (AI) system that remediates contaminated soil ecology while generating an audio-visual component in real time.

“Beauty” is the inaugural project of a new arts and research group DiBlasi co-founded with interdisciplinary artist and researcher Carlos Castellanos and Bello Bello. The three collaborators will work with advisers Paul Vanouse, director of the Coalesce Center and head of the emerging practices program in the University of Buffalo Department of Art, and Coalesce lab manager Solon Morse.

“The fates of the contaminated soil and a group of bacterial cultures incorporated in the work will be determined by AI that develops an internal model of ‘beauty’ by observing the cooperative pattern-forming and swarming behaviors of numerous bacterial species such as Paenibacillus dendritiformis,” DiBlasi said.

“This species of bacteria produces intricate branching growth patterns in response to environmental conditions. It is also known to aid in the bioremediation of heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (present in coal, motor oil, etc.) that are often found in soils, rivers, and estuarine and coastal sediments.”

For the Coalesce Center residency, DiBlasi, Castellanos and Bello will build the system and research ways to genetically modify cultures of several species of bacteria to express other novel — and potentially aesthetically pleasing — features such as bioluminescence and a wider variety of growth and spatial patterns, DiBlasi said.

Components of the work include culturing various species of pattern-forming bacteria (e.g., P. dendritiformis, P. vortex, Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus circulans), building and using a robotic microscope and camera for observing the bacterial cultures, and designing and constructing custom culture chambers and hardware for delivering the nutrients and chemicals.

The project will complement DiBlasi’s ongoing work with machine learning and physical computing while advancing new skills working with microscopy and bacterial culturing. DiBlasi will travel to Buffalo and, after a two-week quarantine, work in the lab as an artist-in-residence from mid-October to mid-November. The completed project will be exhibited in spring 2021.


Johnny DiBlasi, Art and Visual Culture,
Heather Sauer, Design Communications,