Scoby

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Bacteria 23 Biodegradable 233 Bioplastic 78 Recyclable 119 Regenerative 49 Smart Material 6 Scoby 6 Sugar 5 Tea 7

Scoby

Photos: Jane Fox, Eifion Ap Cadno, Rebecca Newnham, Fiona Campbell, Ros Burgin, Barbara Beyer, Anne-Louise Quinton

Connected / Breathe-In / Becoming Probiotic / Becoming Plastic

The microbial cellulose for three prototype sculptures was fermented over a period of 15 months and each of the three sculptures is made from cellulose of different ages ranging from 0-15 months old. The fresh cellulose is visceral, flesh-like and moist. On removal from the fermentation culture it starts to change within 1-2 days; it dries fairly quickly. With exposure to the atmosphere and dehydration, it becomes skin-like and displays a variety of characteristics: it can be translucent, opaque, taut, wrinkled, blistered, fragile or leather-like.

A variety of qualities depend on the thickness of the cellulose, which in turn depends on the length of time spent in the fermentation culture. The sheets of cellulose grow in layers and can be separated from each other.

The cellulose is a living material; once removed from the fermentation culture it appears to be active. It easily adheres to itself and to additional layers and sections. It is easy to over-lay and build up layers; fresh cellulose will also adhere to earlier dry layers of cellulose.

However, there are a number of factors that remain unclear. For example:
Is the material still growing and attempting regeneration for a period of time at ambient temperatures?
Does the microbial cellulose lay dormant for an extended period upon removal from the fermentation culture?
Is re-activation always possible?
What is the level of activity until decomposition? As a gardener, nurse and sculptor these are fascinating questions and possibilities.

So far Jane Fox has made three prototype sculptures called Connected / Breathe-In / Becoming Probiotic / Becoming Plastic. These premiered at the 2023 Wander_Land Exhibition at Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, Cornwall, UK.
Wander-Land was an exhibition with members of the Royal Society of Sculptors exploring landscape, walking and breathing.

"Jane Fox is attracted to an elemental engagement with matter. Her sculpture addresses the organic in more than shape...so we naturally turn to the facility in our thought and language to explain it through similarities – with tree-life, bone or stone; that is, with the matter upon which existence is built, grows and advances." - Martin Holman, art historian and writer for Wander_Land.

Even after 15 months the three sculptures continue to change. In addition to textural changes, there are changes to colour and striations and markings from within the cellulose. There is a slow deepening of colour and the markings are becoming more prominent. This varies with the thickness of the cellulose. There is an unpredictability with the colours and markings of the cellulose.

These qualities are invaluable to sculpture-making and is part of the increasing zeitgeist of cultivating and using ecological and sustainable living forms as and for art. The underlying armature of the sculptures are made using recycled plastic which is first sculpted into the desired forms before the application of the cellulose. The cellulose clings and adheres readily to the plastic. In its readiness to cling to the plastic Jane Fox questions if the microbial cellulose anticipates the plastic as a potential food source. In recent years a bug strain has been identified which is seeming evolving to dissolve plastic mass in the oceans and soil. (1)

The sculptures Connected/ Breathe-In/ Becoming Probiotic/ Becoming Plastic explored an idea that human beings breathe and absorb micro-particles of plastic as innocently as beneficial spores and microbes.

The largest of the sculptures in the exhibition was installed both on and in a glass container of ferment, which continued to grow sheets of microbial cellulose for the five week duration of the exhibition. The sculpture asked the viewer to suspend disbelief because the sculpture was attached to the cellulose and it appeared as if it was growing directly out from within the tank.
In theory, it is depicting a circular system of production, application, dehydration and potential decomposition of the cellulose. During the exhibition Jane Fox held a demonstration of the microbial cellulose and the sculptures which received great interest from sculptor colleagues and members of the public.

Jane continues to observe the three prototype sculptures.

Will the microbial cellulose eventually disintegrate and disappear?
Will the plastic be changed in some way/ eaten/ dissolved by the microbial cellulose?
How long will it take?
Will it be a quicker process of decomposition if the sculptures are outside and exposed to the elements?

As a nurse, Jane Fox is particularly interested in the development of the microbial cellulose within the field of health and surgery, especially as applications for wound healing such as pressure ulcers. The cellulose has been shown to be regenerative and can possibly assist in the growth of new cells, aiding the healing of damaged skin. (2) Jane anticipates the development of applications for burns, scar tissue and various skin problems in due course. The beauty industry is exploring the cellulose for its rejuvenating properties.

(1) www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/dec/14/bug-across-the-globe-are-evolving-to-eat-plastic-study-finds

(2) Sam Swingler et al., ‘Recent Advances and Applications of Bacterial Cellulose in Biomedicine’ in Polymers (Basel) 13(3) (January, 2021)

Additional information

Theoretically, it is possible to grow the microbial cellulose sheets to any size and thickness. Within the initial couple of days, the Scoby bacteria appear to colonise the complete surface area of the fermentation liquid in the container. Jane Fox has observed this activity using different sizes of container. Once the surface area of the liquid in the container is colonised, the cellulose sheets grow in thickness over several weeks.

The largest containers Jane fox has used are 42 litres. Currently, this is a workable scale for use in making sculpture. The fermentation culture is kept warm using heat pads and is fed every 2-4 weeks. This is not a rigid schedule, and the growth patterns can be varied using different feeding patterns and temperature variations. Jane uses black tea and sugar to feed the Scoby and to grow the microbial cellulose sheets. The nature of the black tea has informed the colour of the three prototype sculptures.

Further trials with the microbial cellulose will use a variety of different nutrients, such as organic fruit and vegetable peelings. This will replace the tea and sugar components and will be more economical because organic bi-products can be used to grow the cellulose in contrast to purchasing additional nutrients.

Plant elements and dyes will be used to colour the cellulose for sculpture; this will be tested at various stages: during active fermentation and also during the post-production stages.

Information submitted by the maker and edited by the Future Materials Bank.

Ingredients

Scoby (probiotic microbial cellulose)
organic black tea
sugar

Credits

Eifion Ap Cadno, Royal Society of Sculptors, Neil Armstrong at Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, UK, Planet - The Welsh Internationlist Magazine