The Font That Ate Manhattan

Blank canvas on easel

We can probably all think of something we do, whether at work or play, that we would describe as being “both an art and a science.” I have a few hobbies that qualify, but I’m a software developer by trade, and would certainly say that’s true of my job.

Sure, coding has many scientific aspects: there are best practices, design patterns and proven protocols for solving particular problems or addressing specific goals, and software developers love to experiment and prove their own theories about the best way to do something. But, sitting down at the keyboard to code can also feel like sitting down at a blank canvas with a brush, waiting for the muse to strike. 

If you’re a reasonably good coder, there is often an elegance, almost a lyricism, in the finished product that is unquestionably artistic. It kind of reminds me of musical notes on a score or pages of spare, atmospheric poetry. And, like artists, when given a project, no two coders will interpret or execute that project in quite the same way. We even indent, format and decorate our code in different ways, putting a distinctive signature onto it that is part personal preference and part long-term management strategy (well-formatted code is just easier to work with). Coding is certainly a science, but there’s an undeniable artistry involved, too.

That said, I have rarely seen quite as literal a marriage of art and science as in the Symbiosis font created by the young Dutch designer Jelte van Abbema. Symbiosis is typography made from living E. coli bacteria and was part of the body of work that won van Abbema the €10,000 Rado Prize at the Dutch Design Awards in October 2009.

Van Abbema brings a distinctly scientific bent and obvious fascination with nature to his work, using science, computers and biochemistry in conceiving his designs. For the Symbiosis project, he first took a university course in microbiology to stay within scientific guidelines and, very considerately, avoid kicking off an epidemic during its implementation. He then created the font by using a letterpress technique to stamp the bacteria into simple typographic shapes on paper and billboards. These went into a homegrown incubator crafted from a bus stop poster box lined with agar and cellulose (a huge makeshift Petri dish) that provided the correct temperature and humidity to allow the bacteria to grow.

And grow they did, multiplying and dying, changing color, saturation and shape as they went through their life cycles, creating a dynamic presentation of these bacterial letters on paper. The result was living type, constantly moving and changing. Definitely not your garden-variety Arial, to be sure.

Work like the Symbiosis project is classified under a fairly new art form called bio-art, considered one of the first distinct art movements of the 21st century. In bio-art, the medium is living matter, like live tissue, bacteria or living organisms, and the works can potentially be produced in the lab, the studio or a combination of both. The finished pieces are actually alive in some way. It’s probably one of the purest conglomerations of art and science, usually with a healthy peppering of technology thrown in.

Not everyone thinks bio-artistry is a great idea, though. There are questions and concerns. There is controversy. For example, is it really safe to use E. coli in an art piece like van Abbema did with Symbiosis? The Museum of Modern Art in New York didn’t think so – they played it safe and refused to release the bacterial exhibit in the museum, relegating Symbiosis to an online exhibition. Can’t say I blame them.

And what about morality? Is it ethical to use transgenics to make a fluorescent bunny just for art’s sake? Extending into new media is exciting and certainly every artist’s prerogative, but has the whole thing gone too far when your exhibit needs to be killed?

What do you think? Are bio-arts revolutionary? Worrisome? Maybe just a little creepy? I’m intrigued and I admire the creativity and innovation involved, but have to admit it kind of gives me the willies, too. I’m not a believer in suppressing the artistic voice, though, and good art is often controversial, even a bit disturbing. So, I suppose I would just ask van Abbema and his bio-artist peers to please go about your chosen craft with all due care. We’d like to be able to talk about the infectious qualities of your work for reasons other than it actually causing an infection.

Symbiosis image credits: LAB van Abbema, Dezeen

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Caroline Sober

Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.


  1. Hi Caroline,

    I realize that bio-art refers to art that is “living”, but science has long produced art work in many forms. “Autoclave Art” is a form of sculpture that is practiced by many an unwitting student or technician. (Many of our readers can probably send in pictures of some of these amazing creations.)

    More seriously though, Nikon and the Wellcome Trust have sponsored photography contests for scientists of all ilks. The 2009 Wellcome winners are on display here:

    Even still photographs can raise ethical questions about their subjects and the situations photographed, science for science’s sake, art for art’s sake, and science for art’s sake. All important questions for us to consider.

    Great blog post, lots to think about.


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