Dirt

Christina Agapakis (US), Ellie Harmon (US)

“Dirt is what you have behind your ears, soil is a living and breathing entity.” —Biologist Ann Hirsch, quoting a common soil-science aphorism

A single gram of rich soil can contain up to two billion bacterial cells and 18,000 unique genomes. Contemporary scientists are mapping this microbial wildernesses—from the Earth’s crust to the human body—transforming these “dirty” layers into new bio-info-technological resources for studying everything from climate change to human immune systems. At the same time, the microbial communities themselves are changing as a result of climate change, and we are left largely without a baseline from which to understand that change.

Through a digital and analog exploration of the microbial life in a set of soil samples collected along the Pacific Crest Trail, our project takes the form of a science-as-process-art collaboration. How can we make the life within the dirt visible? How can we make this “visioning” process itself visible?

Supported by The University of California Institute for Research in the Arts, UCLA Art|Science Center

Special thanks to Ann Hirsch, Kavita Philip, Victoria Vesna, Nick Seaver, Luke Olbrish, Beth Reddy, Maskit Maymon-Schiller, Mick Lorusso, Marissa Clifford, Dawn Faelnar, Otherworld, Kate Darling, Mike Bostock, Research and Testing Laboratory, and the US Postal Service


Christina Agapakis is a biologist, writer, and artist interested in microbes and the future of biotechnology. She collaborates with engineers, designers, artists, and social scientists to explore the many unexpected connections between microbiology, technology, art, and popular culture. She is currently creative director at Ginkgo Bioworks, an organism design company that is bringing biology to industrial engineering. PhD, Harvard University, PostDoc, UCLA Hirsch Lab 2012-2014, Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology.

Ellie Harmon is an ethnographer and informatician exploring the affects, experiences, and implications of new information technologies in science, popular culture, and ordinary life. Her artistic collaborations with Agapakis complement the ethnographic work she conducted for her PhD and her fieldwork is corporate boardrooms, meditation retreats, private homes, and the wilderness of the American west. PhD, UC Irvine Information and Computer Science, (2015)