Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya's community of microbes: a celebration of color and science

Don't look now, but there's something on your shirt … and your arm, and you … well, everything. Microbes. They are small passengers who do all kinds of things, and most people ignore them or think they are incredibly dirty – but not Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya.


Her newest exhibition, Community of microbes, highlights eight invisible, microscopic communities in a beautiful celebration of color and science. Viewers can go into space and use their phones to view the colorful, enlarged views of microbes around them in AR.

Phingbodhipakkiya connects two communities in a way that few can. Her background as a scientist, Alzheimer researcher in Columbia, and as an artist enables her to communicate complex ideas in thoughtful, fascinating ways. She works together with a microbiologist Anne Madden and The Cooper Union to bring the wonderful world of microscopy directly to your eyes, phones and tablets.

For the sake of clarity, this interview has been slightly edited.

How do you take a topic like microbes, which most people think of in a negative way, and turn it into something fun and accessible to people?

That was why I took this subject because I knew it had to be renewed in a certain way. There is such a chance to share the stories of all these different invisible little species that are funny and interesting in their own way. So for example, in our intestines there is a microbe that goes into other microbes, multiplies and explodes. It is so fierce down there. But if you can wrap it with color and story, and make sure that these microbes become these characters that you can imagine and understand, then there is an opportunity for people to see the miracle in science.

What do you think are some of the strongest links between art and science?


I very much think that art and design and science are ways of understanding the world. There are different methods and processes and different outcomes. But we all really only try to better understand our human experience. It is as if we are trying to look into our brains and understand how blood flows, so that we can understand activation or go even deeper and look at nerve cells, but we also try to understand how connection works. And all these things can be approached in many different ways. I think we can all embrace the different ways in which we understand a little more understanding.

What can each community learn from the other?

I think it is useful to step into each other's worlds. As if you are really getting into it – so go to the lab for an artist and designer and understand what tests are being performed, understand the science behind now, all these things that you may not even have considered how things work.

But I think involving each other in the creative process and in the innovation process, and understanding that both fields have a high degree of creativity to make progress and move forward, is probably a common basis that we can all begin with.

How did you make the leap from researcher to artist?

At the Columbia Medical Center there was a moment when one of our patients asked me: "What was my contribution to science?" And of course I completely ruined it. I was like: "Here, read our paper", which is probably the worst answer you can give as a researcher, because nobody wants to read a very dense paper if you are not a researcher or very interested in science.

I went looking for tools and strategies to find out how you can become a better storyteller? How do you communicate better? And that's how I became interested in design, because design enables you to communicate really complex information in a really digestible way and make it accessible to a much wider audience.


With my work I try to have many access points. So that when you entered this room, you can enjoy it because of the color and the visuals. You don't even have to learn anything about microbes, but you could still have a good time. Or you can come in with the intention of really getting to know and understanding these eight microbial communities. So I did research on Alzheimer's brain and aging – that was my focus until I decided to change my path.

What are some of your design influences?

I love the visual use of color and shapes that Bruno Munari uses. I think the way he links color and shape is an interesting idea. But to be honest, I am one of those artists and designers who use the subject to visually inform and how things take shape. So I'm really not tied to a specific medium, such as making a steel piece of shock cord, and that kind of communicates a subatomic realm. I'll do something like that Community of microbes where there is no structure or really large type of welding steel. It is wood, it is print, it is vinyl. I think the space and the subject really determine the way I approach work. But it is usually very colorful.

Who is the target group for? Community of microbes?

I made it with the idea that it is for everyone, that's why there are so many access points. It's fun, it's colorful, it's vibrant. Small children will love it. But millennials will also love it because it looks like your Instagram palace here.


I think this is my response to the Instagram-worthy experiences out there. They are basically ejected and everyone loves them because it's just a good time. It is easy to understand and I wanted to create that experience with it. But you know, come for the colorful wonderland, stay for the AR and microbiology and then leave with a deeper understanding of your connection to this invisible world about which you may not have known so much.

What was the process for creating this exhibition?

Step one was certainly research. I worked with microbiologist Anne Madden, and together with everyone in her network, because she focuses on a specific subset of microbes, as most scientists do. They helped me a little better to understand which are the most interesting stories that are the most related and accessible, and which are the types and forms of microbes that may also be interesting to emphasize. Because it would be sad if every community were like a pill, which is very common. There are other exciting forms that we can emphasize. So there is one microbe that often appears in your house called aspergillus, and it branches out to these really beautiful flower-like things that touch each other and release traces. It is really beautiful.

And just make an overview of all types of microbes that are there. But after that had happened, it was a matter of doing color and shape exploration. You will notice that the AR animations are in 3D. But we also needed flat images. So what I did first was the flat images to determine the shape and color. And once I did that, it translated it into a kind of 3D space so that we could make the animation in Unity.

Each of the microbe communities receives a different color palette. How did you decide on that?


Some of them are more for brand value and others are more for "these are actually different shades of pink." So a really good example of this is in the shower community. You know, we all experience that our white shower curtains turn pink, and it's because of microbes and certainly using pink for that was a deliberate easy choice. Similarly, there are many blues with the Bobtail squid community because the microbes enter the light organ as soon as they have a critical mass, they glow blue, and that is why the Bobtail squid glows because it houses these cute little critters that kind of from just relaxing to have enough and they say, "Okay, it's time to glow."

So you said you used Unity to build the AR components.

Yes, and build some of the 3D shapes in Blender. If I did this project again, I wondered if we would have used Vuforia as a platform, mainly because I think you discovered things during the making and one of the things we discovered was that Vuforia doesn't really like vector shapes and That's horrible. Because all of our visuals were vector, I spent an excessive amount of time in the target library, uploaded different goals and adjusted a bit to adjust them a little to see, "okay, we are on two stars, three stars, four stars, five stars? & # 39;

What does AR add to the exhibition?

People have a bit of a misconception about microbes that are coarse and icky. I wanted to apply a layer of technology over everything. Because you don't have to touch anything difficult with AR, you can still experience it, you can still see it. You can get it in 3D without touching anything gross. Although you are in the shower every day and you have microbes every day. Frankly, chill. I would like people to think about it. Just appreciate what they do for you. It is just like the good bacteria. They kill the bad bacteria.


But you have also designed the exhibition in such a way that you don't have to worry about AR.

I did. I think that all mixed reality experiences should be designed that way. Because if it's really going to be accessible to everyone, you have to assume that part of the population alone, you know, that foolish person might not want to download that app and that's fine. They can still have a good time and they can still explore and discover and learn and enjoy.

In the VR and AR community, there is much talk about this concept of friction, about how quickly you get into something. How much did you think about that when you were designing this?

I have considered a web app so you don't have to download anything. But in the end I thought it was better to keep it in an app form rather than using a web app, because there is just a lot of variability. With the kind of responsiveness, things might not look the way they should, they could leave the field and disappear, like where is the microbe? Out on the other screen somewhere. To better arrange the environment and the experience, I finally decided to make an app that you must download.

I think friction can sometimes be good and a learning tool. Sometimes, when it is so seamless, you take it a bit for granted and you don't even understand that it is behind this technology, and that someone is working very hard to make this experience enjoyable for you. So in this case I think I deliberately wanted you to experience the exhibition as it is, but then there is an extra layer. If you want to reach a higher level and want to participate, you can. And it is also a way to introduce new technologies to a diverse audience.

What do you think the immediate future of AR is? Do you see it as more useful in this setting as a learning tool that you intentionally come and experience?

I like intentional AR experiences because I think it can be disorienting if you are not sure what the reality is and what isn't. For example, experiences in VR, sometimes your brain cannot see the difference between what happens in VR and what actually happens to you. And I find that a bit scary.

AR is great as a learning tool, but I think a better way to describe it is a great discovery tool. There is an inherent playfulness in AR that you do not quite know what you are getting. It only adds a little bit of wonder and excitement to things that are flat. And because my work is a lot of flat images, AR is a way to build on that. With experience you can gain a lot of depth with AR.

Community of microbes can be found on 7 E 7th St, New York, NY, between Third and Fourth Avenue, and runs until Friday, November 22.