Printing Microalgae

September 2020

How sustainable is the colour dye in your top? Where did it come from and how long will its hue last in the wash before inevitably fading? We pick out colours for their shades and aesthetics, but it seems rare that we choose colours based on their pigment origins.

Since 2016, researcher María Boto Ordóñez has focused her practice on the development of new ways of creating colour. Working from her Colour Biolab, situated in the experimental laboratorium at KASK / School of Arts Ghent, Ordóñez has been able to develop and discover approximately 4000 new colour pigments. She has created a whole new database of colour possibilities through the cultivation of microorganisms, such as microalgae and bacteria. The knowledge Ordóñez generates is then transferred to others – her students, designers, artists and industries – for their own use.

With a background in nutrition, one of Ordóñez’s main objectives is to be able to apply her scientific knowledge into the arts through research. Her explorations often start from existing science found in pigment research, cosmetics, fashion, and even food industries. The process of research to application begins through the sourcing of a material or organism that is ideally photosensitive or pigment orientated. Ordóñez will then grow and harvest the organisms to be able to extract its pigments and later experiment with application methods. From microalgae to screen-print, bacteria to fabric dye, fungi to paint, ink or 3D modelling. The varied application of the colours obtained allows for a shift in understanding of what is possible in the world of colour.

It is the shifting perception of colour through Ordóñez’s work on Printing Microalgae that is important to be aware of. Simply because we take for granted the hues, shades and tones we observe every day, yet, we are often unaware of where they come from. Ordóñez’s work invites us to consider the use of nature in colour, asking what colour is: dynamic or static?

One of the main discoveries of Printing Microalgae has actually been the loss of colour. Most of the colours obtained from algae are unstable and after hours or days they will begin to fade, leaving a shadow of the pigment that once was there. For instance, when you visit a natural history museum have you ever noticed how many of the previously living mammals, insects and reptiles have a brownish tinge to their complexion? This is because the melanin brownish colour pigment stays for a much longer time than the other pigments that fade away.

The case of the disappearing pigments was disheartening for Ordóñez to begin with, as she watched the outcomes of her research vanish. Whereas, for the designers and artists Ordóñez spoke with, this discovery was exciting and inspired new ideas for the potential uses for this instability within their work – uses that took advantage of a way to understand colour’s connection to time.

Printing Microalgae showcases how the dyna mics of a pigment characteristic is yet to be fully explored. The project’s exploration through research in science to art is opening up the possibilities of the application of living and sustainable colours. It is developing new pigments that are based on origin rather than tone. For Ordóñez’s next research project she will be looking into structural colouration, focusing on the reflection not absorption of light. Asking how to transfer the knowledge of what happens in wings, feathers and shells to another medium.

Colour is not stable, and instead of reacting with dismay at its gradual fading or shifting of hue, Ordóñez’s research argues we should embrace its dynamics as much as we do the shifting colours between seasons.

Arthrospira Laboratorium
Porphyridium purpureum Laboratorium
Linen Laboratorium
Linen Laboratorium
Linen Laboratorium
microalgae print laboratorium
microalgae printing workshop at KASK Laboratorium
microalgae printing OSP
microalgae biolab Michiel De Cleene
Minas de Riotinto. Ground minerals Maria Boto Ordóñez
Minas de Riotinto. Pine needles Maria Boto Ordóñez
Minas de Riotinto. Pine needles Maria Boto Ordóñez
This article appeared in DAM76. Order your personal copy.