From bugs to bacteria (and back)

increasingly unclear
10 min readMar 9, 2024

Lorena Ostia works with bio-art, collaborating with different organisms to make textiles, installations and even electronics. This is a transcript of our interview. I first ask her about a current exhibition in New York that she is part of.

Lorena Ostia. Photo courtesy of the artist, used with permission

(You can read a condensed version of this here.)

BioBat Art Space is a gallery in Brooklyn that focuses on bio—artists working at the intersection of art, science and technology. I was selected because I’ve been doing a lot of work at Genspace — it’s an awesome community. They cater to people with no science background, and teach biohacking, painting with yeast, bioluminescence.

It was really hard for me at first. I did two years at Fashion Institute of Technology in exhibition design. It was an amazing program, it changed my life in so many ways. You have to think not only of the physical space but the ideas, materials, so many things. I finished my Bachelors at Parsons in photography and video.

During Covid, I really wanted to do a Masters. I had seen a lot of projects from ITP, and I liked the idea of using sensors and things. I also wanted to learn about sustainable materials. I could do some experiments on my own, but I needed help. So I started there in 2021.

Hacking the Scoby

At NYU I started really focusing on bacterial cellulose, which is a product of kombucha fermentation. There was a class there about interspecies communication. And I started growing my little Scoby in my living room.

Scoby stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. You have a starter, which is like the mother Scoby, and in the liquid also live the bacteria and yeast — not just the bacterial cellulose, the starter. So when you let it ferment — when the microbes are in a healthy environment — they create (or expand) what’s called the pelicle (the starter) — it’s like a mat.

Usually it’s passed from person to person, but you can also buy it online — here’s one I bring for my students. And different kinds of tea give you different results, different colours. With green tea you get a nice white pelicle (mat) that you can then dye with something else.

It’s a community of microbes, and when you feed it sugar and tea, and ferment it at the right temperature and conditions, it creates more Scoby leather. My theory is that the caffeine helps with the Scoby growth.

I don’t drink kombucha. I was making so many containers, and I think because I was so invested — it’s a living thing, and it’s very ceremonial for me, meditative.

This material is so amazing. Being in an art school, think of all these people using damaging materials in exhibitions — foam core, silicone, plastic. Since we were doing a lot of prototyping and physical computing at ITP, I thought, “Imagine using, instead of using all this plastic, what if we were able to make a full monitor with Scoby?” A full display screen. How could it work, with the cables and everything?

I applied for this prototyping fund from NYU, and got some money to look at how we could make Scoby conductive. That’s when Genspace came in, because I was like, “Imagine if I could hack my Scoby!” I was so excited.

A lot of people were focusing just on electronics. ITP is a lot about emerging technologies, and I do think biotechnology is one. It’s harder to scale, but once you’re able to accomplish, I think it might be five or ten years and it will be more accessible.

Prototype of Ostia’s first Scoby circuit. Courtesy of the artist, used with permission.

I did this — I was able to mimic circuits with my Scoby. I used conductive paint first, but that was better as an insulator instead, so I then I used conductive thread. The paint, when it dried, would crack a little bit.

I would still like to really integrate the electronics. Electric eels — what if you could sequence that DNA? The GFP protein [green fluorescent protein] was discovered fairly recently. For my masters thesis, I got hold of some — it responds to UV light.

From learning to teaching

I tried projecting on a Scoby screen. I grew more, and I applied for a second grant, from the sustainability office. The idea is that I would teach sustainable art practice. The first class I did was an introduction to bio-art, for students who didn’t have a background in biology. For my first class, I thought to offer free pizza, because I didn’t think anyone would sign up. But in the first 24 hours I had over 100 people signed up! So I thought, “This isn’t a full-time job, I need to scale it down.” And apply for a bigger grant next time.

I have to give a huge shout out to Tom Igoe. When I started working with Scoby, I was living in a New York apartment, I couldn’t just keep it growing in the bathtub. So Tom suggested looking for a space at NYU, like in the basement. I went wandering around the building, found a space that wasn’t being utilized — an abandoned janitor’s closet. And got the permission of the building manager.

So for the first workshop, I brought my little cart with Scobies and bioplastics. It was wonderful to have the support of someone like Tom — I didn’t have that much experience, and he really saw the potential. Grad school is a time to explore and experiment. I’m super thankful for that.

Now I’m teaching a class at Genspace about how to make Scoby lamps. With the bacterial cellulose, you can dry it, even add dried flowers, also blend it with bioplastics. When you shine light through it, it’s really soothing — the cellulose is a nice diffuser. For lamps, the Scoby leather needs to be treated — sealed using oil or beeswax. Otherwise it will disintegrate in, like, two months.

The grant also let me take more classes at Genspace — working with yeast, how to do bioplastics. I taught another class called Artists in Laboratories — it was about how artists could be part of this dialogue, this world. I was also interested in the community of Genspace. You have artists and scientists who all want to collaborate. Last year they got a sequencing machine.

I’m really passionate about education — it changes societies. So why not make it accessible, give opportunities to more people?

During ITP Camp I ran a Sustainable Art Practice workshop. We would make a huge bioplastic in different colours, and cook it all together, then use some Scoby and make a sculptural piece. I’ve been focusing on public art and biomaterials — does it need to be a forever piece, or could it live and degrade with nature?


We looked at other bio-materials used by artists — seaweed, bioplastics. And now I’ve met a lot of people in different countries working with biomaterials, and they really have a personal relationship with their materials and their process.

When I was in Austria I saw work by this artist Günter Seyfried. He does “yeastograms” — photos with yeast. We’re hoping to collaborate on something.

I saw an amazing exhibition in Copenhagen last year, called Yet it moves — all bio art. I’m sure you’ve heard of Jenna Sutela.

I love Olafur Eliasson — he’s one of my favorite artists, because he also talks a lot about climate change. He sets up an interaction between objects, the physicality of light, presenting very simple physics concepts in a very beautiful way.

I also love Tomás Saraceno, I’ve been following him for a long time — he’s also interested in Indigenous rights.

Lorena Ostia’s installation at BioBat Art Space. Image courtesy of the artist, used with permission.

The light in you

The current show is an immersive room. It kind of combines all my background — a little bit of ITP, some exhibition design, photography, visuals. It’s a room that’s covered in reflective materials. Then I have sheets of bioplastics hanging, and material cellulose lamps. In the middle there’s a sculpture made out of Scoby, with a motion sensor — when you walk around it, lights go on and off. So you’re kind of communicating with the Scoby. It’s titled The light in me sees the light in you.

There’s an audio piece too. And the smell too — it smells like kombucha. It’s hard to describe because I’m so attached to it.

It’s very site-specific. The main idea is that I want people to interact with the Scoby in a way that they wouldn’t traditionally — when you make kombucha, you keep it in a glass jar. It’s alive, and if you start to think of everything that’s alive — fruit and so on, you get a little, like, “Oh my god, everything is alive around us!”

I’ve seen a lot of empathy in people who visit the installation. I try to have people go in by themselves, or a maximum group of three. Because I think there’s something about — especially in New York — having a space where you can be intimate with this material.

I’m working on finishing the bioluminescent Scoby. I have a mentor who’s a scientist — she used to work at Cold Spring Harbor, now at the American Museum of Natural History. She’s helping me a lot — it needs to be grown in a very specific way.

I’m always thinking about how people can experience bioart, because it seems so out there for a lot of people. For example, I thought it could be fun for people to put on a lab coat when they go in.

Every woman

I was selected to be part of the Every Woman Biennale, in New York as well — I’m showing one of my photos there. I used some insects for the photo shoot.

When I made it, I started working in fashion, with a casting director. And I was interested in diversity on the runway. Since I was already backstage, I thought, “I can already start taking some photos here.” From that, I won a photography competition, and then I got a scholarship to study photography at Parsons.

But before I started, I took a year out and photographed homeless people. Because I wondered why, in developed countries, that’s still an issue.

And I started photographing people in prison. I told my teacher, “I’m gonna go photograph Rikers Island.” Everyone said, “That’s impossible.” But I took the bus to Rikers, and at the bus stop I met someone who was just released. I did my first short documentary with him. And I said, “You guys thought I couldn’t do it? Here!”

Now, in hindsight, I’m like, “What kind of crazy person does that?!” But it was a great learning experience. I learned so much from him, then I met other organizations — there’s one in New York that makes sure inmates aren’t mistreated, and can get education.

For a long time I worked as a producer in photography and video — for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar. Before I started the Masters I worked for a company that did educational videos for Google — machine learning and everything. I was like being in Disney World, and I learned a few things from the videos. So I wasn’t completely lost when I got to NYU.

Q: Do you think there’s a connection between AI and biology? The way you talk about your Scoby is like a nonhuman intelligence.

I’m originally from Peru. When we think about science, it’s always in the modern Western context. But even before the Incas, there were civilisations doing brain surgery —

Also brewing beer — fermentation!

Yeah. There’s a lot of ancient knowledge that’s being rediscovered. It’s like trees — sometimes they grow crooked, and it’s because they’re always looking for the sunlight. You start observing patterns. If you visit the jungle and suddenly it’s quiet, it’s because there’s a predator.

So even with bacteria, and slime mold — it was used to mimic the Tokyo subway system. That’s why I see working with Scoby as a collaboration, not just a material. I’m very anti-hierarchy in general.

At the other end of the scale, it’s treating the environment with the same respect. And working with biomaterials helps with this — seeing everything as a living system. Not just thinking about ourselves and what we’re doing individually.

Actually, in Peru people are very aware of the environment. When you go to the beach, you don’t see people throwing garbage, or cigarette butts — which I’ve seen in Hawaii and it broke my heart. ‘What are you doing?!’

So the power of the Scoby is also about the power of education. And being mindful in everything you do.

Detail of Lorena Ostia’s installation at BioBat Art Space. Photo courtesy of the artist, used with permission.

When you teach people about it — especially after Covid — are they worried about all the bacteria and things?

Not so much, because I tell them it’s a non-harmful bacteria — like yogurt, or yeast in bread. I tell them it’s like a little universe — a microcosmos of living agents. And when they’re happy, they create.

It’s a nice metaphor for the world today: if everyone works towards a common goal of wellbeing — for themselves and as a community — good things can happen.

Check Ostia’s website. If you like this article, subscribe for free to get them via email — I aim for a 15-minute read once a week.