Lighting the way
U of M lab combines research and art in illuminating exhibition that’s bubbling with creativity
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Saturday night is part exhibition and part experiment for Mercedes Garcia-Holguera and her BIOM_Lab research team.
During this year’s Nuit Blanche festivities, the assistant professor of architecture at the University of Manitoba is hoping to illuminate the public on the virtues of lab-grown building materials.
“Our community will get to see it and get to touch it and give us feedback,” Garcia-Holguera says. “Our final goal is to have this material integrated within our lives in some way, within our buildings, so for sure, we need to let people (interact with) it.”
BIOM_Lab is a new research laboratory at the U of M dedicated to exploring the possibilities of biomaterials within design. So far, Garcia-Holguera has been working with mycelium — the root system of fungi, which can be used as insulation — and bacterial cellulose, a leather-like material made from the protective membrane that grows in kombucha.
She and her team have used the latter to create more than 50 otherworldly lamps that will be installed along the walking paths at Stephen Juba Park. Called Elucida, it’s an installation that brings new meaning to the culture in Culture Days (which encompasses Nuit Blanche and runs until Oct. 16).
Kombucha is a bubbly tea drink that creates a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, known as a scoby, during the fermentation process. In the BIOM_Lab, researchers have been cultivating and drying scobies to test their usefulness as ropes, fabrics and other design elements. The living material can be dyed like a textile and affixed to other objects or repaired using only water.
The lamps in Elucida are made of bacterial cellulose shades that have been stretched over plywood frames and tinted shades of pink, orange, red and yellow. Visitors are encouraged to violate the taboo of most art exhibits by touching the lamps; they can then report their reactions to the research team onsite.
While biomaterials might seem like the stuff of sci-fi, Garcia-Holguera says the field has real-world potential as a sustainable, accessible way to build everything from homes to furniture to clothing.
“In our province, think about these isolated northern communities and the costs of shipping materials,” she says. “If instead, you can grow those materials in (the) community and you can have those communities take control of their material resources, I think that can make a difference.”
Elucida is one of seven projects funded through Nuit Blanche Winnipeg’s Illuminate the Night program, which includes a submission and committee selection process. The festival is hosting 17 contemporary sculptures, performances, screenings, interactive art pieces and community events across St. Boniface, The Forks and the Exchange District.
“It’s a record number of art installations that our office is producing,” says Kurt Tittlemier, project manager for Nuit Blanche Winnipeg. “We’re very excited about that.”
It’s doubly thrilling after two years of pandemic strangeness — the all-night art party was called off in 2020 and turned into a piecemeal, month-long series of events last year.
“People are excited to be back and there’s enthusiasm,” Tittlemier says. “Artists have been underemployed the last two years, so they’ve been really excited to have these extra opportunities.”
Nuit Blanche has been running locally since 2010, with a mandate to make art more accessible to the general public. It’s a mandate the Winnipeg Art Gallery is taking to heart with Nakatamaakewin, a mobile gallery of Inuit art that will be stationed on Arthur Street near The Cube in Old Market Square.
“The exhibition features prints and textiles and stone sculptures from the four regions of Inuit Nunangat,” says Rachel Baerg, head of learning and programs at the WAG. Artwork will be displayed on the inside and outside of a large white truck outfitted with a lift for mobility aid users. “We’re bringing art to the streets.”
The gallery has also teamed up with Inuit artist Geronimo Inutiq on an audio-visual installation called Ikuma, an Inuktitut word meaning fire or spark, at the foot of the Esplanade Riel bridge. As usual, the WAG will also be opening its doors and rooftop garden to the public free of charge from 6 p.m. to midnight on Saturday.
As Nuit Blanche returns to regular programming, organizers are testing a few new concepts.
For the first time, a kids’ zone will be set up at the Children’s Museum with performances and hands-on art activities. To make transportation easier, the Winnipeg Trolley Company will be running a free shuttle between the WAG, Centre culturel franco-manitobain and Little Brown Jug. The festival is also more connected, with all the major installations placed in a continuous path between The Forks canopy and Old Market Square.
“They’ll appear in greenspaces and on street corners — we love to take an unusual space… and put a beautiful piece of art there,” Tittlemier says. “A great way to enjoy it all is to try to walk between those locations.”
Also new this year is an interactive Nuit Blanche Winnipeg smartphone app, which can be downloaded from the Apple and Google Play stores. Visit nuitblanchewinnipeg.ca for a full lineup of events.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.