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The Bacteria of NYC’s Subway Turned Into Art

Craig Ward rode every train in New York, swabbing the subway poles and creating beautiful Petri-dish art.

Ever wonder what germs are really growing on those subway poles? Brooklyn-based artist Craig Ward decided to find out. After riding all 22 of New York’s subway lines, he collected bacterial samples from each train’s handrails and turned them into colorful Petri-dish art.

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Last April, Ward started riding New York’s subway lines, swabbing away at the seats and chrome poles with a bag of sterile sponges, cut into the shape of the letters and numbers of the train he was on. “As soon as you start taking out scientific equipment and Petri dishes, people did start to look a bit,” he says. “But no one really challenged me. You can get away with most things on the subway.”

Once back in his studio, Ward used Petri dishes full of triptych soy agar jelly to grow the bacteria into samples. He then photographed the resulting colonies, lighting them according to the color scheme of the line the samples were taken from: the 7 train in violet, the G in green, and so on.

Where did such a strange idea come from? Ward can’t remember, precisely. “I feel like recounting the genesis of an idea is a lot like trying to recount a car crash: it all happens very quickly and you can’t remember chunks of it,” he says. Regardless, it turns out that the MTA is absolutely swarming with some pretty foul micro organisms. In his samples, Ward found E. coli, serratia marcescens (the leading cause of hospital-acquired infections), proteus mirabilis (which causes kidney stones), and salmonella.

But Ward doesn’t think anyone should be creeped out. “When you look at your fellow commuters you see all kinds of shapes, sizes, and colors, and when you look at things on a microbial level, you see the same kind of variety,” he says. “Some of them even look like little universes, and I think there is a beauty in them, even though they might at first appear a little jarring.”

You can pre-order prints of Ward’s Subvisual Subway here.

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