We chat to Gary Cass, a creative scientist who grown dresses from wine and beer, and created an app which plays personalised music based on your DNA code. He describes himself as “knowing a little bit about science, a little less on safety and probably nothing about art!”
North: When people picture scientists, they probably picture dusty textbooks, Bunsen burners and falling asleep in class. How does a creative scientist differ, and where has this idea come from?
Gary: Scientists can and should be creative. I’ve been labelled a scientist because I work in a lab and have a science degree, but I’ve also been lucky enough to work on sculptures and now in the emerging eco-fashion textiles industry. This really confuses people as it contradicts how we see “scientists” and “artists” – the two are seemingly unconnected. However, the idea of combining the arts and science has really grown in popularity in the past couple of years; this new wave of thinking has sparked a bit of a global education revolution called STEAM. STEAM brings the Arts into the existing combination of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics disciplines (commonly known as STEM), seeking to inspire technical experts and boost innovation.
Sparkling Couture dress made from sparkling wine – photo credit: Shasa Michael
North: Tell us a little bit about your own innovation – the first dresses in the world to be “grown” from wine and beer!
Gary: Basically the whole concept of Fermented Fashion and the first wine dress started as many great projects do – as a complete mistake. I was at a friend’s vineyard in the 90’s and we realised we had accidentally let air get into one of the wine vats. When you let oxygen inside a wine vat, it disrupts the fermentation process of turning sugars (glucose) into alcohol, and you produce vinegar instead. On top of this vat, we found a huge, thick, slimy mat that, at the time, we threw away in disgust. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realised this mat was composed of a “nanocellulose” (or Nanollose) by-product that is chemically very similar to cotton cellulose fibres. The bacteria “drink” the beer and convert it into a solid fibre.
Microbe E-Vellum series, Donna Franklin and Gary Cass
North: How has that discovery led to your current work through creating Nanollose Pty Ltd?
Gary: When we discovered how similar this microbially produced fibre was to cotton, we realised we could produce something that could be used as an inexpensive, sustainable alternative to cotton fibres and textiles. Firstly, cotton is an incredibly water intensive crop. We can grow Nanollose sustainably by using liquid waste products from the production of wine, sugarcane and coconut products. This also reduces the amount of waste that needs to be processed by these industries. Secondly, cotton farming occupies a lot of productive agricultural land through traditional horizontal farming systems. With our process, we can utilise vertical farming by stacking vats on top of each other – the sky is literally the limit!
In the beginning…on the mannequin – Microbe E-Vellum series, Donna Franklin and Gary Cass
North: Sustainability is such a hot button issue. How could we use these new fibres?
Gary: Nanollose can be manufactured on an industrial scale and can actually be “grown into shape”, which allows for one-piece seamless garments that require no stitching. We are primarily targeting the eco-fashion industry with new textiles; however, Nanollose materials have already shown promise as cotton replacements in hospitals and for tissue engineering. Certain stem cells have shown they will adhere to the material and act as tissue scaffolds. However, as we’re mainly focussing on the fashion industry, our challenge at the moment is to address the brittleness of the Nanollose material when dry, which is the main barrier to its use as a fabric.
Sparkling Couture dress made from sparkling wine – photo credit: Shasa Michael
North: How do you use your passion from these projects to inspire students?
Gary: I’m the Director of the Scientific Creativity Initiative, which is a programme that aims to realign some of the more traditional academic boundaries and propose exciting new STEAM courses in high school. I also run a school programme through Arts Western Australia called the STEAMlocker. We run different experiments like creating and polarising various chemical crystals in the lab and then watching them grow under a microscope. The students learn about scientific principles like chemical reactions and polarising properties of light, while by photographing the crystals they can experiment artistically. It’s through the artistic process that the students are encouraged to engage in what they see. What we think of as “science brains” in terms of people lacking or being trained out of creativity can be changed just by letting kids use their imagination. I also show them some of my own work; it’s important so they can see what STEAM really means in practice.
Microscopic crystal art created in Geraldton. Photo credit: Gary Cass
North: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced getting your ideas out into the scientific community?
Gary: There are a lot of creative scientist types around the world, where artists are encouraged to explore the science behind art – think along the lines of photography, or bio hackers. We never ask scientists to be creative, and that’s what I’ve tried to focus on. It’s a real challenge sometimes!
It’s difficult to translate the concept to some scientists. I’ve had a lot of responses saying, “That’s a nice fluffy project” or immediately fixating on the very particular details that could stall the idea. While that’s a critical part of judging the scientific merit of a concept or process, shouldn’t there also be some merit in that the idea opens up public dialogue on issues like sustainability?
Fascinator made from Yellowglen sparkling wine for Melbourne Derby Day, 2015
Scientific rigour is really critical to the field. But sometimes I think we’ve been trained to ask the same boring questions over and over again in the same old manner without also looking at the big picture. Innovation depends on creativity. Without the freedom to dream, great ideas would never get off the ground before they’re bogged down in the details. I like to think of it in terms of a simple cooking metaphor: a good chef follows the recipe, but a great chef creates their own recipe.
“Four Pillars – lite” from the beer dress series – photo credit: Adam Scott
North: Gary, it’s been such a pleasure chatting to you. One final question – if you had the chance to go back in time and visit your younger self, what tips would you have?
Gary: That’s an interesting one… I would have to say that creativity is as important as literacy and numeracy. Don’t listen to guidance from people that don’t understand your passions – there is always a way to combine what you love. And finally, don’t lack the confidence to do what you enjoy. Follow your dreams. It’s an old chestnut, but a good one.
Check out the incredible story of Nanollose and Fermented Fashion here at the official website.
Gary Cass has been a key creative collaborator with numerous international arts and sciences projects; including Fermented Fashion, the first dresses in the world made from wine and beer. Cass is director of The Scientific Creativity Initiative, which has a philosophy that “creativity is as important as literacy and numeracy.” Cass’ collaborative projects have been exhibited around the world including; a fringe event at the Venice Biennale and Documenta Germany; Trinity College Science Gallery, Ireland; Signature Art Prize in Singapore; and ArtStays Slovenia. Fermented Fashion has recently gained media coverage with AOL.com, appeared in the 2014 Ripley’s Believe It or Not and part of World EXPO 2015 in Milan. Cass’ newest project, iDNAtity audio – making music from your genes – is exciting and engaging students, using creativity, in the sciences.
Interview by Maja Arsic.