Exploring Bioremeditation in Brooklyn with Danielle Wagner

2014 ABOG Fellow Jan Mun is an artist who explores how complex systems such as botany and fungi, economies, and social networks function and the effects of interactions between different entities, whether cultures, plants, or people. Her Greenpoint Bioremediation Project (GBP) explores using biological agents, such as mushrooms, to remediate toxins in the soil in collaboration with local partners and community members in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

In the past year, Jan has developed her research of mushrooms’ soil cleansing properties at the Environmental Science Analytical Center at Brooklyn College, which houses the only non-profit soil lab in New York City, along with a core team of volunteer researchers. I corresponded with volunteer Danielle Wagner, who has a background in biochemistry, about what it was like to collaborate with Jan on GBP. Read my interview with her below.

Danielle Wagner

Joelle Te Paske (ABOG): How did you meet Jan and get involved in the project?

Danielle Wagner: I came to Brooklyn College to see if I could learn more about soil testing. As I was discussing projects that were available with Dr. Joshua Cheng, the head of the Environmental Services Analytical Center, he mentioned that they had an artist who was working with mushrooms to try to clean the soil. Whoa! I was instantly impressed, but didn’t think I was qualified to work with such a rock star. As it turns out, the day that I went in to talk to him was the day the bioremediation group that Jan was coordinating was meeting. He said I could check it out if I wanted to. The list of projects was pretty overwhelming, so I thought it would be great to see what was happening with the mushrooms. Then as soon as I entered the classroom and showed interest Jan said, “Let’s see how handy you are,” and recruited me to help make a filter for the mushroom mycelia demonstration bag they were making.

From there I talked with them about the project and decided that it was an honor to be involved with such a group. She was already working with students from Midwood High School when I joined.

Every week I would go, but mostly as an observer. I was too shy and new to the world of mycoremediation in Newtown Creek to participate in the discussion. Eventually, Jan asked me to help tie it all together by playing the scientific role as lead research designer in the project. Looking back, it makes a lot of sense that I ended up having this role. At the time, however, it was difficult finding out how I could help, because I’m not very assertive and I’m new at finding out how to best serve in collaborative projects.

Petri dishes in the lab.

ABOG: Had you worked with other artists before?

DW: In my sociology courses in college I recall working with a few artists in group projects. The way the tides were rolling was similar to this project, in that I don’t have a creative mindset, so they were able to bring something to the presentation that I would never have thought of. In other words, my thoughts tend to be very focused in terms of completing a task at hand; but by working with such souls I learned that even though certain topics might not address the question at hand, they can help round out the project and establish the importance of it.

A few weeks ago, Jan gave each of us a petri dish with drying mycelia and said “Do something with it by next week.” It had nothing to do with mycoremediation. Or did it? Since another project I am working on involves gypsum [a mineral composed of calcium sulfate], I decided to add some gypsum to the mycelia. Usually when you are working with fungi on petri dishes, they have to satisfy a few conditions: 1. Lack of contamination, or else they must compete with other microbes, and 2. A food source. As I was preparing petri dishes with gypsum and fluffy mycelia, I didn’t add any food, and I was breathing all over my samples (adding contamination). Unexpectedly, the mycelia grew well and without visible contaminants. We can only speculate why, but it was very interesting because it showed the importance of gypsum, and in the end it was nice to do something different with the mineral than the usual testing that I do. It did lead us to research it more, and I am still thinking of future projects that I can do with it.

From Danielle: “Our rockin’ supply cabinet.”

ABOG: How do you interpret the project as art? Do you? Is it helpful to think about it as art?

DW: The word art scares me, actually, I try not to interpret anything as art, because I am scared to do it wrong. As a nerd, I did look up the definition, and art includes “works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” The beautiful thing about this project is that it seeks to bring justice to an area that has been dirtied because of neglect. I think that one of the ways it tends to differ from science projects is that Jan is consistent in working on an issue she wants to see solved, instead of following the path where there is money, and then working under that branch.

ABOG: Do you think research, design, and art are interrelated? How so, in your experience?

DW: I think research, design, and art can be related, but it takes a certain kind of culture to make them be that way. If design isn’t involved in either research or art, I think the projects will go a completely different way. For example, one can have a goal to solve a certain problem, but there are many ways of investigating—guess and check, variable isolation, endless reading, and theoretical speculation. As far as art, I really don’t know. I think that everyone works differently. In the end, it’s hard to fathom doing something without designing your next step, if even a millisecond before it’s carried out. As long as we are thinking or moving we are designing, and as long as we are carrying out research or art we must be thinking or moving, right?

ABOG: If you had to pick one moment from working on GBP that has been especially meaningful for you, which would you choose?

DW: I can’t think of any specific moment, but what rings in my memory of the project is all of the discussions that I sit through. If you’ve talked to Jan I’m sure you know what I mean. All of the projects she’s doing are mind-blowing, and she is deeply involved in all of them. It’s rarely a discussion that ends in “I don’t know,” but usually a foresight to something important or incredibly interesting.


Danielle Wagner is a research assistant with a background in biochemistry. Prior to working on Greenpoint Bioremediation Project she received her degrees in Chemistry and Sociology from the University of Florida. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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