Workshop: (Un)Real Ecologies - Microplastics (with Kat Austen & Nana MacLean)
7/8 July, 2018


Photos courtesy Kat Austen

Plastic has pervaded water, soil and our bodies. It is the new icon of our time. During the (Un)Real Ecologies: Microplastics workshop we will explore the presence of microplastics in the Panke River, near Art Laboratory Berlin. How do organisms and microorganisms exist with and construct with these human-made materials? We will interrogate the water samples, to discover a new understanding of the reality of the Panke's ecosystem, with plastic present and wholly a part of it - a microcosm that allows us to ask: "what is nature?"

Kat Austen is a succession of experiences and an assemblage of aspirations. She creates artworks that explore multiple knowledges, from music to embodied knowledge to DIY science, focusing on emotional connections between what we consider internal and external. Kat is Cultural Fellow in Art and Science at the University of Leeds, lectures on UCL's Arts and Sciences BASc, and is Artist in Residence in UCL's Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences. Previous residencies include NYU Shanghai Gallery and ArtOxygen. Kat was an inaugural member of the London Creative Network programme. She is based in Berlin.

Nana MacLean studied Biology at the UvA Amsterdam and has recently finished her Master studies in Molecular Biology at the University Potsdam. Besides her studies, she has been involved in projects that crossed borders between disciplinary styles and methods - embracing both speculative design and performative collaborations. As a PhD student, Nana is currently working on microbial communities in anthropogenic landscapes and plastic polluted grounds at the GFZ Helmholtz Center Potsdam. Her research focuses on Plastic as biological habitat, and furthermore explores future ecologies and areas of research that involve storytelling and other imaginative methodologies. Nana is based in Potsdam and Berlin.

The workshop

The Panke river is a small river that starts about 20 km north of Art Laboratory Berlin close to the small town of Bernau. During its way down into the city Berlin, the Panke changes into a straightened urban stream that receives rain and mixed waters from the surrounding districts. We will explore two secions of the Panke, an 'upper' part around ALB is bordered by parks, green shrubby watersides and a swampy floodplain. The more downstream we go, the more influenced the ecosystem will become by urban factors. The 'lower'part we will explore Panke around Gerichtstrasse already shows less water plant vegetation than on the 'upper' part. In order to collect (Micro)plastic from the water stream, we are going to place fine nets inside the river that will collect all particles flowing through that part of the Panke overnight.

To understand the status of human influence in the different parts of the Panke, we want to compare water from these two parts of the Panke. We will search for visible interactions between plastics and biota in and around the Panke. Asking how organisms and inhabitants of the Panke live with plastic in their habitat?

Plastics come in different shapes, textures and material properties. Their chemical properties makes them generally very resistant to natural degradation processes by fungi, algae or bacteria. However, the term plastisphere has been used by biologists to describe the living microworld attached to plastic particles in the environment. Surprisingly, plastic seems to be much more than just an human-made waste product: In marine ecosystems it was found that pieces of plastics carry a very specific community of fungi, algae and bacteria. Using a microscope, we can get a close and intimate look into their habitat. In the workshop we want to examine the plastisphere of the Panke and observe the shapes and forms of how organisms interact with plastic. For this step, we will choose some interesting particles from our catch and use the available microscopes to get a close look at plastics and living creatures.

Furthermore, we will use a two step chemical protocol for the analysis of (Micro) plastics in our water samples. In our case, plastics include hard plastics, soft plastics (e.g., foams), films, line, and sheets. Microplastic is defined by its size smaller than 5mm, so with our nets (200 micron) we will be catching all sizes between 5mm and 0.2mm. During the coming two days we want to split our samples into different groups, so that we can compare the different procedures with each other.

The solid particles in soil or waters are a mixture of minerals (abiogenic: not produced by living organisms), organic matter that are carbon-based remains from living organisms or their waste product and recently of synthesized anthropogenic compounds (?) that find their way into both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Each of these compounds have a specific density range and will either float or sink in a given liquid column. In order to divide those three fractions from our water samples, we will separate them according to their density. Using a saturated salt solution will create a liquid in which plastic and minerals clearly separate from each other. But first, we will need to remove all organic compounds, leaving only minerals and plastics! Adding hydrogen peroxide solution (30%) to your sample is a common method for the elimination of organic matter as it strongly reacts with all organic carbon.

Workshop overview and protocols here
Documentation file here

Friday, 6 July, 2018
16.30-18.30 (optional) Meet at ALB with Kat Austen and Nana MacLean and members of DIY Hack the Panke. Placing the nets along the Panke river.

Saturday, 7 July, 2018 | Microplastics Workshop – Part I
10:00 Meet at ALB, doors open, coffee and meet / briefing & microplastic introductions with Kat and Nana
10:45 Exploration Panke and collect net samples
11:45 ALB: outline of protocols
12:00 Microscope analysis and beginning of chemical microplastic analysis
13:30 Lunch break at Panke e.V
14:30 Continue microscope analysis and chemical analysis
15:30 Creation around microscope analysis
16:00 finishing up

Sunday, 8 July, 2018| Microplastics Workshop – Part II
9:30 Brunch at ALB
10:30 Work with samples and reactions from Saturday
10:50 DIY chemical protocol preparation
13:00 Lunch break
14:00 Last experiments and cleaning
15:30 Discussion and presentation of results




Photo: Art Laboratory Berlin


Photo: Art Laboratory Berlin


Photo: Art Laboratory Berlin


Photo: Art Laboratory Berlin


Photo: Art Laboratory Berlin


Photo: Viki Alexander


Photo: Viki Alexander


Photo: Viki Alexander


Photo: Viki Alexander


Photo: Viki Alexander


Photo: Art Laboratory Berlin



Organised together with DIY Hack the Panke.

Part of the Shared Habitats Project, organised by Institutio Media and funded by Nordic Culture Point:



Art Laboratory Berlin is supported by: