The interior of a NYC subway.

Image: Shutterstock

If you took high school biology, you probably remember the exercise of taking a Q-tip around the classroom, competing to see who can swab the grossest surface and grow a bumper crop of agar-fed bacteria.

Craig Ward’s latest project comes out of the space between that high school afternoon and art camp, and it’s amazing.

Last April, a moment of curiosity about just what was growing in the New York Subway led the Brooklyn-born artist to actually try to find out. Ward began riding the lines, swabbing seats and poles and windows with sterile sponges. Other passengers looked at him funny, but no one ever stopped him, ever asked what he was doing.

Back at his studio, he transferred his samples to Petri dishes of soy agar jelly, each in the shape of the train’s letter or number, and let them grow.

And grow they did. Ward’s little collection includes e. coli, salmonella, proteus mirabilis (a bacteria in urine that causes kidney stones), and serrata marcescens, the bane of hospitals. But he doesn’t think any of this is a cause of concern for subway passengers. These microbes live on all of us, after all, and are as much a part of the diversity of being in public as the thousands of faces we see each day.

The resulting art is surprisingly beautiful. Lit with colored lights to match the train lines, each dish holds a tiny galaxy, explosions in white, green, pink, and orange. A gray mist of growth floats across the dish from the Z train. L looks like the birth of a coral reef. S is a constellation of tiny red e. coli colonies, each as isolated as a space ship.

Craig Ward’s colleted prints of the resultant photographs are called Subvisual Subway and can be pre-ordered here. They will be available in mid-December 2015.