petite mort In this issueSomething from Nothing No.3 2005
<< 23 24 25 26 27 28 29
contents mailing list about us contribute contact archive
 by Brad Hampton






Forget for a moment about massive art works like Richard Serra’s Titled Arc, sprawling earthworks like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and the historically monumental wrapping of the Reichstag by Christo & Jean-Claude, i.e. the generally lauded “bigger-is-better” approach to making art. In this day and technological age “small” is being declared the next big thing. This would make a prefix “nano” the latest buzz attaching itself like a linguistic parasite to everything from industrial coatings to stain-resistant paints to tomorrow’s masterpieces. (Wiki: Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Christo & Jean Claude)

So you hear about it on the news and read about it in the The New York Times but what do they really mean when they say nano this or nano that? Derived from the Greek word nanos meaning “dwarf”, “nano” refers to a unit of measurement equal to one-billionth of a meter – about the size of ten hydrogen atoms (Wiki: Nano). It’s a scale that’s so miniscule, so invisible to you and I, so imperceptible even to visually based microscopes that it’s only capable of being represented by running high-tech electromagnetic scans. So just to say that something that is nano is small is really an understatement since even microscopic doesn’t seem to fit the bill.



The concept of nanotechnology has been floating around in the collective hyperconscious now for a good ten years or so while over-excited prognosticators have declared it a breakthrough on par with the discovery of electricity in terms of its likelihood of bringing about a massive technological and societal paradigm shift. Nanotechnology was born as a concept in the late 1950’s when Nobel physicist Richard Feynman made the suggestion that we might be able to manipulate matter at the atomic scale (Wiki: Richard Feynman). In the 1990’s, once the technology became available to make Feynman’s theories into laboratory realities, artists jumped into the game. Ever the avatars of the new and unexplored, they have now teamed with scientists on the frontline of nanoresearch and nanoexperimentation - a coupling that is just beginning to bear some very odd fruit.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke once said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and much of the breathless talk around nanotechnology in recent years has certainly verged on the hyperbolic and utopian. Take for example Dr. John Storrs-Hall’s Utility Fog, micro clusters of nanobots (or foglets) that will simulate your couch, manifest into a soothing bath, rearrange themselves into a four-course meal. There is also the medicinal nanobots that will purportedly travel Fantastic Voyage-style throughout your body chasing down microbial bad guys, disrupting cancer cells activity, showing the common cold the door and overall acting as a watch-dog/paramedic services in your bloodstream. ( Wiki: Sir Arthur C. Clark, Utility Fog; IMDB: Fantastic Voyage)

Nanotechnology in this sense has become the next “Big Science” – attracting both virulent skepticism and eager applause as well as a deluge of government dollars and entrepreneurial salivating. It has also morphed into a peculiarly forceful cultural signifier, effectively blurring the boundaries between science fact and science fiction, creeping into pop culture via movies: The Matrix series, Spiderman, The Hulk; and in books: Michael Crichton’s Prey, Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles; as well as video games: Deus Ex: Invisible War; and even making a guest appearance on the Powerpuff Girls. But as the hype begins to settle into more rational examination, the mysterious nature of this mostly unexplored technology is beginning to find representation as much through art as through the science that spawned it. (Wiki: Michael Crichton, Michel Houellebecq, Deus Ex, Powerpuff Girls)

... Then at the fin de siécle, the competion began to dwindle.
Nanoguitar, Cornell University 1997.; The Bull, Osaka University, 2001; IBM NANO, IBM corporation 2002

Initially, the requisite enthusiasm over new technologies tends to beget a kind of novelty art which, despite the implied eye roll and yawn, is often actually really cool. Chances are good that if you’ve heard anything at all about the nascent medium of nano-art, you’ve heard about the Bull. It’s the first official love child of nanoscience and nano-art that was created in 2001 by a group of Japanese artist/researchers who managed to sculpt a bull out of resin using twin laser beams. Just the size of a single red blood cell, the finished sculpture could only be “viewed” with a scanning electron microscope, but judging from the amazing realism of the finished work, these pioneer nanoartists really know their lasers.

The actual technology (“two-photon micropolymerization”) used in its creation is being honed for computing and medicine, but the bull is of course symbolic. One of the team researchers remarked "…we dream that this bull pulls a drug cart through the blood vessels…” – a noble notion, but also an appropriately temperamental manifestation of a science that some have fretted will someday run amok as a horrific “grey goo”, a mega swarm of nanobots that will charge out into the world, self-replicating and goring every atom in sight, transforming the earth into a big ball of Silly Putty. But B-movie doomsday scenarios aside, the Bull is also symbolic artistic development, after all, it is eerily reminiscent of the ancient cave paintings at Lascaux, one of the earliest incidents of a new technology, the creation of stable pigments and vehicles, that helped facilitate masterful artistic expression. (Wiki: Lascaux, Silly Putty)


Nano Guitar, Cornell University 1997Nano Bull, Osaka University, 2001IBM NANO, IBM corporation 2002
The term Utility Fog was coined by Dr. John Storrs Hall to describe his theoretical nano invention that he thought would replace seatbelts. This Utility Fog material, composed of individual foglets below, would float loosely over the driver and in the event of an accident they would hold together via their 12 arm to form an invisible shield protecting the driver from injury. (Wiki: Utility Fog)


Once the researchers at Osaka University completed their bull, nano research teams at IBM seemed to take it as a warning shot rather than a step forward. Almost instantly, they retaliated with an exercise in nano territory-marking by inscribing “NANO USA” and “IBM” on copper sheeting with single atoms using a sexy Star Trek-like process name Molecular Beam Epitaxy (Wiki: Molecular Beam Epitaxy). This veritable seed-spitting contest between nanotech companies is not uncommon when breakthroughs are announced and many of these corporations are now regularly employing artists as consultants to explore the potential creative avenues of their newest tech toys. (Wiki: Osaka University)

But for the moment, nanoart still tends to come in two basic flavors, which for the sake of the essay we’ll call speculative sci-fi (artwork that bases its content on the imagined realm of nanotech flora and fauna) and formal realism approach (artwork that exist on a nano scale that are actually produced by employing currently available nanotechnology). Still, whenever something with this kind of power to affect the imagination comes along, so does a sense of resistance… and a bit of humor. Such as when in a nano chat room in 2001, the air was abuzz with the news about the Japanese mini-bull. The mini-bull’s clear challenge both in scale and mode of execution to our conventional sense of artwork gave way to a running riff of puns and irony:

-What’s next? Christo will wrap the head of a pin in pink tissue paper, I assume.
posted by rev- at 9:27 AM PST

-At least it won't take all day to walk around the museums …
posted by briank at 10:14 AM PST on August 23

-yeah really...but think about the cost of art supplies? …I need some conté, gauche, 300lb cold-press watercolor paper, you have one of those electron microscope thingies?
posted by th3ph17 at 10:29 AM PST on August 23

-Careful! Don't inhale that masterpiece!
posted by liam at 11:48 AM PST on August 23


An even earlier example of scientists making their way through the novelty shop of the nano world is the so-called “Nanoguitar” which was created in the late ‘90s by researchers at Cornell University. It was carved out of crystalline silicon and measured only 10 micrometers long, had six strings, each about 50 nanometers wide and could even be played- though not heard, since its strings resonate at frequencies which are inaudible to the normal human range of hearing. A technical feat, yes, which while falling short of masterpiece status, indicates how we often feel our way around new technology via creative expression. (Wiki: Cornell University)

Buckminster Fuller has often been cited as the grandfather of nanoart, having foreseen the shapes and molecular structures of the nano-world in his geodesic domes, a.k.a. “buckyballs”, which had such a tectonic impact on architecture and art in the mid-20th century (Wiki: Buckminster Fuller, buckyballs). Now, circa 2004, nanoart is beginning to evolve. In a way, it’s the ultimate new arena of abstraction, since it is often much more “implied” then “seen” in terms of its effect on a given environment. In this sense, nanoart is inherently interactive and seems to point to a future where that feature becomes a defining characteristic of nano-expression. With the advent of any new technology, innovation and creativity leap at the opportunity of discovering a new avenue of expression. And just as with digital technology and art, nanoart raises question whether the work of art is the actual object created (an increasingly atavistic idea) or the information, like digital scans for example, that determines its form counts as its essence.


pg1 | next page >>