The last two years have seen at least two major museum exhibitions dedicated to the confluence between nanotechnology and art. First in 2003 "Nano," was on display at the Los Angeles County Museum, a major museum funhouse of art and science, and secondly "Nanotechnology – The Exhibition" , a view of nanotechnology inspired art, was on view last spring ‘03 at the Miami University Art Museum in Ohio. Both of these recent exhibitions point to the growing awareness of nanotechnology and impact that technological research is having on artistic output.
The Nano exhibition in Los Angeles was mounted by Victoria Vesna, chair of the UCLA Department of Design/Media Arts, and James Gimzewski, a nano-scientist in the UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry. Installed in the museum’s children’s gallery, though trafficked by all ages, the exhibition purposely avoided presenting science fiction-like visions of nanotechnology doled out by the popular media, instead focusing on presenting nanotechnology to the public in a way that took advantage of new media technologies that framed the exhibition in a variety of interactive metaphorical tableaux.
Vesna and Gimzewski feel that nanotechnology-inspired art has begun to branch in two directions – one "is very much about connections and interconnections," says Gimzewski. "Artists respond to new scientific discoveries and vice versa. That’s what we’re seeing at the moment and I find it very beautiful." The other is what he calls "the dark side" – fictional imaginings like Crichton’s Prey which exploit doomsday scenarios fed by shoddy science. Luckily, exhibitions like Nano are starting to lead the way in the counterrevolution to popular dystopian views by presenting brilliantly conceived multimedia installations that manage to make complex ideas like quantum tunneling comprehensible (Wiki: quantum tunneling).
The 2003 exhibit Nano-technology, the Exhibition at the Miami University Museum of Art focused specifically on artists who are involved with the ideas or applications of nanotechnology in their work. The exhibition provides a very telling cross section of the variety of ways in which artists are approaching the subject. Some like Tim Newfields, whose work references the interplay between energy and nanostructures, attack the realm of nano via computer. Others, like painter Clark Richert, deconstruct the basic structures of the universe using symmetry and pattern to illustrate the dimensional dilemma of the nanoscale. Like nanotechnology, Richert’s paintings change as one gets in closer as features take on shifting geometrical orders. Chris Ewels displays his work on plasma screens in preordered viewing sequences. He generates images using a ray tracing computer program, deriving structures from research that can deliver detailed calculations about the physical and chemical properties of various nanostructures.
In reality, many current nano-artists are actually scientists who are beginning to photo document this strange alien realm much like a space probe investigating the moons of Saturn. They snap images using electron microscopes that show kaleidoscopic views resembling stained glass, fireworks, fractals and other phenomena familiar in our macro world. One artist who bases her work on this kind of visualization is Alexa Smith who produces abstracted, lava-lamp-like images that evoke the new physics of life on the nano scale. As amorphous as primordial soup, her nano-scapes are meant to evoke the melding physics of life broken down to the atomic scale.
Often today’s nanoartist is also by definition a kind of programmer.
This approach to nanoart is typified by nano artist/scientist Charles
Ostman, who declares "I don’t draw art…I grow it."
Ostman categorizes himself as a "procedural artist,"
referring to the fact that he literally creates synthetic environments
that are formed with aesthetics in mind while also churning out fantastical
renderings of "technological imaginings" that he calls "organomorphs".
Perhaps some of the most critically interesting work being done recently
on the subject of nanotechnology comes from the Montreal-based audio/visual
wonder pair Skoltz_Kogen (Dominique T. Skoltz
and Herman W. Kolgen) who were recently commissioned to create
a piece called "Nanowet" for Horizon
Zero’s online gallery. This project was derived from their performance/installation
called "Epiderm" that debuted last summer at Montreal’s
Usine C gallery. The work (which one reviewer called "an
inner space mindfuck that is just screaming for illicit hallucinogens…")
was a panoramic audio and 3D digital animation presented on an 18-foot
wide circular screen and 5.1 surround sound that presented viewers with
a virtual model of nanostructures in motion. The artists called it "an
artistic transposition of a complex structure at the atomic level that
moves in space in an absolute wet environment." One of the first
veritable multimedia "nanoscapes", Epiderm was groundbreaking
in its ability to immerse viewers in a worldspace so dominated by convoluted
physics as to be almost completely disorienting. A kind of artistic salvo
aimed at dismantling how we now imagine the world to be, the work forces
viewers to confront the discomfort of change while reveling in the peculiar
beauty of the molecular world.
Besides conceptual pondering of a nano-technological future, concrete
artwork that deals with the nano-realm is a powerful visual counterpoint
to more abstract ramblings. It’s difficult from today’s vantage
point to really fully grasp the idea that nanotechnology will very likely
someday be so ubiquitous and diverse that, like TV or telephones, it will
be difficult to imagine life before it. Engineers claim that there’s
nothing that can be realized in the macro world that can’t be done
on a nano scale – and of course this includes art. What seems to
hold particularly flexible material promise for art, as well as commercial
arenas, is the odd shifts in physicality at a nano scale. Not all materials
behave the same in the world of molecules – fluids are suddenly
grainy, surface tension is suddenly a dominant force and various quantum
effects that are negligible in the macro world suddenly become critical.
So what if anything does the future of the medium of nanoart promise? While many facets of nanotechnology continue to linger in the fog of science fiction, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to contemplate the options. An unprecedented level of interactivity is one possibility. If mechanical elements on a nano scale become possible or even ubiquitous, it would be simple to create structures that can be programmed to change shape, color, texture or scale. A sculpture that changes expression, a painting that, much like a plasma screen, cycles through half a dozen or more pre-programmed images. And that’s just on the level of traditional media. Every corner of current artistic media could be affected – just imagine an installation artist with nano-technological capabilities not to mention the implications of body art, earth art: mountains that change form, dissipate, float away and disappear; architecture that just requires plugging in a CAD program to manipulate a nano putty that can simulate different material qualities and properties, or the creation of custom engineered mechanobiological "life forms" which are optimized for artistic purposes. From today’s vantage point, this fantastical postulating still looks like so much pie in the sky but the building blocks are there. Sooner or later, once Moore’s law fast-forwards the applications and the technology becomes ubiquitous, there will only be the final frontier left to overcome – imagination. X
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