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In an interdisciplinary setting, participants from the fine arts, physics, design, biology, culinary arts and mathematics met to explore a two-fold project involving nano and haptics. Using methods that interlace macro- and nano-scale phenomena and technologies, we were able to develop a physical, embodied relationship to a world that is far beyond the direct sensation of touch and human interaction. During this three-year project, a core team of participants developed the following experimental approaches and methods: Aesthetic labs, Surrealist games, Nanofabrication, Infectious formgiving, Process video documentation and Performative staging.

With access to nanofabrication laboratories, the team explored form using deposition and etching tools on the tip of a strand of hair as a physical, tangible point of departure. Creating tangible relationships with nano phenomena and creating token imagery makes these invisible parts of our world more accessible and workable on a wider and more visionary scale.

Given the strict protocol in the NanoFabrication Center and the general principle of working flat and clean in such environments, the methods applied by the NanoForm project the haptic approach, the use of dirty human material in a sterile environment and above all the open-ended manner of searching and acting uncovered new territory and gave this project an extraordinary position in the nano research community.


The general idea of the NanoFormGiving through haptic aesthetic laborations project was to develop artistic research methods in an interdisciplinary setting that enable the participants to examine and experiment with nano technologies in the emerging field of nano science. Central to the project was the development of aesthetic, explorative lab sessions and workshops where all the senses, the haptics in particular, were used to support a creative discovery process. The major challenge for the group was to find ways to involve the body in explorative interactions with the nano world, a world that is far beneath the direct sensation of touch and human interaction.

The methods used are rooted in cooperative inquiry, engaging participants as co-researchers and presenting alternative ways of performing explorative experimentation that both complement and challenge the classic methods of performing scientific lab sessions. The work is based on playful and embodied knowledge processes. For Professor Cheryl Akner-Koler, who initiated the project, the body has a central role in the development of consciousness, our position and interaction with the world. Embodied, aesthetic involvement is an approach that stimulates discovery and innovation in ways that go beyond the systematic and theoretical mode of thinking.

This enabled the NanoForm team, consisting of highly skilled researchers and professionals from diverse fields, to discuss and reflect over research, exchange knowledge and come to a shared understanding in a faster, more immediate way.


The project aims to overcome the perceptual problems of experiencing objects, forces, space and events at a nano level. By interlacing macro with nano scales and adjusting the human sensory apparatus, the group set out to explore a scale that they, as macroscopic organisms, were too coarse and their senses too blunt to perceive.

The following methods were developed and applied during the project:

A-Labs: aesthetic laborations

From 2009 to 2011, the NanoForm team conducted five workshops with fourteen haptic Aesthetic Laboration known as A-labs, a method coined and developed by Akner–Koler,1 and five so-called Nanofabs developed by a smaller core group working in collaboration with researchers at the AlbaNova Nanofabrication Center, Stockholm University.

The A-labs aimed to stimulate the senses and engage participants actively and physically in experiencing and transforming phenomena that deal with the nano theme (Figure 1).

[Figure 1]

A-labs are not driven by strict rules or detailed instructions. Each workshop leader plans the content relevant to the theme and in relation to an unexplored part of their professional research. They provide the participants with materials and a framework, and suggest activities that can stimulate the participants’ intuition and direct perception in the development of the lab. Both A-Lab leaders and participants had a rich variety of backgrounds: artists, industrial designers, particle physicists, musicians, an audiologist, a sommelière, biomedical scientists, biotechnologists, an art curator and a mechanical physicist.

Surrealist games: group conceptualization

Arijana Kajfes (artistic co-leader) and Björn Norberg (art curator) held a workshop to stimulate creative thinking regarding nano technology and nano scale by collecting ideas and sorting them so that the group could handle the task as one “complex brain” A map of the process used can be characterized as a double wave: first extracting an area of interest and rising to the first peak, called the generative phase, then climbing down into a filtering phase, a “funneling,” through discussion rising to the next peak, the formgiving phase. The descent from here, designated as the result of the process, is where a formgiving concept is collectively refined and formulated. To make the process more uncontrolled, it was interspersed with games used by the surrealists to produce irrational decisions and eliminate predetermined patterns.

The workshop aimed to generate new concepts and to provoke questions about ethics, aesthetics and form that the use of different nanotechnologies will generate in our daily life. With an approach based in both art theory and practice, the workshop brought the group away from more established knowledge patterns and the reductionistic, coherent solutions that researchers within the natural sciences normally rely on.

[Figure 2]

A pictoral message, called the Pioneer plaques (Figure 2) was sent into space in the 1970s to communicate with the unknown. It was designed for an extraterrestrial receiver that would understand human-made signs. The NanoForm group reversed this concept by creating a receptive surface. This took the shape of a table, which came to be used as an iconic symbol throughout the project, relating to the everyday experience of gathering around the table for a meal. Instead of sending a defined message, it invites the unknown nanoorganisms to leave traces of their own formation.

NanoFab: nanofabrication formgiving between  nano and macro scales

In collaboration with researchers at the AlbaNova Nano Fabrication Center atStockholm University, and led by the senior physicist Dr. Narendra Yamdagni, the team experimented to create three-dimensional forms on a prepared strand of human hair. The hair became the physical site and the liaison that permitted them to travel between macro and nano. As a body part, it is one of the thinnest materials that can be both seen and felt without any mediated help from instruments that extend the human senses.

[Figure 3]

The team used a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to create and document the fabricated objects. The diameter of a human hair is about 60-80 microns (1 micron = 1,000 nanometers (nm)). The entire hair was coated with a 10 nm thick gold surface to give it electrically conductive properties, which was necessary for working in the SEM.  On the tip of the gold-coated hair, the team created a table measuring 1,000 x 1,000 x 1,000 nanometers (Figure 3). The table’s four legs measured less than 400 nanometers, which is less than the wavelength of visible light. By physically being able to feel the hair between your fingers the hair upon which the table was then fabricated, a haptic link was created between the scales. Metaphorically the table was set for unexpected guests in the nano world.

[Figure 4]

Teo Enlund, industrial designer, manually made a table out of silver, measuring 1 x 1 x 1 millimeters (Figure 4). This table could be placed on the tip of a finger and the human hair, with the micron table on its tip, could be placed on top of it (Figure 5). Arijana Kajfes made a third table measuring 1 x 1 x 1 meters, copying the somewhat random form of the micron table. Where Kajfes engaged her entire body to form the large table, Enlund struggled to maintain precision when crafting the millimeter table. On the contrary, making the micron table was a completely remote experience, using computer-controlled tools and remote vision to create the invisible form enclosed in a vacuum chamber.

[Figure 5]


Infectious formgiving

In the process of creating the table in different scales and observing the transformations that took place, biological material was added to see how it would affect and self-organize the formgiving process. Experiments extracting DNA from saliva and kiwi fruits were led by Bengt Harald Jonsson, professor in molecular biotechnology, and Lena Tibell, professor in biochemistry and life-science education. Human saliva was smeared onto hair samples in hopes of generating new, unexpected forms in the nano scale. Large clusters of spherical shaped organisms, staphylococcus bacteria found in the mouth, bound to the gold-covered surface of the hair. The NanoFab team responded to these self-assembled forms by etching out hexagonal patterns onto them. This way of combining a biological process of bacterial growth with mechanical etching of geometric human-made forms gave rise to the concept infectious formgiving. Infectious formgiving can be seen as an autopoietic process, where the local relationships expressed through bacterial growth determine both the shape and material properties of the bacteria and the fabricated patterns.

A very unexpected correlation was discovered by Dr. Yamdagni showing that the hexagonal patterns in accordance with the spherical shapes of the staphylococcus resembled the natural patterns of nuclear pores (Figures 6, 7). These nuclear pores are small holes (10 nm) in the membrane surrounding a cell nucleus that allow the transport of water-soluble molecules. As Yamdagni concluded, the evolution of nanostructures has been going on for billions of years in nature, but human made structures at submicron level are in their infancy.

[Figure 6][Figure 7]

NanoForm has generated more than 40 different activities, led by 18 individuals, and has involved over 45 participants. To keep track of the activities the artist Katarina Eismann functioned as media navigator, responsible for video processing and archiving of the project. The purpose of the videos, as well as other material produced by the project’s activities, is that they constitute a record of intangible and complex processes and serve as a complement to the academic, text-based presentation format (Figure 8). Katarina Eismann has previously developed an approach where videos are both part of her expressive medium and part of the educational or research process in a project.

The videos represent a non-linear narrative of the activities and achievements that occur out of the conversations and actions that unfold in the laborations and the project –  a reflection of the essence of the artistic research process.

[Figure 8]


Performative staging: physical enactment and spatial staging

The final phase of the project was developed through a two-week of the collected material and documentation, where the participants were invited to reenact some of the processes that had occurred during the A-Labs, workshops and NanoFabs. As an open studio event, it offered a performative public presentation of the project results (Figure 9).

The project material was arranged in a spatial assemblage that played with scale, movement, time and light, creating a reenactment of the project. On entering the space, the participants first had to spend a meditative moment in a sound and light-deprived chamber, where they were asked to pull out a strand of hair and explore it. Using their hair fiber to descend into nano, they were invited to sit down at a full-scale table and, using the same hair as an eating stick, swallow a small flake of gold housing thousands of micron tables, letting nano-forms descend into them. Parts of this staging will be used in an exhibition about nano at Visualization Center C, Norrköping, Sweden in October 2012.

As Jens Hauser so well explains in his article Biotechnology as Mediality, on speaking about performativity in these forms of exploration, “it is mostly about the enacting of transformational processes of a temporary nature, not about the conservable final products” and “the observer must shift between the symbolic artistic space and the ‘real life’ of the presented processes.”

[Figure 9]


Final reflections

The NanoForm group is an unusual subculture that consists of very diverse individuals who would seldom, through their own specialization, have direct access to nanofabrication technology. In his Review of Nanoethics, nano theorist Cyrus Mody underlines the importance of having different subcultures that “travel” in a nano world developing probes and artifacts that can be conveyed through images. He notes that nano-scale images have the power to support the development of an emerging nano science (an ambiguous science because it involves so many different disciplines). Creating tangible relationships with nano phenomena and creating token imagery makes these invisible parts of our world more accessible and workable on a wider and more visionary scale. Using haptic aesthetic laborations puts emphasis on the three-dimensional form and materiality, and how our bodies respond to them. Given the strict protocol in the NanoFabrication Center and the general principle of working flat and clean in such environments, the methods the NanoForm project applies, the haptic approach, the use of dirty human material in a sterile environment, and above all the open-ended manner of searching and acting, uncover new territory and give this project an extraordinary position in the nano research community.

Citer cet article

Arijana Kajfes et Björn Norberg et Cheryl Akner-Koler et Narendra Yamdagni, « NanoForm », [Plastik] : Nano #03 [en ligne], mis en ligne le 11 février 2013, consulté le 20 juillet 2024. URL : ISSN 2101-0323

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