Nanoscience and Art: Beyond the Invisible and the Intangible

Nanoscience and Art

“In art, and in painting as in music, it is not a matter of reproducing or inventing forms, but of capturing forces. For this reason no art is figurative. Paul Klee’s famous formula – ‘Not to render the visible, but to render visible’ – means nothing else. The task of painting is defined as the attempt to render visible forces that are not themselves visible.” G. Deleuze

Nanoscience refer to a broad and hard-to-define field of scientific research that studies nanoscale phenomena in matter and whose success is mainly justified by the benefits provided in terms of developing new materials, called nanomaterials and whose size can be 1000 times smaller than a human hair, with new and enhanced properties. This is not all. Curiosity of mankind was always directed beyond bare-eye observation, which is a key element in the development of nanoscience. The first aspect is of clear practical order while the second one is more of an intellectual one. Both of them have nevertheless contributed to study and better understand phenomena at small scales, starting from intrinsic properties of atoms and molecules, such as electronic and nuclear spins, to chemical bonding and intermolecular forces. What is nanoscience today? A broad field of research in which physics, chemistry, material science, mathematics, biology, biotechnology (and much more…) meet. These disciplines are devoted to the synthesis, control, manipulation, understanding of matter at scales below 1000 nm.

The question of how artists may work with nanoscience-related topics is difficult to answer. In the early XX century, hot topics in science like the Theory of Relativity (1905-1916) and Theory of Quanta (1900-1925), strongly related to nanoscience, were associated to important art movements like cubism (1907), futurism (1909) and surrealism (1924). In 1946, art critic P. Laporte asked A. Einstein whether cubism and Theory of Relativity had connections. Unfortunately, Einstein answered to him that This new artistic language (Cubism) has nothing in common with Theory of Relativity.{{P. M. Laporte, “Cubism and Relativity (with a letter of Albert Einstein)”, Art Journal, 25, 246, (1966)}} As L. Shlain nicely resumes in his Art & Physics,{{L. Shlain, Art & Physics, 1991, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., New York}} even if conceptual reflection on space and time were explicitly integrated in art since early 1909 by futurist manifesto Time and space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, for we have already created eternal, ever-present speed,{{W. Haftmann, Painting in the twentieth Century, p. 106}} no real connection was ever proved with on-going research activities in physics and mathematics carried on by, e.g., A. Einstein and H. Minkowsky. Nevertheless, few exceptions exist: M. Duchamps and S. Dalì showed deep interest for scientific progress in atomic physics, even if that occurred a quarter of a century later. Quantization of matter, for instance, influenced Dali’s works Leda Atomica (1949) and Corpuscular Madonna (1952), for which he affirms: My ideas were ingenious and abundant. I decided to turn my attention to the pictorial solution of quantum theory, and invented quantum realism in order to master gravity - I painted Leda Atomica, a celebration of Gala (Dali's wife) the goddess of my metaphysics, and succeeded in creating 'floating space. Dali’s reflection on quantum mechanics was one of the few conscientious examples in this period together with Italian painter E. Prampolini, who painted Moto dell’Elettrone, o Quanta (ca. 1941).

Nowadays, progress in science, and nanoscience in particular, is even more difficult to follow. The advent of powerful microscopes that allow to observe (Scanning Electron Microscopy, Transmission Electron Microscopy, Atomic Force Microscopy) and control (Scanning Tunnelling Microscopy) small pieces of matter, such as individual atoms, has largely contributed to feed people’s imagination, including artists’. Observation and control of matter using such instruments combined to processes like nanolithograpy are generally referred to the Top-down approach in nanoscience. Early art-science collaborations on this specific topic have been reported in the first decade of years 2000. A world-estimated physicist, J. Gimzewski (UCLA, USA) has collaborated with a contemporary media-artist, V. Vesna. After several months of close work, the exhibition Nano was held in 2003 in Los Angeles.{{Nanoculture (Intellect books, Portland, 2004)}}  In Europe, S. Raimondi, an Italian art critic, coordinated an exchange between two artists, A. Scali (Italy) and R. Goode (South Africa), and the Polytechnic University of Turin (Italy). The exhibition Nan°arte was held in Bergamo (Italy) in 2007. Both projects have in common two principles : 1) tight collaboration between artists and scientists, an idea with long-date historical roots but with a more recent development in many USA-based collaborative projects{{Notable synergies between scientists and artists have started in the United States after the second world war. One of the first projects of the RAND Corporation (Santa Monica, United States) offered to artists to spend some time with researchers. Similarly, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA has hosted since the 60's more than 350 artists. Subsequently, the E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) association, founded by a group of engineers and artists in 1967 in New York City and part of a wider network including the Center for Advanced Visual Studies within the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, has initiated many projects and conferences between artists and scientists. MIT continues its actions within a specific research unit: the Media Lab brings together, within an international and multidisciplinary framework, chemists, physicists, mathematicians, engineers, designers, musicians, photographers, artists and psychologists.}} ; 2) an approach to nanoscience either via quantum mechanics or Electron and Atomic Force microscopies, with a common deep reflection on the way to observe, represent and exhibit the Invisible. In parallel, a more aesthetic proposal was adopted in the Nano project (2003-2004), where the parisian art curator, L. Dreyfus, coordinated internationally recognized artists to expose their artworks closest to the concept of nano, simply meant as a scale dimension and not as a field of scientific research.

Another fundamental aspect of nanoscience must be mentioned. The Bottom-up approach consists of manipulating individual and/or group of atoms, molecules and nanoscale objects to assemble them into valuable materials with specific functions (e.g., enhanced strength, biocompatibility, self-healing, low toxicity…). This is the field of chemistry and (nano)material science, which recently melt with biology to make new field like nanobiotechnology (Figure 1). Hybridization has then became a more and more common word in science, just like in XXI century formal research in art, as evidenced by artists Orlan or Stelarc, who shifted the context of research from an external material to the human body and pushed it to the point of paroxysm. The body became the artist’s terrain for experimentation. In Stelarc’s case, with the integration of machinery; in Orlan’s case, the body becomes an anthology of a revolt, an opposition to stereotypes of female representations imposed by society and the media.

DNA-modified gold nanoparticles are a new example of the developing nanobiotechnology field of research. Coupling DNA to gold allows to prepare highly performing, very precise, DNA analytical tools. © S.-J. Park, University of Pennsylvania.
The world breaking Nature cover announcing the possibility to assemble and disassemble DNA at will using DNA’s intriguing Bottom-up self-organization properties. A key goal for this approach is to create nanostructures of high complexity, matching that routinely achieved by ‘top-down’ methods, Paul W. K. Rothemund in Folding DNA to create nanoscale shapes and patterns, Nature, 2006, 440, 297-302

Some questions then arise: in the actual context of research in nanoscience, where multidisciplinarity is an evidence, how can artists be involved? Is this field of any interest, or help, to the actual research in arts? The OpenLab Project and the joint exhibition Invisible and Intangible, when nanoscience meets art, which we coordinated between 2010 and 2011 in Paris in collaboration with CNRS, Collège de France, Université Pierre et Marie Curie and Centre des Arts at Enghien-les-Bains,{{ Invisible et Insaisissable, Centre des Arta, Enghien-les-Bains, 2011. The exhibition catalogue is available. ISBN: 978-2-916639-19-2}} has tried to provide possible answers. Earlier artistic experiences related to nanoscience focused more specifically on the representation and visualisation of the nanoscopic scale. Invisible and Intangible posits that the invisible, by nature imperceptible to our vision, can be captured and revealed through its poetic force and intangible nature. What does intangible mean in science at a time in history when we are capable of manipulating individual atoms{{IBM nanotechnology department was the first one in 1981 to introduce the manipulation of individual atoms via STM.}} or confine antimatter (antihydrogen atoms) for 1,000 seconds in the CERN’s very latest particle accelerator (LHC, Large Hadron Collider) ?{{}} To answer these questions we developed a borderline, multidisciplinary, experimental project in which the original idea wasn’t really about creating works of art but more about crossing the scientific process with the artist’s creative process, where intellectual challenge meets empiricism and where new, inaccessible, nanomaterials become a catalyst for creativity.

During almost one year, 8 worldwide known artists (E. Kac, G. Steiner, J. Lenzlinger, R. Siboni, F. Giraud among others) have met, collaborated and worked with not less than 20 researchers in chemistry, surface science, material science, nanoscience, physics. Artists were given access to 5 chemistry and material science laboratories in France, where in-lab experimental work on nanoscience was carried on by the artist/scientist duo. The experiences/artworks were eventually exposed during the Invisible and Intangible exhibition. In this project, nanoscience meant to be a possibility for the artist to access the current cut-edge research in nanomaterials, a field that studies materials with new and enhanced properties.

One of the most challenging projects, Aromapoetry (Figure 3), by E. Kac, is a creation where chemical and material science research meet new forms of poetry. On the one hand, Eduardo, who is not interested in the passive representation of an object or a phenomenon but rather by the functionality of the object itself or by the effects that a phenomenon exerts, commissioned the synthesis and mixture of odiferous molecules. The perfumed mixture is the poem. On the other hand, one of the partner laboratories developed a special, invisible, nanosponge, made from nanostructured porous amorphous silica glass.

Close detail of Aromapoetry, the experimental poetry artwork by E. Kac, where a nanoscale sponge retains the specially conceived olfactory molecular poems. Picture taken at Invisible and Intangible exhibition, Centre des Arts, Enghien-les-Bains, France. © Courtesy of F. Leger for OpenLab Project.

In La règle de trois + 1 (The rule of three + 1) (Figures 4, 5, 6), S. Perraud presents an installation in which art, science and religious iconography coexist. The artist thus appears like a “demiurge of material alchemy”, one who in the Middle Ages was traditionally able to transform metal into gold. This project explores different formal and aesthetic subjects: the contemporary retranscription of Christ iconography; a contemporary process of restoring a work of art; and thanks to nanoscience, the creation of a sort of ‘technological miracle’. In The rule of three + 1, the first of the four sculptures, an image of Christ is made up of three parts sculpted out of bone: the two arms and the body. The technology of mineralized collagen makes possible something that in principle shouldn’t be. From the impossible act of sculpting Christ out of a single block, S. Perraud then decided to restore it using a contemporary technique. Gold, another material used by S. Perraud and a symbol of inalterability, is also used as a subject of his restoration process, where the artist chooses to color the arms with three states of gold: rose gold nanoparticles, blue gold nanoparticles, and gold leaf, three colours used by Y. Klein in his ex-voto dedicated to Saint Rita of Cascia in 1961: blue, pink and gold. Here again, nanotechnology enables the impossible by unifying these three colours, which have the same chemical makeup, i.e. the Au chemical element. The work is also endowed with symbolism connected to the number three: 3 Christs, 3 pairs of arms, 3 recumbent statues, 3 materials.

Close detail of Aromapoetry, the experimental poetry artwork by E. Kac, where a nanoscale sponge retains the specially conceived olfactory molecular poems. Picture taken at Invisible and Intangible exhibition, Centre des Arts, Enghien-les-Bains, France. © Courtesy of F. Leger for OpenLab Project.
The Rule of three + 1, by S. Perraud. Detail of the Invisible and Intangible exhibition, Centre des Arts, Enghien-les-Bains, France. © Courtesy of F. Leger for OpenLab Project.

La Mesure AGLAÉ (or The AGLAÉ Measurement), by R. Siboni and F. Giraud, is a video-project (Figure 6) on the AGLAÉ particle accelerator (the Grand Louvre Accelerator for Element Analysis), a device that analyses the chemical composition of works of art to prepare them for restoration and situated in the Research and Restoration Centre of the Museums of France, host in the basement of the Louvre. The video comprises four sequences. The first is a static shot of the rear part of AGLAÉ. The second sequence is a side travelling along the metal canal, inside of which the particle laser moves, from its source to the canon. The third sequence is a circular travelling shot around the canon. The fourth and final shot shows a travelling shot towards the canon, continuing until the camera lens is dissected by the laser and its sensor is affected. Exposed to the laser beams, the camera sensor is gradually damaged until it is completely destroyed. The aim is to create a visual piece of art – in this case, a video – that brings two viewing devices ‘face to face’: on the one hand, the particle accelerator that is being filmed and, on the other hand, the camera used to film. The two viewing devices stand opposite each other in a laboratory buried beneath the Louvre Museum.

The Rule of three + 1, by S. Perraud. Conception of the artwork at the Laboratoire de Chimie de la Matière Condensée de Paris, France. © Courtesy of F. Leger for OpenLab Project.

After Invisible and Intangible we must continue to dream… As physicist J. P. Merlo once said The observations of astrophysicists reveal that all the visible matter we know represents only 4% of what the universe contains. That 96% of hidden matter in the Universe is made up of black matter, black energy… Or perhaps of the imperfection of Newton’s law… It’s an open field. Art never ceases to amaze. It reminds us to always keep our minds open.

Résumé (français)

Invisible et Insaisissable, quand l’art rencontre les nanosciences

Invisible et Insaisissable, quand l’art rencontrent les nanosciences (Invisible and Intangible, when art meets nanoscience) was an exhibition coordinated by N. Baccile, researcher in material science at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and M. Balzerani, art critic and curator, that took place from September to December 2011 at the Centre des Arts in Enghien-les-Bains, France. The exhibition presented original experiences/artworks that were conceived during the OpenLab Project ( For the first time, 8 artists from Europe and USA collaborated and closely worked over one year with not less than 20 scientists in 5 different research French laboratories specialized in research on nanomaterials science. Differently from past related nanoscience/art experiences mainly based on observation of the invisible through powerful electron microscopes, artists were faced to the field of chemistry and took part to the conception and making of new nanomaterials (synthetic bone from collagen and hydroxyapatite manipulation, size-dependent multichromatic gold nanoparticles, highly adsorbent invisible nanoporous glass layers…), which constitute part or the whole of their artworks.