Seeing Nano: Vision, Optics, and the Sight of Impossible Things

Aleksandra Kaminska

Simon Fraser University

In the recent installation A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir (2014), the artist Kimsooja worked with scientists at Cornell University to develop a sculpture inspired by the optical properties of the morpho butterfly, whose wings have no pigmented color but appear blue to our eyes. Presented as part of the exhibition Intimate Cosmologies: The Aesthetics of Scale in an Age of Nanotechnology, the sculpture uses a polymer film that emulates the morpho’s wings in what the artist describes as a “shape and perspective that reveals the invisible as visible, physical as immaterial, and vice versa.” The sculpture appears transparent unless the light is refracting and producing a variety of colors that “appear as a radiant glitch in the fabric of reality.” [1]

A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir, 2014, Kimsooja, steel, custom acrylic panel, laminated polymer film, circular mirror, 46' x 4.5' (diameter) with collaboration from Jaeho Chong (architect), Professor Ulrich Wiesner (materials science and engineering), photo by Jaeho Chong, Commissioned by Cornell Council for the Arts, Ithaca, New York, Courtesy of Cornell Council for the Arts, Ithaca, New York, and Kimsooja Studio. (Used with permission.)

A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir, 2014, Kimsooja, steel, custom acrylic panel, laminated polymer film, circular mirror, 46′ x 4.5′ (diameter) with collaboration from Jaeho Chong (architect), Professor Ulrich Wiesner (materials science and engineering), photo by Jaeho Chong, Commissioned by Cornell Council for the Arts, Ithaca, New York, Courtesy of Cornell Council for the Arts, Ithaca, New York, and Kimsooja Studio. (Used with permission.)

A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir, 2014, Kimsooja, steel, custom acrylic panel, laminated polymer film, circular mirror, 46' x 4.5' (diameter) with collaboration from Jaeho Chong (architect), Professor Ulrich Wiesner (materials science and engineering), photo by Jaeho Chong, Commissioned by Cornell Council for the Arts, Ithaca, New York, Courtesy of Cornell Council for the Arts, Ithaca, New York, and Kimsooja Studio. (Used with permission.)

A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir, 2014, Kimsooja, steel, custom acrylic panel, laminated polymer film, circular mirror, 46′ x 4.5′ (diameter) with collaboration from Jaeho Chong (architect), Professor Ulrich Wiesner (materials science and engineering), photo by Jaeho Chong, Commissioned by Cornell Council for the Arts, Ithaca, New York, Courtesy of Cornell Council for the Arts, Ithaca, New York, and Kimsooja Studio. (Used with permission.)

The shape of the needle is a connection between dimensions, an ode to light and an exploration of scale and the space between matters, body, and universe. In the daytime it is illuminated by the sun, its iridescent surface connecting the celestial and terrestrial via the artist’s biomimicry of the invisible structures of nature. Kimsooja notes about this project that the visual perspectives employed by nanoscience offer “an inward directionality” and that “nano-techniques are an inverse expression of our perspective of the universe.” [2] This ‘intimate cosmology’ speaks to the dual mode of discovering the world, the far and the near, both opening up spaces previously unknown. The experience of light here is able to produce a contemplative fusion between the expansiveness or vastness of space and the invisible world of the nano, on both ends, big and small, the possibility of the infinite being “continually expanded” by the instruments that extend our vision. [3] The perception of light’s colors, serving as an interface between matters and light, renders the sight of the iridescent a ‘revelation’ of the designs and controllability of matters and nature.

A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir, 2014, Kimsooja, steel, custom acrylic panel, laminated polymer film, circular mirror, 46' x 4.5' (diameter) with collaboration from Jaeho Chong (architect), Professor Ulrich Wiesner (materials science and engineering), photo by Aaron Wax, Commissioned by Cornell Council for the Arts, Ithaca, New York, Courtesy of Cornell Council for the Arts, Ithaca, New York, and Kimsooja Studio. (Used with permission.)

A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir, 2014, Kimsooja, steel, custom acrylic panel, laminated polymer film, circular mirror, 46′ x 4.5′ (diameter) with collaboration from Jaeho Chong (architect), Professor Ulrich Wiesner (materials science and engineering), photo by Aaron Wax, Commissioned by Cornell Council for the Arts, Ithaca, New York, Courtesy of Cornell Council for the Arts, Ithaca, New York, and Kimsooja Studio. (Used with permission.)

Nanotech has an ambiguous presence in the popular imagination, a mixture of ignorance and ambivalence, fear and fantasy. With minimal fuss and public or media attention, nanotech has not only arrived but weaved itself into our reality, simply another example of our never-ceasing desire for mastery of nature, technology, and science. The concern, as Paul Thomas notes, is that “the power to reflect, deduce and develop a critical stance towards a nanotechnological future is fading fast as we become a reflection of nanotechnology’s constructed fiction.” [4] Amidst this invisibility and blindness, nanotech has to somehow make itself visible, an experience, something ‘extra-ordinary.’ One way to achieve this is through an aesthetics of wonder that may not only help us see our nanotechnologies, but also spur an affective response towards our technological creations that ultimately, as Jane Bennett argues, allows for a renewal of our attachments to life and world. [5]

The Incomprehensibility of the Nano

One of the barriers to the nano-universe is that for the majority of the population it is “incomprehensible.” [6] This limitation of reason can be attributed to a number of factors – from the complexity of the technology to limited access to those not in the sciences, to, as Colin Milburn notes, nanotech being a technological transformation we cannot see beyond or past, we cannot imagine or envision, because “it would involve an entirely new way of seeing, a new epistemological orientation toward the world, a new thinking of being that is no longer the perspective of the human.” [7] At the crux of this incomprehensibility is the scale of the nano itself as it reaches into an infinitely small and invisible domain.

The “radical innovation” of nanotechnology (and nanoscience) is the ability to examine matter at the nanoscale – the billionth of a meter – where surface materials have different properties – chemical, electric, magnetic, mechanical, and optical – than those of bulk materials, essentially leading to a rediscovery of the physical laws of nature. [8] Nanotechnology is generally understood to take place at scales of less than 100 nanometers, which is below the 400-nanometer threshold of visible light, or what the unassisted human eye can see, making it, in effect, invisible. [9] The encounter with nano dimensions is the discovery of a new topography, a new landscape, one in which we lose our coordinates in and of the world and where there is a loss of orientation, and therefore a loss of knowledge, about where, but also what, the self is. [10] On the matter of the small scale, an exhibition called Small Infinite in 2014 was described as “return[ing] us to a sense of humanity through discrete perceptual experiences that reject the spectacular, revealing profundity within the unseen, the intimate and the fragile….remind[ing] us that, under the hammer-blows of life and time, what endures is the small.” The exhibition’s curator, Lanfranco Aceti, placed the miniature within a dialogue between smallness and infinity, smallness and humanity, and the possibilities of smallness in a world of grand gestures, expansions, spectacle, and the larger-than-life. [11] Access to the nanoscale extends human vision, as does any microscope or telescope. It is a disclosure and exposition of what was previously the invisible framework, the secret counterpart of the visible that enables the move from the unknown to wonder and inquiry. For non-scientists, one way this is made possible is through the aesthetics of nanovision and exotic optics, two different ways of seeing the wondrous nano-surface of things.

Topographies of Nanovision

Colin Milburn has described nanovision as a visualization of the molecular landscape, a journey into the unknown to map out nature’s depths and surfaces. Nanovision is made possible through powerful scanning probe microscopes that sense, feel, and map the atomic realm to create topographical images based on the data gathered through the “haptic encounter” of the scanning process. [12] These topographical mappings function as discoveries of another world, like the explorations of travelling wonderers plotting and conquering the landscapes of nature, something Martin Kemp also notes when describing the images as “landscapes” that “often resonate visually, on their tiny scales, with the largest features of our terrestrial landscapes, and evoke similar sensations of beauty.” [13]

Nanosea,  2015, (colors added by image processing): multi-wall carbon nanotubes decorated with platinum nanoparticles. Image courtesy of Jonathan Quinson, Nanomaterials by Design Group, Department of Materials, University of Oxford, UK. (Used with permission.)

Nanosea, 2015, (colors added by image processing): multi-wall carbon nanotubes decorated with platinum nanoparticles. Image courtesy of Jonathan Quinson, Nanomaterials by Design Group, Department of Materials, University of Oxford, UK. (Used with permission.)

Nanovision, then, is not unlike the astronomer’s mapping of the cosmic sky, or the botanist’s mapping of the mechanisms of plant life, and indeed the mapping of the small is often described through the metaphors of more expansive scales. Microscopic discoveries, for example, can be described as “planetary and vast,” [14] and this sense of spatial conquest continues in the voyage into the ever-smaller universe. When the images are colored and imposed with familiar landscapes – images of seas, mountains, ancient cities, and the like – the worlds are created for us by the scientists and manipulators of the original black-and-white haptic renderings, already an example of claiming the territory, so to speak, in what Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison might call a contamination through interpretation. [15] In the mapping and imaging of nature with the scanning probes microscopes, the invisible first becomes seen and graspable, then familiar, and eventually controllable. [16]

Nanovision, the (re)presentation of the nanoscale through specialized microscopes, can be experienced with senses other than sight. Daniel Black notes that nanotechnology research is “fundamentally an aesthetic endeavor in that it depends upon the production of new sensory experiences” [17] in which we must find ways to create affective responses to dimensions our senses cannot reach by using the knowledge of the topographies of nanovision but converting them to other sensations. Classic examples of these kinds of works include Blue Morph (2007 – ) by Victoria Vesna and James Gimzewski, which transforms the topographical data into sound, or Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau’s NanoScape (2002), in which users wear a magnetic ring to interact with the surface of atoms.

This tactility of nanovision has become so prevalent in the arts that in many ways it has become dominant: “rather than being ‘vision machines,’ nanotechnologies seem to be created by another kind of experience, one of ‘the spaces between touching, touch and the touched.’” [18] But nanotechnologies can be vision machines, too, once we enter the realm of nano-optics. This is a different kind of vision, one that emerges from the optical properties of and encounters with the nanoscale. Optics, as John Durham Peters has stated, is “human perception as an interface to physical realities,” [19] and the perception of nano-optical effects – exotic optics – are thus wondrous interfaces with and visions of the nano universe.

Exotic Nano-Optics

The realm of nano-optics in part deals with the production of surfaces using nano-manipulation to create particular optical effects. It is a branch of nanotech that deals with the properties of light, using it, among other things, to create images. Thomas notes that “a fuller understanding of matter in relation to the questions raised by nanotechnologies requires a social adjustment or trigger to create a rupture in the fabric of human perception of light, time and space.” [20] It is through this perception of light that the optical becomes a means to create the phenomena of visual apparitions, shifting the focus from the mappings of nanovision, to the imagination of the ‘exotic,’ creating, as in Kimsooja’s sculpture, a visible link through the iridescent interface, between the nanoscale and the celestial.

The iridescence of Needle Woman, as of the morpho butterly, is typical of nano-optics, where matter is manipulated to create ever more precise and defined refractions and diffractions of light, and consequently ever more tunable and bright colors. For scientists, these optical effects are sometimes described as ‘extraordinary optical transmissions’ or an ‘exotic optics,’ a burst of “phantasmic” color that, like other wonders, produce what Daston and Katherine Park describe as an “extraordinary experience to surprise our souls.” [21] Put differently, iridescence can be described as “a scintillation between the virtual and the real” where the surface becomes the site of a “dazzling encounter.” [22] The mythology of iridescence in the form of the rainbow has always been “understood to be the one part of heaven that occurred here on earth,” [23] with Iris being the Greek goddess of iridescence and the rainbow, and her father Thaumas being the god of wonder. Iris is a messenger of the gods – pure light, relay, and information – who provides insight through the excess of illumination. [24] Like the sight of a rainbow, the exotic optics of nano-surfaces could be considered events of perception, [25] moments when we see light in a way that reminds us that it is always mediating all of our vision. And, as iridescence is the result of “viewing geometry,” [26] it is intimately and inextricably tied to human perspective: the iridescence of nano-optics, like that of the rainbow, exists only insofar as our ability to see it. [27]

It is perhaps no surprise then that nano-optics has so far largely been the domain of the security and authentication industry – passports, currency, etc. – a field preoccupied with irreproducibility and the keeping of its own industry secrets. There, nano-scientists are already able to harness their manipulation of light to create very defined images, structural nano-pixels that shift the experience of a fluid iridescence to something increasingly tunable and programmable. [28] Interestingly, in this field, these small iridescent images are called optical variable ‘devices,’ whereby the image itself is a device, clearly signaling the merging of the instruments and matters of vision.

Artists also are working to increase the precision and control of the relationship between light, surface, matter, and perception. Julian Melchiorri’s Cocoon (2014), for example, uses the nano-optics of silk protein encased in a 3D-printed fractal form to produce precise color waves through a measured dispersal of light. On this synthesized silk protein surface, electron beam technology was used to craft 2,700 nano-prisms per millimeters. [29] The final sculpture explores the geometries of nature and color, a kind of controllable human-made prism that draws on the nano-optics of a biological organism to create a diffracted-light sculpture, as if revealing the inner mechanisms of a magic crystal. Like Needle Woman, the work is contained¬¬ – there a needle, here a cocoon – in a way encasing the rainbow of light. This work is not experienced as a fleeting apparition but rather, since a light bulb provides consistent illumination from the center, it is a display of control, a self-contained optical staging that is not dependent on sun or angles of sight.

Cocoon, 2014, Julian Melchiorri, images © 2015 Julian Melchiorri. (Used with permission.)

Cocoon, 2014, Julian Melchiorri, images © 2015 Julian Melchiorri. (Used with permission.)

Cocoon, 2014, Julian Melchiorri, images © 2015 Julian Melchiorri. (Used with permission.)

Cocoon, 2014, Julian Melchiorri, images © 2015 Julian Melchiorri. (Used with permission.)

Cocoon, 2014, Julian Melchiorri, images © 2015 Julian Melchiorri. (Used with permission.)

Cocoon, 2014, Julian Melchiorri, images © 2015 Julian Melchiorri. (Used with permission.)

The brightness and definition of the colors indicates a precise correlation of wavelengths with nanostructures. The more the rainbow of colors is controlled – defined and distinct – the more refined the manipulation of nanoscale optics appears. There is perhaps here an element of the technological sublime, a kind of ‘nano sublime,’ a wonder which might be evoked by the contemplation and dread of technological achievements tied to the mastery, replication, and manipulation of nature at the nanoscale.

This ability to control the surfaces of light is not only about the control of color, but can also lead in another direction. Just as nanotechnology can terrorize us with science fictions of machines gone wild, in nano-optics, too, there is a kind of apocalypticism, a final darkness. In his work Hostage (2010) and in subsequent projects working with carbon nanotubes, Frederik de Wilde creates surfaces that negate and absorb all visible light, as well as some on the infrared and far-infrared spectrum, resulting in what has been called the blackest of black.

NANOblck-Sqr#1, 2014, Frederik de Wilde, CF installation view, photo by Carroll/Fletcher Gallery. (Used with permission.)

NANOblck-Sqr#1, 2014, Frederik de Wilde, CF installation view, photo by Carroll/Fletcher Gallery. (Used with permission.)

NASAblck-Crcl#1, 2013, Frederik de Wilde, Unpainted Media Art Fair, photo by Frederik De Wilde. (Used with permission.)

NASAblck-Crcl#1, 2013, Frederik de Wilde, Unpainted Media Art Fair, photo by Frederik De Wilde. (Used with permission.)

NASAblck-Crcl#1, 2013, Frederik de Wilde, Unpainted Media Art Fair, photo by Frederik De Wilde. (Used with permission.)

NASAblck-Crcl#1, 2013, Frederik de Wilde, Unpainted Media Art Fair, photo by Frederik De Wilde. (Used with permission.)

In these works there is a confrontation with the ability of nanomanipulation to produce complete sightlessness, a blindness to the world, whereby nanotech takes us hostage by taking all of light, of visibility, of knowledge even, creating a blackness that, as Eugene Thacker describes, “bathes all things in an absence, makes apparent an opacity, evaporates all the nuances of shadow and light.” [30] Through this “maelstrom of blackness,” [31] the wonder of nano-optical manipulation has led us somewhere terrifying, to a complete abyss of our own design. From Kimsooja and the cosmic connection through Melchiorri’s refined control, we have reached De Wilde’s complete negation.

Insightful Matters

Nanotechnology “arouses enthusiasm for both the wondrous complexity of molecular goings-on and for the wonderful (and potentially deadly) power of science.” [32] This is a retracing of that familiar historical trajectory of fear and euphoria coexisting alongside the imagination of future technologies. The sight of the nanoscale can be wondrous, then, in a number of ways: as an exploration and mapping of the previously unknown, as a bewilderment of scale, as experience of light and visions, or as an admission of our perplexing access and control of/over matters. The ability to access the nanoscale, like all expansions of vision, “suggest[s] the vastness of imaginative conjecture” between what we see and what we do not. [33] Whereas the images of nanovision offer maps of this newly discovered realm, in nano-optics there is a convergence of matter and optics to offer affective interfaces to an invisible world.

References

  1. A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir, press release, Cornell Council for the Arts website, accessed February 4, 2015, http://cca.cornell.edu/?p=galaxy-was-a-memory-earth-is-a-souvenir&view.
  2. Nina Azzarello,“Kimsooja Pierces Cornell University Campus with Needle-Shaped Pavilion,” Designboom website, October 25, 2014, accessed February 4, 2015, http://www.designboom.com/architecture/kimsooja-cornell-university-needle-pavilion-10-25-2014/.
  3. Kate Flint, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 33.
  4. Paul Thomas, Nanoart: The Immateriality of Art (Bristol: Intellect Press, 2013), 66.
  5. Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
  6. Chris Robinson, “The Role of Images and Art in Nanotechnology,” Leonardo vol. 45, no. 5 (2012): 455–460.
  7. Colin Milburn, Nanovision: Engineering the Future (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 5.
  8. Silvia Casini, “Sensing Nanotechnologies through the Arts: Seeing and Making on the Surface of Things,” Leonardo vol. 47, no. 1 (2014): 31–36.
  9. Daniel Black, “An Aesthetics of the Invisible: Nanotechnology and Informatic Matter,” Theory, Culture & Society vol. 31, no. 1 (2014): 99–121.
  10. On the matter of disorientation through the loss of spatial coordinates, see Esther Leslie, “Stars, Phosphor and Chemical Colours: Extraterrestriality in The Arcades,” New Formations, no. 53 (Winter 2004/05): 13–27.
  11. Lanfranco Aceti website, The Small Infinite exhibition, July 24, 2014, http://www.lanfrancoaceti.com/2014/07/the-small-infinite/” target=”_blank”>http://www.lanfrancoaceti.com/2014/07/the-small-infinite/.
  12. Milburn, Nanovision, 85; Robinson, “The Role of Images”; Thomas, Nanoart; Casini, “Sensing Nanoetchnologies.”
  13. Martin Kemp, Seen/unseen: Art, Science, and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 59.
  14. Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things: A Novel (New York: Viking Adult, 2013), 162.
  15. Lorraine J. Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2010).
  16. Daston and Galison write about how the imaging of nanotechnology is already tied to making and manipulation, where images are not representations but process, “a tool to make and change things.” In Objectivity, 383.
  17. Black, “An Aesthetics,” 105–106.
  18. Paul Thomas, quoted in Casini, “Sensing Nanotechnologies,” 41.
  19. John Durham Peters, “Introduction: Friedrich Kittler’s Light Shows,” in Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002), 3.
  20. Thomas, Nanoart, 93.
  21. Lorraine J. Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (New York: Zone Books, 2001), 368.
  22. Tavi Meraud, “Iridescence, Intimacies,” E-Flux, no. 61 (January 2015), accessed April 15, 2015, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/iridescence-intimacies/.
  23. Philip Fisher, Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 17.
  24. Alexander R. Galloway, “Love of the Middle,” in Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation, eds. Alexander R. Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 55.
  25. See also, for example, David Batchelor, The Luminous and the Grey (London: Reaktion Books, 2014).
  26. Stéphanie M. Doucet and Melissa G. Meadows, “Iridescence: A Functional Perspective,” Journal of The Royal Society Interface, vol. 6 (2009): 115–132.
  27. Fisher, Wonder, the Rainbow; Jungim Song, “The Poetics of Spotting Rainbows,” Performance Research vol. 20, no. 1 (2015): 27–35.
  28. See K. Kumar, H. Duan, R. Hegde, S. Koh, J. Wei, and J. Yang, “Printing Color at the Optical Diffraction Limit,” Nature Nanotechnology vol. 7 (2012): 557–561; C. Landrock, and B. Kaminska, “Surface Plasmon Nanoscale Optics for OVDs,” Optical Document Security, San Francisco, February 2012.
  29. Julian Melchiorri’s website, accessed January 5, 2015, http://www.julianmelchiorri.com/Cocoon.
  30. Eugene Thacker, “Black on Black,” Mute, July 17, 2013, accessed September 6, 2014, http://www.metamute.org/editorial/occultural-studies-column/black-black.
  31. Thomas, Nanoart.
  32. Bennett, The Enchantment, 88.
  33. Flint, The Victorians, 63.

Bio

Aleksandra Kaminska is a Mitacs Elevate Postdoctoral Fellow at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, and a Research Associate at Sensorium: Centre for Digital Arts and Technology Research at York University, Toronto. She develops projects on the materialities, aesthetics, ecologies, and histories of visual technologies and is currently working on nano-optics in collaboration with artists and scientists. Her first book, Polish Media Art in an Expanded Field, is forthcoming from Intellect Press.
www.aleksandrakaminska.com