Nanoart: The Immateriality of Art

Nanoart: The Immateriality of Art

by Paul Thomas

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Nano is Greek for dwarf and the word nanotechnology ‘was first proposed in the early seventies by a Japanese engineer, Norio Taniguchi, implying a new technology that went beyond controlling materials and engineering on the micrometer scale that dominated the 20th Century’. The content for this book has been based on a self-emergent process. It explores an art historical understanding of matter and uses various hypotheses to elucidate the effects on materiality and agency as a result of the emergence of nanotechnology. The blurring of material boundaries are reflected in the establishment of a fluid organic spatial narrative in which to place ideas, propositions and concerns. A cornerstone of the book is the concept posed in the philosophical writings of Lucretius of the unpredictability of the atoms’ swerve and its formative role in the beginning of all matter, form, life and individuality. It focusses on the concepts of vibration, vitalism, life and materiality and extends the artist’s concepts of agency in relation to matter.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783200498
Publisher: Intellect Books Ltd
Publication date: 02/23/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 146
Sales rank: 982,475
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Paul Thomas is a Professor of Fine Art at UNSW Art and Design. He is the Director of the Studio for Transdisciplinary Art Research (STAR) and is the instigator of the Transdisciplinary Imaging Conference series 2010–2018. In 2000, he instigated and was the founding Director of the Biennale of Electronic Arts Perth 2002, 2004 and 2007. Thomas is a pioneer of transdisciplinary art practice. His current practice led research takes not only inspiration from nanoscience and quantum theory, but actually operates there. Thomas’s current research ‘Quantum Consciousness’ is based on the experiments being conducted by Professor Andrea Morello, Quantum Nanosystems, UNSW, looking at immersing the viewer in a visualization and sonification of quantum phenomena in the development of quantum computing. He has exhibited nationally and internationally with his previous nano artworks Mulitverse based on Richard Feynman’s diagrams of photons reflecting from a mirror, Nanoessence which explored the space between life and death at a nano level and Midas which researched what is transferred when skin touches gold at a nano level. His current publications are, Nanoart: The Immateriality of Art, Reconfiguring Space, Relive Media art Histories, co-edited with Sean Cubitt, Interference Strategies and Cloud and Molecular Aesthetics co-edited with Lanfranco Aceti and Edward Colless.

Paul Thomas earned his master’s degree at the University of Chicago in social science, with his work emphasizing ethnography and fandom studies. He currently works at the University of Kansas as a library specialist and is enrolled in the Library and Information Management Ph.D. programme at Emporia State University.

Read an Excerpt


The Immateriality of Art

By Paul Thomas

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-708-8


Materiality and Immateriality of Art in the Age of Nanotechnology

All pictorial form begins with the point that sets itself in motion ... The point moves ... and the line comes into being – the first dimension. If the line shifts to form a plane, we obtain a two-dimensional element. In the movement from plane to spaces, the clash of planes gives rise to body (three-dimensional) ... A summary of the kinetic energies which move the point into a line, the line into a plane, and the plane into a spatial dimension.

(Klee 1961)

The book consists of a series of reflections that draws on metaphor, abstract analogy, personal associations, connections and critical reflections that are more poetic than based on concepts of fact. I will begin this journey by exploring a seminal tool in art by looking at the humble pencil via its materiality and history and by drawing on analogous relationships to atomism and nanotechnology. The pencil is a medium that as an artist I have used for most of my working life. As a tool it has been instrumental in my continual reassessment of the world around me. The pencil enables me to draw out meaning through the very act of mark making, and by extension, through the analysis of drawings and the dissemination of the act of drawing through teaching. My aim is to reassess the role an artist has with the pencil, and the agency and meaning inherent within the marks made in the wake of emerging technologies and scientific discoveries in the area of Nanoart. I will be focussing on the analogous relationship between the drawing pencil, carbon and current thinking in the area of quantum computing.

Terms such as 'nano' are now embedded within our understanding of the world, creating a homogenization between science and culture. The evolving research of nano materials, concepts and processes challenge our understandings of boundaries, the body and the material object world. Nanotechnology has created new understandings of materials and processes and is subsequently shifting the social understanding of our own humanity. Developments in nanotechnologies seriously impact on our understanding of materiality.

Two terms often used interdependently are nanoscience and nanotechnology. Surprisingly, the term nanotechnology predates nanoscience. This is because the dreams of a new technology were proposed before the actual scientific research specifically aimed at producing the technology existed. The term nanotechnology, in its short lifetime, has attracted a variety of interpretation, and there is little agreement, even among those who are engaged in it, as to what it actually is.

(Gimzewski and Vesna 2003: 2)

New materialities created as a result of scientific discoveries have been historically and culturally slowly assimilated into traditional visual art rhetoric and practices. These artistic practices have been historically grounded in traditional materials and techné. However, the inclusion of nanotechnology into this arena has raised questions about the intrinsic nature of matter as an immaterial substrate of art. This chapter begins to explore some of these questions by focusing on the materiality of drawing and its link with the immateriality of the element carbon.

The contextual relationship between theory and practice in Nanoart will be explored by examining its expanding syncretic social relationship to immateriality and materiality. This chapter draws on the Nanoart work of Victoria Vesna and James Gimzewski and their project Zero@wavefunction as a seminal work. Zero@wavefunction acts as a demonstration of a change in the perpetual and physical experience and expands our understanding and critical analysis of art and nanotechnology.

The links being drawn together throughout this chapter will show how the artist's experimentation via serendipitous relationships is shifting understanding of materiality, agency, space, scale and autonomy.

Individual atom

A starting point with which to explore our shifting understanding of materiality is by defining the differences between what is considered quantifiable and qualitative in comprehending matter. For example, Titus Lucretius Carus (Lucretius), a Roman philosopher whose philosophical poem De rerum natura (On the nature of things), proposed the clinamen as a name for the unpredictable nature of how atoms relate and connect with other atoms. The clinamen describes how atoms falling in a void swerve and make connections. In so doing the atoms create matter and form. He proposes:

The atoms, as their own weight bears them down
Plumb through the void, at scarce determined times,
In scarce determined places, from their course
Decline a little – call it, so to speak,
Mere changed trend. For were it not their wont
Thuswise to swerve, down would they fall, each one,
Like drops of rain, through the unbottomed void;
And then collisions ne'er could be nor blows
Among the primal elements; and thus
Nature would never have created aught

(Lucretius Carus [c. 50 BCE]: 1950)

In this extract, Lucretius defines the poetic entanglement of matter and how it is inscribed with characteristics based on the random nature and unpredictability of the swerve. These primordial connections, according to Lucretius, are the basis for the production of nature. The free-falling atoms in the void are not prone only to the laws of the fall that occurs endlessly in space. If it were not for the smallest unpredictable turbulence causing the atom to swerve and produce the first atomic forms, then there would be nothing. The swerve is the first evolutionary step towards something other than what was; it is the beginning of nature. This concept of chance association as a form of nature arises when we consider forms in which each atom, being a unique link within the structure, creates alliances based on the randomness of the swerve. This concept of chance association in nature presents as uniqueness.

Gilbert Simondon builds on the concept of nature's uniqueness, exploring it in relation to individuality. He proposes that the term 'individual', pre-dates the individual and argues that for a thing to be individualized it needs to be based on a specific existence. He states:

The atom interacts with other atoms through the clinamen, and in this way it can constitute an individual (though not always a viable one) across the entire expanse of the void and the whole of endless becoming. Matter can be impressed with a form, and the source of ontogenesis can be derived from this matter-form relation. Indeed, if haecceities were not somehow inherent within the atom, or matter, or indeed form, it would be impossible to find a principle of individuation in any of the above-mentioned realities.

(Simondon 1992: 298)

Those cohesive forces themselves, which may be taken as the principle of individuation of the complex individual, are in fact negated by the finer structure of the eternal elementary particles, which are the real individuals here. For atomism, the principle of individuation is rooted in the very existence of an infinity of atoms; it is always already there as soon as thought seeks to grasp their essential nature. Individuation is a fact: for each atom it is its already given nature, and for the complex unit it is the fact that it is what it is by virtue of a chance association.

(Simondon 1992: 299)

Thus, while randomness creates form, which in itself is individualistic, it also becomes a seminal concept of individuality. The individuality of the body then exists embedded within the atomic structure of the body. The atoms that are inscribed with a 'given nature' are in turn making connections with other atoms, matter and form.

The start of our individuation runs parallel to all of nature where unpredictability is bestowed on all matter. Therefore it makes a case for its own moments of evolution. Michel Serres, when talking about the clinamen, refers to the ongoing metaphorical struggle between Mars and Venus. He expands upon Lucretius' On the nature of things and suggests:

[T]he law is the plague; the reason is the fall; the repeated cause is death; the repetitive is redundance. Everything falls to zero ... The angle of inclination cures the plague, breaks the chain of violence, interrupts the reign of the same, invents the new reason and the new law ... gives birth to nature as it really is. The minimal angle of turbulence produces the first spirals here and there ... Turbulence perturbs the chain, troubling the flow of the identical as Venus had troubled Mars.

(Serres 1982: 102)

The repetition inherent in the act of falling is exemplified in the digital rain during the opening credits of the motion picture The Matrix It may be seen as a visualization of Serres' statement that 'repetitive is redundance'. The world of the fall is the problem to which the clinamen brings the swerve. The swerve offers up an understanding of the world of 'nature as it really is', of its uniqueness and individuality. Serres states: 'Atoms are not souls; the soul itself is atomic' (Serres 1982: 103).

The unpredictability of the swerve as offered by Lucretius, the individuation through atomism presented by Simondon and the atomic soul of Serres are keys to the conceptual construction of the experimental relationship between carbon, the artist's pencil and thought.

Drawing the future

The drawing pencil as a tool for the visualization, ideation, and for creating plans, diagrams, doodles and representation of the world is well documented. The process of drawing is creatively thinking on paper. It is not merely to draw out ideas or to represent things, but it helps us to see, comprehend and to sense more holistically. The art of drawing is a discursive act in which the pencil as a tool is mediating between the seer and the seen. The practice of drawing enables the artist to rethink the marks being applied to the surface in terms of ideas to be reflected upon and presented back into the world.

The traditional drawing pencil invented in 1564, was developed after a large deposit of graphite was found in the United Kingdom. Graphite is derived from the Greek word graphein, meaning to draw or write. The graphite needed to be encapsulated in a wooden tube, because its structure was more brittle in nature than its lead predecessor. If we examine the graphite material inside a pencil at an atomic level, it appears as a series of carbon atom sheets, each one-atom thick (Figure 1). The sheets of atoms called graphene which make up graphite, are weakly bonded on top of one another by the van der Waals force. This weak bond causes each sheet of graphene to be unstable and allows them to be easily transferable to surfaces such as paper. The artist uses touch to apply varying deposits of carbon to the paper. The process of drawing means that marks made by the artist are indicative and intentional. Thus the artist is not only applying graphene sheets to a surface, but also thinking through the pencil and potentially imbuing the sheets with thoughts.

While we are familiar with the use, agency and aesthetics of graphite in drawing, the understanding of the materiality of graphite is changing and therefore new agencies and aesthetics of graphite are becoming part of our conscious understanding of the world. The next section will examine the current uses of graphite, in particular in the construction of the quantum computer. I will examine how making comparisons between the use of graphite as a pencil and the extended use of the material, for example, in quantum computing, potentially shifts the perceptual context of the material substance. This presents opportunities to rethink and recontextualize organic and inorganic matter, and this material form's intrinsic relationship to life.

Buckyballs and nanotubes

The known family of carbon elements grew in 1985 when Sir Harry Kroto, Richard Smalley and Robert Curl discovered the Buckminsterfullerene carbon molecule C60. The 'buckyball' as it came to be known, was named after Richard Buckminster Fuller who developed architectural geodesic domes that resembled the carbon molecule C60. The buckyball is constructed from the same atomic structure as the sheets of carbon atoms that make up graphite, but the atoms form a ball shape similar to the pattern of a modern soccer ball. As will be discussed shortly, the hollow carbon buckyball has played an important role in the development of the quantum computer.

In addition to the sheets of carbon atoms (Figure 1) and the buckyball, nanotechnology research has more recently discovered graphite, as found in the pencil, which can be split down to single sheets of carbon atoms (graphene). The one-atom thick graphene sheets can be rolled up and used to create single-walled nanotubes (SWNT). Each SWNT is a seamless cylinder with a diameter of approximately 1 nanometre (approximately 10 atoms) and a longer tube length. Nanotubes exhibit extraordinary strength and so are currently being tested, amongst other possibilities, in the construction of quantum computers.

The quantum computer

Quantum computing is based on properties of quantum mechanical phenomena such as superposition. Simon Benjamin points out that 'individual atoms can support quantum superpositions for long periods, and such atoms can in principle be embedded in a permanent molecular scaffolding to form an array' (Benjamin et al. 2006). Thus, one possible building block of the quantum computer is the buckyball C60. The C60 molecules have individual nitrogen atoms fired at them that become trapped inside the buckyball, creating the nC60 molecule, which is at the very core of a microprocessor's array. The caged nitrogen atom within the buckyball is incarcerated and isolated but still has the ability to spin and can be controlled by microwaves to emulate the zeros (by spinning up) and ones (by spinning down) of the digital computer's binary code. However, quantum computing explores the potential of the nitrogen atom's superposition inside the buckyball to be in more than one state (not zero or one) at the same time.

This theory of being simultaneously in more than one state in relation to quantum mechanics can be explained using the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. In his original thought experiment of 1935, Erwin Schrödinger imagined that a cat is locked in a box along with a Geiger counter and a radioactive source connected to a vial containing a deadly poison. If the atom decays and the radioactivity is detected by the Gieger counter, it causes the vial to smash and the cat to be killed. However, when the box is closed, we do not know if the vial has smashed or not. The cat can either be in an alive state or in a dead state. We might understand the cat to be alive and dead at the same time, a state explored in explaining quantum physics.

A framework for the construction of the quantum computer, using buckyballs, requires the nC60 molecules to be positioned in an array that can receive and transmit information. So the buckyballs, due to the natural attractions of the van der Waals force (as discussed previously), can be drawn into the SWNT. Here the buckyballs' nitrogen atoms' isolated atomic properties, incarcerated in the buckyball and trapped in the Nanotubes carbon tube, can be placed in an array over a series of connectors on a substrate, to form the basis of the data processor in quantum computing. These arrays become the platform on which information can be processed and ideas can become synthesized. In effect, atoms become the tools to enable information to be processed.

The buckyball with the nitrogen atom inside, nC60, is analogous to the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. The nC60 entrapped within the nanotube is given sufficient impulse from a microwave; it can make the nitrogen atom spin to face up, north, alive, or face down, south, dead. When a shorter microwave pulse (10 nanoseconds) is applied, it spins the nitrogen atom to a superposition somewhere between up and down, north and south, alive and dead. When the same microwave pulse is applied to the nitrogen atom, the atom will return from a superposition somewhere unknown back to its starting point. Using this superposition potentially allows more data to be attached to the spin of the atom than a conventional computer and thus the nC60 can be used to create two superpositions that allow the processing of more data than a conventional computer (Benjamin et al. 2006).

Nanotechnology and quantum computing are exploring shifts that challenge our notion of the machine. The 'clinamen' concept, if applied to each atom, is analogous to the emergence of the quantum computer. The swerve or spin is creating more than just information, it is the probability of these data existing in a parallel state.

The Atomic Force Microscope

A fundamental change in our conscious understanding of materiality has evolved through the adoption of a quantifiable 'machinic' understanding of the world. Furthermore, through the instruments of nanotechnology, a change has occurred in our conscious understanding of materiality. We now see evidence made visible in the imagery produced by instrumental tools of nanotechnology such as the Scanning Tunnelling Microscope (STM), 1981, and later the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM), 1986. The AFM is one of the foremost tools for imaging, measuring and manipulating matter.


Excerpted from Nanoart by Paul Thomas. Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Edward Colless 


Chapter 1: Materiality and Immateriality of Art in the Age of Nanotechnology

Chapter 2: From Seeing to Touching: From the Invisible to the Visible

Chapter 3: Nanotechnology, Vibration and Vitalism

Chapter 4: Matter, Measurement and Light 

Chapter 5: Transvitalism and Nature

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