The history of Nano Art begins with the invention of the electron microscope. Its powers of detailed magnification would impact not only the world of the scientific community, but eventually the world of art as well. Unlike normal microscopes, which use traditional lenses to focus photons (visible beams of light) toward and object, an electron microscope operates by speeding up electrons inside of a vacuum, and then focuses those electrons into a beam using electromagnetic lenses. This may sound more technical than incredible at first, until one realizes that the wavelength of electrons are around one hundred thousand times shorter than those of a photon. It is this very difference in wavelengths that gives the electron microscope up to approximately four thousand times better resolution than normal light microscopes, and would reveal to researchers a vast wealth of new insights. Although it would be some time before microscopy at the nanoscale would emerge from the realm of the nearly invisible to the much more spacious confines of contemporary art galleries, Nanoart has recently been gaining steam from its formidable beginnings to a truly revolutionary new art form. As we discuss Nanoart here, you will read the name Cris Orfescu many times, as he has created the primary website online for promoting Nanoart, and been a huge contributor to its success since its inception. An effort has been made here to reach beyond Orfescu’s influence, as it is quite pervasive and at times cult-like, but as with all art movements, it can take time for them to develop beyond their points of origin.
Before we delve further into how Nanoart got started, let us take a moment and discuss more about how it actually became possible. First, we will travel back around eighty decades ago to The Institute for High Voltage Technology in Berlin, Germany, circa 1931. German electrical engineer Ernst Ruska was busy constructing the world’s first electron lenses. By using a series of these lenses, Ernst, along with his Electron Research Group leader Max Knoll, succeeded in creating the world’s very first electron microscope by 1933. However, it wouldn’t be until 1986 when Ernst would finally be awarded a Nobel Prize for his incredible invention.
Shortly after Ernst and Max invented the electron microscope, a Romanian cell biologist from Moldavia by the name of George Emil Palade (1974 Nobel Prize winner) was getting down to business with the financial support of The National Cancer Institute director Herbert Gasser. Palade, who was described by the U.K.’s The Independent as “The most influential cell biologist ever,”  was also the most notable user of the electron microscope after its inception. His images and research in relation to cell fractionation, and his discovery of the ribosomes of the endoplasmic reticulum of our cells that he brought forth in 1955, were part of the reason he was able to revolutionize the molecular cell biology that we use today. Palade would later go on to receive the National Medal of Science in the field of biological sciences “For pioneering discoveries of a host of fundamental, highly organized structures in living cells,”  according to then President Ronald Reagan at a White House ceremony held March 12, 1986.
Nano Art pioneer Cris Orfescu, founder of nanoart21.org, has claimed that Palade was “One of the first nanoartists in the history, probably without his intention to create art.”  It is for that very reason than that those images are not works of art. Just like the tribal masks of the indigenous peoples of faraway lands can be displayed in museums for their uniqueness in appearance and for their cultural relevance, those objects, as well as Palade’s and others’ images, are not works of art. Although they are found to some to be very beautiful and very unique in their appearance, and although they may require a great amount of time and money to manufacture or produce, they are in artistic terms and at best, only to be considered as precursors to an art form. Palade’s images were created by him and by others not for the sake of creating beautiful works of art to be displayed in homes or galleries or even on sidewalks. These images were rendered solely for the sake of the scientific community and for the knowledgeable benefit of humanity, as well as for the progression of future research in the field of cellular microbiology. Perhaps Orfescu felt that it was necessary to include the images of Palade’s research groups as works of art to support his own field’s artistic merits. Or perhaps he did it to add credence to his own work as being both acts of scientific research and works of art. There is nothing wrong with giving credit to the works of great men, but it is inappropriate to categorize them in a way that is inherently false by definition. Orfescu’s intentions make sense for the sake of promoting a credible art form, but his application lacks the very rigor often attributed to the scientific community. Perhaps this is due to the difference in approach between the arts and the sciences. Scientists are always keen to give credit to others for the foundational work behind their research (often for fear of being ostracized but also out of general respect for their peers). Art however is often associated with notions of inspiration and appropriation. “Nothing is original,”  according to artists like Jim Jarmusch, and therefore questions of origin and legitimacy run a slippery slope.
The most likely reason for Orfescu’s misstep is because he was first and foremost a scientist. Access to electron microscopes can be difficult to obtain. They are very expensive to build and also cost a lot to maintain because of the amount of energy they require, as well as the application processes needed to prepare specimens for electron bombardment (you cannot use living specimens, and they have to be coated in a conductive material in order to be properly recorded). In addition, the type of electron microscopes used to take higher resolution images are often located underground or in special buildings that are equipped to cancel out the magnetic fields that are produced naturally and unnaturally here on earth. These magnetic fields tend to interfere with the electrons recording the image surface after their release. For these reasons, scientists are often the only ones with access to such devices. Images could only be appropriated second-hand by artists eager to share their beauty with the world, unless of course that artist was a scientist as well. The very emergence of the Nanoart field seems to have relied heavily on scientists like Orfescu, who holds an appreciation for the arts. He has had some help outside of the lab of course.
World famous artist Gerhard Richter has also been working in part on some appropriated nanotech works since 2000, when he made his piece Erster Blick. Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen, with the aid of the words of Dietmar Elger, provides some profound insight into his work:
Despite the non-photographic origin of the image depicted in Ester Blick, the catalogue raisonne states that the image is “based on a photograph taken by physicists at the University of Augsburg” . Similarly, German art historian Dietmar Elger confirms this intuitively realistic, photographic perception. Commenting on the newspaper article’s assertions about the visible atomic “details” in the image, he writes:
The photographic depiction, however, only shows cloudy shapes; thus, the newspaper reader can discern no such “details.” The reader’s expectation to find the elementary structure of our world revealed to him in the image is disappointed. To Gerhard Richter, however, the image proved a confirmation: The attempt of the physicists from the University of Augburg to offer an interior view of the atom generated with the aid of microscopes produced a photographic image of the interior of the atom that reveals itself as nothing but uncertainty .
It is this very uncertainty and blurring which pervades and often defines many of Gerhard Richter’s works, and as such the very world of everything nano seems to fit right in with him conceptually, and in this instance, quite visually as well. The inner realm of atoms have only been recently brought into better resolution, but the challenges and hurdles required to enhance that resolution are enormous, and the more solutions we find, the bigger the questions become in the grand scheme of unifying theories, such as Einstein’s Relativity and quantum physics. We simply cannot underestimate the scope of small things in this day and age.
It wasn’t until September 20, 2007 that the First International Festival of Nanoart was held in Kotka, Finland. It was hosted by the Kotkan Valokuvakeskus Gallery from May 4 to May 26. This was the first gallery show to be entirely dedicated to Nanoart, and featured the nano works of 15 different artists such as Cris Orfescu, who curated the show, as well as others such as Carol Cooper, Chris Marshall, and Dolores Glover Kaufman. Most of the works displayed were digitally altered, because electron microscopes are unable to capture color due to the lack of photonic involvement (which would reveal light spectrum color). As a result, electron microscope images require the digital or painted application of color if there is to be any present in the work. Generally, Nanoart is broken down into two categories, the first being nanolandscapes. Nanolandscapes are generally the most common type of Nanoart, as they simply require the electron microscope imaging of objects at nanoscales, which can then be digitally manipulated or simply rendered for color in Photoshop. The other category is nanosculptures. This category is perhaps the most challenging of the two, as it actually requires the artist to find ways to control and alter matter at the molecular as well as atomic scales. This is often achieved through the application of chemicals and the use of physical processes.  After the Kotkan Valokuvakeskus gallery opening, Nanoart would finally take the stage in the art world, and encourage a broader range of applications and execution, in addition to gaining a great deal of popularity among scientists that had previously worked with electron microscopes, and felt they could do more to expose the beauty of the images they were revealing to the world.
Cris Orfescu later went on to create the website nanoart21.com, which holds annual competitions in Nanoart. These competitions involve artists, and scientists as artists, who can either submit up to 5 images of their original work, or if the artists do not have access to an electron microscope, they can be given 3 “seed images” to work with.  These images have been previously taken by scientists and put up for grabs for whoever wishes to manipulate them, and no authorship is given to the scientists after their appropriation. This is of some interest, as pointed out by Kathryn D. de Ridder-Vignone in her book, Public Engagement and the Art of Nanotechnology, as she contemplates, “This move to erase the identity of the scientist or the origin of the science raises questions about the role these images play as art that promotes and communicates science. Does art serve as a tool of science education or communication when the artists’ powers to create and comment on the science are limited by the science itself? Perhaps separating the work of scientists from the work of artists is a way to give these artists the space and power to contribute on their own terms.”  I feel a need to point out that it is not of as great a benefit to the artists or the scientists to separate themselves in light of the end-product produced by these images. I am sure many scientists or research students are fine serving out their terms as lab-rats cranking out images and handing them over to databases, but when it comes to artistic endeavors such as these, one of the things that appear to be missing in the rise of Nanoart is the cross-communication between scientists and artists that allow a dialogue to grow into a public discourse for study and future engagements. What Orfescu has done is created a website dedicated to cranking out nanoworks, which holds little in regards of actually helping to fill in the sparse void of interactions between artist and scientist. If anything that void is expanding due to the separation of the images from the scientists that took them, and the artists that are appropriating them. The lack of any communication between the two is also depriving both image taker (scientist) and image appropriator (artist) from a wealth of information that could be potentially invaluable if they were willing to cross-pollinate between their respective fields, which leads us to our next artist, because she participated in an endeavor which did exactly that.
Switzerland based artist Isabel Rohner has been included in the book, artists-in-labs: Processes in Inquiry (lower-casing intentional), for her sculpture, installation, photo and performance work at the Centre for Microscopy at The University of Basel (ZMB) in 2004. Rohner’s project proposal was described by her as follows: “Wounds – or the Search for a Cybernetic System. The project is a research work on how art and science can meet and find new ways of collaboration. My research would use the approach of histology (especially from the perspective of the cell as smallest autonomous unity of life in an organism) as a starting point.”  One of Rohner’s works involved her having a dermatologist at the Cantonal Hospital in Basel remove a skin sample from her body. She then had the skin sample preserved and prepared and had an image made of it with the use of an electron microscope to form a cellular self-portrait. Rohner’s work is important for the same reason artists-in-labs is important. Both can help to further propagate and reinforce the bridge that covers the divide between the realms of art and science. Writer of artists-in-labs, Jill Scott, had this to say about the endeavor in her introduction to the book, “As the title ‘artists-in-labs: Processes of Inquiry’ suggests, distinctive and unique process of inquiry might be emerging from the new roads artists are building into scientific research. This book not only substantiates the need for more critical analysis about the roles of the artist and the scientist in the lab context, it presents related essays about the creation of a viable interface from international contexts… Placing artists into scientific environments can not only provide education and new knowledge for the artist, it may also ‘open up’ science towards more collaborative potentials in the future.”  Notice the emphasis on ‘open up.’ Her wording lends to the size of the divide that currently exists between artists and scientists. It can be difficult to carry the language and practices of one realm into the language of the other, part of the reason Orfescu made the mistake of calling Palade’s images works of art. It also points out the importance of the construction of a framework within the Nanoart community in order to help propagate more prosperous future interactions.
It is one thing for a scientist turned artist to simply take an image with an electron microscope and distort it digitally, or for even for an artist in a lab to do the same. It is another thing entirely for an artist to make a discovery in technology through their desire for inquiry and play. But that’s exactly what British-Australian artist, researcher and member of Artist Pride, Boo Chapple did in a collaborative piece with student William Wong at the University of Western Australia’s SymbioticA lab last year. Chapple (known for her work with performance, installation, strange inedible food-hybrids and research driven works) got the inspiration to make audio speakers out of bone, and SymbioticA was the best place to go about doing it, as it is, “the only research facility in the world devoted to providing access to wet labs to artists and artistically minded researchers.”  At first, Chapple’s work doesn’t sound nano-related, but according to a paper presented by the Leonardo special section Nanotechnology, Nanoscale Science and Art, Chapple was in fact creating a way to narrate in a gallery the work she had done in the lab in order to build her ‘bone audio speakers’ that would enhance the piezoelectric vibrations from the nanoscale to one that was audible enough for us to hear. By doing such, she was able to aid us in realizing the degree to which our observations of the nanoscale are made possible through instruments and devices.  Chapple and Wong were able to successfully raise the sound generated by the slices of bone they used via a stethoscope. This was necessary, since the bones were determined to have a frequency response range of about 300-3000 Hz – not quite on the upper audible end of the 20-20,000 Hz that we humans normally hear at. According to an article by Fast Company Magazine, Chapple knew based on her scientific readings that bone had piezoelectric qualities, such as generating an electric charge when physically stressed. The very shape of an object with piezoelectric qualities can be subject to change if it is exposed to an electric current, which is why piezoelectrics are a vital part of small actuators and sensors for system environments. They went on to note however, that the speakers probably would not be very successfully on the market due to being made of once-living animal bones.  Although the work does not deal with nanoscales visually, the audio component, which was originally executed in the lab with a laser interferometer, is quite innovative, and the project serves as a crucial demonstration of how artists can impact science just as much as scientists can impact the arts. [Article by Christopher Mims, August 2, 2012. Copyright © 2013 Mansueto Ventures LLC. All rights reserved. Fast Company, 7 World Trade Center, New York, NY 10007-2195]
In conclusion, Nanoart is an incredible and relatively new art form, having only been around for but a few decades. It can be exciting to make observations of the microscopic landscapes revealed to us by artist and scientist alike, and there is something to be said about taking the world of the very small and revealing it to the giants that are too large to see it with unaided eyes. Nanoart, like science, can be a beautiful and humbling experience, revealing to us just how vast our world is at all scales. But perhaps the most exciting aspect of Nanoart is the interdisciplinary interactions occurring between artists and scientists. When two broad fields like science and art are able to come together, it’s like an explosion between two planetary bodies. That explosion can result in many different ways. It is possible that if communications linger, both may continue on their separate paths, feeling bruised from the lack of proper mixing of ideas. But if artists and scientists with the help of the proper facilitators, can learn from each other, and find ways to fuse their different backgrounds, a whole new world can form, leading to an abundant wealth of new ideas, such as with Boo Chapple’s bone-speakers, or the joint research done with Isabel Rohner and the researchers at The University of Basel. It is by working together, sharing credit where it is due, and bouncing ideas back and forth that something truly interesting is able to emerge and grow from these interactions.
 The National Science Foundation. http://www.nsf.gov/od/nms/recip_details.cfm?recip_id=266 (accessed February 16, 2013)
 Nielsen, Kristian Hvidtfelt. “Nanotech, Blur and Tragedy in Recent Artworks by Gerhard Richter.” LEONARDO, Vol. 41, No. 5, MIT Press, 2008 (Footnote references  and  contained within and italicized are those of the author)
 Orfescu, Cris. Nanoart21.org (accessed February 17, 2013)
 D. de Ridder-Vignone, Kathryn. “Public Engagement and the Art of nanotechnology.” LEONARDO, Vol. 45, No. 5, MIT Press, 2012
 Scott, Jill. “artists-in-labs: Processes of Inquiry.” Springer-Verlag/Wein and HGK Zürich, 2006.
 Mims, Christopher. “Bone-Rattling Sound: New Speakers That Are Made From Bone.” Fastcompany.com. (accessed February 17, 2013)
 Spector, Tami I. “Nanotechnology, Nanoscale Science and Art.” LEONARDO, Vol.41, No. 4, MIT Press, 2008