Dr Paul Thomas and Kevin Raxworthy

NANOESSENCE at the John Curtin Gallery from Paul Thomas on Vimeo.

The artwork Nanoessence by Paul Thomas and Kevin Raxworthy was part of the art in the age of nanotechnology exhibition.

With the assistance of the SymbioticA Lab, University of Western Australia, and the Nanochemistry Research Institute (NRI), at Curtin University of Technology, the Nanoessence project uses data gained from analysis by an atomic force microscope (AFM) of a single HaCaT1 human skin cell to explore comparisons between life and death at a ‘nano’ level. This quantitative scientific data is being used as the basis for design of an installation designed to stimulate ‘qualitative’ sensorial responses on the part of visitors.

cellular view

visualised space

The proposal for nanotechnology to reshape nature atom by atom stimulates interesting debates as to what may be thought to constitute human life, since at an atomic level, the space of the body can be seen as having no boundaries. The Nanoessence project aimed to construct a physical experience for visitors to the installation as a means of provoking thought about this new scientific paradigm and its implications for metaphysical understandings of our world and its life forms. In the Nanoessence installation being developed, the viewer interfaces with a visual and sonic presentation by means of his or her own breath (with breath itself being strongly associated with Biblical conceptions of life). The use of ‘authentic’ quantitative scientific data is an important feature of the project in contrasting with the ‘qualitative’ aspects of the individual sensory experience sought.

the interface as landscapeAccording to Boukamp and Petrussevska, ‘[The] HaCaT is the first permanent epithelial cell line from adult human skin that exhibits normal differentiation and provides a promising tool for studying regulation of keratinization in human cells’. In being immortal, human HaCaT skin cells demonstrate the potential for endless cloning of a single cell. For the Nanoessence project, HaCaT cells cultured with the assistance of SymbioticA were scanned by an atomic force microscope (in tapping and force spectroscopy mode) to determine their comparative topographies and atomic vibration. The atomic force microscope uses a small cantilever with a pyramidal tip, measuring approximately 10nm. In tapping mode, the cantilever makes intermittent contact as it is lowered to almost touch the surface of the skin cell. The cantilever, oscillating in response to a resonance frequency, scans a miniscule area of the skin specimen. The images obtained are recorded via a laser beam deflected from the cantilever tip onto a photodiode. The AFM thus constructs a ‘machinic’ understanding of material nano particles using touch – in contrast to traditional microscopes, which privilege sight. Indeed, the gathering of scientific data through touch suggests a fundamental challenge to dominant ocular centric understandings of the world.

The comparative data resulting from the AFM scans can be seen as representing the ‘essence of life’. This data was used in constructing a hybrid metaphorical landscape based on an algorithm developed by Kevin Raxworthy. Within the Nanoessence installation environment, the algorithm generating the landscape is affected and stimulated in response to data gained from sensors stimulated by the breath of visitors. This is presented via a central data projection screen, flanked on either by side projections of skin cells at a nano level. The left projection is of a living cell and the right a dead cell.

The auditory component of the Nanoessence installation results from data recorded by the AFM in ‘force spectroscopy’ mode. Vibrations from the HaCaT cell atoms are scanned, initially in vitro and then following injection of ether into the serum. The resulting data is then converted into sound files to create sonic vibrations occurring at a nano level and presented to audiences as a ‘haptic topographic sensation’. Sound thus correlates with the changing topography of the landscape as it evolves in response to visitors’ breathing.

viewer's breath activates the display

Nanoessence aims to stimulate senses other than sight in creating a total sensory experience for viewers. It uses human breathing as a key mechanism and metaphor within a complex and sophisticated artistic environment aimed stimulating critical debate about the implications of nanotechnology for our understandings of life.