Read an Excerpt
Implications of The New Technoscience
By N. Katherine Hayles
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2004 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
art & science
nano floorplan, Johnston Marklee & Associates
The Invisible Imaginary: Museum Spaces, Hybrid Reality and Nanotechnology
ADRIANA de SOUZA e SILVA
1. Prelude to the Imaginary: Experiencing nano2
As I walk into exhibition room, I see a "swarm" of cameras. One of them takes my picture, capturing my identity as soon as I enter nano My face, as a product of this "unauthorized" surveillance, is then projected onto the wall in front of me, acquiring visibility among many other pictures, forming a huge hive-like structure. Each face inhabits a hexagon, which is also part of the graphite molecule structure. Standing in front of this construction, I realize that the hive-like projection is a database of several faces from people who have been in the exhibition before me. Observing the movement of people entering the exhibition room and being captured by the camera, I occasionally notice humorous aberrations, since the camera not only captures the visitors' faces but also everything it understands as a face, such as faces stamped on a visitor's T-shirt, for example. Having my face captured right in the beginning of the show reminds me about surveillance mechanisms. "But isn't this an exhibition about nanotechnology?" I ask myself. Why are there surveillance cameras at the entrance? How could I forget that one of the anticipated developments of nanotech is the ability to invisibly monitor and identify elements of one's identity? Nano, among other things, is about surveillance.
The projection is the first movement interpolating the participant inside the nanospace. The animation of these "molecules" reminds me of the self-assembly mechanisms that many researchers expect will be used in nanotechnology. In the projection, each hexagon attempts to align with or attach itself to others, and groups combine into larger (and slower moving) aggregations. The hexagonal "molecules" with faces in them, resembling graphite, begin to shrink as new molecules are formed with other visitors' faces inside them. I feel as if my face is smaller than a protein. Nano is also about scale.
Now I am crossing a dark tunnel. I can barely see, but rumbling sounds, echoing spoken words, and the walls' texture transform the environment into a different kind of sensory space, in which I must use senses other than vision in order to perceive. Suddenly my idea of what is stable and physical is endangered, because I always thought the most accurate way of perceiving the world was by seeing. The dark atmosphere in the Sense Space reminds me of many imaginary nightmares commonly associated with nanotechnology, such as invisible nano-bots that invade the human body to destroy it, mind control through invisible mechanisms, and molecular structures imperceptibly injected into the brain to manipulate people's dreams. I wish to leave this space. Following the sounds and sensing the walls, I recall reading that the nanoworld cannot be viewed, only sensed with the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) that registers the topography of an atomic surface, an activity more like feeling than seeing. Then I think about how it would be if I were one of the atoms being probed by the STM, as the Sense Space flows into the Inner Cell of the exhibition.
Walking further through the tunneling Sense Space, I reach a circular cell. Cells are the cores of any living organisms, and a cell space is also the core of nano. The rumbling sounds I heard before are coming from here. A projection can be viewed on the wall, and a different one on the floor; people are walking through the environment; and four big spheres are rolling across the space. While I walk slowly in order to sense the cell, I realize that I also affect the projected pattern on the floor. My steps have the power to deform a glowing hexagonal grid, similar to a pattern of graphite molecules. The deformation is a wave-like movement, transforming the static floor into a moving light pattern. The reactive floor also triggers bass frequencies while I walk, mimicking wave behavior on a molecular scale. It is as if I could hear the sound of an atom. Waves created by my movement over the floor merge with waves produced by other visitors walking around, as well as by deformations induced by the strange spheres. They are robotic spheres, automatically rolling over the floor apparently without the need of human aid. Spherical shapes allude to atomic forms. Being able to touch these 3-foot tall plastic spheres, rolling like giant atoms, makes me feel closer to the nanoworld. Then I think, for the first time, that the environment around me and also myself are not only constructed by what I am able to see with my bare eyes. The glowing grid is also projected on top of the robotic "atoms," creating a three-dimensional curved surface. Everything is connected in this environment, like a propagating wave influencing all nearby elements.
Raising my head, I perceive a huge projection of cellular-like structures resembling buckminster-fullerene carbon-60 molecules, or buckyballs. Participants' shadows are projected onto the same wall, sharing the virtual nanospace with the buckyballs. From time to time a new molecule grows on the wall, while some stand still. I realize that my shadow is able to move and deform these structures. However, not every movement affects the system. Abrupt and fast gestures are helpless.
Atomic Manipulation Space
I exit the Inner Cell via another Sense Space and realize that these spaces function to connect the Inner Cell to the outside environment. I reach the Atomic Manuplation Space which consists of a nine-sided table with a projection on top and four track balls on the edge. Getting closer, I perceive that the projection reproduces a bird's eye view of the same space I have been in before: the robotic spheres and visitors walking across the cell. Moving one of the track balls, I realize that they are interfaces used to control the robotic spheres in the Inner Cell, allowing me to be present in the former room, although not physically. If, as I thought earlier, the robotic spheres are atoms, my manipulation here resembles the manipulation of atoms through the STM.
Exploring the space outside the cell, I find a dark room composed by a sand surface in the middle. Entering the space, I activate a projection over the sand, which images sand over a wide range of different scales, from visible sand grains to the invisible atomic structure. The transformation from sand to atom is inspired in the sand mandala created by Tibetan Buddhist monks for the "Circle of Bliss" exhibit in LACMA East. I knew that the word mandala comes from Sanskrit and can be loosely translated as "circle," "whole," or "zero." A mandala can be regarded as a model for the organization structure of life itself, and there are many types of mandalas. The sand mandala exemplifies the impermanence of life and may take many days to be constructed. It is originally composed by colored sand made out of crushed semiprecious stones. These millions grains of sand are painstakingly placed on a flat platform and, after a period of days or weeks, are swept up into a jar and poured into a nearby water course to demonstrate the cycle of life. In dealing with atoms and cells, nano also deals with organization of living structures. The exhibition thus uses the Nanomandala to suggest a connection between two distinct processes of building the world from bottom up. While monks manipulate grains of sand as models for the organization structure of life, nanoscientists manipulate atoms, as the smaller known structures that construct the world.
Walking farther, I enter a dark environment with a mirrored floor. A camera stands on the top of a long and flexible metal structure. Grabbing the camera, I see that the static image projected on the wall in front of me starts moving. My image, converted into "particle clouds," begins to be graphically disturbed and altered. Looking back, I see that the movement of children running across a black tunnel has influenced my image. The mirrored floor over which they run reflects the actual the environment, creating a double sense of space. I don't exactly understand what is going on, but text on the wall outside explains that this part of the exhibit shows information being exchanged between two visitors standing at either end of the quantum tunnel, similar to electrons "tunneling" through an energy barrier because of quantum effects. I am curious about this phenomenon and decide to look for a more detailed explanation in the Resource Room of the exhibition.
Looking in from the Outside
Going towards the Resource Room, I find two holes on the outside wall of the Inner Cell, a lower one and a higher one. I am compelled to look, as the orifices radiate colorful bright lights, and discover a giant kaleidoscopic structure embedded among the wall panels. Looking through the higher one, I see the Inner Cell in a kaleidoscopic view. Besides the fracturing view of multiple perspectives, I hear narratives that sound science-fictional: "He's always wanted to become quantum dust, transcending his body mass ... live outside the given limits in a chip, on a disk, as data, in whirl, in radiant spin, a consciousness saved from the void." (DeLillo 206)
A black-and-white particle cloud is projected on the outside wall of the Inner Cell adjacent to the kaleidoscopes. Walking in front of the projection I see that my movement across the space has the power to destabilize the particles. After the perturbation ceases, they reassemble into a phrase related to nanotechnology. Every time a visitor comes, he or she disturbs the text on the wall, making the particles rearrange into another different phrase. The dispersion of the image on the wall, like a swarm of particles, reminds me of Michael Crichton's passage in Prey: "A human body is actually a giant swarm. Or more precisely, it's a swarm of swarms, because each organ — blood, liver, kidneys — is a separate swarm. What we refer to as a body is really the combination of all these organ swarms." (Crichton 260)
At this point I am adjacent to the Resource Room, where books and other research material can be found on the tables. From this perspective, I look back on the exhibition space and notice the flowing lines of the architectural structures. I glance at a pedestal on which sits a leaded glass triangular model created by Buckminster Fuller and realize the same forms are used on the walls of the cells and modules. The model alludes to Fuller's Dymaxion Map, the only flat map showing the entire Earth surface without distorting the shape of the land areas and without splitting the continents. The idea of connection among parts, turning them into one and only structure, is present in the nano architecture, suggested by the flow from one space to another. Now I understand they are all simulations of a nanoworld where boundaries are fluid and solid objects melt with molecular motion. I start appreciating that everything around me is in fact made out of atoms, including my own body and brain.
2. nano and LacmaLab: changing the concept of museum spaces
Metaphorically injecting visitors into the invisible nanospace, nano challenges the traditional concept of what a museum is through three interconnected actions: enlarging what is supposed to be invisible; mixing virtual and physical spaces; and exploring the borderland between the real and the imaginary. These challenges, implied by the main exhibition pieces as well as by the exhibition space itself, are consistent with the main goals of LACMALab's Director, Robert Sain. LACMALab focuses on creating a new museum space that appeals to people of all ages, commissioning artists to create exhibits and construct participatory spaces.
nano is the fourth long-term exhibition developed by LACMALab, a research development unit of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). According to Robert Sain, "LACMALab is a new initiative designed to develop, test, and apply experimental approaches to engage the public — particularly children, teens, college students, parents, and seniors — with the museum's permanent collection and exhibitions." The first show, Made in California: NOW opened in September 2000 and was up for ten months. Eleven California artists were commissioned to create interactive installations particularly to engage children and their families. The second exhibition, Seeing, lasted from November 2001 to September 2002. For this show, LACMALab commissioned nine Los Angeles-based artists with three broad challenging guidelines: works should explore the concept of "seeing;" they should incorporate at least one object from LACMA's permanent collection; and they should appeal equally to children and adults. Making, up from November 2002 to September 2003, was comprised of installations from five major art schools in Los Angeles: Art Center College of Design, California Institute of the Arts, Otis College of Art and Design, and the School of the Arts and Architecture at UCLA. Teams of student and faculty artists and designers were asked to create participatory pieces that investigate the process of making art.
For the first time, creates an overall concept for the whole space. The UCLA team, including media artists and nano-scientists led by media artist Victoria Vesna and nano-scientist Jim Gimzewski, together with writers led by N. Katherine Hayles involved in the production of the text passages in the exhibition space and this book, created the exhibit with the goal of producing a unified artwork that would suggest the participation of everything, including visitors, in the nanoworld, the space where the world's composition becomes apparent. In order to inject visitors inside the nanospace, the installations filling the exhibition deal with concepts such as scale, surveillance, boundaries, identity, seeing by feeling, and mapping invisible spaces. The interconnections between science, technology, art, and the humanities are expressed through architecture and installations that merge virtual and physical spaces, transforming the exhibition environment into a hybrid space.
LACMALab's initiative reflects a general tendency among the arts and museum fields towards interactivity. It rethinks museum spaces in order to better integrate them with media arts (art mediated by technology). One approach is to transform traditional (impersonal, fixed, and neutral) museum spaces into participatory and interactive environments, thus promoting interaction between visitors and museum spaces, and among the visitors. In contrast to a conventional museum experience, it is no longer only the visitor who is changed by the space; the space is also modified by the visitor. nano is representative of initiatives by museums to incorporate media arts into their spaces, thus changing the relationship between museum and audience.
3. The construction of museum spaces
3.1. The physical museum
We can better appreciate the hybridization of contemporary museum spaces by looking back at how traditional modern museums were organized. Modern European and North American museums can trace their origins back to the 17th century, with the opening of The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1683. The concept of a traditional museum developed as a place that encompassed a collection of artifacts of several types. These collections had their origins in medieval and Renaissance collections of wonders and rare objects, which belonged to private collectors and later were donated to public museums. According to Foucault, traditional museum spaces can be regarded as heterotopias, since they are spaces that juxtapose in a single physical place several virtual (non-present, but existent) places. Therefore the concept of the virtual as it is analyzed in the following pages is already contained in the idea of a museum. Foucault defines heterotopias as opposed to utopias: while the latter are sites with no physical location, heterotopias are physical places enacted by virtual components. In this sense, heterotopias call forth virtual intensities that are not yet actualized but are on the threshold of actualization. "Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality," argues Foucault. Moreover, these places are absolutely different from the sites about which they reflect and speak. Similarly to libraries, which are collections of books from all places and times, museums are heterochronies or heterotopias of time. Consequently traditional museums, embedding within themselves their origins as a collection of objects from different times and places, include the seed of the virtual. Hybrid museums accentuate and develop this implication by positioning the virtual in a dynamic relationship to the actual rather than as something outside physical space.
Excerpted from Nanoculture by N. Katherine Hayles. Copyright © 2004 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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