[short feature published on New Scientist.com Feb. 2012]
Blue geometric buckyballs float back and forth on a 15-metre black screen, like soap bubbles from Tron. I watch for a minute, mesmerized. I step in front of the computer projection, and my fast-moving shadow blows the buckybubbles around in a mad frenzy. I gently raise my hand to nudge the edge of one of them, and it bends slightly.
The artwork, called Zero@wavefunction, is a part of the Morphonano exhibit at the Beall Center for Art and Technology at the University of California, Irvine. It is a collaboration between artist Victoria Vesna and nanoscientist James Gimzewski. The interactive projection mimics the careful process of manipulating molecules on a nano scale. I play around with it for a while, cupping my hands around each molecule while sensors pick up my slow, deliberate motions and translate them into forces on the screen.
But, there’s more to see. I turn the corner to check out a piece called Kaleidoscope and quickly realize that the whole time I was waving my hands like a t'ai chi instructor, I was being filmed. Anyone who had been looking into its long, hexagonal mirrored tube five minutes earlier would have seen my flailing body at the end, reflected in all one hundred or so facets of a buckyball-like sphere that the mirrors make. I don’t know where they put the cameras. But, if you turn your head left or right, you see infinite mirrors of yourself. If you look straight ahead, you’re hovering in Nanoland, with a giant molecule sun in front of you. You could call Kaleidoscope the meta-work in the exhibit: it embodies the human scale/nano scale juxtaposition that is at the heart of Morphonano, both on the representational level, and through your experience of the way it works.
As much as I was sucked in by Kaleidoscope, I was absolutely entranced with the next work, Nanomandala. It’s a circular sandbox, 2.5 metres in diameter, with an image projected on top. If you sit there for 15 minutes, you’ll see the image change from a scanning electron microscope (SEM) view of a grain of sand, zooming out further until you see an optical microscope view and even further until you see a human-scale digital photograph of sand. You can play with the sand while you zone out.
Then it got a little weird. As the work’s title suggests, in the final digital photograph the sand appears as part of the coloured pattern of a Tibetan mandala, but it felt a bit like the reference to Eastern culture was just thrown in at the end (of course, this is California). Looking more closely at the written material for the exhibit, I noticed that most of the artworks had some reference to “mindfulness” and things like “creating a sublime reversal of space-time” (whatever that is). Curator David Familian explained, “mindfulness leads to more embodiment, which I believe is an essential aspect of the future of interactive works”. If “embodiment” means the same thing as “viewer immersion” in art, then I get it. Immersion successful.
The last piece in the exhibit was also immersive - and fun. To experience Blue Morph, the gallery intern instructed me to sit down on a hexagonal platform and put on a crazy looking knitted hat attached to giant fuzzy pupae. On the wall in front, I saw my face, layered on top of SEM images of butterfly wings. All around me I heard sounds of a butterfly coming out of its chrysalis that must have been recorded by a very small, very sensitive microphone. It sounded like awkward orca calls. I laughed.
Science, art and the mindfulness movement - just another day in California.