A Q+A with the man behind the artworks that go, "From nano to macro, hovering between the tangible and intangible."
Entangled, Always, Forever, Everywhere (2013). Images courtesy of the artist.
Art is a fickle thing: when it happens, it takes place on multiple levels. Even when it doesn't, it's still every bit as invisible. And art that you can't even see with the naked eye? Don't even get me started—I'd rather let a nano-artist do the talking:
Frederik de Wilde is a creator working at the microscopic vanguard between science and art, an area he describes as “the post sublime.” His work with carbon nanotubes (CNT's) has yielded a color known as “blacker-than-black,” an all-absorbing, nano particle-based lab creation that has simultaneously rendered our prior understanding of the color spectrum insufficient and opened massive avenues of exploration in art, science, and everywhere in between. Featured everywhere from TED to the Belgian Art Museum, the fruits of his labor, provide the sort of shakeup at the intersection between chemistry, physics, and artistry that could change, well, everything.
Quantum Foam #3 (2013) © Frederik De Wilde
To put it most simply, de Wilde has created a color known thus far as "blacker-than-black." An all-absorbing, nano particle-based lab creation, from the arts to the sciences and everywhere in between, the possible applications for this revolutionary new technology are endless.
Reducing 3D objects into two visible dimensions? Check. Hyper-efficient photosynthesis by coating insects and plants in the CNTs? Check. The total and complete absorption of available light, including that of the direct sun, for hyper-efficient renewable energy? Check. But why take it from us? We spoke to Frederik de Wilde, the artist behind the nano revolution poised to tear down the long-standing walls between science and art.
Let's start with the basics: why nanotechnology?
The crux of my artist praxis is the intangible, inaudible and invisible. The nano-world is a great place/scale to explore these themes. Second, nanotechnology is actually a pretty 'old' technology, and it connects ancient art with contemporary art, science, space, time… but also with weirdness and 'magic', mystery and potentiality.
It's like a dance on subatomic level. From an art historical and scientific perspective it connects color theorists like Da Vinci with Isaac Newton, Cézanne, Kandinsky...
Regarding color, I am most interested in creating an idealized body that absorbs all incident electromagnetic radiation, regardless of frequency or angle of incidence. The first artistic result was the artwork entitled Hostage pt. 1 (below) which won the Ars Electronica Next Idea Grant in 2010.
It's clear that after the information wave and the 3D printing wave, the next industrial wave will be on the nano and quantum levels. Being part of these waves—and their interfacings with art, society and the creative industries in general—is pretty awesome, if you ask me.
Last but not least; nanotechnology offers a context to reflect upon the idea of building up a society anew from scratch -or to 'personalise' it on the level of individual control—atom by atom, if you will. As an artist, I'm not only interested in it for its technological paradigm shifts, and potential applications, but also because we are in a time of fundamental transition. Our contemporary society (read: 'old' world) is crumbling, its fundaments are shaking profoundly, and we have to rethink and rebuild practically everything if we want to cope with the challenges the future holds for us. The nano- and quantum worlds will surely play a big part in this change. In fact, we already live in nano- and quantum worlds, but we haven't fully grasped their impacts yet.
Particles Can Die Too (2013) © Frederik De Wilde
What are some scientific applications you see for this "blackest black?" What about artistic applications?
It ranges from improved photovoltaics and batteries, stealth technology, through better optical coatings, hence improved images with less noise, et al. Less reflection of sunlight back into the atmosphere means decreased global warming. One of my ideas stated in 2010, was to paint all the rooftops and objects blacker-than-black.
Imagine: sunlight isn't bounced back, only absorbed over all wavelengths—visible and invisible—and stored with maximum thermal-to-electric conversion. As a bonus: everything would look flat, which would undoubtedly lead to visual craziness. People would tactically have to sense more, permanently training their memories to not get lost or bump into things!
I also want to make these "blackest black" artworks touchable. Currently, their carbon nanotube coatings are relatively fragile. Were they more robust, and tactile, the feel of these objects and what one sees wouldn't match up.
I would be happy if I could finalize a working prototype of a blackest black artwork that doubles as a photovoltaic cell with a very high efficiency. It therefore needs to be a sprayable black, and most likely carbon nanotube based. Some of my friends are working on such a product. Two years ago, I wanted to mix carbon nanotubes with spider silk, combining strength, elasticity, electric conduction…, but my residency finished before I could embark on that project. The idea was based on Richard Smalley's dream of replacing the entire copper electrical grid of the planet with carbon nanotube wires. This would be a game-changer.
Let's never forget the science of art; the Chiaroscuro in the Caravaggio, for example. In my case, I am 'growing' a painting, from atomic-sized catalyst seeds, into a forest of carbon nanotubes. From nano to macro, hovering between the tangible and intangible, to quote Richard Feynman: "There's plenty of room at the bottom."
Particles Can Die Too (Detail, 2013) © Frederik De Wilde
Blacker-than-black essentially violates color theory. Is it time I start throwing out my old color mixing guides?
What is fundamentally different is that it's the geometry of the nano object and how it interferes with the photons (light) that make up its color, and not the only the pigment. That's a paradigm shift for the arts.
Last year i started looking into biology—flora and fauna—and how blacker-than-black can contribute to and augment photosynthesis. We deposited nano particles onto the black wings of a butterfly to see if this would make any difference on the light absorption. It did.
Blacker-than-black being made in a lab
By bringing art practices into laboratories, and scientific practices into the studio space, the nature of your work constantly redefines contemporary notions of art and artistry. Tell me about your process, from conceptualization to realization, and how it has evolved with your evolutions in understanding.
What I try to do is create a dynamic cross-fertilization between artists, scientists, and different loci, like research centers, universities, labs and industries. Personally, I like to work in all the aforementioned places, but not for too long. Things have to stay sparky. My studio is, in essence, where I am, so my studio is everywhere. Bruce Nauman stated that everything he does in his studio is art—I find that idea rather limited.
First of all, not everything I make is art. Second, in the framework of creating "icons," most of the artworks being produced are neither mindbending, nor paradigm shifters. That's absolutely normal, yet this should be one of the main goals if you are an artist. This belief strengthens me to do different things in my life, rather than just facilitating art or being a hobby-artist.
I really like to work with universities. Some of them maintain the statuses of free havens, places for free thinkers and doers. My grand grandfather was the first blacksmith in Belgium with a degree. He was a toolmaker for the whole community. The paint tube liberated the artists to leave the atelier and go and paint outside, resulting in Impressionism. Working with nanotechnology requires insight, skills etc. I'll never reach the level of expertise of a scientist, but I do want to increase my hands-on experience in the lab, perform my own experiments, collaborate, etc. This generates new ideas, things one would never thought up standing on the sidelines.
This particular project was initialized in collaboration with my friend Professor Ajayan Pulickel from Rice University. The next step—growing CNT's on a three dimensional matrix—is in collaboration with senior NASA physicist John Hagopian and Mario Fleurinck, CEO of industrial, high-end 3d metal/alloy printing specialist, Melotte.
SCAN 1.0 © Frederik De Wilde
In the same way that Malevich suggested "the supremacy of pure artistic feeling," your work suggests the possibility of materializing what we might call "pure objects"—things-in-themselves, that can exist within the physical realm. Do you ever take a step back and think, "Wow, I'm making magic?"
I like to think of my blacker-than-black artworks in the terms of the post-sublime; artworks as mediums that probe the 'edges' of understanding and imagination, in order to define or give shape to things don't understand—much like a blind person would explore the edges of a deep hole, learning and feeling its diameter without knowing its depth.
Anish Kapoor phrased it in a different way: "What interests me is the sense of darkness that we carry within us, the darkness that's akin to one of the principal subjects of the sublime-terror." I see darkness as part of Nature, and find it exciting to work from the infinitudes that can never truly be revealed nor consumed.
Art poses questions: it makes us doubt thins, and helps to position ourselves, but has neither settled ways nor fixed approaches. One could perceive and interpret a Space-X rocket piercing the blue-black sky and entering the blackness of space as something threatening, but one could also see it as a gesture of 'signing' the sky and space. Yves Klein would interpret it as follows: the symbolic act of signing the sky was his first artwork. Klein had foreseen, as in reverie, the thrust of his art from that time onwards- a quest to reach the far side of the infinite
In regards to Klein, you could say that Elon Musk is signing deep space, and I am giving it shape here on Earth.
I try to step back all the time and luckily, not always in the sense of "Wow, I'm making magic!"—true magic is to see behind a second set of eyes.
Blacker-than-black, seen under a scanning electron microscope © Frederik De Wilde
My favorite quote from your TED Talent Search talk is, "Materials are like people, the defects make them interesting." Can you expand on some of the most interesting defects you've found throughout your career?
I am fond of how snowflakes are generated. They need impurities like dust to catalyze the crystallization process.
My good friend Daniel Hashim from Rice University made a nano sponge that absorbs oil well. If you look at the structure of the CNT's involved, you notice they all have twists or joints that shouldn't be there, but they give the material its excellent qualities. These are two examples of many.
Defects can be immaterial, too. Roland Barthes calls the punctum, that, "which pierces the viewer." It's purely personal and dependent on the individual. Then there's the studium, or let's say the symbolic meaning. Imagine a family picture, for instance, where the littlest child is having her finger wrapped in bandages. Your gaze is attracted to it, you connect to it, the distance disappears, and (personal) meaning is created. Just like the analogy of the snowflake.
Finally, when will metal bands be able to wear the "blackest T-shirts in the world?"
As soon I get a request. But I'm not responsible for making other metal bands feel like they're wearing pink!
© Frederik De Wilde
Visit Frederik de Wilde's website.
In a new series, The Creators Project is exploring the ways in which technology is allowing the size of our canvas to shrink or grow dramatically. From microscopic art to projects with the ambition to (literally) paint the sky, we are looking at artists who are seeking out new canvases, and as part of that pursuit, new methods of creation.
NASAblck_Crcl #1 © Frederik De Wilde
For more micro and macro art see: