Theory art

At MIT, science adopts a new theory of chaos: art

As a respected graduate student MIT Media Lab, Marcelo Coelho collaborated with the artist Vik muniz to help him achieve a poetic and technical feat that titillates the imagination: drawing a castle on a single grain of sand. After two years of unsuccessful experiments with various lasers, they finally began to obtain images of beautiful complexity using an electron microscope with a focused ion beam to etch ultra-fine lines, while it did not completely pulverize the grains. The tiny engravings could then be digitized and printed on a large scale.

“If you ever try to do something in a science lab that isn’t science, people look at you in a really funny way,” said Mr Coelho, who first had to hit on the keeper of the microscope from multi-million dollar, designed to repair microchips (the pair were content to access them in the wee hours). But once the lab technician saw their startling results, in which the microscopic outlines of the grains resemble mountainous landscapes, he offered more time on the machine and his own ideas for images they could make. “You could see the excitement seeping into the system,” said Mr. Coelho, who spent four years on the “Sandcastles” series.

Mr. Muniz is one of more than 30 artists, including Tomás Saraceno and Anicka Yi, invited to integrate directly into MIT labs on an equal footing with faculty and students since the school’s inception. Center for Art, Science and Technology in 2012. It is supported by $ 3 million in grants from the Mellon Foundation and a recent million dollar donation from the Russian artistic entrepreneur Dasha Zhukova for a new artist residency. CAST, as it’s called, revitalized a model at MIT started in the late 1960s of bringing in artists to humanize technology and create broader-thinking scientists. MIT is at the forefront of this interdisciplinary movement with its institutional commitment, but it draws on a legacy of artists interested in science dating back to Leonardo da Vinci and which has proliferated as technology has become increasingly more common and accessible. .

Pictures of “Sand castle” are exhibited in Mr. Muniz’s mid-career retrospective in photographs taken using unconventional materials and methods at the High Museum in Atlanta. It includes photographs of fluorescent bacteria and cancer cells choreographed in intricate patterns of its “Colonies” series, also produced at MIT in collaboration with bio-engineer Tal Danino.

“They are pushing the boundaries of what seems to be possible,” said Brett Abbott, the curator of the exhibition, which contrasts microscopic-scale photographs with Mr Muniz’s “Earthworks” series, which were drawn on a monumental scale with bulldozers and taken from a helicopter. . “There’s that transformative moment where you’re looking at a picture of a motherboard, and all of a sudden you realize you’re actually looking at bacteria. These images from MIT take Vik’s interest in scale and perception to a new extreme.

Mutually beneficial collaborations have often taken each party to new territories in their fields.

Leila Kinney, executive director of CAST, said that good matches between artists and scientists “really contribute to the development of an artist’s work and also challenge our researchers.”

Mr Muniz said he finds scientists imaginative, but with such a different focus than artists. “It can have wide repercussions for these people, who are extremely bright, to take a little vacation in their specific area of ​​research or to think about it in a different way,” he said. He was fascinated by how Mr. Danino engineered bacteria and cancer cells to glow fluorescently in order to better track their organized behavior. The artist suggested using these brightly colored microorganisms – cells that typically evoke chaos and fear in people – to create images of order, balance and beauty such as Victorian patterns and Islamic and circuit board designs.

“Vik said, ‘What you really want is an image that you can see as a whole, but you can also see the individual constituents,” Mr. Danino said. This meant taking photos under a microscope at extremely high resolution so that every nucleus in every cell was visible on the enlarged print. But the method for making really complex patterns didn’t exist in the scientific literature, according to Danino. He and Mr. Muniz therefore invented a technique of making stencils from collagen, a sticky culture medium on which cells bind and proliferate to “paint” patterns.

Mr Abbott believes these are “the first works of art made from trained viral cells.”

Mr. Muniz donated the proceeds from the sales of “Colonies” to cancer research. (A floral image from the series, made with vaccinia virus-infected liver cells used to make the smallpox vaccine, was part of a online campaign sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote immunization.)

“‘Colonies’ is a very concrete way to build a technique for art that is useful for science,” said Danino, who recently moved to Columbia University as a director of the synthetic biological systems laboratory, who will publish his research.

Mr. Danino took a very different direction in his collaboration with Ms. Yi, a concept artist known for incorporating science and scent into her sculptural works. During her residency at MIT, Ms. Yi came up with the idea of ​​exploring what she called “the patriarchal fear” that lingers around hygiene and contagion, much of which she says is gender-based stigma. Their collaboration consisted in creating a collective “female bacterium” for its exposure to the kitchen in New York last spring.

She sent cotton swabs and Ziploc bags to 100 of her friends and colleagues and asked them to return samples of bodily bacteria that Mr. Danino grew individually in the lab, then together in a giant petri dish on site at the kitchen.

It was an uncontrolled experience. A large amount of nutrient gel, heated in pots and pans on the kitchen stove, was at the wrong temperature and they had to start over. Random things started to grow in the petri dish from the non-sterile environment. “I saw Anicka use the bacteria almost like finger paint with her hands,” Mr. Danino said, noting that even though she was using rubber gloves, it was just something he would never do. . “I had to calm the scientific side down and accept this. It made the play really cool at the end.

The artist did an olfactory reading of the final sculpture and converted the pungent scent into perfume. It will be shown in another sculptural installation to be included in the Gwangju Biennial in South Korea this fall.

Mr. Saraceno, who is known for making huge inflatable sculptures and intricate gallery-sized canvases that can evoke floating cities, neural pathways and the endlessly expanding cosmos, was CAST’s first guest artist in 2012. He continued to actively work with professors at MIT to explore his utopian vision. to fly around the world on one of his floating sculptures kept afloat only by the temperature difference between the air inside and outside a solar balloon. “The Earth becomes the sculpture’s great battery,” said Mr. Saraceno, who exhibited two prototypes of his giant silver Mylar balloons at “COP21 solutions” at the Grand Palais in Paris during the climate change conference in December. He successfully launched them and kept them aloft for several hours with the help of dozens of volunteers on recent test flights to Berlin, New Mexico and Bolivia, which are in part science experiments. amateurs and artistic performances.

When the MIT meteorologist Lodovica Illari met Mr. Saraceno for the first time, she found her dream of alternative flight a bit far-fetched. “He started the conversation by asking, ‘If we were to take a hot air balloon ride and take a jet stream, where would we go? ”, Declared Ms. Illari. “As a scientist you want to be precise, correct. But he pushed me a little out of my comfort zone, saying, “Imagine something and see if it can be done.”

She embraced the proposal and worked with it to analyze past flight paths of solar balloons and to simulate possible flights based on launch conditions and turbulence patterns in the stratosphere. She plans to exhibit them for MIT Open House April 23, celebrating the centenary of the University of Cambridge campus. His goal is to equip one of his solar balloons with an instrument that could sample ozone throughout the day and night.

Mr Saraceno, whose spider observation has inspired installations of webs made of elastic cord or monofilament, also collaborates with MIT civil engineer Markus Buehler, who studies the structure of the protein in spider silk in as an ideal building material that could be reproduced synthetically. . Mr Buehler had modeled two-dimensional webs only on a computer and was stunned by the artist’s photographs of a black widow’s spider web he had manually digitized millimeter by millimeter. They have since developed a scanning mechanism that tracks websites in three dimensions as they are built.

“We are currently working with Tomás to understand how spiders build extremely complex shapes in open space without any scaffolding or help,” said Mr Buehler, who has spiders that build small towns in his basement at MIT. He imagines that this research could be applied in the future to new architectural and technical approaches.

Even when Mr. Saraceno embarks on fancy flights, scientists are tolerant.

“Tomás and I pushed the boundaries of what we thought we could do,” said Buehler. “We take root when we really get down to business, but it’s important to be creative. That’s why I put Tomás and the students in the same room. They can learn from him as an artist to think wildly, and that is necessary to solve a problem.

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