Hilarie M. Sheets The NY Times | Arts & Science
As a graduate student at the respected M.I.T. Media Lab, Marcelo Coelho collaborated with the artist Vik Muniz to help him achieve a poetic and technical feat that teases the imagination: drawing a picture of a castle on a single grain of sand. After two years of failed experiments with various lasers, they finally began getting images of beautiful complexity using an electron microscope with a focused ion beam to etch superfine lines—when it didn’t pulverize the grains altogether. The tiny etchings could then be scanned and printed large scale.“If you ever try to do something in a science lab that’s not science, people look at you in a really funny way,” said Mr. Coelho, who initially had to schmooze the gatekeeper to the multimillion-dollar microscope, which was designed to repair microchips (the pair settled for access in the wee hours). But once the lab technician saw their surprising results, in which the microscopic contours 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 percolating through the system,” said Mr. Coelho, who spent four years on the “Sandcastles” series.
Mr. Muniz is among the more than 30 artists, including Tomás Saraceno and Anicka Yi, invited to embed directly in the M.I.T. labs as equals with faculty and students since the creation of the school’s Center for Art, Science & Technology in 2012. It is supported by $3 million in grants from the Mellon Foundation and a recent $1 million gift from the Russian arts entrepreneur Dasha Zhukova for a new artist residency. CAST, as it is known, has revitalized an M.I.T. model begun in the late 1960s of bringing in artists to humanize technology and create more expansive-thinking scientists. M.I.T. is at the forefront of this cross-disciplinary movement with its institutional commitment, but it is drawing on a legacy of artists who are interested in science that dates back to Leonardo da Vinci and that has proliferated as technology has become ever more commonplace and accessible.
Images from “Sandcastles” are on view in Mr. Muniz’s midcareer retrospective of photographs made using unconventional materials and methods at the High Museum in Atlanta. It includes photographs of fluorescent bacteria and cancer cells choreographed into intricate designs from his “Colonies” series, also made at M.I.T. in collaboration with the bioengineer Tal Danino.
“They push the boundaries of what seems to be possible,” said Brett Abbott, the exhibition curator, who is contrasting photographs at microscopic scale alongside Mr. Muniz’s “Earthworks” series, which were drawn at monumental scale with bulldozers and shot from a helicopter. “There’s that moment of transformation where you’re looking at a picture of a motherboard, and all a sudden you realize you’re actually looking at bacteria. These M.I.T. pictures take Vik’s interest in scale and perception to a new extreme.”
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 to be imaginative yet with such a different focus from that of artists. “It can have broad repercussions for these people, who are extremely bright, to take a little vacation from their specific field of research or think of it in a different way,” he said. He was fascinated by how Mr. Danino engineered bacteria and cancer cells to glow with fluorescence to better track their organized behavior. The artist suggested using these vibrantly colored micro-organisms — cells that typically conjure chaos and fear in people — to make images of order, balance and beauty such as Victorian and Islamic patterns 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. That meant taking pictures on the microscope at an extremely high resolution so that every nucleus of every single cell was visible on the blown-up print. But the method to make really complex patterns did not exist in the scientific literature, according to Mr. Danino. So he and Mr. Muniz invented a technique of making stencils out of collagen, a sticky growing medium on which the cells bind and proliferate to “paint” patterns.
Mr. Abbott believes these are “the first art pieces fabricated of trained virus cells.”
Mr. Muniz has been donating the proceeds of the sales from “Colonies” to cancer research. (A floral image from the series, made with liver cells infected with the vaccinia virus used to make the smallpox vaccine, was part of an online campaign sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote vaccination.)
“‘Colonies’ is a very concrete way that we built a technique for the art that’s useful for the science,” said Mr. Danino, who recently moved to Columbia University as director of the Synthetic Biological Systems Laboratory, which will publish his research.
Mr. Danino got pulled in a very different direction in his collaboration with Ms. Yi, a conceptual artist known for incorporating science and scent in her sculptural works. During her residency at M.I.T., Ms. Yi had the idea to explore what she called “the patriarchal fear” that lingers around hygiene and contagion, much of which she says is a gender-based stigma. Their collaboration involved creating a collective “female bacteria” for her exhibition at the Kitchen in New York last spring.
She mailed Q-tips and Ziploc bags to 100 of her female friends and colleagues and asked them to return bodily bacteria samples that Mr. Danino cultivated individually in the lab and then together in a giant petri dish on site at the Kitchen.
It was an uncontrolled experiment. A large amount of nutrient gel, heated in pots and pans on the Kitchen’s stove, was the wrong temperature, and they had to start over. Random things started growing in the petri dish from the nonsterile environment. “I saw Anicka using the bacteria almost like finger paints 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 down the scientific side and embrace that. It made the piece really nice in the end.”
The artist took an olfactory reading of the final sculpture and converted the pungent scent into a fragrance. It will be diffused in another sculptural installation to be included in the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea this fall.
Mr. Saraceno, who is known for making huge inflatable sculptures and complex gallery-size webs that can evoke floating cities, neural pathways and the infinitely expanding cosmos, was CAST’s inaugural visiting artist in 2012. He has continued to work actively with M.I.T. faculty exploring his utopian vision of flying around the world on one of his buoyant sculptures kept afloat only by the differential temperature between the air inside and outside a solar balloon. “The Earth becomes the big battery of the sculpture,” said Mr. Saraceno, who exhibited two prototypes of his giant silver Mylar balloons in “Solutions COP 21” at the Grand Palais in Paris during the climate change conference in December. He has successfully launched and kept them airborne for several hours with the help of scores of volunteers in recent test flights in Berlin, New Mexico and Bolivia that are part amateur science experiment, part performance art.
When the M.I.T. meteorologist Lodovica Illari first met Mr. Saraceno, she found his dream of alternative flight a bit far-fetched. “He began the conversation by asking, ‘If we were going to fly off on a balloon and ride a jet stream, where would we go?’” Ms. Illari said. “As a scientist, you want to be precise, correct. But he pushed me a little bit out of my comfort zone, saying, ‘Imagine something and see if it can be done.’”
She has embraced the proposition and has been working with him to analyze past flight trajectories of solar balloons and to simulate possible flights based on launching conditions and patterns of turbulence in the stratosphere. She plans to exhibit these during M.I.T.’s open house on April 23, celebrating the centennial of the university’s Cambridge campus. Her goal is to equip one of his solar balloons with an instrument that could sample the ozone throughout the day and night.
Mr. Saraceno, whose observation of spiders has inspired installations of webs made of elastic cord or monofilament, also collaborates with the M.I.T. civil engineer Markus Buehler, who studies the structure of the protein in spider silk as an ideal building material that could be replicated synthetically. Mr. Buehler had modeled two-dimensional webs only on the computer and was astounded by the artist’s photographs of a black widow spider’s web he had manually scanned millimeter by millimeter. They have since developed a scanning mechanism that tracks webs in three dimensions as they are being built.
“We’re working right now with Tomás on understanding how spiders build extremely complex shapes in open space without any scaffolding or help,” said Mr. Buehler, who has spiders building small cities in his M.I.T. basement. He imagines this research could be applied in the future to new architectural and engineering approaches.
Even when Mr. Saraceno careens off into flights of fancy, the scientists are tolerant.
“Tomás and I have pushed the boundaries in what we thought we could do,” Mr. Buehler said. “We ground ourselves when we actually get to work, 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’s necessary to solve a problem.”