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Speculating the Nanotech Home of the Future
by Sylvie Parent and Angus Leech, translated by Timothy Barnard
14.1 - March
Last August, the Banff New Media Institute organised a multidisciplinary conference
on nanotechnology and digital art entitled Carbon vs. Silicon.
Our 14th issue of HorizonZero proposes to extend the discussion
of ideas raised at this event by offering a large variety of articles and multimedia
projects inspired by it. In her column Quintessence, subtitled
"Material Memories", Editor-in-chief Sara Diamond explains what motivated the
event, and outlines the group discussions which made it possible for numerous
subsequent projects to be carried out - projects presented in this issue of
But first, we should say a few words about nanotechnology. Some twenty years
ago, powerful new tools enabled scientists to observe the world on an atomic
scale, and to act upon molecules - the very stuff of matter. Nanotechnology
seeks nothing less than to "remake the world on an atomic scale", as
the science journalist Philippe Mercure informs us in his article entitled Conquering
the Infinitely Small, featured in this issue of HorizonZero.
This field of research has already given rise to a number of applications in
many fields of human activity, and Mercure introduces us to the extent of the
Nanotechnology gives rise to passionate and contrary reactions, from enthusiasm to fear, and has a strong impact on the realm of the imagination. Indeed many writers and artists have been inspired by the potential of this technology to reinvent a future by turns fantastic and nightmarish. Among them are Victoria Vesna and Jim Gimzewski, the originators of the project zero@wavefunction [http://notime.arts.ucla.edu/zerowave] and, more recently, of the exhibition nano [http://nano.arts.ucla.edu/], held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). In their article The Nanomeme Syndrome: Blurring of Fact and Fiction in the Construction of New Science (which we publish here in an abridged version), the authors discuss the utopian or catastrophic visions that have been inspired by nanotechnology, and demonstrate that they are the product of the tension between actual fact and the fabulous imaginings that have arisen out of this technology.
The second installment of this issue (14.2 - April) will present six multimedia
projects created by multidisciplinary teams (artists, scientists, designers)
around the idea of the "Nanotechnology Dream Home of the Future". Why the home?
At the Carbon vs. Silicon conference,
many participants were interested in examining the potential transformation
of domestic space by nanotechnology. So we gave them an opportunity to design
projects that would follow up on the numerous discussions that took place during
A house is also a personal environment, the reflection of an individual's inner
world. It shelters our domestic lives, with the result that its possible transformation
by nanotechnology could affect our relationship to the world on the most private
level. With these artistic projects, we bring together the fields of nanotechnology
and digital art in the spirit of Carbon vs.
Silicon. And although these Nano Dream Home projects will appear in the
second phase of this issue, we hope to whet your appetite for the subject with
a new work of fiction by well known science fiction author Jean-Louis Trudel.
His remarkable story Gathering the Echoes takes us into a fantastic and surreal
world, by turns tragic and comic; a domestic scenario inspired by nanotechnology,
and suggestive of all the ambivalence it invokes within us.
For those curious to learn more about the subject, we have prepared a list of hyperlinks leading to Web sites dealing with nanotechnology, nano art, and the concept of the "dream home of the future". In addition, we have created a collection of "nanofacts" about nanotechnology which we hope won't fail to generate reactions, given that this field of research can often lead us into science fiction...
Welcome to the world of nanotechnology - in particular, the space where nanotech converges with the domestic, and with the creation of digital art!
Sylvie Parent is French editor of HorizonZero.
14.2 - April
One of the most interesting things about present nanotechnology discourse is the tension between science and science fiction. Nano scientists and businesses anxiously try to disengage the public from false myths that s/f has sometimes perpetrated, while fiction relentlessly coopts nanotech as a subject, fomenting trepidation and fantasy, but sometimes also providing ideas for new nanotech research directions, and always provoking us to think about the future implications of new technologies.
Nanotech's other, related paradox is that it confronts us as both dream and
nightmare. A dream because it barely exists yet: it's thus far more an "aesthetic
work" of the scientific imagination than a technological reality (and
hence rich ground for fictionalization and utopian predictions). Yet nanotech
is also a nightmare: because real threats could arise, but probably moreso because
we don't know yet what the true risks are. And if nanofiction, anti-nano activism,
and some journalism tend toward fearful hyperbole, then they may simply be presenting
us with exaggerated metaphors for real situations we'll someday have to face.
Certainly, many of the cultural debates that have accompanied the rise of digital
technologies and genetics - questions of security, surveillance, privacy, control
of information, human rights, health and environment - are bound to confront
us hundredfold once nanotech hits the scene.
These tensions - fact versus fiction, dream versus nightmare - underscore the fabric of Issue 14 like an atomic lattice of attractions and repulsions. Our intent: to remain open to such paradoxes while subjecting them to exploration, debate, and critical analysis.
One of our explicit goals here has been to debunk common myths about nanoscience, and April sees the addition of another critical piece of writing from esteemed science journalist Tom Keenan. In Cutting Nanotech Down to Size, our writer takes a skeptical look at the nano hype machine, from stock market speculations and cancer cures to data storage and cryonic immortality, dispelling certain rumours, and also reminding us that, as with any technology, it's ultimately the question of how people choose to use it which may matter the most.
Apart from demystifying nanoscience (and speaking of paradoxes), another intention here has been to celebrate the speculative potency of science fiction - its power to raise questions and help us better understand our nanotechnological future. Closely connected to this is DREAM's ultimate theme: that of imagining how architecture and the home will one day be transformed by nanotechnologies. Like complimentary strands of DNA, these threads come together with this month's launch of the Nano Home of the Future projects. Digital artists have recently begun to enter the cultural dialogue about nanotech, as both debunkers and speculators. So HorizonZero invited six teams of digital artists, designers, and (wherever possible) scientists to each develop an interactive architectural "sketch" of a nanotech dream home concept. The results in most cases can only be classified as speculative fiction - yet, like much good s/f, these projects tend to ground themselves in science as deeply as possible while fanstasizing about distant domestic possibilities, utopian and otherwise.
In Mind Over Kitchen, bioethicist Gregor Wolbring teams with artist/geneticist
Ruth West and HorizonZero graphic designer Myron Campbell to model
a telepathically-controlled house. In Inhabitable Skins, designer
Kathryn Saunders, chemist David Wishart, artist Tania Fraga, and computer scientist
Russell Taylor dream about living cities composed of fluid structures and translucent
skins. In Personal Nomadic Home, Mary Flanagan and the tiltfactor
student design group at New York's Hunter College plan a mobile modular home
concept based on principles of freedom, self-sustainability, and nomadic aesthetics.
Memory Rich Architecture sees interdisciplinary artist Joanna Berzowska
working with designers Arek Basanik and Francis Reed to postulate a living room
to remember. In Kyo's Dream, fiction writer Kathleen Goonan is
joined by mathemetician/media theorist Sha Xin Wei and designer/computer scientist
Brian Fisher in telling the uncanny story of a sentient bungalow which expells
its owners and then has their baby. (!) Finally, Montreal audiovisual artists
AElab (Gisèle Trudel and Stéphane Claude) team up with chemist Vicki Meli from
McGill University's Nanolab to create DATA: Transfers, a project
that eschews our "home of tomorrow" concept in favour of a fantastic audiovisual
voyage through the home of today, rendered in nanoscale microscopic imagery.
Lending some critical background and context to these Nano Home projects are a handful of formidable writings published in our Architectures essay section. In The House of the Future, architect Marie-Paule Macdonald traces the history of the quest to build the ideal single family dwelling, from the modernist glass and steel experiments of the 1950s, through to the digital home of the 1990s and the nanotech home of futurist fantasy. Elsewhere, in The Public, the Private, and the Invisible, media theorist Michele White indulges in some thought provoking reflection about the Nano Home projects themselves, posing challenging questions to our creative teams about the very meaning of "home", and the interlocution between gender and technology. And in Blueprints for Tomorrow, we feature three short opinion essays, each highlighting a different issue related to nanotech and the built environment: Gregor Wolbring expands on the discussion of nanotech and universal design ethics begun in the Mind Over Kitchen project; Joanna Berzowska muses some more about nanotech memory storage devices; and curator Candice Hopkins uproots a favourite nanotech dream theme: nomadic architecture.
Last but not least, gracing our Horizontal gallery space this
month are audio-visual wunderkind Skoltz_Kolgen. Their contribution, Nanowet,
was specially commissioned for DREAM, but inspired by their preparations
for an upcoming performance/installation titled Epiderm, to be shown
at Montreal's Usine C gallery in June, 2004. This work in panoramic audio and
3D digital animation presents viewers
with a virtual model of nanostructures in motion - according to the artists,
"an artistic transposition of a complex structure at the atomic level that moves
in space in an absolute wet environment." We think it's a truly beautiful and
visceral interpretation of an otherwise invisible "nanoscape".
Angus Leech is English Editor of HorizonZero.