28 02 2009


This paper investigates questions of spatial boundaries by presenting information related to artistic research developed in the area of nanotechnology. The paper establishes a link between Deleuze and Guattari’s theories of the refrain, vibration, milieus, territories, and rhythms and the synergies towards the immaterial substrates that constitute nano spatial boundaries. I look at a nano disintegration of territories and boundaries1 through the ubiquitous nature of the refrain. The disintegration parallels concepts of the swarm and the multitude that constitute the postbiological body (Milburn 2005 p 283).

The development of a social and scientific comprehension of a nanotechnological spatiality according to Colin Milburn has been shaped by a series of science fiction writers. These writers describe possible futures of boundaryless states where the “coherence of the human body is irrevocably fragmented, as a means to vivify the tangible and starkly inhuman impact that nanoscience is beginning to have on our lives” (Milburn 2005). These boundaryless states are contextualised in relationship to present collaborations between the visual arts and sciences. I reference other artists as well as my own nano-spatial investigation through the Midas and Nanoessence projects.

For this paper the construction of nano can be broken down into three areas. The first area I will look at is nanofiction, which presents possible futures that once recognised, become part of our present. This process can be seen through the convergence of science fiction and science creating an almost inseparable nexus. The second area is nanoconsious and the effect nanotechnology has on reconfiguring our perception and conscious understanding of the world. The third is the role of artistic interpretation and intervention in what is call nanoart. Alfred Nordmann suggests the challenge for artists is to understand that the “scientific way of relating to the cosmological image of nanotechnology abandons the claim of a privileged position for human being in a divine and externally fixed order” (Nordmann 2004 p 50).


Milburn describes the use of innovation and intuition in developing the critical narrative nanofictional building blocks of nanotechnology. The construction of myths that can become part of the public’s conscious reality can also be seen embedded in the scientist’s reality. This is explored by Milburn in reference to Richard Feynman’s 1959 paper There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom (Feynman 2006). In this paper Feynman made predictions concerning the potential of nanotechnology to create such areas as nano writing, nano computers and nano surgery. Milburn states that “The originality of the Feynman myth crumbles, for we can see that Feynman’s talk emerges from genre science fiction” (Milburn 2004). This morphology works in both directions with science exploring new concepts as well as creating reconstructions of science-fictionalised ideas.

Eric Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, hypothesized on a ‘grey goo’ theory, suggesting that manipulating atoms could lead to a chain reaction where self-replicating nanobots could become a destructive force (Drexler 2007). The manipulation of atoms as a destructive force when confronting the body’s boundaries questions ideas of being human. The narrative of Michael Crichton’s 2002 novel Prey expands on the Drexlerian description of ‘grey goo’ by deterritorialisation and referencing the body in terms of a swirling mass of cells.

If you want to think of it that way, a human being is actually a giant swarm. Or more precisely, it’s a swarm of swarms, because each organ – blood, liver, kidneys – is a separate swarm. What we refer to, as “body” is really a combination of all these organ swarms. We think our bodies are solid, but that’s only because we can’t see what is going on at the cellular level. If you could enlarge the human body, blow it up to a vast size, you would see that it is literally nothing but a swirling mass of cells and atoms, clustered together into smaller swirls of cells and atoms (Crichton 2002 p 374).

Crichton’s description defines a way of perceiving the body below the cellular level in terms of semi autonomous swarms of nanobot’s held together in a boundaryless state. These swarms of atoms have self-organization, which does not imply self-governance but rather fundamental relationships of “bodies, affects and subjects”. The swarm of atoms in Prey has the potential to control and construct a facsimile of the body as the protagonist. Jack Forman, a character in Prey, said that “you could argue that ‘swarm intelligence’ rules human beings, too… And that the damned swarm had some sort of rudimentary sense of itself as an entity” (Crichton 2002 p 374).

Will McCarthy in Bloom takes the swarm concept of the boundaryless body to further extremes where self replicating nanobots called Mycora or technogenic life (TGL) have become a total entity. The human race has escaped the expanding nanobot bloom and is now referred to as immunities. The Mycora describes itself as occupying “contiguous space” and as being “unpacked”. In one of the final scenes, the Mycora eating through the spaceship takes on the image of a human face and states “there is a system not just bodies, no, course not. We do not have ‘bodies’ in the sense you probably mean, but there are the complexes which constitute us, and the complexes which support us” (McCarthy 1998 p 303).

The science fiction construction of a post-biological body that references the disintegration of the body has equal potential for re-integration but this re-integration assumes that life will automatically follow. The immateriality of a life force deterritorialised offers future possibilities for the human lived experience when unpacked along with other material parts of the body. The conceptual deterritorialisation of bodies when reterritorialised needs to be challenged as to what constitutes life and identity.


Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s philosophical writings on the refrain, territoritories and milieus parallel Crichton’s post-biological state of the body were each organ is conceived as a swarm of atoms. The refrain highlights the link between metaphysics and science, creating a platform for the vibration of atoms to be at the core of territorialisation. The refrain is born out of three basic components: from a centre, to the home, to interaction with the outside. The bird’s refrain confronts chaos by marking out its territory: the sonic vibration centres the bird creating a home or nest. The second component explores the bird’s refrain as a milieu with its non-physical boundary to mark out an interaction with the outside. The third component of the refrain marks out a line of communication allowing for a migration between other milieus beyond the non physical boundary (Deleuze and Guattari 1987 p 311).

The fictional vibrating mass of swarming atoms referred to in Crichton’s Prey, which are replicating body organs, can be seen as existing in a state born out of chaos. Eugene Thacker states that a swarm may “exhibit a discernible global pattern, but this does not mean that a swarm prioritizes the group over the individual. Because of this, a swarm does not exist at a local or global level, but at a third level, where multiplicity and relation intersect” (Thacker 2004). The place where multiplicity and relation intersect links with Deleuze and Guattari progression from interconnecting states: out of chaos, to refrain to milieu and rhythms to territories. The organs as milieus interconnect and the territory is “in fact an act that affects milieus and rhythms that ‘territorialises’ them” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987 p 314). In the case of a refrain it “is rhythm and melody that have been territorialised” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987 p 317) as a contextualising expressive force: the “Rhythm is the milieus’ answer to chaos” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987 p 313). The rhythm is not repetitive, it is the difference in vibrations that communicate between milieus, ‘the difference that is rhythmic’. The vibrations create rhythms that can move between internal and external milieus as interconnected synergies.

In investigating the parallels between Crichtons and Deleuze and Guattari the link is made between the organs as milieus: the organs act as a component that contains a refrain of territorialised body. Milieus that have been territorialised are seen in relationship to nano vibrations, existing as a swarm of vibrating atoms that compose the immaterial substrate of the world. The milieus as organs express themselves through intermediary connecting rhythms with other milieus that have become, in part, territorialised. The humanness of this territory is revealed through the expression in the refrain that maps out the individual significance of swarms to swarms, cells to cells, tissue to tissue and organs to organs within the territorialised body.

The post biological body is a space of milieus within territories that can become a de-territorialised zone through a change in refrain. The de-territorialisation is based on a bottom up approach to what swarms constitute the body and its boundary. The extremity of the bodies’ boundary is constructed through a desire to maintain its objectification. The de-territorialisation allows chaos to be a contributing factor in the development of the self-organising evolutionary body and its relationship with, and of the world.

In the nano world bodies that can be deterritorialised could therefore be reterritorialised. The reterritorialisation of atoms can be constructed from a bottom up approach. In the same way the binary code of digital culture is based on machinic deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of data by digital devices. The machinic controls interpret and process the decoding of data into the manifestation of a thing as a co-conspirator, re-coding and re-translating. The encoded and decoded machinic interpretation implies a territory of continual re-translation as a reaction to chaos. Relating data to atoms develops a cyborg relationship with the deterritorialised body, which can cause the body to be seen as a material property to be exploited. nanoconsciousness is focuses on what it is to be human, as changes to our fundamental understanding of our materiality is challenged.


At this point I want to discuss my own research and that of other artists projects working in the same area of reconfiguring our awareness of the phenomenological body through nanotechnology.

In a 2002 exhibition, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau presented Nano-Scape, an invisible interactive sculpture that was:

…just like the Nano-world it comments about. While science and media try to capture images of these tiniest of particles in order to understand their properties, Nano-Scape tries to make this Nano-world intuitively accessible through touch. (Christa Sommerer 2002)

In 2003 the exhibition Nano was presented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to make nanoscience visible, tangible, and experiential. The principal collaborators in this project were Victoria Vesna, James Gimzewski and N.Katherine Hayles. The concept of the exhibition was to present experiential spaces from what is effectively immateriality. Nanotechnology breaks matter down to its immaterial state and artists working here explore the potential to make the invisible work palpable.

The Nano-Scape piece and the Nano exhibition highlight a phemenological desire to explore a sensorial understanding of emerging challenges taking place within the area of nanotechnology.

My initial work uses the metaphor of Midas2 by investigating at a nano level the boundaries between skin and gold, to explore what is transferred when gold is being touched.

To explore what happens at a nano level, an Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) was used to probe topological, conformational changes and interactions of a gold-coated cantilever on a single skin cell as compared with an uncoated cantilever. By scanning the skin cell with both a gold-coated and uncoated cantilever tip, specific recorded data for each event could be comparatively examined.

Fig1 Thomas_Mutamorphis (Fig 1)

The next experiment was to record the vibration of atoms with the AFM in force spectroscopy mode. The force spectroscopy mode only records the vertical movement

Fig 2 Thomas_Mutamorphis (Fig 2)

From the reflection of a laser beam projected on the cantilever to a photodiode. Cells cultured at SymbioticA were scanned isolating one cell to measure the atoms vibrations between a skin cell and a skin cell touched by gold. The 26.7nm gold-coated cantilever is manually advanced towards the cells surface until it makes contact. At the point before contact the tip of the cantilever is attracted and jumps to the cells surface (Van der Waals principle). This scanning process was carried out using four different approaches: two with gold tips and two without.Using the AFM force spectroscopy, silicon nitride tips were placed over a cell surface at three different contact forces for 10 seconds, each scan explored the morphology of trans-mediation taking place at the boundary between skin and gold.

The data of the vibrating atoms was translated to sound files to be used in conjunction with a computer generated 3D stereo projection replicating a Drexlierian deterritorialising possibility of semi autonomous nano assemblers. The sound replicates the vibration of the atoms and the projection is an image of a single cell where a genetic algorithm was written for semi autonomous self-organizing nanobots to affect the digital image of the skin cell translating the data to gold colour. To re-enact the sense of touch, a button constructed from a skin cell is touched by the viewer which releases nanobots, seeded from the vibrational data. Each touch creates a milieu where each milieu has a different rhythm

Fig 3Thomas_Mutamorhis (Fig 3)

The current project Nanoessence extends from the Midas project by exploring boundaryless concepts of life and its extension of the contemporary post human body. The Midas project demonstrated the subtle change in atomic vibrations when skin is touched by gold. In Nanoessence the space the body occupies and its humanistic boundaries can be seen as being under threat through nanotechnologies.

Nanoessence is a comparative investigation of atomic structure and vibrations taking place between living and dead skin cells when touched by the AFM cantilever. The comparative study is initially being developed through collaboration with SymbioticA Lab, University of Western Australia, and the Nanochemistry Research Institute, (NRI) Curtin University of Technology.

Living skin cells are scanned by the AFM in contact mode, where the cantilever scans the surface of the skin cell by touching the surface. This mode records the topographies by gathering deflection data that is translated to produce a visual representation. The force spectroscopy mode determines atomic vibration as the tip touches the surface of the cell.

The project explores a re-spatialisation of the human context at a sub cellular level. The space of the body is seen at an atomic level as having no boundaries. The humanistic discourse is consumed by nanotechnologies in fracturing the frailty of what constitutes living. As the process takes place, formaldehyde is added to the cells solution, effectively killing the cell. The single cell in Nanoessence is analysed to research the comparisons between the organism and the machine between the living and dead.

The data from AFM will be analysed to do a comparative study of the difference that exist between living and dead skin cells by constructing two topographical landscapes. The data difference that occurs at the nano level will then be used to construct a third generative landscape. The installation will present three cellular terrains with the middle generative image presenting the essence of life or living.

The desires for Midas and the Nanoessence project are to confront our phenomenological understanding of infinite smallness as well as create a psychological shift in the viewers’ consciousness.


In examining aspects of the interpretation of nanotechnology via science fiction, philosophers, scientists and artists, I have attempted to demonstrate their affect on our conscious. A scientific and conceptual understanding of the boundaryless body offers potential different ways of exploring spatiality, while acknowledging the pervasive presence of perspectival systems. Gimzewski and Vesna explore the concept of reconfiguring our consciousness and the “shift in our minds (that) has to take place to comprehend the work that nanoscience is attempting and what would be the repercussion of such a shift be” (Vesna and Gimzewski 2003).

Deleuze and Guattari construction of the refrain enacts the epistemic pre-condition necessary to see rhythms and milieus as referencing a science fictional inevitability of ‘technogenic life’. The milieu as a coded swarm existing in time along side other milieus that are rhythmically ‘decoding and transcoding’ (TP 313) to be defined by territories. What is being broken down from human territorialisation is the imagined nature of being and placing the act at forefront of determining life.

Nanotechnology exists in materialistic aspirations of the National Science and Technology Council Committee on Technology. The Interagency Working Group on Nanoscience, Engineering and Technology report stated in its title that it was “Shaping the World Atom by Atom”. Without expressing the concerns of a postbiological future the report states:

If you were to deconstruct a human body into its most basic ingredients, you’d get a little tank each of oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. There would be piddling piles of carbon, calcium, and salt. You’d squint at pinches of sulfur, phosphorus, iron, and magnesium, and tiny dots of 20 or so other chemical elements. Total street value: not much.

My own practice invites the viewer into a discourse between what constitutes a phenomenological experience of nanotechnology to counter the picture given to us by scientists and writers who generate a textural becoming of the boundaryless humans.

As Roy Ascott rightly points out, nanotechnology is

…tearing the fabric of the physical world to expose the instability of its immaterial substrate. Whilst providing the basic elements for its material reconstruction. Nano offers the means of reality checking and reality building a super imposition that finds its continuum in the field of consciousness (Ascott 2005).

The question of reality checking is of greater relevance to us now. From the beginning of the 20th century the rupture that constituted the reconfiguration of our perspectival perceptions has been escalating. The 20th century artists created visible paradigms of becoming and being but failed up to now to confront the material perspectival driven objectification of the world.

As the awareness of the immateriality of matter is extended through our conscious understanding, the world becomes deterritorialised and we become molecularised: “a molecular population, a people of oscillators as so many forces of interaction” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987 p 345). The boundaryless nature of our body raises questions regarding the materialistic value placed on the contents: whether we confront the materialistic values inherent in nanotechnology via developing new products or the interest in seeing the body as servicing the medical industry, or we embrace the deterritorialisation of the body in hope of a vision presented of the Mycora in McCarthy’s Bloom. These different aspects show the obvious seductive effects of the rhetoric of nanotechnology but it is an area where reflection and contemplation should be used to understand the complexity and interconnectedness of a sonic spatial reconfiguration through vibration.

Reference List:

1 The boundaryless body has emerged from predicated intuitive/scientific visualisations of science fictional nanoscenarios. Boundaryless in the nano context means the opposite of having borders/boundaries that develop an objectification of space.

2 The Midas project was named after the fabled King Midas, who was king of Phrygia. Dionysus gave King Midas the power of turning to gold all he touched.


Ascott, R. (2005). Seeking the Place of Mind. Altered Sates: transformations of perception, place and performance, University of Plymouth.

Christa Sommerer, Laurent Mignonneau (2002). “Nano-Scape.” Retrieved 20.01.07, 2007, from

Crichton, M. (2002). Prey. London, HarpersCollins Publishers.

Deleuze, G. and F. Guattari (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Drexler, K. E. (2007). “Engines of Creation The Coming Era of Nanotechnology.” Retrieved 11/01/07, 2007, from

Feynman, R. P. (2006). “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” Retrieved 11/01/07, 2007, from

McCarthy, W. (1998). Bloom. London, Milennium.

Milburn, C. (2004). Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering: Science Fiction as Science. Nanoculture: Implcations of the New Technoscience. N. K. Hayles. Bristol, Intellect Books.

Milburn, C. (2005). “Nano/Splatter: Disintergrating the Postbiological body.New Literary History 36(2): 283.

Nordmann, A. (2004) Nanotechnology’s worldview: new space for old cosmologies. Technology and Society Magazine, IEEE Volume, 48 – 54 DOI:

Thacker, E. (2004, 2007). “Networks, Swarms, Multitudes.” from

Vesna, V. and J. K. Gimzewski (2003). “The Nanoneme Syndrome: Blurring the fact and fiction intheconstruction of a new science.” Technoetic Arts 1(1): 7-24.


Fig 1 Comparative topographies of skin cell scanned with AFM in contact mode. A scanned with standard cantilever. B Scanned with gold-coated cantilever.

Fig 2 Illustration demonstrating the AFM gold coated and uncoated silicon nitride cantilever.

Fig 3 Still from Midas project, genetic algorithms transforming the skin cell image to gold.




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