VICTORIA VESNA From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Edmund Burke was only 19 years old when he began an eight-year project that made him a spokesperson for the sublime. The project culminated in 1757 with the publication of A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In his treatise, Edmund Burke laid out several basic attributes of the sublime. The first and most conspicuous is vastness. Things that are small and attractive can be beautiful, he maintained, but the sublime is reserved for physical greatness.

Like the experience of the sublime, frontiers of exploration are often identified with radical shifts of scale.  Hardly a century ago, the word ‘high’ described the flight of birds and insects.  Now it is commonplace for airborne humans to gaze down upon these winged creatures. Likewise, the word ‘large’ once referred to a mountain. Now humans can measure entire galaxies.

However, these scale extensions into outer space seem commonplace when they are compared to recent extensions into inner space. Victoria Vesna’s artistic venturing into the miniscule scales of human engagement incorporate nanotechnologies. The word ‘nano’ means “dwarf” in Greek. Now it also refers to units of measurement that are so small, a single strand of hair measures between 50,000 and 80,000 nanometers. Contact with this nano world far exceeds the limits of viewing. Instead, it relies upon a tactile sensing device known as a Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM). Nano technologies have totally recalibrated human scales of reference.

The overarching mission that unifies Victoria Vesna’s diverse projects belongs to an impressive legacy established long ago by artists seeking the ultimate of nature’s wonders – the power of the sun, the primeval origins of life, the molten mass brewing beneath the Earth’s crust. Vesna propels this age-old desire into the current era and beyond by enlisting the aid of boundary-defying advances in science and technology. As such, her works promise the excitement of eye-witness reportage from the forefront of human explorations, with the added psychic charge contributed by revealing new truisms and insights. Vesna exults in the infinitesimal cosmos unfurled within advanced scientific laboratories. But her engagements far exceed wide-eyed wonderment regarding their disclosures. By recruiting physicists, theoreticians, engineers, and biologists as her collaborators in the production of art, she gains the latitude to imagine voyages of discovery into regions that lie far beyond earth-bound experience of space/time and object/event. 

Vesna’s father, a Yugoslavian diplomat, primed her to seek and champion scientific advances that border on the supernatural. He was as staunch proponent of Nikola Tesla, the Serbian/American inventor who, as early as 1891, anticipated wireless transfer of electric energy across continents. Tesla’s reputation was tarnished because of such outlandish assertions. Vesna has perpetuated his spirited explorations in fashion (as a student at the High School of Art and Design in NY), painting (at the Academy of Fine  Arts in Belgrade), punk rock music (as a member of the Crazy Hearts band in New York). Her capacity to undertake and communicate these explorations was bolstered when she learned film and video by working in a film supply and production house in New York, and computer graphics by interning in a computer graphics production house in Los Angeles.

In 1986, Vesna launched her career as an artist at the Aperto section of the Venice Biennale, a prestigious international exhibition. Fortuitously, that year’s theme was entitled “Art and Science”. She refers to the opportunity as a “destiny moment” because that is where she made the acquaintance of Roy Ascott who was already known for pioneering ‘telematic art’. Ten years later Ascott became her Ph.D. adviser at the University of Wales.

In 1995, Vesna created Virtual Concrete in response to the Northridge Earthquake near Los Angeles which occurred in 1994. The quake lasted only seconds, but it dislodged large chunks of silicon-based concrete from freeways, killing many people. Vesna took special note of the disaster’s effect upon communication. As soon as analog communication lines were disrupted, information-sharing gravitated to the Internet and cell phones. A principle that has guided her subsequent work emerged. Vesna explains, “The concrete object, which was perceived to survive the test of time, returns to dust in the face of major destruction, while the intangible remains.”   Virtual Concrete, by nullifying the apparent differences between tangible and intangible realms of beings, introduced four overarching attributes that distinguish Vesna’s art career to this day.

–    (Im)Materially, Virtual Concrete highlighted the seamless continuities between matter and data and thought. The artwork applied this unifying impulse to silica. On the one hand its chemical configuration comprises 75% of the materiality of the Earth’s crust. Yet the same molecules also form the computer chips that propel consciousness into cyberspace. Thus, both freeways and information highways are formed of silica. Although gravity and mass tethers one and not the other, both transport humans into distant realms. Vesna explains, “With the chip and building of the I-way, one could speculate that we have reached the peak of the concrete and are ready to take off into the abstract. This, techno-euphoric point of view immediately comes into question once we surf the worlds which are under construction in cyberspace and discover that they are in fact simply a transferring of a concrete train of thought and a materialistic point of view into another dimension.” 

–    Strategically, Virtual Concrete manifests these abstract speculations as art installations that suit conventional art venues and appeal to typical art audiences. She notes, “Although the piece was digital in basis, once concretized and granted a physicality, it could be accepted by the art world and enter into a gallery or museum space, a space where the object is usually considered sacred and untouchable.”  

–    Conceptually, the artwork attained ‘escape velocity’ that propels members of the audience into otherworldly domains where expectations are thwarted, mystery prevails, and the ‘static’ becomes ‘ec-static’. Vesna offers this provocative thought, “Finally, when considering the Information Super Highway, which we tend to think of as transcendent, as if related to Heaven, ‘pure’ silicon is the driving force and the opposite of our daily concrete life.”

–    Interactively, Vesna invited her audience to become co-creators of the work. As such, the artworks accumulate evidence of the public’s modifications. With regard to Virtual Concrete she explains, “I wanted the audience to be able to walk on the concrete bodies in pure irreverence, to trespass as they moved on the piece.”  

The artwork that manifested these principles consisted of six 3-ft slabs of concrete covered with over-scaled electrostatic (digital output) prints of a male body and a female body covered with silicon implants and computer chip boards.  Visitors/participants were invited to walk on the concrete. The names of sex chat rooms were projected on to the concrete slabs. This erotic text, which was almost unnoticeable, was projected on top of the images.  In addition, a computer that was connected to the Internet via a camera projected remote images of computer users.  Finally, light sensors picked up the shadows of visitors moving over the installation, which activated compositions of randomly cycling sound. The WWW site had a small window that streamed video from the gallery showing the installation and the people interacting with it. Vesna comments, “I enjoyed the fact that in the gr
oup show where I was the only artist working with the Internet, my work was by far the heaviest.”

Another ‘destiny moment’ occurred after 9/11 when the governor of California decided to created a number of institutes, including a nano institute that linked UCLA with Santa Barbara. It provided a framework within which Vesna could pursue her scientific explorations as an artist.  She organized a symposium entitled “Networks to NanoSystems” and invited artists and scientists to discuss how nano particles might factor into art. Two of the scientists who participated had won Nobel laureates for developing the scanning tunneling microscope that she quickly adopted as a tool for creating art imagery. Another participant was a new faculty member named Jim Gimzewski whose presentation, remarkably, included some of the same images that Vesna showed. Vesna presented examples of the work of Buckminster Fuller, known for his pioneering work with the geodesic dome. Gimzewski showed images of the ‘fullerene’, a molecule composed entirely of carbon. Although spherical fullerenes are called “buckyballs” as an  homage to Buckminster Fuller whose geodesic domes it resembles, Gimzewski was introduced to Buckminster Fuller on that day, and Vesna discovered fullerenes.  She comments, “I was as ignorant of the science as he was ignorant of the art.  Scientists don’t have an idea that it was through a cultural connection to the emergence of this molecule. From the start in was about these disciplines coming together.”

A year later they created Zero Wave together. Vesna noted that the way scientists depicted the Bucky ball was static. “This is not the way Jim described how it worked on a molecular level. When you manipulate on that scale, there is no sense of touch. You have a pen with an atom on top of it. The definition of nano is too minute to process. So, I did the opposite. I made the molecules huge to convey that everything is made of molecules and that complexity starts at the nano level. You and I start as a dot. Things become more complex bottom up. I wanted to depict the complexity rather than the reductionist way of approaching nanoscale in metrics.”  Furthermore Vesna notes, “There is no comparison between a nano particle and life experience. It is separate form of reality. That is why I used people’s shadows. They could affect the particles without touching them.” 
For years Jim worked to get to the one molecule level. When he finally achieved it, he questioned the meaning of this. Had had been on a mission to reverse the reductionist view of nano technology. Art enables him to do this.

The four works of art that comprise the current exhibition manifest the fertility of all four attributes. In each, visitors enter domains that exceed pragmatic functions, familiar bursts of inspiration, and recognizable forms of insight.

Zero@Wavefunction: Nano Dreams and Nightmares (2002) engages the mysterious behavior of matter at the atomic scale. A wave function, which is central to quantum mechanics, refers to the fact that the state of any physical system actually can never be known because numerous possible states always exist. This baffling concept means that only the wave function’s relative phase and relative magnitude can be measured. When two wave functions come close, both usually change, but no modification can also occur. Zero@wavefunction indicates no change.  This contradiction of simple logic is now believed to offer the most complete description of physical systems that exist sub atomically and cosmically.

The work’s subtitle, nano dreams and nightmares, emphasizes the fact that there is no agreement regarding nano science’s social implications or its effect upon consciousness. As a result, the future is suspended between ‘dreams’ of sustainable technologies and ‘nightmares’ of technologies run amok.  Since such uncertainties are typically greeted by fear and distrust, Vesna and Gimzewski set about making nanoscience into an appealing, awe-inspiring experience for the public.

Both the museum installation and the interactive web site for Zero@Wavefunction are modeled on nano-scaled, spherical ‘Bucky balls’. In the museum, interactive images of buckyballs are projected at monumental scale inviting visitors to enter the nano world where Newtonian laws of matter in motion do not apply. Even habits of detecting objects by looking outward are rendered useless. To detect nano particles, it is necessary to tunnel in and feel them.  In this manner the audience activates events that manifest quantum forces and wave/particle dualities.
The Zero@wavefunction web site also offers multiple opportunities to explore the behavior of minute particles by clicking on the screen. The dot created with each random click is automatically connected to other dots. Triangles appear, link, shiver, and gyrate as chaotic forms gradually assume the coherent structure of a buckyball while expectations of rigid geometry are nullified. The forms bounce, stretch, collapse, and gyrate, but only if the user’s interactions are gentle. If they are impatient or rough, they have no effect. Vesna explains the cooperative implications of nano technology, “The authors put forward that this new science is ultimately about a shift in our perception of reality from a purely visual culture to one based on sensing and connectivity.” 

Nano Mandala (2004) fulfilled Vesna’s proposition that the unification of material and mental phenomena is optimized “when the Western ideas truly merge with Eastern philosophies.”  

This insight was triggered by an unrelated situation. Vesna reports that when she and Gimzewski were developing the installations for the LACMA exhibit, the director insisted that she select a few pieces from the museum’s contemporary art collection to include in the nano art installation. Vesna recalls, “I kept trying, but I didn’t see a natural connection. At one point I thought, the museum has a collection of Buddhist art and Buddhists talk about empty space. This is a more comfortable connection.”

Coincidentally, the Eastern art department had just invited several Buddhist monks and a lama to create a sand mandala at the museum. They begin the process by positioning a single grain of sand in the center. Then, working steadily for four weeks, they meticulously placed colored grains of sand around it to form an intricate mandala. Mandalas are used in various Eastern spiritual traditions as aids to meditation and to establish a sacred space.

In order to enlist the monks’ cooperation respectfully, Vesna organized several retreats to explain her intention of establishing a triad between art, spirituality, and science. “It became incredibly contentious, not because the monks were offended, but because a free lance science writer who was producing the publicity for the exhibition was vehement that science should not get mixed up with spirituality. Vesna reports that the director of Eastern Art intervened, “He said that Tibetan Buddhists are the original nano technologists!” The monks approved, believing in the value of bringing spirituality back into the science function. Vesna describes the challenge, commenting, “How to prevent it from becoming new age? The answer came to me in meditation. I thought. William Blake. A grain of sand. That is what we need to do. ”

Vesna explains, “I was inspired by watching the nano scientist at work, purposefully arranging atoms just as the monk laboriously creates sand images grain by grain. This work brings together the Eastern and Western minds through their shared process centered on patience. Both cultures use these bottom-up building practices to create a complex picture of the world from extremely different perspectives.”

When the mandala was completed, Gimzewski guided the process of producing a film in which n
othing changed but the scale of the image. First, a wide angle camera was placed directly over the mandala to record a series of images that gradually magnified so that ever smaller sections filled the entire field.

300,000 photographic images of the mandala in tiny increments of closer range, were shot at the site. Ultimately, a single grain of sand, approximately one millimeter in diameter, was all that remained within the field of vision. Then a monk came to Gimzewski’s lab to recreate the center of the mandala so that the process of tunneling in on sand grains could continue with the atomic force microscope that was located there.  Vesna recalls that the monk observed the massive equipment and commented, “You have to do all this to arrive at the state of emptiness. We meditate on a million Buddhas on the head of a pin. We already know this work.”

The atomic force microscope  tunneled deeper and deeper into this minute bit of earthly matter, from a kilo scale (one hundredth of a meter), to a micro scale (one thousandth of a meter), and ultimately to the nano scale (one billionth of a meter). As a result, this technology-dependent mandala introduces an alternate route into the sublime. Vesna comments, “In 1985, scientists entered the molecular realm.  This world is transitory.  It is minute.  It was already familiar to monks.  They have already raised their awareness. Monks don’t need technology to achieve this awareness, but most other people do. The mandala demonstrates the nano world.”   The work discloses that nano science discloses a mystic’s conception of the universe that emerges from a trance or deep meditation. The effect was enhanced by sounds of the ocean and monks chanting.
Blue Morph (2009) is also dependent upon sophisticated nano technologies. It utilizes an atomic microscope that shines a laser on to a miniscule mirror attached to the chrysalis of a Morpho Peleides butterfly, and a microphone that captures the surging sounds of the pupae’s metamorphosis into a butterfly. In this installation, these reminders of human contrivances are hidden from view, facilitating the immersion into the eerie environment that greets the visitor. Hypnotic pulsating sounds vibrate through a space that is barely illuminated by blue light.  A low central platform beckons the viewer. Above it hangs a bulky crocheted headdress that soars toward the ceiling. The platform faces a screen. When visitors seat themselves on the platform and place the hat on their heads, they are both immobilized and attentive, primed to absorb the chrysalis’s labored struggles to transform itself.  Glorious layers of radiant blue scales appear on the screen. They are nano views of emerging adult butterfly wings.  The process, made audible through the headdress, resembles a primeval event.

Two feats of transformation are disclosed, one that is hidden within a cocoon and another that is too miniscule for the human eye and ordinary microscopes to detect. Viewable for the first time, visitors witness the pupae’s labors.  A pattern emerges. Intense surges of energy and intervals of quietude.  Vesna transposes the pattern to “a collective feeling of ‘butterflies in our stomachs’ – a nervous anticipation of the metamorphosis of the human experience on this planet.”   Metaphorical intention is absent from this statement. Vesna explores the unified functions of the actual world. In this instance, a single metamorphosis conveys the qualities of all systems. They are not fixed. They exist on the brink of chaos. They adapt. 

Brainstorm (2012) reveals the inclusive nature of Vesna’s considerations.  A nine-sided table occupies the center of the room. It is scaled and proportioned to optimize the free exchange of insights and information among nine people seated at each juncture. This work qualifies as ‘experimental’ within art and science because it utilizes high-end technologies that scientists are engaging to delve into the ultimate complexities of human brain functions by holding bi-weekly brain-storming sessions. In this work the content of artists’ brains, humanists’ brains, scientists’ brains are spontaneously pooled to create a composite investigation of the role of weather patterns upon the electrical activity of brain functions. Weather enters the weather-proof, controlled-environment of the museum interior in the form of a live feed of local weather patterns that are projected overhead. Philosophically, Brainstorm investigates whether human social upheavals are related to natural disasters. While the mood/weather correlation has been utilized metaphorically throughout the history of art and literature, Brainstorm attempts to actualize this poetic notion because each participant will don a head device that measures brain functions. Considering the recent spate of record-breaking tsunamis, hurricanes, arctic meltings, snowfalls, heat waves, cold waves, and tornadoes, the work is both timely and consequential. For example, might a weather disturbance trigger a financial crisis or a social upheaval? . Vesna comments, “The brain is not buckets of meat waiting to be dissected.  We are each vibrational beings and we don’t know our capacity to conceive. What makes the brain work?”  Somehow, Brainstorm will brainstorm about brainstorming. Vesna’s collaborators in this enterprise are neuroscientist Mark Cohen, computer scientist Ramesh Jain, and  nanoscientist James Gimzewski.

The nano/quantum wonderland emerges from laborious laboratory techniques. Yet they enable humans to transcend their own mass and embody a realm that has long served as the goal of hallucinogens, chants, prayer, and meditation. Vesna’s works are incantations that celebrate the power of human ingenuity to access human unknowningness. Like Marco Polo who journeyed to distant places on earth and returned with riveting tales of exotic domains, Vesna brings news of nano worlds that are neither explored nor conquered. 

The human brain seems hardwired to seek such excitement and to revel in the mysteries they divulge. However, Vesna always channels these distant explorations back into the realm of sensory experience and emotion. Children frolic in museums where her work is installed. Adults eagerly relinquish museum protocols and cavort within the unearthly worlds she constructs. They all become visionary explorers of the future which reverses the dictum, “From the sublime to the ridiculous”. The nano world proceeds from the ridiculous to the sublime.