It’s not often that a controversy amongst visual artists intersects with a story about carbon nanotubes, risk, and the roles that scientists play in public discourse.
Dr. Andrew Maynard, Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University, opens the discussion in a March 29, 2016 article for the appropriately named website, The Conversation (Note: Links have been removed),
Back in 2008, carbon nanotubes – exceptionally fine tubes made up of carbon atoms – were making headlines. A new study from the U.K. had just shown that, under some conditions, these long, slender fiber-like tubes could cause harm in mice in the same way that some asbestos fibers do.
As a collaborator in that study, I was at the time heavily involved in exploring the risks and benefits of novel nanoscale materials. Back then, there was intense interest in understanding how materials like this could be dangerous, and how they might be made safer.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when carbon nanotubes were in the news again, but for a very different reason. This time, there was outrage not over potential risks, but because the artist Anish Kapoor had been given exclusive rights to a carbon nanotube-based pigment – claimed to be one of the blackest pigments ever made.
The worries that even nanotech proponents had in the early 2000s about possible health and environmental risks – and their impact on investor and consumer confidence – seem to have evaporated.
I had covered the carbon nanotube-based coating in a March 14, 2016 posting here,
Surrey NanoSystems (UK) is billing their Vantablack as the world’s blackest coating and they now have a new product in that line according to a March 10, 2016 company press release (received via email),
A whole range of products can now take advantage of Vantablack’s astonishing characteristics, thanks to the development of a new spray version of the world’s blackest coating material. The new substance, Vantablack S-VIS, is easily applied at large scale to virtually any surface, whilst still delivering the proven performance of Vantablack.
Oddly, the company news release notes Vantablack S-VIS could be used in consumer products while including the recommendation that it not be used in products where physical contact or abrasion is possible,
… Its ability to deceive the eye also opens up a range of design possibilities to enhance styling and appearance in luxury goods and jewellery [emphasis mine].
… “We are continuing to develop the technology, and the new sprayable version really does open up the possibility of applying super-black coatings in many more types of airborne or terrestrial applications. Possibilities include commercial products such as cameras, [emphasis mine] equipment requiring improved performance in a smaller form factor, as well as differentiating the look of products by means of the coating’s unique aesthetic appearance. It’s a major step forward compared with today’s commercial absorber coatings.”
The structured surface of Vantablack S-VIS means that it is not recommended for applications where it is subject to physical contact or abrasion. [emphasis mine] Ideally, it should be applied to surfaces that are protected, either within a packaged product, or behind a glass or other protective layer.
Presumably Surrey NanoSystems is looking at ways to make its Vantablack S-VIS capable of being used in products such as jewellery, cameras, and other consumers products where physical contact and abrasions are a strong possibility.
Andrew has pointed questions about using Vantablack S-VIS in new applications (from his March 29, 2016 article; Note: Links have been removed),
The original Vantablack was a specialty carbon nanotube coating designed for use in space, to reduce the amount of stray light entering space-based optical instruments. It was this far remove from any people that made Vantablack seem pretty safe. Whatever its toxicity, the chances of it getting into someone’s body were vanishingly small. It wasn’t nontoxic, but the risk of exposure was minuscule.
In contrast, Vantablack S-VIS is designed to be used where people might touch it, inhale it, or even (unintentionally) ingest it.
To be clear, Vantablack S-VIS is not comparable to asbestos – the carbon nanotubes it relies on are too short, and too tightly bound together to behave like needle-like asbestos fibers. Yet its combination of novelty, low density and high surface area, together with the possibility of human exposure, still raise serious risk questions.
For instance, as an expert in nanomaterial safety, I would want to know how readily the spray – or bits of material dislodged from surfaces – can be inhaled or otherwise get into the body; what these particles look like; what is known about how their size, shape, surface area, porosity and chemistry affect their ability to damage cells; whether they can act as “Trojan horses” and carry more toxic materials into the body; and what is known about what happens when they get out into the environment.
Risk and the roles that scientists play
Andrew makes his point and holds various groups to account (from his March 29, 2016 article; Note: Links have been removed),
… in the case of Vantablack S-VIS, there’s been a conspicuous absence of such nanotechnology safety experts in media coverage.
This lack of engagement isn’t too surprising – publicly commenting on emerging topics is something we rarely train, or even encourage, our scientists to do.
And yet, where technologies are being commercialized at the same time their safety is being researched, there’s a need for clear lines of communication between scientists, users, journalists and other influencers. Otherwise, how else are people to know what questions they should be asking, and where the answers might lie?
In 2008, initiatives existed such as those at the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) at Rice University and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (where I served as science advisor) that took this role seriously. These and similar programs worked closely with journalists and others to ensure an informed public dialogue around the safe, responsible and beneficial uses of nanotechnology.
In 2016, there are no comparable programs, to my knowledge – both CBEN and PEN came to the end of their funding some years ago.
Some of the onus here lies with scientists themselves to make appropriate connections with developers, consumers and others. But to do this, they need the support of the institutions they work in, as well as the organizations who fund them. This is not a new idea – there is of course a long and ongoing debate about how to ensure academic research can benefit ordinary people.
Media and risk
As mainstream media such as newspapers and broadcast news continue to suffer losses in audience numbers, the situation vis à vis science journalism has changed considerably since 2008. Finding information is more of a challenge even for the interested.
As for those who might be interested, the chances of catching their attention are considerably more challenging. For example, some years ago scientists claimed to have achieved ‘cold fusion’ and there were television interviews (on the 60 minutes tv programme, amongst others) and cover stories in Time magazine and Newsweek magazine, which you could find in the grocery checkout line. You didn’t have to look for it. In fact, it was difficult to avoid the story. Sadly, the scientists had oversold and misrepresented their findings and that too was extensively covered in mainstream media. The news cycle went on for months. Something similar happened in 2010 with ‘arsenic life’. There was much excitement and then it became clear that scientists had overstated and misrepresented their findings. That news cycle was completed within three or fewer weeks and most members of the public were unaware. Media saturation is no longer what it used to be.
Innovative outreach needs to be part of the discussion and perhaps the Vantablack S-VIS controversy amongst artists can be viewed through that lens.
Anish Kapoor and his exclusive rights to Vantablack
According to a Feb. 29, 2016 article by Henri Neuendorf for artnet news, there is some consternation regarding internationally known artist, Anish Kapoor and a deal he has made with Surrey Nanosystems, the makers of Vantablack in all its iterations (Note: Links have been removed),
Anish Kapoor provoked the fury of fellow artists by acquiring the exclusive rights to the blackest black in the world.
The Indian-born British artist has been working and experimenting with the “super black” paint since 2014 and has recently acquired exclusive rights to the pigment according to reports by the Daily Mail.
The artist clearly knows the value of this innovation for his work. “I’ve been working in this area for the last 30 years or so with all kinds of materials but conventional materials, and here’s one that does something completely different,” he said, adding “I’ve always been drawn to rather exotic materials.”
This description from his Wikipedia entry gives some idea of Kapoor’s stature (Note: Links have been removed),
Sir Anish Kapoor, CBE RA (Hindi: अनीश कपूर, Punjabi: ਅਨੀਸ਼ ਕਪੂਰ), (born 12 March 1954) is a British-Indian sculptor. Born in Bombay, Kapoor has lived and worked in London since the early 1970s when he moved to study art, first at the Hornsey College of Art and later at the Chelsea School of Art and Design.
He represented Britain in the XLIV Venice Biennale in 1990, when he was awarded the Premio Duemila Prize. In 1991 he received the Turner Prize and in 2002 received the Unilever Commission for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Notable public sculptures include Cloud Gate (colloquially known as “the Bean”) in Chicago’s Millennium Park; Sky Mirror, exhibited at the Rockefeller Center in New York City in 2006 and Kensington Gardens in London in 2010; Temenos, at Middlehaven, Middlesbrough; Leviathan, at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2011; and ArcelorMittal Orbit, commissioned as a permanent artwork for London’s Olympic Park and completed in 2012.
Kapoor received a Knighthood in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to visual arts. He was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Oxford in 2014.  In 2012 he was awarded Padma Bhushan by Congress led Indian government which is India’s 3rd highest civilian award.
Artists can be cutthroat but they can also be prankish. Take a look at this image of Kapoor and note the blue background,
I don’t know why or when this image (used to illustrate Andrew’s essay) was taken so it may be coincidental but the background for the image brings to mind, Yves Klein and his International Klein Blue (IKB) pigment. From the IKB Wikipedia entry,
Here’s more from the IKB Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),
International Klein Blue (IKB) was developed by Yves Klein in collaboration with Edouard Adam, a Parisian art paint supplier whose shop is still in business on the Boulevard Edgar-Quinet in Montparnasse. The uniqueness of IKB does not derive from the ultramarine pigment, but rather from the matte, synthetic resin binder in which the color is suspended, and which allows the pigment to maintain as much of its original qualities and intensity of color as possible. The synthetic resin used in the binder is a polyvinyl acetate developed and marketed at the time under the name Rhodopas M or M60A by the French pharmaceutical company Rhône-Poulenc. Adam still sells the binder under the name “Médium Adam 25.”
In May 1960, Klein deposited a Soleau envelope, registering the paint formula under the name International Klein Blue (IKB) at the Institut national de la propriété industrielle (INPI), but he never patented IKB. Only valid under French law, a soleau enveloppe registers the date of invention, according to the depositor, prior to any legal patent application. The copy held by the INPI was destroyed in 1965. Klein’s own copy, which the INPI returned to him duly stamped is still extant.
In short, it’s not the first time an artist has ‘owned’ a colour. Kapoor is not a performance artist as was Klein but his sculptural work lends itself to spectacle and to stimulating public discourse. As to whether or not, this is a prank, I cannot say but it has stimulated a discourse which ranges from intellectual property and artists to the risks of carbon nanotubes and the role scientists could play in the discourse about the risks associated with emerging technologies.
Regardless of how is was intended, bravo to Kapoor.
Johathan Jones has written about Kapoor and the Vantablack controversy in a Feb. 29, 2016 article for The Guardian titled: Can an artist ever really own a colour?