The NanoArt 21 Project

Project coordinator: Cris Orfescu

Advisor: Amy Marlene Keough (maiden name: Grossman)


This white paper will examine the origin of NanoArt and contemporary NanoArt status, will review several Technology supported Art programs, and will report the contribution that NanoArt 21 brings as an organization which strongly encourages Science/Engineering–Art/Design collaborations. Actions to be taken in support for the NanoArt 21 organization in order to accomplish successfully its worldwide project are suggested in conclusion.

The Origin of NanoArt

The new technological moment is reflected in a new artistic discipline and movement. NanoArt is a complex artistic-scientific process comprising three major steps:

1. Creation of the nanosculpture (sculpture at atomic and molecular scales) by manipulating atoms and molecules using chemical reactions and physical processes or discovery of the nanolandscape (natural nanostructures);

2. Visualization of the nanosculpture or nanolandscape and image capture using computer-controlled advanced microscopes;

3. Artistic interpretation of the scientific images using different artistic techniques in order to convert these images in to pieces of artwork to be showcased for large audiences and to educate the public with creative images that are appealing and acceptable.1

NanoArt is strongly related to the visibility power which increased exponentially about 1000 years ago with the eye loop and eye lens as upgrades of the human eye, continuing in the Renaissance period with the optical microscope, and culminating in the late 1930s with the first commercial electron microscope.  Orfescu suggests that NanoArt originated about the time when the electron microscope became commercially available.

“The most influential cell biologist ever” (Hopkins, 2008), George Emil Palade (1912 – 2008) could also be one of the first nanoartists in history. Palade was a Romanian cell biologist and 1974 Nobel Prize Laureate in Physiology and Medicine. He started the “George E. Palade Electron Microscopy Slide Collection” of electron microscopy images at Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library at Yale University.  Derived from high-resolution images, this is a valuable research tool, free for all students and scientists.2 This collection includes some of the earliest electron micrographs taken by the collaborators of George Palade at Rockefeller University (1945-1973) and Yale (1973-1990): Marilyn Farquhar, Maya and Nicolae Simeonescu, James Jamieson, Lucien Caro, Philip Siekevitz, John Bergeron, Japoco Meldolesi, and Sanford Palay among others.

We don’t know if these scientists had the intention to create art, but they did create original scientific imagery which could be converted into or considered by some to be artworks.

Contemporary NanoArt

Contemporary NanoArt is the intentional merging of scientific and aesthetic pursuits.  The study of the micro and nano worlds unveils imagery with strong artistic potential. Scientists manipulate the scientific imagery they capture and create NanoArt works. The depth and three dimensionality achieved in NanoArt distinguishes electron imaging apart from photography, in which images are created by photons (particles of light) rather than by electrons (electrically charged particles) as in NanoArt. With NanoArt, electrons penetrate deeper inside the nanostructures, generating images with more depth and a more natural 3D-look than seen in photographic images.3

NanoArt web exhibitions include pioneers such as Donald Eigler, Anastasios John Hart, Jack Mason, Tim Fonseca, Robert A. Freitas Jr., Joe Lertola, Cris Orfescu, to name only a few who started producing works in the early 1990s and some of them even earlier.

Nanotechnology-based art was lately supported at different Universities by their research labs with an interest in art (ex: UCLA, Northwestern University, Rice University, Georgia Tech), by scientific or engineering organizations (ex: Materials Research Society), by private companies interested in marketing their equipment and services (ex: Nikon, Hitachi) or in new product development (ex: IBM).  The majority of NanoArt events initiated and sponsored by these institutions were addressed mostly to scientists and engineers who developed an interest for art and the aesthetics of the nanostructures. Most works were generated by scientists or engineers affiliated with these institutions or participating in competitions organized by these organizations. The most noticeable collaboration is between UCLA professors Victoria Vesna (artist) and James Gimzewski (nanoscientist). Their projects have been sponsored by different institutions including UCLA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). 4

Technology Supported Art Programs

Although not specifically developed for NanoArt, art and technology programs from different countries produced innovations and yielded a number of discoveries.

FutureLab was formed in 1996 as an R&D spin-off of the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, initially to fabricate the commissioned artworks for the Festival and for the Ars Electronica Centre, a permanent museum opened in the same year.  The Ars Electronica Festival, which began in 1979, is the premiere international gathering of its kind, attracting several thousand people from the electronic arts community who gather for discussion, debate, and exhibition. Supporting financially Ars is paying off economically. FutureLab has increasingly earned income through external projects with computer industry. FutureLab has also developed its own products, usually as the results of art projects, including PC-based 3D modeling software, inexpensive VR goggles, and a projection-based worktable.  FutureLab is offering its years of art experience to help solve user interaction and other design problems. However, FutureLab could never thrive, nor even exist, without Ars’ base funding from the government.5   

Two programs which disappeared during the 1990s were Interval and PARC Artist-In-Residence (PAIR) program. The idea behind Xerox’s interdisciplinary Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is simple: if you put creative people in a hothouse setting, innovation will naturally emerge.  PARC’s Artist-in-Residence Program (PAIR) brings artists who use new media to PARC and pairs them with researchers who often use the same media, though in different contexts.  This is radically different from most corporate art programs which do not encourage collaboration between artists and research scientists. The result is both interesting art and new scientific innovations.6 Unlike at Interval where the artists were employed, PARC artists remain independent and receive stipends. While PARC artists owned the work they produced, Interval owned everything produced by Interval artists.5 Both labs published art-related articles and books and patented several innovations.

The Interactive Institute was established by the Swedish government’s Foundation for Strategic Research in 1998 and is organized around semi-independent “studios” throughout Sweden.  Each studio has its own theme such as Play, Space, Tools, and Mobility. Their projects exhibit regularly at venues as diverse as art museums, corporations, hospitals, and prisons. The Smart Studio in Stockholm is the Institute’s most explicitly arts-oriented studio. The Smart Studio’s most visible project is “Brain Ball,” a table with a rolling ball whose movements are controlled by the players’ brain waves via electrodes.  The Institute is moving Brain Ball out of the research lab into the marketplace, in part to make it a commercial product but also to keep the Smart Studio free from business issues.  All work done in the Foundation’s Studios are publicly accessible.5

NanoArt 21

NanoArt 21 was founded in 2004 to promote Science/Engineering–Art/Design collaborations and to establish NanoArt as a new artistic-scientific discipline.  Since 2004, NanoArt 21 has successfully organized NanoArt International competitions, festivals, and exhibitions around the world.7

NanoArt has hosted international online competitions annually since 2006.   Since 2006, participation in NanoArt competitions has doubled, from 22 artists from 6 countries in 2006 to 42 artists from 14 countries in 2011.  The number of artworks submitted to the competition has also creased, from 71 in 2006 to 149 in 2011.  International reputable jurors with science and art backgrounds include:  Jeanne Brasile8, Rocky Rawstern9, Pilar Irala10, Guillermo Munoz11, Anatoli Korkin12, Hugh McGrory13, and for the 2006 edition of the competition, Roger Malina14 and Michal Brzezinski15.

All submitted works can be viewed on the NanoArt 21 exhibition site.16

The 1st International Festival of NanoArt, sponsored by Kotkan Valokuvakeskus Gallery and NanoArt 21 was hosted in Finland between May 4 and May 26, 2007. This event curated by artist-scientist Cris Orfescu (USA) and gallery director, artist Timo Mahonen (Finland) was the first ever to bring so many nanoartists together in a brick-and-mortar gallery. NanoArt works by 15 artists from 4 countries were exhibited.17 Most of these artists participated to the NanoArt 2006 International Online Competition.18

The second edition of the Festival was sponsored by NanoArt 21 and NAHVISION Institute for International Culture Exchange.19 The event took place in Stuttgart, Germany between November 1st and November 30th, 2008. Cris Orfescu (USA) and art professor Dorothea Fleiss (Germany) co-curated the exhibit.  Artists from eight countries submitted works at this invitational event. 20

The NanoArt exhibition at EuroNanoForum 2009 in Prague, Czech Republic, featured 14 artists from around the globe and was co-sponsored by NanoArt 21 and NANO – the Magazine for Small Science.21

The 2010 Passion for Knowledge Festival in San Sebastian, Spain, brought world leading scientists and humanists together from different disciplines and cultures to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Donostia International Physics Center committed to scientific progress driven by the ongoing pursuit of knowledge. A NanoArt 21 exhibition curated by Cris Orfescu (USA) and Igor Campillo Santos (Spain) and featuring 2D, video, and multimedia works by 31 worldwide artists was one of the highlights of the festival. This event included artworks created by Top 10 artists at 4 editions of the NanoArt International Online Competition organized by NanoArt 21.22

After the show, the artworks were exhibited in different research centers in San Sebastian: nanoGUNE, DIPC, the Faculty of Chemistry, and other venues.23

A large number of international nanoartists (24) showed their works in an invited NanoArt exhibition at Nano Israel 2012, exhibition curated by Cris Orfescu and co-sponsored by NanoArt 21 and Epson. After the exhibition, the artworks were donated to different Universities to spread the knowledge about NanoArt as a new art discipline and movement reflecting the progress of the technology and science. The exhibition was acknowledged by major publications like Haaretz, which is similar to the Wall Street Journal for Israel, a newspaper read by the local elite and by decision makers. The show was hosted at David InterContinental Hotel in Tel Aviv.24

These are a few examples of events organized by NanoArt 21 during its first 6 years of existence. Ultimately, a NanoArt movement was created. In the future, NanoArt 21 will focus increasingly on education.  The founder (Cris Orfescu) envisioned NanoArt 21 as an international organization which offers resident programs for artist-scientist teams to help understand this new discipline and create NanoArt works in science-art lab-studios equipped with electron, atomic force, and other advanced microscopes for the manipulation of matter at molecular and atomic scales and to visualize nanosculptures and nanolandscapes.  Research equipment to facilitate the creation of the nanostructures and artistic tools for nanoartists to help them convert the scientific images in artworks will be also added to the facility.  The art projects in a research environment will stimulate the researchers adding aesthetic and emotional value to the scientific work, will provide grounds for developing new skills, and lead to new discoveries. A permanent gallery will showcase works created by the center’s residents.

Art sales and in-house projects for developing new products will help finance the organization and offset a small amount of overhead fees.

External industrial and commercial projects will also raise funds as well as encourage relationships with local industries, academic institutions and other artist communities.

Primary funding venues would be local and federal government.

However, to accomplish this project there is still need for a strong sponsorship in spite of the programs initiated in-house. Nanotech companies would be an excellent source for funding considering the PR power that our organization would have as an artistic institution.  However, we’ll not promote products that are not compatible with a responsible nanotechnology development such as nanoweapons or other sources of “portable apocalypse.”

Suggested Actions

Actions are directed towards but not limited to the following groups.  When possible, specific actions correspond with the appropriate group or groups and appear in parentheses.

A. Board Members

B. Shareholders

C. General Public

D. External Academic institutions, groups, universities, etc

E. External Commercial businesses, corporations, etc.

F.  Partner / Similar NPO’s
G. Artists

H. Scientists

Suggested Action Categories:

1. Capital Campaign

2. Content

3. Curricular / Studio

4. Exhibitions

5. Materials and Supplies

1. Capital Campaign:

1.  Establish financial goals of capital campaign and possible budget (A)

2.  Establish fundraising plans (ie: who to contact and when, fundraisers to hold, etc) (A)

3. Possible fundraising possibilities to pursue:

a. Local and Federal Governments (A)

b. Similar NPO’s (A)

c. Universities and other academic institutions.  (A)

d. Shareholders (A, B)

e. General Public (A,C)

. Commercial businesses, corporations, etc (A, E)

4.  Brainstorm further / alternative sources of funds (A).

2. Content:

           1.  Establish bylaws of NanoArt 21 (A)

           2.  Determine board members [ie: Director, President, Vice President, Treasurer, Secretary, etc.] and their respective roles. (A)

           3.  Identify long and short term goals for NanoArt 21 (A, B)

           4.  Determine physical needs [ie: materials, building, studio space, etc] (A)

3. Curricular / Studio:

           1.  Define residential programs and studio opportunities (A)

           2.  Pursue art / science collaborations (G, H)

           3.  Organize on-line competitions and educational events for k12 students (A, C)

4. Exhibitions:

           1.  Plan online exhibitions and invite participants (A, D, E, F, G, H)

           2.  Plan brick and mortar exhibitions and invite participants (A, D, E, F, G, H)

5. Space / Equipment / Materials / Supplies:

           1. Build studio and exhibition space (A – H)

           2. Secure scientific equipment and contact universities, corporations or the general public for physical donations.  (A, C, E, F)

            3. Secure traditional art supplies [ie:  paint, paper, markers, pastels, etc] and contact universities, corporations or the general public for physical donations.  (A, C, E, F)


1. Cris Orfescu, “NanoArt: Nanotechnology and Art”, chapter 8 in“Biologically-Inspired
Computing for the Arts: Scientific Data through Graphics”, edited by Anna Ursyn, 2012, IGI Global

2. George, E. Palade EM Slide Collection, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library,



5. Michael Naimark, “Technology-Based Art and the Dynamics of Sustainability”, A report for Leonardo Journal supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

6. Craig Harris, editor, “Art and Innovation”, MIT publication


8. US artist, director and primary curator of the Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University

9. US artist and consultant, editor emeritus of Nanotechnology Now, Foresight Senior Associate

10. Curator and art critic from Spain, PhD in History of Art

11. Physicist from Spain, PhD in Photonics

12. Associate Research Professor at Arizona State University, President of Nano & Giga Solutions, PhD in Physics from Moscow Lomonosov State University

13. Irish filmmaker and photographer, NanoArt pioneer creating moving images of the living cell, and Creative Director of Culture Shock Marketing in New York City

14. French research astronomer, Member of the Board for Leonardo organizations, Leonardo publications coordinator at MIT Press, co-chair of the art-science program at IMERA in Marseille, and distinguished professor of Physics and Art and Technology at the University of Texas, Dallas

15. Polish artist combining software and video with biological material systems, culture futurologist, curator at the Museum of Art in Lodz, the Center for Contemporary Art Laznia in Gdansk, and the Contemporary Art Center Bunkier Sztuki, in Krakow


17. Chris Marshall (Australia), Carol Cooper (Canada), Bjoern Daempfling (Germany), A. John Valois (USA), Abigail Kurtz Migala (USA), Chris Robinson (USA), Cris Orfescu (USA), Darcy Lewis (USA), Dolores Glover Kaufman (USA), Fred Marinello (USA), Gregory O’Toole (USA), Jan Kirstein (USA), K. Elise Cohen (USA), Lisa Black (USA), and Ursula Freer (USA)



20. Geert Lensens (Belgium), Hugh McGrory (Ireland), Teresa Majerus (Luxembourg), Bjoern Daempfling (Germany), Dorothea Fleiss (Germany), Han Halewijn (Netherlands), Elena Lucia Constantinescu (Romania), Teja Krasek (Slovenia), Chris Robinson (USA), Cris Orfescu (USA), David Derr (USA), David Hylton (USA), Jan Kirstein (USA), Judith Lightfeather (USA), Lisa Black (USA), Siddhartha Pathak (USA), and Steven Pollard (USA)


22. Imamedin Amiraslan (Azerbaijan), Daniela Caceta (Brazil), Maria Matheus (Brazil), Ricardo Tranquilin (Brazil), Bjoern Daempfling (Germany), Jan Schmoranzer (Germany), Gilberto Sossella (Italy), Simone Battiston (Italy), Teresa Majerus (Luxemburg), Pilar Ruiz Azuara (Mexico), Han Halewijn (Netherlands), Elena Lucia Constantinescu (Romania), Janko Jelenc (Slovenia), Teja Krasek (Slovenia), Frances Geesin (UK), Leonel Marques (UK), Anna Ursyn (USA), Carol Flaitz (USA), Chris Robinson (USA), Cris Orfescu (USA), Darcy Lewis (USA), David Derr (USA), David Hylton (USA), Janis Kirstein (USA), Jean Constant (USA), Linda Alterwitz (USA), Lisa Black (USA), Patrick Millard (USA), Shruti Gour (USA), Deeraj Roy (USA), and Steven Pollard (USA)