We understand that innovation today is taking place at the nanoscale. We believe in super materials–among them, the allotropes of carbon such as Graphene and Carbon Nanotubes–whose sub-microscopic structures present us with fantastic properties and solutions for nearly every industry today. Yet, for the average person, this ‘nanovation’ feels distant and intangible, and given its scale, is particularly hard to visualise, appreciate and exploit.
By truly seeing and exposing the wonders of nanotechnology then, can all if its potential and creative possibilities be unlocked? This question is answered with a resounding yes, as one takes in the work of Houston-based artist Joseph Cohen. Uniquely poised at the intersection of art, science, technology and medicine, Cohen’s work easily earns him title of material scientist and modern alchemist. His exploration and re-envisioning of paint, at the very molecular level, have led him onto a journey to create multi-spectral artworks imbued with super materials, and even a pathway to detect diseases like cancer, hypertension and diabetes at an early stage using carbon nanotube-loaded paint.
At the start of this highly interdisciplinary artistic chapter, Cohen’s work was motivated by a desire to position paint as the art itself, and to create artwork experiences that extend far beyond the visible, widening and forever changing the viewer’s perception of the physical world. This interest and his material-scientist-like methods brought him in contact with chemist Daniel Heller, whose Cancer Nanomedicine Laboratory at the Sloan Kettering Institute is invested in creating new nanotechnologies, including nanomedicines and nanosensors to detect markers of disease. Heller was already working with semi-conducting carbon nanotubes when the duo met, and a very fruitful, continuing collaboration and partnership was kicked off.
Since then, and by working closely with diverse research and technology partners including Heller, Bruce Weisman’s lab at Rice University, the Houston Methodist Research Institute, among others, Cohen has created both exceptional art experiences and promising solutions. His chief interest in Carbon Nanotubes, has been driven by the material’s ability to fluoresce in infrared light, revealing colours and visuals unseen by the naked eye. By composing his own paint with the nanotubes, his artworks become experiences that extend across multiple spectrums. Triggered by visible or infrared light, captured by near-infra-red cameras, a whole new set of hues is revealed to the viewer. In some cases, Cohen’s work has also been linked to sound, stretching from the unseen to the audible. Yet, the intention is not merely to unveil new vistas, rather, it is to invite viewers in a hectic world to pause and consider the unseen dimensions of our world.
From a technical standpoint, the paint developed by Cohen is no small feat, as purifying the nanotubes and combining them with a binder to achieve a consistency that is suitable for canvas is a highly complex process. Yet, this has been a highly fruitful process, yielding a new structurally sound artistic material. Unlike traditional oil paints, which degrade over time, and present a challenge to conservators, Cohen’s super material-laden paint is unlikely to face these challenges. Through his work, Cohen has managed to shine an insightful and playful light on scientific discoveries and details that are unseen by most people, a goal that motivated Cohen and Daniel Heller’s work together from the start.
Most interestingly, the imaging techniques associated with Cohen’s paint and artworks can serve as an effective and affordable diagnostic tool. The paint, loaded with nano-sensors made with the nanotubes can be used in a low-cost litmus test, which catches leaks of albumin in urine, an early marker for several diseases such as cancer and diabetes. While conventional tests require high volumes of the albumin for detection (and therefore a later stage in the disease) the nano-sensors in this test are able to exhibit a change in fluorescence in infrared light, revealing the presence of small quantities of albumin. This solution holds the potential for application in regions or situations with little access to diagnostic laboratories.
Cohen’s work, rich across multiple spectrums, and open to so many fields, types of viewers and collaborators, harks back to an era when art and science were one, and innovators, from the renaissance period to the early 19th century worked across disciplinary boundaries to deliver some of the greatest inventions of these times.
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