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Nanotechnology has as much—if not more—to do with the representational challenges it presents as it does with the molecular-scale applications the field is developing in information storage, microbiological identification, and DNA vectors (among other areas). That, at least, is the consensus of the contributors to this volume of essays. Arising from, and responding to, the 2004 exhibit nano at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, this collection explores what editor N. Katherine Hayles claims is nanotechnology’s potential as a “cultural signifier” to reflect and comment on the shared concerns among science, technology, and the arts (11). For proponents of nanotechnology, the biggest problem has been translating the technology from the drawing board to the commercial sector. Such translation work, this collection suggests, is, for now, the productive domain of new media artists, science fiction authors, poets, and cultural theorists.
In presenting these essays, which include contributions from established scholars Brian Attebery and Brooks Landon as well as upand-coming scholars (many of whom are among Hayles’s graduate students at UCLA), Hayles is pointing to new ways to consider the transdisciplinary and posthumanistic nature of inquiry into complex systems. The division of the collection into sections on “Art and Science,” [End Page 938] “Science and Fiction,” and “Science and Literature” establishes three distinct contexts for exploring nanoculture. Together these sections illuminate the inherent tensions in making the invisible visible (as in depicting nano-scale phenomena), determining influence (as in tracing the reciprocal effects of speculative fiction and nanotech), and, most provocatively, mapping a poetics of nanoculture (as in plotting the aesthetic coordinates of nanotech’s disparities of scale).
The essays by Adriana de Souza e Silva and Carol Wald in the “Art and Science” section, though focused on the nano exhibit, establish two themes that underpin the collection. De Souza e Silva’s essay examines the hybridity in nano’s interactive, participatory, yet highly mediated installations, while Wald’s suggest the inter-and transdisciplinary nature of nanoculture as evidenced in the ambitious, and at times contentious, collaboration that went into the exhibit’s creation. According to de Souza e Silva, the nano exhibit reflects a trend in museum exhibits toward a hybrid representation of physical and virtual experiences of the world. Consisting of eight installations designed to interpolate the participant into nano-scale experiences through “nomadic and pervasive technologies” (38), the exhibit merges “the border of physical and virtual spaces by means of the visitor’s presence and mobility” (35). Such an experience is especially important in representing nanotechnology, de Souza e Silva observes, because by its very nature the micro world of particles requires mediation and interpretation to be sensible at the macro level. New media can thus work against the naturalization of the invisible world of nanotechnology, ensuring our conscious engagement with it. Nicely complementing de Souza e Silva’s walk-through description of the nano exhibit is a series of illustrations and photographs depicting participants interacting with each installation. In contrast to de Souza e Silva’s focus on the exhibit experience for end-users, Wald documents the exhibit experience from the creators’ points of view as they reached, often uncomfortably, beyond their disciplinary boundaries to bring the project to fruition. Constructing a miniethnography of this collaborative effort, Wald quotes extensively from the project principals and students involved. As Wald’s account makes clear, nano’s success derives from these individuals’ effort to honor disciplinary expertise as they negotiated the terms of interand transdisciplinary work required by the exhibit.
Boundary work of a more conceptual nature is the focus in the “Science and Fiction” section. Here, authors Colin Milburn, Brooks Landon, Kate Marshall, and Brian Attebery examine what Hayles calls “the strong feedback loop between nanotechnology and science fiction” (18). Milburn’s essay establishes the chicken-and-egg problem underlying any delineation of nanoculture: which came first—nanotechnology or speculative writing about nanotechnology? [End Page 939] Reexamining one of nanotechnology’s founding documents, K. Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation (1986), and its critical response, Milburn pins down the...