Making Steep#1 by Raewyn Turner

Steep #1

Steep#1 a digital poetry of gold nanoparticles  is a collaborative film project by Raewyn Turner and  Maryse de la Giroday. The work is informed by science. 

 Using a collection of footage Raewyn edited and animated Steep#1. She integrated Maryse de la Giroday's  poem A Digital Poetry of Gold Nanoparticles into the visuals using Isadora an interactive media presentation tool to make ascii style text and particles. Although I avoided a literal interpretation of the poem the visuals refer to both to the content and structure of the trilogy of the poem, for example where the moth on the hand is superpositioned moving between ascii text, particles and real images to show incomplete knowledge. 

Since 2009  Raewyn has been investigating the smog of humans, the unconscious smell of  I am. It may become possible to perceive the human plume which trails downwind from each body carrying with it signature odours and olfactory architectures which are the fragrances of our civilisation and times. The human plume carries the remnants of human emotions and the labour of the body.  

My initial curiosity about sensing airborne particles lead me to voice the notes of vapours.

Singing notes in response to the odours of : ethyl alcohol, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, CO2

My inquiry resulted in several works including Downwind ( ISEA 2013 ) . Downwind ( Raewyn Turner & Brian Harris ) questions whether an understanding of the current atmosphere could be reached by initially finding out individual olfactory capabilities. We used smell compounds known to be anosmic for some people and not for others, 

Downwind 2013. Raewyn Turner & Brian Harris. ISEA 2013.  

In Downwind twenty pods sense human presence and breathe smells on the audience.  The pods express controlled delivery of 20 specifically chosen smell compounds in calibrated amounts via a programmed mechanism that uses arduinos, servo motors, ultrasonic distance sensors.  

Downwind at ISEA 2013, Sydney review

Alongside the pods are various sugar dispensers. Sugar may enhance the olfactive sense.

Alongside the pods are various sugar dispensers. Sugar may enhance the olfactive sense.

 Raewyn's first plan was to steep the elements of the human in gold nanoparticles to discover the reaction. What are humans constructed of?  According to the Amato Report. 1999, ( Towards a US National Nanotechnology Initiative ) ‘If you were to deconstruct a human body into its most basic ingredients you’d get a little tank each of oxygen,  hydrogen and nitrogen. There would be piddling piles of  carbon, calcium and salt. You’d squint at pinches of sulphur, phosphorus, iron and magnesium, and tiny dots of  20 or so other chemical  elements.  Total street value: not much…’

The rhetoric surrounding nanotechnology promised a contemporary alchemy for our intentions of power and domination over nature. ‘With...nanoengineering nature transforms these inexpensive, abundant and inanimate ingredients into self -generating, self-perpetuating, self-repairing, self-aware creatures that walk, wiggle, swim, see, sniff, think and even dream.  Total value: immeasurable.’ (Nanotechnology: Shaping The World  Atom By Atom, Interagency Working Group on Nanoscience, Engineering and Technology (IWGN).1999)

What if the new gold nanomaterials were the organising principle of human beings?  

25nm gold nanorodz by Nanopartz

25nm gold nanorodz by Nanopartz

The intention in Steep is to work on perceptualisation of invisible airborne particles. According to parachutists clouds have a peculiar odour. Clouds form on aerosol particles, which become  condensation nuclei which are carried again to earth by the rain and subsequently consumed by plants, humans and animals. Debate and discussion around nanotechnology is essential because aerosol particles that can’t be detected by the senses may  also be changing perceptions unconsciously. It is by these unconscious signals and by these bandwidths that important information is relayed. Could we sense climate change and the changes of climate change?

Each place has its own unique odour known as the background smell and only noticed when its removed. The burning of fossil fuels and the particles that are arising from particular places, the roads, the tyres, the buildings, the crops, the sweat of the people, their anxiety, the water, the animals and the communication between plants and insects --is the smell of home.   Stevenson (2009) suggests that the state of the economy affects our immune system and therefore affects the way we relate to others and the embodied distinction of ourselves from others. Chemosensory communication may include significant information, for example conveying information related to health status, social competition, possibly sadness and definitely stress, as cues for significant behavioural adaptions which lead to evolutionary consequences.

A moth that I found on the couch 2012

A moth that I found on the couch 2012

Raewyn decided to focus on gold nanoparticles and started looking around for gold in Nature. A moth with gold wings happened to be sitting on Raewyn's couch and she placed it on her gilded hand.  Gold has been and continues to be used as an artists material, in colour or form where it imbues a meaning or code. Nanomaterial has changed visual properties that are tunable by changing size, shape, surface chemistry or aggregation state--from red to blue to purple to transparent. ( Sigma Aldrich, Gold Nanoparticles Properties and Applications 2015 )  My choice of gold is also in the mythological story of Midas, and for its relationship to past and present concerns about power, mythologies and the endurance of motivating aspects of human nature.  Indeed, Donna Harroway (2014)  suggests that its not the Anthropocene that’s responsible for bio, climate, social and political change, its Capitalocene which is the organisation of labour, formation of markets and accumulation of wealth.

Brian Harris and Raewyn Turner have been working on a video experiment built around two metaphors:  

  • the hydrological cycle: the washing off of one system which becomes part of a transpiration, absorption and creation of another system through airborne particles in the atmosphere;
  •  Midas, popularly remembered in Greek mythology for his ability to turn everything he touched with his hand into gold. In a version told by Nathaniel Hawthorne in A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (1852), Midas found that when he touched his daughter, she turned to gold as well.

We constructed a story around Zoe, Midas’s daughter, and acted it out as a performance.  Zoe walks in the estuary and washes the curse of gold from her birthday cake in the mangroves.  

Zoe's shoes

Zoe's shoes

Zoe's birthday cake

Zoe's birthday cake

Zoe washing the cake in the mangroves

Zoe washing the cake in the mangroves


Other experiments include macrophotography of water droplets holding gold dust, editing, and processing film by programming in an interactive media tool to produce particles and voice-activated text.

Video using macrotubes : water droplets with gold dust

Video using macrotubes : water droplets with gold dust

Video Still, Steep#1

Video Still, Steep#1

Processing film using interactive media : ascii text

Another test with interactive media--using voice activated text


The next stage of visuals involves working alongside scientists to film gold nanoparticles using science imaging to visualise their behaviour and movement in the environment and to engage with scientific research and participate in science experiments. We're currently discussing imaging possibilities with scientists at Institute of Fundamental Sciences, NZ and CEINT, Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology headquartered at Duke University, USA, that would fit into the architecture of the project but also leave room for discovery and collaboration.      


Thomas (2013) defines Nanoart as one of the new art disciplines developing at the intersections between art-science-technology. He writes: ...Getting a balance between the levels of science and art in a project is difficult; it raises questions about what are the levels of scientific understanding that should be explored by the artist in pursuit of the artwork...Making connections between the sciences and the humanities generates  new dialogue, venues and audiences which allow for a rethinking of our understanding of the world.

Paul Thomas  also used the analogy of Midas in his Midas (2007) installation where he explored concepts of touch using data recorded from the AFM in contact mode.  Thomas, in The Immateriality of Art (2013) writes: ‘artists ...critique current scientific research in the area of nanotechnology revealing a contested space of enquiry. The energy of vibration, pattern and rhythm is at the base the connectivity of matter that is translated by these artists in to visual experiences, electromagnetic sensations and sonic topographies. These sensory experiences reveal to the human body intimate understanding of the nano-world as a lived experience.’  

Thanks to :

  • Harley Rayner & Jesse Cooper, Mt Eden and Kname
  • Brian Harris camera operator and mathematical support
  • Lycurgus Cup: © Trustees of the Britsh Museum
  • Golden fleece as carpet: Aulana
  • Preview for computer 9me
  • Susan Baxter & Robert Hewko for laptops
  • Dr Mark Wiesner, Director of the Centre for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT) at Duke  where mesocosms have been created  to study the passage of nanoparticles in water and in air. 

Steep is a collaborative workRaewyn Turner & Brian Harris & Maryse de la Giroday and a revolving cast of collaborators. 

About Raewyn Turner & Brian Harris

Steep builds on Raewyn's collaboration, Plume, begun in 2009 with molecular scientist Dr. Richard Newcomb, Plant and Food Research, NZ. investigating sensing of the human plume which carries with it not only each person’s signature odour but also the fragrance of our civilisation and time.

and her subsequent artist residency at the Monell Centre, Philadelphia.

These collaborations resulted in various works including the major project Downwind, 2013. Raewyn Turner & Brian Harris. Downwind at ISEA 2013 Sydney review

Since 1975 Raewyn has been experimenting with cross- sensory perception and visualisation using video, sound, light and since 1999 smell, interactive performance, electronic devices and microprocessors. Her interdisciplinary art works are concerned with cross-sensory perception and have involved large scale international performance in stadiums, working as a concept and  design theatre artist and lighting designer and operator, creating videos, films and interactive installations and performances, working solo as well as in collaboration with artists, musicians, architects, dancers, performers and academics on installations, theatre performances, exhibitions and screenings. She has worked with olfaction since 1999. In 2011  she received  a Fulbright Travel Grant for an artists  residency at Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia.

Brian Harris designs and creates computer controlled and embedded devices for motion picture cameras and other special robotic projects for the local and international film industry. He has a science and electronics background. An independent designer for 30 years, he creates large scale finely tuned adaptive mechatronics and bespoke equipment. His inventions for motion control, stabilising camera mounts for aerial photography and robotic trajectories have been used in local and international tv, commercial and film productions . 

In Turner and Harris's collaborative work they invite the audience to sample, taste, smell, participate.  They've been collaborating since 2010 creating experiments around olfactory perception combining their skills developed over years of practice in theatre, the film industry, robotics, interactive software, video, olfactory, art installations and performances, engaging sensory elements with engineering to create experiential art,  developing precise delivery of olfactory material over a given space and time, and which is one of the most difficult areas of olfactory art, and one of the significant reasons that it remains an underdeveloped art form.      


Documenting the work by Raewyn Turner

Humans, animals, soil, water, air, machines, buildings participate in the cycle of energy and breath emitting very fine particles and molecules into the atmosphere. 

Steep will necessitate venturing into unknown areas of research towards understanding how engineered nano particles disperse or aggregate in the environment, and how to visualise and express their morphology and movement. Do they glide like slugs, roll like balls, float like planets? 

Our first experiment is to make a film is about the implausible presence of gold particles in the atmosphere and their journey there.

We're approaching the project several ways through a series of investigations and experiments. We’re hoping to perceptualise the movement of the particles by working on a series of art experiments, then develop an installation art work using simple elements fused with electronics and video.

Video overture

Amongst the pneumatophores of the estuary, Zoe, 'life', daughter of Midas, carries her birthday cake to try to wash away the outcome of the curse of her father's wish. The washing in the mangroves ejects particles of gold into the water. The gold particles from the cake are eventually flushed through the mangroves out to sea, where the bubble bursting mechanisms on the ocean produce aerosols in the atmosphere.

Washing the cake. 


How and where do those gold particles disperse and accumulate? 

Steep explores the behaviour changing signals of particles in the atmosphere.  The approach is one of looking up, looking down and looking inwards for material, all the while paying attention to find  the relationship between human activity and the mirroring response of  the environment. 

By placing my focus on sensation it may be possible to gain a  somatic sensing of airborne particulates directly or in a cross-sensory way. If we wish to  increase our ability to perceive the information of unconscious chemical signals not just with the nose but with the gut, then  it may  be necessary to retrain our senses and to note the feelings and emotions that arise.

Our process will involve  gleaning evidence of invisible particles from the water and the atmosphere by reflection, sensory observation and focusing on where traces of them may be found in the environment by:

  • distilling and extracting essences from plants, people, insects, animals, buildings, trees, the sky, water and dust

  • time lapse video

  • aerial photography/satellite imaging

  • sound recording

  • microscopic photography

  • drawing

  • animation