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For Dust Thou Art

This essay will explore the use of atomic force microscopy for uncovering lost tales and histories through subtle audience interaction.

Published onNov 06, 2017
For Dust Thou Art

For Dust Thou Art

Mike Phillips
i-DAT, Plymouth University.
Reference this essay: Phillips, Mike. “For Dust Thou Art.” In Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, no. 1, edited by Lanfranco Aceti, Paul Thomas, and Edward Colless. Cambridge, MA: LEA / MIT Press, 2017.
Published Online: May 15, 2017
Published in Print: To Be Announced
ISSN: 1071-4391
ISBN: 978-1-906897-62-8


This essay will explore the use of atomic force microscopy for uncovering lost tales and histories through subtle audience interaction. Its focus is a portfolio of data-driven work and ‘nanoart’ developed by the author and collaborators. The works described below include: A Mote it is…ˈspɛktə/spectre, and Exposure. These projects explore the ubiquity of data streamed from an instrumentalized world and its totality potentialed as material for manifesting things that lie outside of normal frames of reference—things so far away, so close, so massive, so small, and so ad-infinitum.


Dust, matter, transcalar, nano, cows

In the beginning

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And heav’n in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour.

Blake, 1866, 586 [2]

Ecumenical Matter (as in, “that will be an ecumenical matter”). [3]

The hegemony of the eye has defined our culture, and the instruments that capture the visible domain have indelibly shaped our philosophies. The invisible and the obscured, either infinitely big or microscopically small, have largely remained outside of our cultural grasp, replaced instead by the paranormal and spiritual dimensions, all too often wrapped up in the formal trappings of religion. With the advent of ‘transcalar’ instruments such as the atomic force microscope (AFM) and the radio telescope, we now know that there are more things in heaven and on earth than were ever dreamt of in these ocular philosophies. With imaging technologies that require no lens to see or film to capture, we may also find that the things that were once seen as parallel, interwoven, occult dimensions were in fact ever-present but just out of reach beyond the atomic forces that bind matter or the cosmic microwave background radiation that frames our universe.

Before the talismans of ceremony and ritual are cast aside, to be replaced by the instruments of a new materialism, take a moment to consider the inevitable trauma such ‘transcalar’ visions might inflict on a culture so comfortable with its visual acuity. If thine eye offends thee…indeed, the cultural offense caused by such new knowledge would have significant impact; just think of all those one-eyed photographers. Apparently, all that cosmic background radiation might be just clouds of dust in our technological eyes.

Pluck It out

Figure 1. Mike Phillips, A Mote it is…, 2010. Digital photograph. © Mike Phillips, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

As Ray Milland discovered in X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes, [4] omniscience has its limitations. Being able to see to the center of the universe can be an affront to all that we hold holy. Being able to comprehend the totality of the material world beyond the scope of the human consciousness—the slow dissolving of reality as his vision extends beyond the titillation of the material of clothes to the infinite—brings with it madness. Plucking out the offending eyes does not alter the fact that the infinite remains, but returning it to an invisible state may provide a level of certainty that the human mind can cope with; ignorance is bliss.

“A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.” [5] The act of plucking a piece of dust from my own eye for A Mote it is… [6], scanning it with an AFM, and then reconstructing the captured height-map data of the nano-surface as a swirling cloud of pixels, was an attempt to engage our incomprehension of the transcalar. “Mote” is both a noun and a verb. From Middle English with Indo-European roots, its early Christian origins and masonic overtones describe the smallest thing possible and empower it with the ability to conjure something into being (“So mote it be…”). This dual state of becoming and being (even if infinitesimally tiny) renders it a powerful talisman in the context of nanotechnology.

For Hamlet, his dead father’s ghost might or might not be a ‘mote,’ or speck of dust, in the mind’s eye of the beholder, both creating the illusion and convincing him that what he sees is real. Something just out of the corner of the mind’s eye, those little flecks of dust are magnified by the desire to see more clearly. Yet the harder we look, the blurrier our vision becomes. A Mote it is… projected a swarming dust cloud in the gallery, but a cloud that was rendered invisible by the gaze of the viewer through a simple face recognition system. The more we look, the less visible it becomes; look away, and it reemerges from the maelstrom of data. A ghost of the mote can be seen in the viewer’s peripheral vision, but never head-on.

To see another world in a grain of sand, to conjure up images of the dead; this is our tenuous relationship with these emerging technologies that trouble the mind’s eye. Our ability to shift scales from the smallest to the largest in the blink of an eye is extremely disconcerting, and the collapse of our view from the Alberti’s window extremely traumatic.

Ectoplasmic Clouds

ˈspɛktə/specter, noun:

  1. A visible incorporeal spirit; a ghost, apparition, phantasm, phantasma, phantom.

  2. A mental image of some entity of terror or dread; eg, the specter of death.\

[C17: from Latin spectrum, literally ‘image, apparition,’ from specere, ‘to look at’].

Figure 2. Mike Phillips, ˈspɛktə/specter, 2012. Installation, digital screen capture. © Mike Phillips, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Further experiments with transcalar imaging techniques provided by the AFM were conducted in the Museums Quartier in Vienna in 2011. Hamlet’s conjuring of nano-ghosts was extended to a ménage à trois between engineer, medium, and artist from the 1930s.

In the mid-1980s, the author entered into an exchange of letters with Robert Morris, Koestler Chair of Parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh, concerning the development of technologies that would enable a ‘psychometric’ architecture. Embedded in the fabric of a building, these sensing technologies would manifest the activities of the previous day and replay them through a dreaming architecture of ghostly inhabitants.

“The concept of objects (or places) seeming to record events and then play them back for sensitive people is generally referred to as psychometry. The objects can be called psychometric objects or token objects.” [7]

ˈspɛktə/spectre [8] suggested that the Schauraum in the Quartier21 (Electric Avenue) of the Museums Quartier in Vienna is such an architecture, and that the memories of the building are bonded to its fabric by the atomic forces that have now been unlocked by the AFM.ˈspɛktə/spectre builds upon the collision between A Mote it is… and psychometric architecture by drawing on the experiences of Professor Gustav Adolf Schwaiger, the technical director of the Austrian Broadcast Corporation, and his collaboration with famous medium Rudi Schneider from the late 1930s to the early 1940s. “G.A. Schwaiger…conducted some private (and rather obscure) experiments with the famous medium Rudi Schneider in the studio of a female painter…In fact the flat could have been right above our exhibition space (Schauraum).” [9]

Schwaiger developed several instruments—sadly, all destroyed by allied bombing—that were supposedly able to manifest clouds of ectoplasm. His early broadcasting technologies focused on the development of transmogrification and matter transmission from the hereafter to his studio, rather than on bandwidth and resolution. According to Mulacz’s History of parapsychology in Austria, “Schwaiger in his research focussed on investigating that ‘substance’ and its effects applied then-state-of-the-art apparatus, such as remote observation by a TV set.” [10]

That ‘substance’ was the cloud of ectoplasm that would emerge from Schneider’s mouth during these experiments. ˈspɛktə/spectre extended these experiments by broadcasting live feeds from the space of the Schauraum and simultaneously replaying the physical remnants of these happenings trapped in the atomic forces binding the dust from the laboratory. This blended reality provided by the multiple screens merges the viewer with the recovered presence of the three ‘lovers’: Schwaiger, Schneider, and the mysterious painter.

These instruments may have indeed accessed the afterlife, or alternatively they may have accessed the dust clouds that lie at the molecular core or lurk at the edge of the known universe. Whatever this cloudy substance was, the fallout from these experiments is imprinted in the dust of the architecture that housed them. Schwaiger’s specter is made manifest by the atomic forces that bind the Schauraum’s dust—a dreaming architectural space. The visions that the installation extracted from the atomic forces of the dusty floor recaptured the work of this unholy trinity.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Figure 3. Mike Phillips, Exposure, 2012. Basal series. Digital photograph. © Mike Phillips, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

The third act in this nano-trinity is Exposure. [11] Here the slow emergence, over many years, of a basal cell carcinoma on the face of the author provided a link between photographic narrative and molecular instruments. It was not as if it suddenly appeared one day; rather, it had been there all along. Looking back at several years of snap shots, it was clear that the small red mark was getting bigger and deeper. It was as if the molecules of the skin had conspired with the grain of the photos and the pixels of the screen to disguise the transition. Only by looking back could the difference be seen. Somewhere on a cellular level, things had been transforming from one state into another, and somewhere below that, the matter that made up the cells had decided to reorganize itself to adopt a new structure.

For a pale-skinned individual who spends much of his life in the shadows avoiding direct sunlight, it was a bit of a surprise to see the impact of sun damage. What sun? But this was nothing that a bit of localized chemotherapy cream couldn’t reverse. The cell had transformed, however, and although it was subsequently burnt out, leaving only a barely-visible blushing blemish, it was accompanied by a loss of faith in the materiality of flesh.

This was the year that Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection, the same year Fujifilm moved from film production to beauty products (Pico-Collagen). [12] This not only marked a technological shift from film grain to nanoparticles, but also a massive cultural shift from capturing the face on film to embedding ‘film’ onto the face.

The instrument that once froze the face in an eternal, youthful smile is now an antiaging nanoparticle that preserves the face we wear. Barthes described the face on film as representing “a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced.” [13] Now, this absolute state is closer to hand; we will walk around wearing our old photo albums as faces, peeling away the frames like layers of dead skin.

Could this damage to the skin cells, never knowingly overexposed to the sun, be the result of all those camera flashes that had recorded the transition? The 1/60th-of-a-second flash and aperture exposure competing with the twenty-minute scan of the AFM. Exposure provided a data landscape for the viewer to wander across, captured from the remains of the basal cell carcinoma. The projected image flickered between states—pure data and cancerous cell—in response to the viewer’s movement. Here, the transcalar was not just the distance of perspective from the viewer to the molecular landscape, but also the temporality of the exposure and decay of the skin cell. There is no truth to the ‘fact’ that the majority of dust is human skin. Believe me, have faith.

Small… Far Away.

“These are small…but the ones out there are far away. Small…far away.” [14]

It isn’t just a matter of distance. To be sure, the billions of light years to the edge of the observable universe are daunting, but the journey in the other direction is no less tricky. It is dust all the way up and all the way down—clouds of the stuff. These imaging technologies reveal things that challenge assumptions about distance, time, and relationships. We are all Father Dougal, struggling to grasp the complexity of the relationship of the small plastic cow in our hand to the cow over there in the field. [14] As we zoom from the clouds of cosmic dust and constellations that make up the Cow Nebula, through the cow-shaped clouds in the sky, past the cloud-shaped patterns on a cow, to the blurry cow-shaped patterns in the dust in Schwaiger’s studio, we realize that this matter is sacred, ecumenical.

But maybe these clouds of dust at various resolutions are, and have always been, the same thing? It is just our privileged position within the scale of things that registers a difference. The next particle of dust flickering in the light of a camera flash, that mote reflected in an ectoplasmic dust cloud, may well be an overexposed skin cell. The clouds we look for in the sky may be a little closer to home, for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

References and Notes

[1] Genesis 3:19.

[2] W. Blake, Auguries of Innocence (London: Penguin, 2001), 586.

[3] Father Ted, series 2, episode 3, “Tentacles of Doom,” directed by Declan Lowney, written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, performed by Jack Kelly, Chanel 4, aired March 22, 1996.

[4] X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes, directed by Roger Corman (Los Angeles: American International Pictures, 1963).

[5] W. Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 1, scene 1, line 129, (accessed March 25, 2012).

[6] M. Phillips, “‘A Mote it is…’, Art in the Age of Nano Technology,” John Curtin Gallery, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, WA, February 2010, (accessed March 25, 2012).

[7] R. L. Morris (Koestler Chair of Parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh 1985 to 2004) in a letter to the artist October 21, 1986.

[8] M. Phillips, ‘ˈspɛktə/spectre’, Schauraum, Quartier21 (Electric Avenue), MuseumsQuartier, Museumsplatz 1/5, 1070 Wien, Austria, January 27 to March 18, 2012.

[9] W. Fiel, E-mail correspondence concerning the curation of ˈspɛktə/spectreinstallation, Schauraum, Phillips, 2011.

[10] P. Mulacz,“History of Parapsychology in Austria. Notes for a History of Parapsychological Developments in Austria,” paper presented at The Parapsychological Association (PA) – the 43rd Annual Convention, hosted by the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene (IGPP), Freiburg i. Br., Germany, August 17-20, 2000, March 25, 2012).

[11] M. Phillips, “Exposure,” California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI), ART|Sci Gallery, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, USA, March 7-16, 2012.

[12] Pico-collagen (acetyl hydroxyproline), (accessed March 25, 2012).

[13] R. Barthes, “The Face of Garbo,” Mythologies, trans. A. Lavers (London: Vintage, 1973), 56–57.

[14] Father Ted, series 2, episode 1, “Hell,” directed by Declan Lowney, written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, performed by Dermot Morgan, Chanel 4, aired March 22, 1996.


The author wishes to thank Luis Girao for Max(MSP)ing out; Simon Lock for fiddling; Chris Saunders for the processing; Lee Nutbean for the particles; Justin Roberts for flashing; Wolgang Fiel for the ghost hunting; and Professor Genhua Pan at the Wolfson Nanotechnology Laboratory at Plymouth University for the AFM scan.

Author Biography

Mike Phillips is Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts at Plymouth University and the Director of Research at His R&D orbits a portfolio of projects that explore the ubiquity of data ‘harvested’ from an instrumentalised world and its potential as a material for revealing things that lie outside our normal frames of reference—things so far away, so close, so massive, so small and so ad infinitum. He manages the Fulldome Immersive Vision Theatre, a transdisciplinary instrument for manifesting (im)material and imaginary worlds and is co-editor of Ubiquity, The Journal of Pervasive Media.

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