At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scientists collaborating with an artist on an art project have produced a new high-tech material that absorbs as much as 99.995 percent of incoming light, making it ten times blacker than any other substance in existence. To find out more, we spoke to Diemut Strebe, artist-in-residence at the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology.
frieze How did the substance come about?
Diemut Strebe We were working on an art project called ‘The Redemption of Vanity’ for a show at the New York Stock Exchange, which explores the unification of opposing extremes as well as how value is attached to concepts and things, particularly in the arts. The diamond company L.J. West provided us generously with a 16.8-carat natural yellow diamond with a value of US$2 million. Diamond has the most reflective properties of any material on earth – and we covered it with carbon nanotubes, the most light-absorptive material. Interestingly, diamonds and nanotubes are made from the same element, carbon, but their atomic lattice structure is different, which causes their radically different appearances when exposed to light.
frieze It’s interesting that an art project triggered scientific research. Could you talk a little more about this?
DS In this instance, art informed science. In past eras, during the Renaissance particularly, we think of there being a strong interaction between the two disciplines but, in contemporary times, the same isn’t true. In this case, I’m delighted with the result. In his effort to realize the art project, Brian Wardle [an MIT aeronautics and astronautics professor], has made a striking, black, discovery.
frieze Can you explain the technology behind the substance?
DS I don’t know if you’re familiar with what carbon nanotubes do? They are tiny, hollow cylinders that grow on a substrate into a structure resembling a forest, consisting mainly of empty space. When a photon, or a particle of light, enters this forest structure, it gets trapped and bounces around until it dissipates as heat. This causes the extreme light absorption.
frieze What about the artistic ideas behind the project?
DS I was interested in bringing together these opposites – the diamond’s extremely reflective properties and the utmost black. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus was obsessed with this idea and might have even liked this art piece! There’s also a second aspect, which concerns the literal and symbolic devaluation of a highly valuable object.
frieze What are the applications of this carbon nanotube material to the arts?
DS The substance has an interesting aesthetic property, in that it removes the three-dimensional appearance of any object. Everything that is covered with the material appears entirely flat or void-like. And that, of course, is a striking effect that artists might like to use. Many artists have been interested in the properties of black, think about Kazimir Malevich or Ad Reinhardt.
frieze And are there also technological applications for this substance?
DS When I heard Brian and NECSTlab had really made this discovery, I put Brian in touch with John Mather, a Nobel Laureate and chief scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope. He’s currently working on a very interesting project looking for exoplanets [planets outside the Solar System]. John is very interested in using this material – with appropriate modifications – on starshades [devices designed to block starlight that interferes with telescopic observations].
frieze Will the substance be available to the general public?
DS Yes. You are probably familiar with the discussion around the monopolization of some black materials by a certain British artist. [Anish Kapoor bought the exclusive rights to Vantablack, what was then the world’s blackest paint, in 2016.] As an artist, I think this runs completely counter to the idea of the arts. We do not believe in exclusive ownership of any material or idea and have opened our method to all artists.