Flatland: Essay by Alex Hodby

In Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (written in 1884 by Edwin Abbott), his universe is two-dimensional, and its inhabitants wrestle with geometry and strict social stratification. (1) In this hierarchy of line and life, the more dimensionally complex have a mystical presence: a visit from a sphere is a transformative occurrence. Abbott’s text, used as a metaphor to engage with the idea of dimensions beyond our experience, provides a useful strategy in trying to understand those things exceeding our comprehension. This strategy could include our engagement with the world of the very tiny – a hidden landscape that has slowly been revealed to us by scientific research and technological advance.

Claire Davies’s work, undertaken during her time as artist-in-residence at Northumbria University’s Advanced Materials Research Institute, offers us a way of contemplating this micro-world. In her still images and animations, she engages with the technologies used in the laboratory, and uses this information as the basis for her work. The tools used for her research are complex but allow us to understand the finest composition of our material surroundings.

The scanning electron microscope (SEM) produces information by tracking electrons that are emitted towards the objects that it seeks to describe. In order to be ‘read’ by the SEM, the specimen must be first coated in gold – an alchemical part of an almost transmutative process. The SEM result is photographic and precisely detailed, showing specimens at many thousands of times their actual size. With this information, Davies has been able to reflect on the complexity of visual information at a scale far beyond that discernable from traditional microscopy. At this level of magnification, it seems as if this beguiling view of the world offers us a way of explaining something of the pattern of life. Davies’s images are not simple re-representations of the results of the SEM: her digital images use colour and composition to address another level of imaginative engagement with the information that is presented to her by the technology.

More spatial, complex information is presented by the atomic force microscope (AFM), which takes magnification a step further. This instrument works at the atomic/nano scale: a nanometre being one millionth of a millimetre. Rather than a photographic representation of the miniscule, here, in a way much like a record needle, the three-dimensional surface is ‘traced’ by a probe. (2) Davies’s use of animation to deal with the information that was researched with the AFM seems entirely appropriate. Lines build up on the projection screen, tracking a journey as a contour – reflecting on the AFM’s characteristic of tracing the miniscule topography of an object.

With the results from both of these microscopes, Davies doesn’t assume the role of the technologist or scientific researcher when dealing with the data. Rather, she uses the results to encompass her own interpretation, conversations and artistic reasoning to make a representation of that which fascinates her about the processes of this laboratory practice. She offers a different understanding to that which a scientist might reach: offering the viewer an insight into her own particular observations of the technology at work. Davies manages to convey her excitement at the intriguing world shown to her, negotiating the results with her own vision and translating her findings to us with clarity. Further to her visual engagement, Davies also acknowledges the importance of metaphor and philosophy in our human understanding of scientific research. She has appropriated the title of Abbott’s book and Lewis Carroll’s adventures of Alice to name the works that emphasise the strangeness of these microscopic worlds.

In Flatland, as in her previous Wonderland animations, she has used colour, time and sound to reflect on the abstract nature of the raw data presented by the AFM. The lines that loop around the screen in Flatland are accompanied by sound. The sound makes audible a level of detail that is somehow more compatible with my own engagement with this alien territory than the visual representation of a tiny landscape alone. Coupled with the journey of the line around the screen, the combined experience describes the strangeness of the microscopic world under examination.

On seeing the patterns in Flatland emerge, I was reminded of recordings that I had seen made by a musician and researcher, Margaret Watts Hughes (d.1907). She wrote two books about her own early discoveries of Chladni effects – the way in which dust or liquids form themselves into patterns when they are under vibration from sound. (3) This work, bordering on synaesthetic understanding, resonated with the effects I saw in Davies’s work. But, however seamlessly the sound in Davies’s films appears, it is important to know that it is composed in collaboration with Andrew Mills. It is testament to Davies and Mills’s skill that the sound is so appropriate to the animations’ track across the screen. Davies has talked of her fascination with sonification: the appropriate rendering of information with sound (think of the increasing number of clicks from a Geiger counter, for example). (4) It seems that this area of research offers a parallel with the way in which she has treated the raw data of the AFM and also found an intuitive way of making sense of it through sound.

Flatland also suggested to me the endless openness of the outback or desert plain, the expansiveness of landscape that is so immense as to be overwhelming – the arc of the sky, the encircling horizon: the relief in finding a feature in the landscape that provides a sense of scale. In viewing the work this way, it is strangely comforting to see the world at an atomic level visualised as something very close to our own understanding of a landscape, but this is too simplistic a view.

“...atoms and microbes – contemporary guides to the small and invisible – have forced people to confront realms of unseen entities and to consider the awesome power of small things. Though few people grasp these infinitesimal worlds, none can ignore their potency. Cells and computer chips, to mention two examples, illustrate the power of small things to captivate human thought and action. Dust [...] which once more than anything literally and metaphorically defined smallness and formed the gateway to the invisible, now is but a mere member of the expanding universe of the small.” (5)

The ordinariness of the found objects – petals, leaves, glass – which the SEM and AFM mapped, seems at odds with the structural complexity that is revealed to us by Davies. Relatively simple objects are transformed. As our view of the atomic and the cosmic seem to collide in theoretical physics, so the importance of our own human ability to reflect on huge scientific themes is perpetuated. As Abbott did in his Flatland, Davies creates her own landscapes drawn from her dialogue with a scientific world – an immersive experience into which we are enveloped through sound and visual means.



(1) Edwin Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, is available online at several websites, including www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/eaa/FL.HTM
(2) The website spm.phy.bris.ac.uk/techniques/AFM/ has an interesting description of the technology used in this kind of microscopy.
(3) See various unpaginated passages in the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition ‘N01SE’ at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, 2000.
(4) From conversations with the artist, August 2007.
(5) Joseph A Amato, Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible, University of California Press, 2000, p.14

Alex Hodby is director and curator of Platform Projects, Newcastle upon Tyne