Dust: from nanotechnologies to Marcel Duchamp’s « inframince »

Dust particles are everywhere.

Each one is imperceptible but they are nevertheless always present and impose themselves in our lives. Their appearance in an apartment is a sign of prolonged absence or « a certain household negligence » . Dust is synonymous with chores, time passing and is always a nuisance, especially for our bronchial tubes, our eyes … For Galileo, the Moon is earthy. In this respect perhaps even a little too much. Typing « dust moon apollo » in Google shows how this fine lunar dust can be a plague. They are dust storms on planet Mars. The giant dust devils seen on Mars also show how dust is really everywhere.

Dust on Moon

There’s even dust in interplanetary space…

Electron microscope image of an aggregate of interplanetary dust grains. Each grain is a size of less than one micrometre

Dust and nanotechnologies

Grenoble, in south east of France, is focused on nanotechnologies. It is a city that works on small dimensions, those where dust is a monster. Impossible to tolerate them in a nano-chip factory environment.

As a result, around Grenoble, there are thousands of square meters of clean rooms where everything is controlled, air, gases, and fluids of all kinds are filtered and purified, and containers are cleaned like no one else. Everything with a maniacal rigor and with budgets… accordingly. The staff, as can be seen in the now common figure, work in integral protective suits as each one of us is an intense source of various dust emissions.

Dust as a large scale industry

Dealing with dust and ensuring the quality of the environment generate a large-scale industrial and economic activity that requires the mobilization of high technologies in a large number of fields such as chemistry, electronics and pharmaceuticals. The chemical reactivity and the associated biological activity, from finely divided matter to the nanometric scale, are such that they have led to the creation of a major nanosafety platform in Grenoble. One only has to look at how dust of all dimensions in the environment and of various origins imposes its presence in the news, particularly during pollution peaks. In fact, the permanent fight against this omnipresence of dust keeps us very busy, whereas, apart from pollen and other living dust such as mites, we find it difficult to find any use for this residue produced in massive quantities by the world as it goes. Their control and disposal are therefore industrial activities. As will be seen later in this article, the scientific description of dust requires high-level concepts.

Dust and art

Faced with this massive presence but at the threshold of human perception (not easy to see and handle a single dust), the surprise comes from art: few works seem to deal with this material yet at the heart of our world and our lives. If this is true, it’s still a surprise (don’t hesitate to let me know on Twitter or Facebook).

Dust Breeding, 1920, Man Ray (23.9 x 30.4 cm)

Marcel Duchamp with Dust Breeding

Few works perhaps, but only one might fill this void ? Dust Breeding by Marcel Duchamp, materialized by the famous photograph by Man Ray (see above), is a central and still very much alive artwork. It is nowadays presented in many prominent art places.

For months, Marcel Duchamp let dust accumulate on a glass plate (actually on his famous artwork Le Grand Verre). Man Ray’s photography is of excellent quality (after more than an hour’s break at the time): the presence of a thick layer of dust on the glass is perceived at first glance. There is nothing anecdotal about this production, which makes it possible to sweep it aside with a remark like: «  if I don’t clean my house, it’s just the same » . Duchamp’s legendary laziness does not explain this project. His creation of the «inframince » , a questioning of an art of the imperceptible and of the invisible, demonstrates it.

The Wiktionary says of the «inframince »: « An aesthetic concept created by Marcel Duchamp designating a difference or an imperceptible interval, sometimes only imaginable, between two phenomena ».

« Inframince: an aesthetic concept created by Marcel Duchamp designating a difference or an imperceptible interval, sometimes only imaginable, between two phenomena »

The « inframince » is at the center of the book entitled « De l’inframince. Brève histoire de l’imperceptible, de Marcel Duchamp à nos jours » by Thierry Davila, curator at the MAMCO (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art) in Geneva.

The invisible part of our world

Dust, the object of this artistic creation, appears here as a messenger, a mediator of Marcel Duchamp’s deep reflection and artistic creation around the invisible part of our world. This artistic approach which approaches the imperceptible through the behaviour of dust is as close as possible to us, almost banal in fact. It remains surprising to see Marcel Duchamp draw our attention to this dimension of reality, that is to say, to put our noses on these questions with Dust Breeding.

Dust, Duchamp and science

This staging of the long and permanent deposit of Dust on a smooth surface in connection with a reflection on an art of the invisible immediately speaks to a scientist. It does not mean the link can be easily depicted. The scientific description of the behavior of dust requires advanced concepts. Marcel Duchamp is a contemporary of french physicists Jean Perrin (Nobel prize 1926), Henri Poincaré, and Paul Langevin whose works are very much associated to these questions. Thierry Davila underlines how much Duchamp was influenced by Poincaré’s book, Science and Hypothesis. He lives in a period when key elements appear that allow a detailed understanding of the dust behavior. The first edition of Jean Perrin’s book, Les Atomes, was published in 1913.

Evidence: dust fall

Evidence: dust falls. Like everything else. Unlike everything else, dust falls slowly. Very slowly we know it and they fall all the more slowly as they are smaller. Micrometric in size, subject to the permanent random collisions with the molecules of the air, they wander for a long time before the weight by its constant action ends up projecting them on a table, a book, the ground. A projection of three-dimensional space onto a two-dimensional surface after an erratic walk in the air. Immediately statistical physics with notably a famous model known as the drunkard’s walk (or random walk…).

As time goes by…

All these questions seem to me to be at the heart of the  « inframince » and, at the very least, very present in this art of the invisible. Slowness too, this relationship to time which also manifests itself in Duchamp through a legendary and claimed laziness. It is also the fact that in the time of human action, say a second, a minute or an hour, nothing or so little happens here. Usually we don’t watch the hair grow any more than the dust falls. It takes days, weeks or even months for particle by particle to build up a visible layer of dust, evidence of time passing.

Evidence also of the irreversible, dust constantly covers everything without respite and erases everything. Through the photography of this patiently accumulated deposit, accompanied by a reflection on the art of the invisible, on the threshold of perception, Marcel Duchamp, as an artist, allows us to explore fundamental questions in which scientists have made (and are still making) spectacular discoveries.

Dust, random walk and brownian motion

The erratic displacement at all scales of an invisible dust is known in physics as Brownian motion. A major contribution to our understanding of this is due to Albert Einstein in 1905. Brownian motion results from the effect of shocks caused by molecules that induce a disorderly movement of the dust. It is the atomic scale manifestation of heat. Chance, disorder and chaos reign supreme on these scales. Jean Perrin, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1926, opens a window on the experimental observation of this chaotic movement by observing it with an optical microscope using micrometric particles immersed in a fluid. Here he underlines the limits of the usual concept of trajectory and regular motion. There, the observed particle, here a dust, changes direction at any moment under the effect of innumerable shocks (of the order of several billion shocks per second). Marcel Duchamp waits to observe the effect of the random projection of these dust particles onto a surface. Passage of three-dimensional space on a surface of dimension two, which makes it possible to concentrate all these imperceptible particles and after months make them visible to us. Dust Breeding gives us to see and to become aware that the accumulation of dust on surfaces is the result of a long downward journey that signs the victory of weight but victory largely delayed by the random but numerous collisions, which are thus the manifestation at the nanometric scale of the disorder characteristic of thermal agitation, in fact of heat.

Following Brown, Einstein, Smoluchowski, Perrin, Langevin, Wiener and others… the study of accumulation during a random deposit on a surface has been the subject of numerous studies, both theoretical and experimental, in surface sciences or crystal growth. This activity took on a particular dimension in the 80s and 90s (in the 20th century!) probably thanks to the meeting of three concomitant but independent developments. The machines for depositing atoms or molecules on surfaces, those widely used in nanoelectronics, were mature. Computers were capable of rapidly simulating these deposits by taking into account huge, and above all sufficient, numbers of particles. Theoretical models to describe the aggregation of particles on surfaces are numerous.

Fractal structures

Example of fractal : The triangle of Sierpiński

Also at the same time, in 1982, Benoît Mandelbrot published his book The Fractal Geometry of Nature. Fractals are among the tools that will bridge the gap between the erratic behaviour of a particle in a 3-dimensional space and the surface roughness produced by these random deposits. We will talk about kinetic roughness. Let’s take another look at an old dust film…

Dust Breeding is not a prerequisite to enter scientific research…

As a young physics researcher measuring, at the end of the 1980s, the roughness produced at the nanometric scale by the random deposition of atoms on surfaces, I did not know at the time that Marcel Duchamp had grown layers of dust the way I grew layers of silicon by exploring the influence of temperature and interactions between atoms on the final roughness. Candor clearly has advantages: knowledge of Dust Breeding is not required to enter research at the university and to study kinetic roughness experimentally.

Hats off to the artist!

On the contrary, do one need to know all this physics to appreciate the incredible intuition of Marcel Duchamp ? He was certainly enlightened by the scientific ideas on the knowledge front in his time. But this in fact reinforces the astonishment. He created the concept of inframince, this purely artistic look at the imperceptible that here ends up appearing to us at the end of an insensitive accumulation over time, by underlining the importance of chance, dispersion, projection with reduction of dimension and perhaps even more surprising with this questioning of the precision necessary to distinguish, to make the difference. Hats off to the artist! For those who would doubt this incredible vision or intuition (I don’t know what to say here), we can add another approach to the imperceptible included in inframince: the ambient energy to be harvested.

Ambient energy harvesting

The first line of this short text Transformer written by Marcel Duchamp and published in 1939 in André Breton’s anthology of black humor:

Transformer intended to use small wasted energies such as: the excess pressure on an electric button

The system described in this reflection is today one of the devices studied nowadays within the framework of the recovery of ambient and human energy. See here. The rest of Duchamp’s text discusses the recovery of energy used in the activities and functioning of the human body. It is truly amazing.

« Transformateur destiné à utiliser les petites énergies gaspillées comme :
l’excès de pression sur un bouton électrique.
l’exaltation de la fumée de tabac.
la poussée des cheveux, des poils et des ongles.
la chute de l’urine et des excréments.
les mouvements de peur, d’étonnement, d’ennui, de colère.le rire.
la chute des larmes.
les gestes démonstratifs des mains, des pieds, les tics.
les regards durs.
les bras qui en tombent du corps.
l’étirement, le bâillement, l’éternuement.
le crachement ordinaire et de sang.
les vomissements.
les cheveux rébarbatifs, l’épi.
le bruit de mouchage, le ronflement.
le sifflage, le chant.
les soupirs, etc. »

Really amazing…

Tentative translation:

«  Transformer designed to use small, wasted energy such as :
excess pressure on an electric button.
the exhilaration of tobacco smoke.
the growth of hair, hairs and nails.
the fall of urine and feces.

movements of fear, amazement, boredom, anger. laughter.
the falling of tears.
demonstrative gestures of hands, feet, ticks.
the hard looks.
the arms falling from the body.
stretching, yawning, sneezing.
the ordinary spitting and bleeding.

stubborn hair, epi.
blowing your nose, snoring.
whistling, singing.
sighs, etc.

Published by JoelChevrier

a physics professor at the university passionate about contemporary art . Scientific curator of the Soulages Arts&Sciences exhibition « Noir, c’est noir ? » Lausanne Switzerland (2016-2017) . Collaboration with Giuseppe Penone for artwork Essere vento : we pushed sculpture on sand grain down the micrometer size. Exhibition Corps de Pierre 2017. . Collaboration with choreographer Yoann Bourgeois for exhibition at Pantheon Paris 2017 . Member of Strategic Council at ENSCI Les Ateliers Paris (2017-…). . PI of Descitech project (2014-2018): « Sciences, design and society: the factory of contemporary worlds » . Member of the Board at Ecole Supérieure d’Arts et de Design Grenoble/Valence (2015-...) . Member of Scientific Comity of Exhibition “Science Frugale” at science museum Espace Pierre Gilles de Gennes . Member of Scientific Comity of Exhibition “Luminopolis” at science museum Cap Sciences (Bordeaux 2017-2018).

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