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  • Cecilia Kramar

Vanta Black – a World Without Color

Updated: Jun 28, 2022

By Ana Elisa Sousa

A man falls into an eight-foot-deep hole so dark that looked like a flat surface. Unlikely? Not if the hole is painted with ultra-black paint, so dark that it absorbs up to 99.965% of visible light. The paint is Vantablack, one of the darkest substances on earth. VANTA is an acronym for Vertically Aligned Nanotube Arrays, a forest of vertical tubes that "grow" on a subtract using a special chemical process. When light strikes Vantablack, it gets trapped instead of bouncing off, continually deflected amongst the tubes and eventually being absorbed and dissipating into heat. The "flat" hole was part of the Descent Into Limbo exhibition by the British artist Anish Kapoor.

Descent Into Limbo, by Anish Kapoor [Photo by Filipe Braga/Serralves]. A hole painted with Vantablack, so dark it looks like a flat surface.

Vanta Black was also the first theme of Parallel Worlds, a free online experience designed by the Convergence Initiative in collaboration with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). Happening from April to August 2021, Parallel Worlds includes a series of live virtual colloquia where brain scientists and MMFA's volunteer guides discuss a topic related to vision, colour and art, an online art-science workshop linked to each of the colloquium themes and a permanent virtual tour that you can visit here!

The event officially started on April 24th with the Vanta Black - a World Without Colour colloquium. During the opening event, Marie-José Daoust, a retired philosophy teacher and current volunteer guide at the MMFA, guided attendees in the appreciation of four artworks related to the absence of color, the use of darkness in art and the subjective obscurity we can experience when interpreting art. Here is an extract of her talk, where she unveils my favorite piece: Head of an Inuit woman with two braids, by artist Charlie Inukpuk.

After her amazing intervention, Doctor Patrick Cavanagh, Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and visual perception specialist, explored how artists can capture scenes with almost no light – nighttime scenes – and how line drawings can depict volumes and space without any sense of light. He discussed his work regarding the human perception of shadows, and how artists' representation of shadows can inform brain science on the workings of our visual system. Here is a sneak peek of his talk:

In the following weekend, visual artist Bettina Forget guided attendees on an exciting workshop in which participants explored how shadow, line, contrast and motion alter our understanding of the human face. You’ll be able to do the same workshop at your own pace, through Convergence platform, very soon. Stay tuned!


I had the pleasure to chat with Marie-José Daoust, Dr. Cavanagh and Bettina Forget about the convergence of arts and science in their lives and work, and to get their advice on how scientists can implement more art, and artists can implement more science, in their careers, among other topics.

For Dr. Cavanaugh, the idea of incorporating art in his research surfaced during his study of how the brain understands the shape of objects - more specifically, how shadows contribute to that understanding. It quickly became clear to him that the first people who had to think about that were visual artists: they seek to understand how to make shapes out of lines and then how to add shading and reflection to help define a scene.

I was just amazed at how a dark area on a picture could look like a hole or as a black thing or as a shadow, and how the brain understood that. (…) So, my first goal was to understood shadows and who was the first artist to put a shadow in a painting. (...) There are some really interesting stories on how artists have used shadows, and what they can get away with.

For Bettina Forget, the first encounter with the convergence of arts and science happened during her undergrad, while she was living in Singapore and pursuing a BA in Fine Arts at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts/Curtin University. At the time, she started to be active in amateur astronomy.

During the day I would make art and at night I would pull out my telescope and start observing the sky. As my degree progressed, it occurred to me that what I was doing at night could inform what I was doing during the day, and I started to make astronomically informed art. Quite frankly, my professors didn't quite know what to do with me because I was a little ahead of the curve. There wasn't really much astronomical art around at the time.

Marie-José’s involvement with arts came with retirement, after a long career as a philosophy teacher. Though her involvement with arts was minor during her teaching life, both her children are artists. While looking for an activity to do after retirement, they encouraged her to seek volunteer work in an art museum. She does not regret that decision at all. When asked what kind of artwork inspires her the most, she mentions those that make her feel small, or that she does not understands immediately.

I'm more easily moved by architecture, the big cathedrals, the mosques and also some contemporary skyscrapers: I feel very small in a very big space and this has a strong physical and psychological impact on me, whereas with sculptures and paintings, though they may have an impact, I’m usually struck by works that I don't understand immediately. Our eyes are really fast at “getting it”, this is evolution's gift in some way: your brain wants to know “Is there anything I have to worry about in here?”. In my case, once I've gotten past this short first glance, there remain elements that I don't understand, and this is what I’m drawn to explore.

Working in the convergence of arts and science

Visual artist Betina describes her work as a director at SETI, at the Artists in Residence (AIR) Program, as delighting and phenomenal, in which she gets to facilitate conversations between extremely talented artists and SETI Institute's researchers.

She mentioned several exciting SETI collaborations during our chat, such as Living Distance, by mid-career artist Xin Liu where she sent her wisdom teeth into space, and the lending library for aliens called The Library of the Great Silence, by experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats.

I’m working with people who are incredibly creative and brilliant. That also includes our Institute’s researchers. If you are an exoplanet researcher, for example, or an astrobiologist, you are not just focused on anthropocentric navel-gazing. Their work deals with big philosophical questions, like “Are we alone in the universe?” and “What's the origin of life?” There is a lot of overlap between philosophy, art and science.

Dr. Patrick Cavanagh has also worked with a number of artists in creating installations based on the science of colors, and on perceiving color. For example, The Monster Flash (later renamed Rhodopsin), done at the San Diego Art Fair and also in Paris and Palo Alto and New York.

[In The Monster Flash/Rhosopsin installation] you have to sit in the dark and then a huge flash goes off, and whatever you're looking at in the room it's frozen as an after image on your eyes. And after a few seconds, it changes from being a color after image, which we're mostly all familiar with, to a black and white positive after image that lasts 10 seconds or more. And that's based on the rod vision you have, which is what is usually used in dim light.

For Dr. Cavanagh, collaborations such as these often bring new knowledge to the scientists involved, and sometimes to the artists as well, if they are interested in the science behind it. The interest in discovery, he says, is the point in common for both scientists and artists, and he is always on the lookout for new things that artists might discover.

Advice to scientists that want to include art in their research

You have to have a question about which art offers interesting data.

In his case, Dr. Cavanagh’s question was "how does vision work?", and art was one way to test how, by looking at how we perceive shadows in artwork, and to what techniques artists had perfected over the centuries to "trick" the brain to see shadows.

He has also studied not art, but artists themselves. As artists have tens of thousands of hours of experience in representing the world, he wanted to understand what artists know about the world and how they use that to construct drawings and sketches and paintings.

He has asked questions such as "is their perception any different from a non-artist?" and "do they have different memory for scenes?". According to Dr. Cavanagh, there are several scientific questions we can answer by looking at artists' brains. For example, by looking at how mental illnesses such as schizophrenia affects artists' artwork.

To Marie-José Daoust, bringing more art to our lives - not only for scientists but people in general - requires not only seeking science in museums or concerts but putting ourselves in a creative posture in everyday life.

To do this, we must let go of this reflex of «getting it right» - if you're doing science, you want to get it right, this is what is expected of you, and of course, the results you will arrive at will be considered valid until proven otherwise and this has consequences. To put oneself on a creative wavelength, I think you have to let go of that reflex of avoiding mistakes, you have to go out of your comfort zone. Remember that artists «create» - they don’t know in advance what they’re going to end up with.

Advice to artists that want to include science in their research

I also asked Bettina her advice to artists that want to incorporate science in their work. She suggested first picking an area of science that they are already passionate about, and don't just be compelled by the aesthetics of science.

Looking through a microscope is phenomenal, the imagery it reveals is beautiful. Still, creating a straight-up visualization should only be the first step. I would advise you to dig deeper, to really research your chosen field of science, because that's where the ideas come from.

To dig deeper, she suggests asking why the scientists are conducting that research, what is the underlying research question they are trying to answer and how it relates to the big issues they are trying to address in the world.

Posing questions is the most fundamental overlap between art and science. If artists are interested in venturing into science-informed research-creation practice, that is really where they need to go. Artistic research-creation requires scientific research. You will find out wonderful things, nothing is more beautiful than nature. So just dig in.

You can see the highlights of my interviews with Marie-José Daoust, Betina Forget and Dr. Patrick Cavanaugh by clicking here. We also talked about artists that inspire them, how they think art can contribute to science communication, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their work.

You can watch the full colloquium here, in our YouTube channel, with subtitles in English and French.

Parallel Worlds is a free public online experience designed by the Convergence Initiative in collaboration with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). The experience encompasses a series of events that use the museum's collection to share neuroscience and fine arts knowledge about visual perception with the public.
From April to August of 2021, the experience features three monthly events that include a permanent virtual tour of artworks selected for their scientific, historical, technical and aesthetic value. A live online colloquium where a neuroscientist and a volunteer art guide discuss a topic related to one aspect of vision, color and art. And an online art-science workshop linked to the colloquium. Each online session will be live broadcast on Zoom and other social media platforms. We hope to bring a diverse audience together to explore the advances in visual neuroscience and the impact and influence of art on those advances.
Parallel Worlds is supported by the Brain Repair and Integrative Neuroscience Program (BRaIN) of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), Concordia University Faculty of Fine Arts, The Canadian Association for Neuroscience (CAN), and a Knowledge Mobilization grant from McGill University's Healthy Brain, Healthy Lives Program (HBHL).

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