Week 5: Brixey’s Alchymeia and the Future

This week’s blog post is about physical sciences, such as atomic physics, nanotechnology, nuclear science, and GPS and one topic that made struck my interest was atomic physics. Scientists throughout the world today have continued to investigate atomic and subatomic phenomena and probed the structure and behavior of atoms. These scientists have been able to discovered realms “in which matter and energy can transmute and profoundly challenged the commonsense of time and space” (Wilson 223). However, not many artists are attacking the scopes of atomic science. But when one does, such as Shawn Brixey, a whole new world is open.

Shawn Brixey is an artist, researcher, educator, and writer who is currently the Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at York University in Toronto, Canada. Brixey focuses his research on the exploration of photonic energy and atomic structure as he attempts to “address the impact of advanced technology on artistic expression” (Brixey 223). As I look into Brixey, I found that not only one of his work, Alchymeia, address this notion, Alchymeia pave the way to a future of fairness.



Alcheymia is a nanotechnology and bioengineering public artwork that was showcased for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. In Alchymeia, naturally occurring metabolite steroids are harvested from the blood and urine of Olympic athletes to act as doping agents in ultra-pure, ultra-cold water, guiding the growth of impossibly rare ice crystals with radically altered architecture. The ice crystals in the installation are created using a similar principle of atomic recording utilized by snowflakes, but each crystal has a microscopic sample of human hormone introduced as a nucleating seed. The human hormone are the impurities that catalyzes these productions. What makes this experiment interesting is that two snowflakes can be similar in design. As a kid, I was told that no two snowflakes can be the same. The reason for this is that the freezing of water and the creation of snowflakes in nature is determined by physical laws combining air temperature, surface tension and heat dissipation in liquids. These laws combined with contamination in the form of very specific minerals, organic matter and other impurities in the water create a logarithmic scale of temperature and foreign substances that drives snowflakes to freeze and form in very predictable ways. As a result, no two snowflakes are alike.

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However, Bixley’s Alchymeia is able to produce duplicate snowflakes through doping agents from these athletes at the Olympics. The colors in the Alchymeia crystals are generated by the decreased speed of light in the ice specific to the elastic stress placed on the crystal lattice by the doping agents. Brixey’s artwork showcase that the field of atomic physics can be taken one step further with the advanced technology that we have. I too am fascinated how these doping agents from human hormones can create such new discoveries. Brixey opened the door for newer discoveries that can be done with these impurities but the decision of whether artist wants to take on this challenge will be left for them to decide.

The last discussion that I find interesting from Alchymeia is the idea of using doping agents. Doping of some sort in any sport or job is frown upon because it is an act of cheating. As explained before, doping agents are certain impurities that are found in the body that should or should not be there. When athletes compete, they are required to take a drug test to prevent cheating and bring fairness to the game. While some are caught cheating, others like Lance Armstrong, winner of seven Tour De France, was able to get away with cheating for a long time. With Alchymeia,  I believe that if Brixey was able to use these doping agents to create duplicate snowflakes, we should be able to use these doping agents to further our technology in analyzing doping on athletes. With the current technology we have, we can still grow and make sport fairer for others and create art that have never been discovered before.

~ Kevin Trieu-Nguyen


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