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O Magazine

Limes Tenebrarum.


Vantablack or the chimera of total darkness

A “strange, alien material”, which is “like looking into a black hole”: the efforts to define Vantablack crash into the wall of analogy, because the similes proposed send back realities that are even more undecipherable than the one they try to illuminate. Who has ever looked into the eye of a black hole (already a trope to sketch out something the existence of which challenges us)?

It’s understood, nevertheless, that the creators of Vantablack strive to find the most intuitive way to present their invention; a substance made up of carbon nanotubes able to trap 99.96% of the light shed on it. Such a minimum reflection of visible radiation makes it the darkest matter known on the face of the Earth. Its unheard of properties can even fool our eyes to perceive objects covered with it as if they were 2D. Vantablack solves some composition problems that complicated the commercialization of preceding similar substances, and once these solved it allows for many different uses, from the building of more sensitive telescopes to creating thermal military camouflage. However, the most interesting thing in this story is the long, stubborn and not entirely devoid of funniness quest that we can half-guess: a bunch of physicians and engineers eager to find that “blacker than black” material to which they can later on only refer to by using slippery catachresis.

Chimerical and obsessive searches are part of our essential narratives, an archetype that has fascinated and motivated us since the very first days of human history, if not before. It doesn’t matter whether what motivates them is a spiritual emblem, a legendary place or an intellectual construct -the Holy Grail, the seven cities of Gold or the demonstration of Fermat’s last theorem- as long as this quest makes us cross thresholds, face the unknown and even risk our physical and mental integrity. While some of these searches have a universally understood epic component, others stun for their aspiration to an incomprehensible or absurd goal for all those not familiar with its particular logic. The imbalance between the time and effort devoted to them and their apparently esoteric objective is the most seducing thing in them.

Popular subcultures, for example, offer many instances of such limited, marginal and at times even absurd explorations. Maybe influenced by Vantablack now come to mind all those black metal and funeral doom bands, of drone music and dark ambient, obstinate in obtaining more and more saturated and opaque sounds, in achieving gloomier, more depressive and ghostly atmospheres. They are also trying to find a blacker than black darkness, although a conceptual one in their case, and with no more compass or aesthetic concern than reaching those final depths.

The relationship between both might seem weak, but both researches share the mysterious impulse of sounding out the unknown that so well defines George Mallory’s memorable answer when he was asked why he was so obsessed with climbing the Everest, a peak up to then impossible to ascend to: “Because it’s there”, he said. But there’s more than that: soon after Surrey Nanosystems announced their finding of Vantablack, artist Frederik De Wilde popped up to denounce that the company had unscrupulously appropriated the information he had shared with them. According to his story, De Wilde had devoted the previous ten years to trying to generate the “perfect black body” and so far back as 2004 he had already synthesised a compound that would still hold the “blackness” record. In his case, as a poetic project: “I see my art as a space of rejection, but also as a space of and for imagination”, he pointed in an interview with Dazed: “It’s the definitive celebration of the unknown”.

This puzzling race to discover the blackest-black, although partly comical, is fascinating. Because it points towards what happens every time someone works in a frontier and glimpses unknown territory, be it in science or in art, in a nanotechnology lab or an extreme music rehearsal room: the boundaries of our perception are shaken, and with them the limits of our language, exposed to their limitations and pushed to surpass them. In the words of De Wilde himself, they are inquiries that make us question reality and how we understand it. Exactly like the vague edges and tricky borders of Vantablack.