The same technology that safeguards the authenticity of the bills in our purses and wallets has provided a new medium for creative visual expression, thanks to an innovative collaboration between artists and the engineers who originally developed that technology.

The roots of this work lie in the Bank of Canada’s never-ending quest to make the country’s money a difficult target for counterfeiters. About a decade ago these efforts led Bank researchers to Bozena Kaminska, a professor with Simon Fraser University’s School of Engineering Science who had begun publishing descriptions of how nano-materials could be created with unique optical properties that would be almost impossible to copy.

“This is the next generation of nano-fabric technology, which belongs to nano-security,” she explains.

The Bank subsequently asked her to form a company dedicated to this work, which became the foundation of a collaboration that eventually yielded the window-like insert embedded in the latest generation of Canadian banknotes. Nano-scale holes within this feature can trap particular wavelengths of light to yield an iridescence that is much more dynamic than anything to be found on a typical printed surface. Specialized skills and equipment are essential to produce this effect, which is why Bank chose it to discourage anyone from trying to make their own copies.

Kaminska still sits on the Board of Directors for Vancouver-based NanoTech Security Corporation, which has been responsible for transforming this exotic laboratory invention into a cost-effective security solution that not only graces our cash but also protects other products, such as personnel ID tags, trademarked consumer goods, and event tickets.

In the meantime, she has continued to explore the other possibilities for this innovation at the Centre for Integrative Bio-Engineering Research (CIBER), a research unit she established within SFU. CIBER’s activities have included applications for thin films to improve photovoltaic performance, wireless sensor networks, and optical signalling systems for use in medical imaging.

Since 2013, the centre has also hosted an initiative aimed at bringing this technology to the attention of artists and inviting them to find their own novel uses for it. Kaminska and her colleagues chose NanoMedia as the name of this class of artwork that takes advantage of the subtle optical qualities offered by dense assemblies of nanostructures capable of filtering any type of light in order to form specific colours and other optical details. Specific images are captured in this substrate, which is treated with light-sensitive chemicals in a process resembling the processing of photographs on exposed film.

Although Kaminska initiated this project, much of its momentum has been carried by her daughter, Aleksandra, who was still completing post-doctoral work at York University’s Centre for Digital Arts and Technology when NanoMedia was first conceived. Bozena suggested to her that this technology represented nothing less than an artistic frontier.

“I convinced her that it would be better for her career if she developed this unique track where no one else was working,” she recalls.

After obtaining support from Mitacs, a national research and training body, as well as highly competitive grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, Aleksandra relocated to SFU, where she brought working visual artists to learn more about NanoMedia. Two artists — Christine Davis and Scott Lyall — came to CIBER, where they spent time with Aleksandra and Hao Jiang, an engineering science postdoctoral fellow who outlined the technical features of NanoMedia.

Aleksandra acknowledges that the engineers and artists on site had to overcome the very different perspectives they each brought to this area of common interest. These interactions were facilitated by the realization that both fields regularly employ reagents that must be well understood and monitored to obtain the best results. She added that once the artists had donned “bunny suits” — the protective gear necessary to work in the clean room where substrates are treated — they were struck by how hands-on this high-tech undertaking turned out to be.

“So many of these technologies we think of as being made in some lab by machines, but it’s really manual labour with a lot of physical work,” she notes.

The participating scientists in turn were impressed by the artists’ knowledge of the chemistry involved in techniques like autochrome photography, a now-archaic method that is still employed to produce unusual visual characteristics. In spite of such shared insights, however, Aleksandra observes that the two groups retained distinctly different attitudes toward what the technology meant to them.

“For the scientists, they’re used to thinking everything they do showcases technology at its best — in this case the high definition colour, the well defined images, things like that,” she says. “Whereas for the artists, their role is not to showcase all that they can do, but what they want to think about. Rather than showcasing high definition images, just the effect itself was interesting enough.”

Aleksandra, who is now a faculty member of the Department of Communications at Université de Montréal, documented her experience with NanoMedia in an article for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology journal Leonardo. There she outlines some of the finished products to emerge from the artistic collaboration, including the use of a NanoMedia image on the cover of an art publication she was editing. She also suggests that these artistic examples demonstrate how this physical invention — the nano-scale substrate — opens up the prospect of a new medium for visual expression.

By way of ensuring that the potential of this medium continues to be investigated, the Ciber Lab placed the project’s background materials on a Web site, Nano-Verses, which outlines the people and the technology in a highly creative fashion.

For Bozena, Nano-Verses captures the diversity of an enterprise that challenged the philosophical perspectives of the participants and opened them up to new ways of thinking.

“My team learned from the artists, and they learned from us,” she says. “The personal motivation allowed us to overcome all these communications difficulties and language barriers.”

Above all, while Bozena’s career has led to fundamental cybersecurity progress that can be witnessed by any Canadian making a cash transaction, she could not have imagined the contribution made by NanoMedia.

“Without this project with my daughter,” she concludes, “this technology would never have been developed.”