X-Ray on! As part of my residency I X-rayed a selection of miniature plastic models from my collection and Tim chose the octopus to go first. I wasn’t quite sure what the resulting x-ray would reveal as the miniature plastic models will never have the same kind of volume data one would expect from fossil or flesh. I felt I already had a good sense of the models physical form as I’ve assembled and dissembled the parts many times. However, while I could confidently imagine the inside the molded cavities I couldn’t predict how the object would be translated through the XTC. It wasn’t until I had seen the completed octopus data set that I understood why he had considered the octopus over the other types of modelled creatures. With eight arms spread out beneath its bulbous head, it was the perfect specimen to begin with in order to understand the rotation functions of Drishti, a 3D volume rendering program in which the data could be manipulated and rotated.

Tim preparing a miniature 
plastic octopus for 3D microcomputed tomograph X-ray (XCT) movie 
duration 0:33 min. 
created 2006, © Erica Seccombe, featuring 
Associate Professor Tim Senden at the ANU X-ray Microcomputed Tomograph (XTC) facility 

Data before dressing. The octopus is reconfigured as a data block. Watching Tim and Ajay rotate, split and dive through their data-sets of fossils and brains, they make Drishti look easy and meaningful. What can I do with a miniature plastic octopus? I focus myself on the task of completing one new work for the exhibition Supernatural with artist Al Munro in the UK. With only two weeks lead-time I learn how to navigate a 3D environment and then make an animation. I’m adept in the user-friendly 2D environment of Photoshop, but playing with Drishti is like shaping molton glass on the end of a punty. I try and delete the pipette that we stuck the octopus on. It’s elusive. I haven’t yet worked out the coordinates let alone absorbed the key pad controls in unison with the mouse. I grapple with the camera function, wishing I could create curves, stumble around the block animations, I keep going. Then suddenly I understand what I'm doing wrong, so I rethink my objectives and slowly find my way, twisting and turning the octopus sub volumes to test what works. So many choices made all the harder by Ajay continualy developing and upgrading the program. Every time I thought I'd mastered Drishti, old functions were superseded. It all seemed impossible, but after many trials and errors, my first animation Ocular came ogether just in time to take to the UK for Super Natural.

fluoroscein c=o, 2006, © Erica Seccombe, movie duration 2:33 min. Short documentation as part of an artistic residency in the Department of Applied Mathematics at the ANU. Featuring Dr Pär Wedin and Dr Andrew Fogden


This project is supported by the ACT Government 2006 New Work Grant.

My artist in residency would not have been possible without the generous assistance of the staff in the Department of Applied Mathematics. I would like to thank everyone for their time and patience.

In particular: Dr Vanessa Robins for sharing her ideas and her room; Dr Tim Senden, for his undoubting and ongoing support; Dr Ajay Limaye, creator of Drishti, and 
Stuart Ramsden and Drew Whitehouse 
from the ANU Supercomputer facility and Vizlab.This project has been supported by a 2006 artsACT project grant 

2006 - Artist in Residence, ANU Dept Applied Maths

Artist-in-residence at the Department of Applied Mathematics, Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering, Australian National University, 1 August - 31 October 2006.

Beginning in August 2006, I spent three months in the ANU Department of Applied Mathematics with the assistance of an artsACT Government New Work Grant. I was drawn to the Department of Applied Maths by the research generated from visual data produced by the ANU X-ray Microcomputed Tomograph (XCT) Facility. The XTC, custom built by the department, enables scientists to see the structure of material – such as rock, fossil or bone – at nano-scale. The Department of Applied Mathematics is mix of research physicists, chemists and mathematicians with broad interests in the form and function of matter. They are recognised for groundbreaking research into processes involving complex materials and networks. Already their results are challenging recognised theoretical knowledge of the structure of matter, including the established understanding of evolution. The Departments technology and software has greatly extended their experimental capabilities, causing scientists from a wide range of disciplines to re-evaluate how they now approach their research.

The objective of the residency was to further explore my ideas around art as metaphor for contemporary scientific techniques and processes such as nanotechnology to examine issues of visualisation, replication and simulation of the natural world. But it also gave me the chance to hang around scientists in their natural environment and to gain a better understanding about the way they work and think. Researchers in the Department were incredibly generous with their time; explaining their work to me, describing theoretical process and physical properties at nano-scale and beyond. I enjoyed the challenge of engaging with complex information and I connected with the concept of their work being experimental, drawing parallels with the experimental nature of making art.

My project was inspired by a collection of miniature plastic animals that represent insects, reptiles and sea creatures and are no bigger than 3cm long. I had used them in earlier work to mimick the methology of scientific investigation and I had experimented with various ways of emulating X-ray processes through basic flat bed scanning and photoshop manipulation. This work then executed through a variety of mediums such as photocopy, laser printouts, photo-screen print and on large-format inkjet printers.


This Facility offers high fidelity microscopic 3D tomography. The XCT instruments are designed and built in-house and scan objects in 360 degrees, not in slices. Therefore the resulting datasets, around 16 Gbytes each, are full representations of the internal structure of a static object; such as a bee’s brain or a small fragment of fossil or bone. In conjunction with the XCT, a unique volume rendering program ‘Drishti’ has been developed by Dr Ajay Limaye to visualise the data in 3D. Drishti enables scientists to view the samples on screen as virtual objects; moving around and through the data on x and y coordinates. The XCT Facility is supported by APAC, Australia’s largest public supercomputer centre which maintains an enormous volume (several Pbyte) of archival storage at the ANU.


In conjunction with the XTC facility, Dr Ajay Lamaye, from the ANU Super Computer Centre and Vizlab, has been developing a high resolution 3D volume rendering program which he has called Drishti, which means 'insight' in Sanskrit. It enables researchers to visually interpret their micro’X-ray data. Under Ajay’s instruction I attempt to use this software independently. This program allows me to view the replica’s tiny interior structures, manipulate its density and rotate volume 360 degrees in a virtual space. The transparency of the object seduces me. The same way I feel when I see examples of the late 19th century glass of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka’s beautifully detailed marine animals. The octopus sub volume is both exquisite and rudimentary.



Nanoplastica is a body of work that has resulted from this residency. It was rendered and animated in Drishti, a unique scientific volume exploration and presentation tool. This work was first exhibited as a digital projection installation at Canberra Contemporary Art Space in 2008.

Related works to this project