Vantablack might not be the world's blackest material

Belgian artist Frederik De Wilde told Dazed he got there first with NASA and his super-dark nano-black

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Frederic De Wilde's dark material
Frederic De Wilde's dark materialFrederic De Wilde

Earlier this year, a small British tech company called Surrey NanoSystems announced that they had developed the "world's darkest ever material" called Vantablack, a super-black substance akin to looking into a black hole. As speculation grew about how the material could be used creatively, sculptor Anish Kapoor announced his intentions to start working with it. 

However, Belgian artist Frederik De Wilde claims that he was actually the first to pioneer a super-black material using carbon nanotubes – and that his material is actually even darker than Vantablack. His legal team contacted us regarding our coverage of Surrey NanoSystems' invention, alleging that De Wilde had been working on a similar material for the past decade and has been collaborating with NASA for the last two years. 

Dazed caught up with De Wilde to find out his side of the story. We have also reached out to Surrey NanoSystems for a response to De Wilde's claims, and are waiting to hear back.  

Do you feel pissed off or left out of the invention of Vantablack?

Frederik De Wilde: Look, it took me 10 years to contextualise the blackest-black nano art, my artworks and to make it happen – to create "blacker-then-black" art "grown" in the lab. Lots of research and development, time and money went into this project, but even more important than money or "feeling left out", is the fact that it's a material with exceptional properties with a void-like appearance.

Above all, the blackest-black is for me – just like for Malevich – a symbol for societal change providing hope for new generations of young artists living in a world facing huge economical, ecological and societal challenges. I believe change starts with the individual. Darkness is perfect, because more than light, it turns directly and singularly towards the individual. I see my blacker-then-black art as a space of refusal, but also as a space of and for imagination. In a time where we're oversaturated with media and information, it pulls you back to something that is private and personal. In absolute darkness everybody is the same, things are forged and unified. For Yves Klein it was the blue sky, for me it's deep space. The blackest-black is an artistic concept, research project and a poetic thought which is "born" out of necessity, reactionism, subversiveness. The blackest-black concept and artwork help us to question our perception and reality. Additionally, the blackest-black holds potentially a "key" to our survival as a species. So, the blackest-black is not just a nice coating with a nice effect, it's the ultimate celebration of the unknown.

To come back to your question; I guess nobody likes to be left out and disrespected. Unfortunately I cannot talk in detail yet about my relationship with Surrey NanoSystems and Sir Anish Kapoor for several reasons. The only thing I can say is that Surrey NanoSystems contacted me and we exchanged information. That's what i can can tell you for now. I have the deepest respect for Sir Anish Kapoor and I am sure he knows the importance of artistic integrity. I am sure that, when we would meet, we could have a great exchange and conversation.

Do you feel that you’ve been ripped off? Do the makers of Vantablack acknowledge your work?

Frederik De Wilde: I think that Surrey NanoSystems doesn't do much effort to acknowledge my work or that of my scientific collaborators. That's a pity but I guess many things are "hollowed out" in the marketing world. Art is totally the opposite which Sir Anish Kapoor would probably underscore. Honestly, I would like to see a different kind of ecology, one where connecting art, science and technology with people and society is the nexus of the discussion rather then hit-and-run strategies.

How we are going to deal with the challenges ahead of us? Look, my scientific collaborators are humble people, they pioneered and laid the foundations of the blackest-black nano engineered material in 2004, which is still the world record holder. The Vantablack is most likely based on the open knowledge from my scientific partners amongst others, yet might be using a slightly different technique to reach the "same" goal. My goal is to the create the perfect black body, that means covering the whole spectrum of light to perfection, not only visible light. Then and only then you can speak of the blackest-ever-black. We are still a long way from achieving this goal.

Do you think it’s possible to make an even darker material than yours?

Frederik De Wilde: I think there's still a long way to go to create the perfect black body. Maybe it's impossible, but on the other hand that's maybe the beauty of the concept, that what makes it art, the imperfection. Here's an analogy; if Panamarenko's airplanes could really fly then they're just ordinary airplanes.

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