It’s ridiculously windy—like knock me off my bike windy—the night I ride to meet Matthew Putman at Vekslers, a neatly refurbished tavern whose entrance on Hicks St bears witness to the flow of cabbies and shuttle vans on the BQE. There are a few people inside, a couple at the end of the bar nearest the door and a single man with thin hair in an adjacent banquette. That persistent howl is either the wind or traffic, and the white tiled floor seems strangely bright for this hour. Putman is by himself in the back at a table reading something on his phone. He wears an un-tucked button-up shirt, his round frames pushed up on his nose. We’re just to the north of Red Hook, Brooklyn, where Putman’s startup, Nanotronics Imaging is housed within the nonprofit interdisciplinary art and science center, Pioneer Works. Putman serves on the advisory board of Pioneer Works, which is neither institutional nor corporate and is therefore suited to the better aspect of Putman’s sentiments.
He’s a vocal proponent of the fruitful interchange between scientists and artists, and he himself is an artist, poet, scientist, pianist, playwright, film producer, businessman, reader, father, etc.—A walking thinking embodiment of the blurring of roles and interests; the social and cosmopolitan result of a curious and relentless sort of mind, reducible to no single component, everything adding up to this one thing that in other venues has been called “enigmatic.” But the truth is it’s not at all that enigmatic. It’s actually quite right there on the surface. Man’s natural tendency is to explore and generate. Putman is too enthusiastic to limit his mind to a specific process or intention. His work and his success have been born out of this will—to explore the possible within forms, or to destabilize those forms when they become too restrictive. I sat with him to discuss the dialectics of art and science, the role of failure in artistic and scientific discovery, social noise, and what it means to be responsible.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: Before starting Nanotronics, you were a theater producer, and involved in the arts, either from the production side or money side of things. Could you tell me a little bit about that time and how it relates to your transition into founding Nanotronics?
MATTHEW PUTMAN: The creative process is very different from creating art, but I lost that distinction, and confused the two. At this time—I was in my twenties—I found myself producing plays, because I wasn’t a good enough piano player, which seemed like a simple enough justification to switch disciplines. I had tried to play piano, and to compose music, but that thing happened that I think happens to a lot of people. It was sudden. I realized what a tough slog being a legitimate composer and classical pianist actually was. Nor did it help that I wasn’t as good as the prodigies, those people who were innately talented, as if touched by some force. So I switched it up and I tried to direct. And I had some ideas as a director, but they were—for lack of a better term—very French ideas and I did some things that were certainly not commercial and certainly didn’t pay the bills.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: So tell me, what happened?
MATTHEW PUTMAN: This wasn’t some false choice I had made, and I don’t regret it. I love the arts, the expression of it, but I found myself working the business side of it then, which allowed me very little expression. And from a business perspective, I was completely failing. I found myself having to raise money, then I found myself losing money for people, and not too long after that, I found myself completely broke. I was running a theater, basically. I had just gotten married and I arrived at this theater, which was already in debt, enormously in debt in fact. And I had hired the staff from New York and housed them. I wanted to pay everyone else first before myself of course. That was my obligation, and here I am a year into my marriage, so broke, getting bad reviews, for everything, everything I was artistically involved in. And the things that I wasn’t artistically involved with would pay the bills for a while, but I wasn’t proud of it artistically. I went through a major amount of anxiety over this. I spent far too much time worrying about my survival, and paying the bills, which really hindered me artistically. And then, at the lowest spot, I was so broke that the local priest had to give me food stamps. Just fifty dollars! I was only married a year and my wife was so excited that we had fifty dollars, and here I am taking it from a religious person, from a priest, when I don’t really believe at all? That was, for me, terrible. I mean it was destructive. At the same time I was reading a lot of biographies, Richard Feynman. Or I would just escape into sci-fi. I’d watch Star Trek. Why was I doing this? I was no longer acting like an artist. And then doctors found a tumor in my throat and it turned out I had esophageal cancer.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: Wait, I didn’t know you had cancer.
MATTHEW PUTMAN: We didn’t talk about that? This you could find if you look me up because unfortunately I did this long profile for Pando Daily, which is a 3000 word thing about how I invented this microscope during a time when I was going through chemo and nearly died and my wife was pregnant…
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: Oh wow, so this is like Breaking Bad…
MATTHEW PUTMAN: Yeah, so that’s ten years later. All this stuff that I’m telling you, I haven’t talked about much–the cancer I’ve been talking about more and more, even in the recent big interview I talked about it. But at first I didn’t talk about it at all, when I got it, I didn’t tell my family, I didn’t even tell my wife until I was going through chemotherapy and I was losing all of my hair. I didn’t want anyone to know. But it’s part of why I dedicate so much effort to preventing cancer. Anyway, as soon as I realized that I could be creative under the confines, within the rules of the scientific method, it was incredibly freeing.
It’s paradoxical, how the existence of those confines allowed me to be freer in thought. And any contribution that I’ve made—which may not be great or hugely important—but anything I’ve cared deeply about comes from being able to ground myself in the works of the giants of science and the scientific method, and by lucky circumstance, this helped my art. I think I play piano better than I ever have. I believe the movies that I choose to be involved with are better movies than when I was trying to work in the arts full time. So science isn’t something that’s tying me up, but instead frees me. This is something that most people don’t think about.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: So then could you talk about the microscope that you invented during this sort of break-through phase of your career? It’s a nanoscope that looks at what exactly?
MATTHEW PUTMAN: It’s not good enough to look at incredibly small things. Since the atomic microscope was invented you can see incredibly small things, billionths of a meter. I would say it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. To use an electron microscope, or an atomic microscope, you need to know where that needle is in order to look at it. What we can do—with my microscope—is look through the entire haystack, at a larger scale, so we can find the needle and see what that needle is made of. So we find all the needles in all the hay.
In other words, we’re looking into a large area and seeing what’s unique in that large area. And that helps enable microelectronic devices, helps to detect precancerous cells. You can look at millions of cells in the body to see the ones that are behaving differently. Is it an indication of cancer? Potential cancer? You can find the way the immune system responds before anyone else can. There are a lot of things you can do because you’re looking over a large area at small things. I’ve called that the industrialization of nanotechnology rather than nanoscience which has been done in the past.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: And how does this play into regenerative medicine? I heard you recently say that we’re now able to grow fingers and organs in dishes. You have described this process using stem cells to replace the esophagus.
MATTHEW PUTMAN: That’s something that I’ve worked on at Columbia and the Magellan Institute. We use the microscope to make sure that stem cells and their scaffolds, these structures that eventually replace malfunctioning organs in the body, are exactly the right size so the stem cells can adhere and develop. This really is the future of longevity research, and the big goal is to eventually do something like this with the brain. But yes, right now, we can grow replacement fingers. We can grow a replacement esophagus. The technology is here. Why don’t a lot of people know about it? I think it’s more of a political problem than a technological or scientific problem.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: I’d like to go back and talk about how you went from feeling like a failed artist to becoming a successful scientist and entrepreneur. How does the idea of failure inform both disciplines?
MATTHEW PUTMAN: Science is wonderfully objective in the sense of what failure is. If something doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work and you try something else until it does. Edison said something to the effect that when was trying to discover the filament to use for the florescent bulb, “I didn’t have ten thousand failures, I had ten thousand steps toward the thing that would work.”
No matter how free we want to be or how creative we want to be, it’s not like art in the sense that in the end, the truth has to win out. It has to come down to whether it’s either right or it’s wrong, and that’s where it’s more difficult and wonderful. You are left with either the light bulb turning on or you observe the planets in motion the way that Galileo did or you don’t, and you say, “my hypothesis is wrong.” You can go through this entire process of creative exploration and in the end you sit down and you face reality and you look at it head on and say “Am I in sync with you or not?” That’s a pretty amazing thing. With art, it’s much thornier. If you get a bad review, it’s devastating. It’s not considered “oh well that’s one step closer to success!” But still—that’s just an opinion. And someone else could come along and say something else. Who is the ultimate judge of what works and what doesn’t work?
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: A lot of people would say the market.
MATTHEW PUTMAN: Just because someone pays a lot of money for something doesn’t make it good. I think the art market is useful, I’m not against the art market, but it’s hard to judge in the moment with the same kind of objectivity that you can with science. So is a Damien Hurst worth what’s it’s worth, we can argue that. But you can’t argue about general relativity. You can’t argue about evolution…because it just is or isn’t. It’s different. The art market is always in flux. Tastes are always in flux. Even in the time that I’ve been involved in art, I’ve seen pieces that I’ve bought, that have gone up in value, and I’ve seen things that I bought that have gone down in value. It’s fluctuation.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: I think it’s the numbers people are responding to—the sort of concrete feeling that a value can give you, that you can interact with and set against something else. Like, this painting is worth 1,000 iPods. But this is sort of different from the communal and ritualistic aspects of art, which I think have been completely lost. I’m all about this mass feeling around things and objects that’s obviously no longer there.
MATTHEW PUTMAN: Well it’s so true with art, I mean if you go ask the five people here which artist represents us now, nobody would know what to say.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: I would agree. There’s too much.
MATTHEW PUTMAN: Now that doesn’t mean that people would have agreed in the past, but everybody would have known who Picasso was and they might’ve hated him or liked him but then you would have gotten the sense, this is something relevant to our time. I’m not sure where we are with that. Do popular figures like Lady GaGa count? Or is that too crassly commercial? Nor does this mean that there isn’t amazing art being done. Whatever it is, it’s not cutting through in that way that it used to.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: What is cutting through? Like, how am I not aware of the fact that people are growing fingers? Not everyone can just call you up and find out what the hell is going on.
MATTHEW PUTMAN: I know.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: I don’t understand. I don’t get why more people know who so and so is dating than know what science is capable of today.
MATTHEW PUTMAN: I don’t know what the signal and noise problem is in our society. I mean, it’s obviously the cliché of just so much information, and access and everything else, where the good and challenging things get lost. But the opposite should be happening. And it often does in some sense. You see certain music that would have never gotten attention before. Or maybe we’ve become more tribal, we’re able to focus more on what we want rather than on the difficult or the necessary. I don’t know. Maybe there isn’t a mass? Maybe it is actually more subcultural, and that’s the direction where we’re headed.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: That’s again why I like Pioneer Works. It’s both a subculture and a subculture that’s totally open. I’ve described it to myself as it existing as it’s own microcosmic art world, and by art world I mean the Arthur Danto standard definition of art world. We’re able to determine, among ourselves, the value of the things that we’re doing and we’re sort of in control of that process and how we want it to look to the outside world. I think that there’s so much outside influence, so much bureaucracy, so much corporate sponsorship at museums and schools now, that things become compartmentalized and shut up. What’s great about PW is that there’s nothing shut up or closed off. It’s open. Artists and scientists work side by side. You’ve said it other places, but it really is anarchic, multidirectional.
MATTHEW PUTMAN: Yeah, I’m very nostalgic for the way the Bauhaus started, and it’s principles and ideologies. But then you see how they form and calcify over time, as they become more and more famous. But it was an enormous romantic idea and it produced a lot of what we understand as contemporary design and art, it’s very amazing. Whatever flaws it had we now understand as a vast experiment, with differing successes and failures. Pioneer Works incorporates all those ideas, and so many more. It’s not a relatively novel idea…There have been these periods of time and they are usually separated by 50 years or so, where science and art collide. Cubism is one such time. But the last thirty or so years haven’t been all that active. It’s pop art, and pop conceptual art. Art has been very much directed to where the market is going, as opposed to where science could potentially take it. That’s not to say that there aren’t artists working with the natural world, at a little deeper level. I do sense that Pioneer Works permeates with the aura of those kind of artists who have a willingness to dig deeper. Artists like Bruno Levy and Michael Joo. I’m not saying they represent the entire art world but they’re not inconsequential in the art world either. They are really great artists and without me prodding, without me preaching, without any education in it, have self-educated and are curious to say “what is the next step?” We may be facing ecological issues and a lot of things in our time. And maybe the found art of our time is not what found art was for Duchamp. Maybe now found art is something on the nanoscale because that’s what going to create the future. Maybe it’s something found at this level. An artifact of the deep and underlying structures of our biological lives.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: There was a time when artistic and scientific invention seemed to happen simultaneously. I’m thinking of Edison and film and then Sergei Eisenstein inventing montage.
MATTHEW PUTMAN: That’s right. And we’ve been in a pop art era for forty years, fifty years. Whether we say it or not, it’s true. Can we say that Damien Hirst is different from Warhol. Certainly. But how vast a difference are we talking about? How is the conversation regarding our potentiality being furthered?
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: Right. It’s like a variation on a theme. I’m interested then in what you think of, regarding digital or post-Internet art. Art that engages this idea that we’re becoming the very tools we use.
MATTHEW PUTMAN: If anybody is doing things of that sort, you’d know better than I. It’s so hard to keep up. I keep waiting though for the hybrid artwork, that evolves outside of the artist’s creation. Like if you’re using an ion, and it’s creating something – but this something is the pure result of the hand of the artist or even the artist having found something or used a certain technical know-how – but it evolves with the artificial intelligence at its outset. That I think would be new. Because that basically is us becoming our tools: the mind, which is now a hybrid of computers and neuroprocessing. That’s what we’re becoming
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: That reminds me of Joyce and the writer like a God above the page, paring his nails. Or when we began to see ourselves not as some ontological complete units, but actually socio-political-historical compositions with no real reducible meaning.
MATTHEW PUTMAN: So useful actually!
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: We all cried we killed the author, and then the artist didn’t want to sign his paintings anymore because who was signing the paintings anyway? And this was the 70s!
MATTHEW PUTMAN: Right, it’s sort of this useful cycle to acknowledge, but you don’t stay at that for forty years, that’s crazy.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: You said this before. That we’re stuck seeing the world as Einstein saw it.
MATTHEW PUTMAN: Well there’s nothing wrong with that. But we’ve got to move on.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: Well, what is the value of moving on? Moving on to what? In order to do what exactly? Are we to do something new?
MATTHEW PUTMAN: Well it depends, if you look at Demoiselles d’Avignon and you look at the impressionists, you’re looking at two radically different things, yet both are oil. Maybe even similar paints from the same suppliers and its on the same type of material, but there was a difference in worldview, a way of looking at objects. Movies are the same way, you can take a film and it can totally shock you. It can be, basically shot in the same way that’s everything’s been shot, doesn’t matter if it’s from a video, it all looks the same. But the idea and the philosophy can progress. That’s what I mean.
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: But haven’t all those philosophies been exhausted? Didn’t that happen or am I just being lazy?
MATTHEW PUTMAN: You think we’ve exhausted painting? Do you think it’s done?
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: In terms of a new turn…
MATTHEW PUTMAN: You can’t paint anything new? Can you write any new music? Is there no new music to be composed?
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: Right now. Sure. I’m quick to say it’s all over.
MATTHEW PUTMAN: You think so?
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: I guess so? It feels like it is.
MATTHEW PUTMAN: When did that happen?
RANDY LEE MAITLAND: I don’t know. Maybe 1983? I mean nobody is going to invent a new note, right?
MATTHEW PUTMAN: It reminds me very much of Kappa saying that “There’s nothing new to discover in science either, we only have the tools to deal with.” Humans have only our minds stuck in this skull, but you get into the number theory and you start to see there’s infinity within the gap. We’re nowhere near exploring where anything can be exhausted in music. We are nowhere near exploring where anything can be exhausted within the structure of human discovery. I would say there’s a lot more to be done with a canvas. And for that matter, I don’t really care if everything else is done…although why not? I mean if once in a while you give yourself a frame to deal with, if you’re going to work within a tradition, with that tradition’s given constraints, you accept certain things. But that’s where freedom is found, that’s what happens in science all the time. We fly only because we understand the constraints of gravity.