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New Technology in Art

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This article describes the basic health and safety concerns associated with the use of lasers, neon sculpture and computers in the arts. Creative artists often work very intimately with the technology, and in experimental ways. This scenario too often increases the risk of injury. The primary concerns are for eye and skin protection, for reducing the possibilities of electrical shock and for preventing exposure to toxic chemicals.


Laser radiation may be hazardous to the eyes and skin of artists and audiences by both direct viewing and reflection. The degree of laser injury is a function of power. Higher-power lasers are more likely to cause serious injury and more hazardous reflections. Lasers are classified and labelled by their manufacturer in classes I to IV. Class I lasers exhibit no laser radiation hazard and Class IV are very dangerous.

Artists have used all laser classes in their work, and most use visible wavelengths. Besides the safety controls required of any laser system, artistic applications require special considerations.

In laser exhibits, it is important to isolate the audience from direct beam contact and scattered radiation, using plastic or glass enclosures and opaque beam stops. For planetariums and other indoor light shows, it is critical to maintain direct beam or reflected laser radiation at Class I levels where the audience is exposed. Class III or IV laser radiation levels must be kept at safe distances from performers and the audience. Typical distances are 3 m away when an operator controls the laser and 6 m away without continuous operator control. Written procedures are needed for set-up, alignment and testing of Class III and IV lasers. Required safety controls include warning in advance of energizing these lasers, key controls, fail-safe safety interlocks and manual reset buttons for Class IV lasers. For Class IV lasers, appropriate laser goggles should be worn.

Scanning laser art displays often used in the performing arts use rapidly moving beams that are generally safer since the duration of inadvertent eye or skin contact with the beam is short. Still, operators must employ safeguards to ensure exposure limits will not be exceeded if the scanning equipment fails. Outdoor displays cannot allow aircraft to fly through hazardous beam levels, or the illumination with greater than Class I levels of radiation of tall buildings or personnel in high-reach equipment.

Holography is the process of producing a three-dimensional photograph of an object using lasers. Most images are displayed off-axis from the laser beam, and intrabeam viewing is typically not a hazard. A transparent display case around the hologram can help reduce the possibilities of injury. Some artists create permanent images from their holograms, and many chemicals used in the development process are toxic and must be managed for accident prevention. These include pyrogallic acid, alkalis, sulphuric and hydrobromic acids, bromine, parabenzoquinone and dichromate salts. Safer substitutes are available for most of these chemicals.

Lasers also have serious non-radiological hazards. Most performance-level lasers use high voltages and amperage, creating significant risks of electrocution, particularly during design stages and maintenance. Dye lasers use toxic chemicals for the active lasing medium, and high-powered lasers may generate toxic aerosols, especially when the beam strikes a target.

Neon Art

Neon art uses neon tubes to produce lighted sculptures. Neon signage for advertising is one application. Producing a neon sculpture involves bending leaded glass to the desired shape, bombarding the evacuated glass tube at a high voltage to remove impurities from the glass tube, and adding small amounts of neon gas or mercury. A high voltage is applied across electrodes sealed into each end of the tube to give the luminous effect by exciting the gases trapped in the tube. To obtain a wider range of colours, the glass tube can be coated with fluorescent phosphors, which convert the ultraviolet radiation from the mercury or neon into visible light. The high voltages are achieved by using step-up transformers.

Electrical shock is a threat mostly when the sculpture is connected to its bombarding transformer to remove impurities from the glass tube, or to its electrical power source for testing or display (figure 1). The electrical current passing through the glass tube also causes the emission of ultraviolet light that in turn interacts with the phosphor-covered glass to form colours. Some near-ultraviolet radiation (UVA) may pass through the glass and present an eye hazard to those nearby; therefore, eyewear that blocks UVA should be worn.

Figure 1. Neon sculpture manufacture showing an artist behind a protective barrier.


Fred Tschida

Some phosphors that coat the neon tube are potentially toxic (e.g., cadmium compounds). Sometimes mercury is added to the neon gas to create a particularly vivid blue colour. Mercury is highly toxic by inhalation and is volatile at room temperature.

Mercury should be added to the neon tube with great care and stored in unbreakable sealed containers. The artist should use trays to contain spillage, and mercury spill kits should be available. Mercury should not be vacuumed up, as this may disperse a mist of mercury through the vacuum cleaner’s exhaust.

Computer Art

Computers are used in art for a variety of purposes, including painting, displaying scanned photographic images, producing graphics for printing and television (e.g., on-screen credits), and for a variety of animated and other special effects for motion pictures and television. The latter is a rapidly expanding use of computer art. This can bring about ergonomic problems, typically due to repetitive tasks and uncomfortably arranged components. The predominant complaints are discomfort in the wrists, arms, shoulders and neck, and vision problems. Most complaints are of a minor nature, but disabling injuries such as chronic tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome are possible.

Creating with computers often involves long periods manipulating the keyboard or mouse, designing or fine tuning the product. It is important that computer users take a break away from the screen periodically. Short, frequent breaks are more effective than long breaks every couple of hours.

Regarding the proper arrangement of components and the user, design solutions for correct posture and visual comfort are the key. Computer work station components should be easy to adjust for the variety of tasks and people involved.

Eye strain may be prevented by taking periodic visual breaks, preventing glare and reflection and by placing the top of the monitor so that it is at eye level. Vision problems may also be avoided if the monitor has a refresh rate of 70 Hz, so that image flicker is reduced.

Many kinds of radiation effects are possible. Ultraviolet, visible, infrared, radio frequency and microwave radiation emissions from computer hardware are generally at or below normal background levels. The possible health effects of lower-frequency waves from the electrical circuitry and electronic components are not well understood. To date, however, no solid evidence identifies a health risk from exposure to the electromagnetic fields associated with computer monitors. Computer monitors do not emit hazardous levels of x rays.



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