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High Energy Interactions: how to be an artist at CERN

Ale de la Puente, The Universe and the Kitchen, performance at Kosmica Mexico 2013

Ale de la Puente, The Universe and the Kitchen, performance at Kosmica Mexico 2013

“How can an artist make relevant art if he doesn’t know anything about relevant science?” – Julius von Bismarck, artist

I have been too busy to blog for a few months, but I must flag up the EXTENDED DEADLINE DATE for the latest Collide@CERN Artist Residency Award open call for digital artists, now open to 5 July. Collide@CERN is the flagship programme of the progressive Arts@CERN initiative initiated by the dynamic Ariane Koek at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory in Switzerland, home of the Large Hadron Collider.

I’m sad that I couldn’t make the dates of the selection committee – thanks for the invite, Mónica Bello (new Arts@CERN curator), and sorry to any artists who might have hoped I’d big up their application ;) – but I’m confident the selection committee will choose boldly, based on their track record. Previous winners of the Collide@CERN digital arts residency, a partnership between CERN and Ars Electronica, have been Julius von Bismarck (2012), Bill Fontana (2013) and Ryoji Ikeda (2014). There have also been a number of other artist residencies of shorter duration, including the wonderful Mexican artist Ale de la Puente.

The Collide@CERN programme expects “at least work in progress as plans/drawings and/or models by the end of their residency”, but emphasise a “free exchange of ideas” between artist and their partner science, in my opinion an absolutely critical element for an artist residency programme if we are to continue to develop and demonstrate the contribution that art makes to contemporary society, which lies not just in the output but in the process and performance of art and the generation of new ideas. In this way, the CERN residencies perhaps echo the spirit of the Artist Placement Group, who negotiated placements for artists between 1966 and the early 1980s in private and public sector organisations, with the aim of fostering a two-way communication between artists and industrialists or politicians, in order to benefit both the host organisations and the artists in the long-term.

Physicist James Wells with Julius von Bismarck, the first Collide@Cern Artist in Residence

Physicist James Wells with Julius von Bismarck, the first Collide@Cern Artist in Residence

Many people ask me what scientists “get” from work with artists. I feel James Wells, the theoretical physicist who was the ‘inspirational partner’ for Collide@CERN’s first artist in residence Julius von Bismarck expressed it so beautifully when he talked about valuing having someone around who saw the world in a different way, whose influence, he felt, could shake up accepted mindsets. In a talk, Wells notes that the the process of becoming a scientist can “snuff out the daring impulse” in young scientists and that it is the “tremendous daring and openness of ideas” of artists that might really benefit the scientific community. “The first thought of an artist is not can we do this, but ‘this is what I want to do’” he remarked.

Another aspect of such fascinating and important art-science exchange was explored by artist Ale de la Puente in her short CERN residency, during which she organised workshops with scientists to investigate and discover the creation of metaphors devoted to time, scale and space in both art and science,

Julius von Bismarck, Versuch unter Kreisen, 2013

Julius von Bismarck, Versuch unter Kreisen, 2013

It’s worth featuring some the resulting artworks from the Collide@CERN artist residencies, particularly for me that of the first resident artist, Julius von Bismarck, who worked with James Wells. His first resulting work ‘Versuch unter Kreisen’ is an installation of 4 revolving industrial hanging lights, each attached to a motor which rotate them in a circular motion. Each light has a slightly different frequency which means that every 75 circles they all have the same phase, the rest is chaos, which Bismarck compared to life: that we spend so much time to find a moment of clarity, of coherence, and lose it again. Although I was also intrigued by his mention of other potential works (or perhaps thought works): to make a slight dent in a lake, building a 4-dimensional cube in three dimensions. He spoke of CERN as both creating reality and changing how we see reality, and his desire to add art to the world that could change it slightly afterwards.

Ryoji Ikeda, Supersymmetry, 2015

Ryoji Ikeda, Supersymmetry, 2015

In Ryoji Ikeda’s resulting work ‘Supersymmetry’, shown recently at the Vinyl Factory in London, the visual reference to particle physics and CERN is more immediate. The first hall contained three large floor-set cubes, with top screens lit from below showing clouds of tiny black circles engaged in an incessant dance, forming and un-forming fleeting structures. The second hall housed four rows of screens, two on either side of a central pathway. Images fly over the panels, the two walls projecting similar but not identical imagery, dynamic images of figures, numbers, words and diagrams zip along the rows of screens, followed by sudden plunges into darkness, underscored by a compelling beeping and clicking electronic soundtrack, conveying an exhilarating sense of overwhelming streams of data generated from multitudes of collisions and the struggle to make sense from such a complex mass of information.


Announcing 3 funded PhD studentships, Northumbria University/BALTIC

Image of scientist in clean room looking down microscope

Cultural Negotiation of Science. Image credit: Dr. Juergen Schmoll. Centre for Advanced Instrumentation, Durham University

I don’t often paste announcements here, but is such an exciting opportunity it needs to be circulated as widely as possible.

Northumbria University and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, UK, have announced three funded PhD studentships, relating to the Cultural Negotiation of Science research group that has continued to develop from a symposium at BALTIC last year in which the Arts Catalyst took part. This is a practice-led research group in which questions of cultural production are addressed across the spectrum of biomedical and fundamental science, medical genetics and physical geography. The studentships are all based within the innovative BxNU Institute of Contemporary Art partnership between Northumbria University and BALTIC.

Imaging & Imagining Fundamental Science
Principal Supervisor: Fiona Crisp, Reader in Fine Art.

This practice-led Fine Art Studentship will broadly address how inter-disciplinary research might evolve the cultural tools of interpretation, imagination and visualisation to negotiate shifts in Fundamental Science in both historical and contemporary sphere.

‘Meeting Place’ Practice performed across the disciplines
Principal Supervisor: Christine Borland, BALTIC Professor.

The proposed project will investigate, through practice-based research, the reciprocal relationship between the life sciences/medicine and contemporary visual/performing arts as it is constructed, perceived, negotiated or performed at the nexus of physical and conceptual human bodies.

Abstract Geology – Critically Engaged Fine Art Practices of the post human within a new geologic era
Principal Supervisor: Dr Rona Lee, Professor of Fine Art.

This practice led Fine Art studentship is offered in the context of transdisciplinary engagement with the Anthropocene (or proposition that the impact of humanity upon the Earth’s ecosystems has triggered a new terrestrial epoch) and the ‘geological turn’ within contemporary thought that this has prompted. 

Deadline for applications is 14th April 2014.

The studentships are open to Home/EU and International students. The studentship includes a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (in 2014/15 this is 13,863 pa) and Home/EU fees. Overseas candidates are also eligible to apply. (Essentially, this means that International students might – but not necessarily – have to take a lower stipend to cover the additional cost of international tuition fees.

Higgs: its cultural significance

4 photos of a man walking through CERN's underground tunnel

Gianni Motti, Walking for Arts Sake, 2005. Artist Gianni Motti walks the 27 km underground ring at CERN.

“If we combine the Z-Z and the Gamma-Gamma,this is what we get: they line up extremely well, and in the region of 125 GeV. They combine to give us a significance of five standard deviations.”
– Joe Incandela, CMS spokesman, 4 July 2012

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
– Stephen Crane, poet (1871-1900)

The excitement in the physics world about CERN’s discovery of a Higgs boson is still intense. But what is its cultural significance?

I’ll start briefly with science itself, but in a historical context. The quest to understand what matter is made of is ancient. In 5BC, a philosopher called Democritus suggested that if you keep dividing an object, eventually you would come to the smallest unit of stuff that couldn’t be divided. He called this unit an “atom”. The ancient Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools in India also developed theories of atomism and how atoms combined into more complex objects. In Islamic Asharite atomism, atoms are the only perpetual, material things in existence, and all else in the world is “accidental”, meaning something that lasts for only an instant. During the 19th century, scientists discovered the atom, particularly through the work of John Dalton, but soon realised that the atom was made up from smaller particles: a nucleus of protons and neutrons with electrons around it. Scientists continued trying to find out what atoms were made of by smashing up protons, but instead of making things simpler, they uncovered many different sub-atomic particles, which were labeled the “particle zoo”.

Many great scientists applied their minds to understanding how these particles interact with each other. During the 20th Century, scientists developed a theory to explain how all these particles behave called the standard model of quantum mechanics, an immensely powerful model which has enabled scientists to relate all the other forces of nature under a common set of equations. But the model couldn’t explain how particles acquired mass, without which the universe would fly apart. A theoretical model proposed in the 1960s by British physicist Peter Higgs, called the Higgs mechanism, explained how fundamental particles acquire mass. In Higgs’ model, as elementary particles pass through a field called a Higgs field, they acquire mass (the Higgs boson is the particle of the Higgs field). Here’s a simple explanation of the Higgs boson.

The search for Higgs became the Holy Grail of physics. It has gone on for decades, in the Tetravon, Illinois, USA, and then – after the US cancelled its Superconducting Super Collider – at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Finding it finally confirms a vital part of the standard model of particle physics, and opens up fascinating new arenas for physicists to explore.

Does the discovery of Higgs validate “Big Science”? Big Science is a term coined to describe the large-scale scientific projects, which emerged after the Second World War, funded by national governments or groups of governments. This way of doing science has often been criticized for elitism and for undermining the scientific method (difficult to replicate and validate findings), as well as for the enormous amount of funds they need – and the sources of those funds, often military or tied to commercial interests, which also affect the objectivity of science. However, CERN has been careful to validate its findings, with separate experimental teams and equipment running in the facility. But the emergence of Big Science is in itself a cultural phenomena in modern society. They are often staggering feats of engineering. Alvin Weinberg and others have argued that it is one of the wonders of the modern age:

“When history looks at the 20th century, she will see science and technology as its theme; she will find in the monuments of Big Science—the huge rockets, the high-energy accelerators, the high-flux research reactors—symbols of our time just as surely as she finds in Notre Dame a symbol of the Middle Ages. … We build our monuments in the name of scientific truth, they built theirs in the name of religious truth.” – Alvin Weinberg

Inside of a vast neutrino detector with tiny boat at bottom. Artwork by Andreas Gursky

Andreas Gursky, Kamiokande (2007), detector tank at Super-Kamioka Nucleon Decay Experiments, underground neutrino observatory, Japan

There may, of course, ultimately be practical benefits from this discovery. New physics invariably leads to understanding previously unknown phenomena, and to new potential technological applications. Without the understanding enabled by quantum mechanics, for example, there would be no transistors, and hence no personal computers and no lasers (although the scientists who developed quantum mechanics weren’t trying to make anything, simply trying to understand how atoms behave).

More than anything, however,for me Higgs represents a story of human curiosity, on an international scale and over a duration that has rarely – if ever – been matched. It is a remarkable expression of the human aspiration to find stuff out, which is an almost spiritual commitment by our species. And although the vastness and complexity of the universe may remind us of our insignificance, at the same time we should be astonished that we are even aware of the universe’s scale and complexity, and grateful to those physicists who have revealed some of its extraordinary workings.

It is worth remembering at the same time that science cannot answer all questions, and that curiosity takes many forms. Semiconductor’s delightful film “Do You Think Science …?” (2006) reveals that many (though not all) scientists realise that their work is not designed to understand everything. There are many questions that need different forms of investigation, to which we can all contribute: Why do human beings sometimes behave so appallingly; how do we decide how they should behave; how can we deal with mental turmoil? These are questions that science cannot tackle.

The Higgs boson may explain how the universe is glued together, but the significance of the discovery – after decades of dedicated searching by many scientists – should be to remind us to remain curious, to keep asking questions, and that astonishing things are achievable …

Handy tips for the new nuclear age (3)

James Acord, Tattoo

Make your own plutonium

Our Nuclear Forum at the RSA, part of our final weekend for the Nuclear: art & radioactivity exhibition, saw the return of the inimitable James Acord, the “nuclear sculptor”, to the UK after 10 years and, as always, winning everyone over with his extraordinary storytelling – and his astonishing story. Acord is the world’s only known individual to possess a radioactive materials license. And among his peer corporate license holders, he is probably the only Radiation Safety Officer to have the license number tattooed on the back of his neck (Washington State Radioactive Materials License # WN-10407-1). For 15 years, Acord lived on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, where he tried to persuade the authorities to allow him access to the Fast Flux Test Facility to transmute radioactive technesium into shiny non-radioactive ruthenium, and pursued his ambition to build a vast warning marker sculpture on the most contaminated part of Hanford. Acord left Hanford in 1998, after his residency at Imperial College London, which was organised by The Arts Catalyst, and his part in the Atomic exhibition.  Since then he has been living in Seattle.  We were all fascinated to hear that far from shelving his his alchemist’s dreams, he is making plutonium in his studio.We are planning to podcast recordings of the forum, at which artists, writers and experts discuss their work and engagement with the issues around nuclear energy. The day ended with a moving talk by Gustav Metzger, who called for an end to our pursuit of extremes.

James Acord, Home Plutonium Progenitor

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