Cutting-Edge Science Inspires Ground-Breaking Art

August 2014

By Ariane Koek, Head of International Arts, European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Geneva, Switzerland

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is transformed into the world’s largest musical instrument. The chairs and tables in CERN’s canteen are swept away to make space for contemporary dance. Thirty scientists are “kidnapped” and plunged into the dark spaces beneath the laboratory buildings to reveal what they see in their minds’ eye. These are just three interventions by three different artists in residence under Collide@CERN, the main component of Arts@CERN, the flagship arts program set up by the world’s largest particle physics laboratory sited on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland.

Photo: Julian Calo

These artistic interventions are one of the ways in which CERN’s artists in residence make their presence felt at one of the busiest scientific laboratories on the planet - a global collaboration of over 11,000 scientists, engineers and technicians from 680 institutions in 100 countries. The artists create these unexpected events and performances to deliberately disrupt and challenge CERN’s scientific community and to create new ways for scientists to look at and think about their work.

The interplay between the arts and science has always existed as a playful exchange of ideas and concepts, sometimes with spectacular results. Take for example, the work of Leonardo da Vinci as both inventor and artist. It is rare these days, however, for a major scientific research organization to invite artists in to work purely as artists rather than illustrators or describers of science. So why is CERN doing so at arguably one of the busiest and most significant moments in its working history?

Why Arts@CERN?

The reasons are simple, but varied. First, particle physics and the arts share a common purpose, they each try to explain and express our place in the universe. Particle physics does this through mathematics and equations whereas the arts appeal to our senses – touch, sight, taste, sound and smell – and individual emotions, knowledge and experiences. As noted by Julius von Bismarck, the first Collide@CERN artist in residence,

“The root reason why I am an artist is the same as it would be for being a scientist: finding out what there is out in the world and how I can contribute to our understanding of it. I am interested in making science sense-able – through the body and its senses…”

The arts and science are forms of fundamental research driven by curiosity, making CERN and the arts natural creative partners. Both generate new ways of looking at our world: CERN through its high energy physics at the Large Hadron Collider, which recreates the conditions at the beginning of the universe; the arts, through multiple imaginative ways of engaging with and seeing the world, including theatre, dance, architecture, literature, painting, sculpture and music.

Bring the world of leading scientists together with that of cutting-edge artists in carefully curated creative collisions and you have the second reason for establishing the Arts@CERN program. Only by colliding different ways of thinking and viewing the world is it possible to generate new insights and accelerate an innovative culture, bringing new life and perspectives to routine ways of thinking and working. Where better to encourage such creative collisions, which challenge the status quo and push the boundaries of innovation and creativity, than at this internationally recognized research center renowned for its cutting edge engineering, technology and science?

Take, for example, Gilles Jobin’s new contemporary dance piece, QUANTUM. Inspired from his Collide@CERN 2012 residency and discussions with CERN scientists, including anti-matter expert, Michael Doser, his new choreography generates movements that reflect how particles and their forces behave.

The world premiere of QUANTUM took place at the CMS Experiment Detector Hall at CERN in September 2013. This exciting event, which marked CERN’s first partnership with the Théâtre Forum Meyrin, brought a dedicated dance audience to the heart of science. QUANTUM is now on world tour and will feature in the program of the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York in autumn 2014.

The choreography in Gilles Jobin’s new contemporary dance piece, QUANTUM, inspired from his 2012 residency and discussions with CERN scientists, generates movements that reflect how particles and their forces behave. QUANTUM is now on world tour and will feature in the program of the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York in autumn 2014. (Photo: Julian Calo)

This points to the third reason for establishing the CERN arts program – bringing new audiences to science. By enabling “creative collisions” between artists and scientists, the world of science, which to many may seem impenetrable and daunting, full of big brains, big technology and complex mathematics, is opened up to the public. By using the ideas generated by CERN science (some of the raw materials of innovation and creativity) as springboards of the imagination, artists create works that appeal to our senses, individual experiences, and intuitions, allowing us to reach levels of understanding that standard science communications could never dream of. Through the medium of the arts, otherwise disinterested audiences are switching on to science and technology.

In 2013, through the various streams that make up the Arts@CERN program, the Organization was able to attract a new audience of some 7 million people, enabling it to reach a total of around 14 million people globally.

How the Collide@CERN program works

The program is carefully constructed to create the space and conditions for the creative process and interdisciplinary exchanges to take place.

The first step is to match the winning artists with an “inspiration partner” from within the CERN community. This process takes place during Collide@CERN artist induction days, organized three months before the residency begins. Matching artists with scientists is not always a straightforward process: it is part psychology, part chemistry and part intuition. The arts producer (in this case, me) discusses with the scientists and artists involved to make the best match; one in which each will push the other to new levels of understanding.

The inspiration partner acts as a CERN guide, meeting the artist every week to discuss ideas and open doors to other people on the campus. The aim is for artists and their partners to exchange ideas and for each to inspire the other, through exposure to their different world views.

CERN theorist James Wells, for example, was matched up with the young German artist Julius von Bismarck because they shared an interest in hidden worlds – places beyond perception. Julius changes perceptions with his art, such as his work Versuch Unter Kreisen (Experiment Among Circles), which uses four oscillating lamps that synchronize on every 78th swing but are completely out of phase during the other 77, creating a dancing pattern of light. James, on the other hand, changes perceptions of our known world by creating equations that provide theoretical evidence of hidden worlds. While there is no obligation for the inspiration partners to produce a work of art together, sometimes, these “collisions” do result in a concrete outcome. Unexpectedly and spontaneously, two years after the residency, James and Julius are creating a public art piece together which combines their skills and creativity.

An additional obligation is imposed during the residency, which provides great freedom but with some constraints, another important condition for creativity. Together, the inspiration partners give public lectures at the Globe of Science and Innovation at the beginning and end of each three-month residency. These events attract many new visitors and many others who keep track of the progress of the creative collision throughout the residency via CERN’s social media outlets.

Another element of the program, which may seem counter-intuitive, is that no defined outcome is expected during the residency. Why? Because a work of art takes an indefinable period of time to come to fruition. Collide@CERN respects and recognizes the dynamics of the creative process. Choose the right artist, the right inspiration partner, curate their residency so they meet people who will fire their imagination and it is almost guaranteed that something fruitful will emerge. To date, every single artist has created work as a result of their CERN residency – some even before their residency officially began.

The American sound artist Bill Fontana, known for his experiments with sound sculptures using urban landscapes, was so inspired during his induction visit to CERN that he made a sound sculpture on the train from Geneva to Paris from the audio material gathered while on-site. His work which “mimics the protocol of a scientific experiment,” was used during his residency to turn the then dormant LHC into the world’s largest musical instrument.

Similarly, the current artist in residence, Japanese composer Ryoji Ikeda, one of the world’s leading data artists, working in sound and vision, has already acknowledged the profound influence his CERN induction experience has had on his work. His new work, Supersymmetry, presents an artistic vision of the reality of Nature though an immersive, sensory experience. It comprises two massive rooms of electronic and digital installations. The exhibition premiered at the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media (YCAM) in Japan earlier this year, and has just opened at Le Lieu Unique in Nantes, France. The exhibition pairs two installations, Supersymmetry [experiment] and Supersymmetry [experience], echoing the relationships between experimentation and observation in modern particle physics and between representation and mathematical models.

The installation will continue to evolve throughout its international tour in line with the insights acquired by the artist during his residency at CERN. In this way, his work demonstrates the fluid, dynamic and ever-changing nature of creativity.

The CERN residencies are proving a rich source of inspiration. The work emerging from them is constantly evolving and developing. As Julius von Bismarck said, at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz in 2012 “I have enough ideas from my residency to last another 30 years.”

New models for creative exchange

In addition to the Collide@CERN residency program, Arts@CERN also includes a Visiting Artists Program and an artists’ research program. Under the Visiting Artists Program, one or two day curated visits are organized for 12 leading and emerging artists. These have included Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who is working on a new creative CERN-inspired musical project. Similarly, the young Dutch film-maker, Ruben Van Leer, is shooting a 20-minute opera-dance film called Symmetry with the soprano Claron McFaddon. And the internationally recognized Polish-born artist, Goshka Macuga, has been commissioned by the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva to create an exhibit inspired by her visits to CERN, to be showcased in May 2015.

Accelerate@CERN, the Artists’ Research Program is the latest development of the Arts@CERN initiative. It reflects the international collaboration that makes CERN what it is. Every year, two countries hold an open art competition, the winner of which receives a fully funded one-month research placement at the laboratory. In this first year of the program, the artists will come from Greece and Switzerland.

The innovative, cutting-edge Arts@CERN program as a whole, however, comes at a cost, one which is borne by external funders. These currently include the City and Canton of Geneva (which fund the Collide@CERN Geneva award); private donors who fund the bulk of the Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN award for artists working in the digital sphere, and different foundations, cultural ministries and organizations which fund the Accelerate@CERN country-specific awards.

Thanks to these fully-funded residencies and research opportunities, the selected artists are placed on a par with the scientists who also come to CERN with funding. Like their scientific counterparts, all participating artists are selected for their excellence by a highly qualified jury. This central feature of the Arts@CERN program places artists and scientists on a level footing and creates the conditions for mutual respect and exchange. In this way CERN is acknowledging and demonstrating that the arts, science and technology are equally important cultural forces.

We sometimes say that Collide@CERN is CERN’s latest experiment, colliding ingenuity, creativity and imagination, elements that are even more elusive than the Higgs Boson, discovered in July 2012, 40 years after it was postulated. We continue to express the beauty of these elusive human processes in the arts, science and technology, bringing them together to create and transfer new knowledge and to inspire present and future generations. That is what progressive 21st century organizations, whose purpose is to enrich the world, seek to do.

Visiting Artists 2013 include:

  • Esa-Pekka Salonen, Finish conductor and composer. He is currently Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor at the Philharmonia Orchestra in London and Conductor Laureate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
  • Anselm Kiefer, German painter and sculptor. His work incorporates materials such as straw, ash, clay, lead and shellac. In his work, he addresses taboo and controversial issues from recent history.
  • Arnoud Noordegraaf, contemporary Dutch composer and director of music theatre and opera. His work is typically multi-disciplinary involving a tight and precise combination of musical composition with film images and often theatrical elements.
  • Goshka Macuga, Polish conceptual artist, Turner Prize nominee 2008. Her complex sculptural environments combine past facts with topical issues and present-day reality, highlighting affinities and connections which might otherwise pass unnoticed.
  • Iris van Herpen, Dutch fashion designer, known for pushing the boundaries of Haute Couture.

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