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Supercollision

How artist Emma Hart braved the physics at CERN, and what physicist Rolf Landua made of it all

Jennifer Rohn 19 March 2006

www.lablit.com/article/91

Art at CERN: a sculpture of an atom outside the institute's main entrance

For a physicist, there is almost an awe about being in the dark. It's like they are thinking, 'I am completely lost: this artist understands something that I do not, so I admire him.'

Editor's note: Two years ago, CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research, near Geneva) hosted an intriguing experiment to bring artists and physicists together. LabLit.com recently tracked down one participant from each camp to find out how the experience had affected them.

I not sure I'll enjoy talking about this," Emma Hart admits soon after we meet up in the Duke of York in Clerkenwell, the favored hangout of London's bicycle courier community. She is charming and far cooler than I could ever hope to be. "I'm not good with words."

Hart, an artist from London's Slade School of Fine Art, turns out to be perfectly eloquent. It all started in 2003, she told me, when Andrew Charalambous (read his related essay here), a freelance chartered mechanical engineer based in London, began to coordinate YoungArtists@CERN, a project that would eventually send 17 artists to the Swiss research institute for a week of immersion and interaction with the scientists on site, culminating in a piece of CERN-inspired artwork each.

Charalambous had asked each artist to write down their expectations before the trip. Hart, who had not heard of CERN before, wrote:

I am very excited about the project. I’ve never done anything like this before, applying my art and analysis to an external situation ... This does mean I am a bit scared that I won’t come up with anything, but overriding this, is excitement and interest in CERN. I want to investigate CERN as I might photography or film.

I am intrigued by science, especially physics, through working with cameras and light. I doubt though what I produce will be very scientific. I see it as a chance to test science, explore it, interpret it but probably not make something that will educate. I will look at it sideways, but then maybe this will reveal something that does make it clear. I think that I find art that just translates science information, a bit boring. Therefore I hope the people at CERN allow us to do what we want and won’t be too scientific about it. I hope they appreciate art as a different way of looking at things but one that is equally as important and valid.

But off the record, Hart was a bit cynical beforehand. "The college is often excited by the whole science/art thing," she says, "which to me seems to be all hype and not real. Science has been forced upon artists and vice versa, because there is so much money around to promote them coming together. So we feel we have to be interested. There's this sense of pretentious naffness about the whole sci/art thing."

Hart's first real impressions of CERN were disappointing. "I just expected it to be a lot more high-tech," she said. "We were driven around in these antiquated buses, and even the labs seemed to be mostly gaffer tape and tin foil." There didn't appear to be any recreation areas – TVs, pool tables and the like. Most of the scientists didn't seem to be very interested in the invasion of foreign artists. And she was also shocked by the predominantly male culture of the place – the secretaries and the canteen staff were the only women in evidence.

"In a way, it was a very belittling experience to meet the scientists," she recalls. "They were all men, solving the problems of the universe. Then they'd say, 'And what do you do?' I felt slightly ridiculous. And it threw me into a personal quandary; I know art is valid, but faced with that raw meeting..." She shakes her head.

Hart's initial qualms, however, dissipated after the first physics lecture. "It was this mad, passionate famous Spanish physicist, Alvaro de Rujula, going on about eleven dimensions. He was really unique." She was also taken with Rolf Landua's discussions of antimatter. But in the end, Hart was more interested in how the scientists talked to one another than in the science they were talking about.

"Artists use their own jargon," she says, "but this is bad, trying to make something important that isn't. Whereas it's the opposite with science: science is terribly important, and jargon is necessary, but actually what is important is making things simpler with analogy."

I ask Hart whether she thinks that science and art have anything in common. She replies that science and art are similar in some ways in that both use the imagination and involve a questioning, a never-being-satisfied mentality.

Wishful Thinking © 2004, Emma Hart. Arctic meteor footage projected into a suitcase, inspired by the artist's visit to CERN.

"Art is also like science in that it's OK to be derivative," she says. "It's accepted that you are commenting on what came before – commenting, not homage. In art, your work is either coming from the past or is opposed to it. And this is like scientific facts, with scientists either building on previous facts or dismantling them with new findings."

But on the other hand, the scientific method itself seems to Hart to be the opposite of an artist's approach: "A scientist will have a preconceived notion about reality, and will propose a hypothesis to test this, to prove a favored answer." Whereas an artist uses the artistic process as non-arbitrary research: 'what happens if?', with no idea what that answer might be. A 'good' artist doesn't know the answer in advance, but lets the process inform, Hart believes.

So how did Hart find creating art under these strange conditions?

"I was very nervous about being 'commissioned' to make a piece 'about' something," she says. "It's not my normal style."

The finished product, called 'Wishful Thinking' (see the accompanying image above), is an open black suitcase full of projected stars, collected from University College London's auroral video camera in Spitzbergen, Arctic. Very occasionally, a meteor blazes through the suitcase. As Hart wrote in the accompanying explanation:

Here [at CERN], more than just questioning the world they are investigating the universe. ... This experience has been mediated through a projector and a suitcase. It is not real, yet for a short time the viewer forgets it is a construction. The experiments at CERN are also a construction. The stars in the suitcase might seem magical but this is offset by a cynical reading; how we humans try to package the universe into a suitcase.

The viewer has to watch and wait for an event that takes under a second. This second becomes more important than the time spent waiting. At CERN they are trying to understand, amongst other things, how the universe began. The experiments are observed over and over again and the scientists wait for results. At its most basic level the footage is just white dots on a black background. This 2D rendering is enough, though, to suggest space and depth, made stranger by the suitcase being on the floor and looked down into. The procedures and experiments at CERN are complicated and often use concepts that are hard to imagine. The scientists rely on analogies to explain these concepts. This is my analogy of CERN.

Hart found that the workspaces at CERN inspired her piece. The main action at CERN takes place underground in miles of tunnels where particles are accelerated and the occasional giant detector is set up to harvest the information. The artists were herded into a lot of these deep tunnels, some of them disused.

"One morning I was terrified I had radiation sickness," she says, "but then I realized it was just a hangover!" She laughs. "There was this mad thing about the scale – huge tunnels and huge machines studying such tiny things." Part of this disparity is encapsulated in her suitcase: "I genuinely thought a lot of the scientists were crazy, trying to reproduce the universe in a tunnel under Geneva."

Although I have seen only still photos of 'Wishful Thinking', I find the concept, as a scientist, captivating and beautiful. Hart is not so sure: "The suitcase was an aberration – it's not me. It's not posing any questions." And she found her 'waiting for the meteors' analogy for the scientific method employed by CERN a bit too literal for her taste.

I asked Hart how she felt about science as a result of taking part in the experiment.

"I didn't know anything about physics before I got there and still don't," she answers promptly. "I tried hard to take all the science in, but eventually had to give up. Am I really interested in science?" She stares into space for a moment. "I wanted to be, but it was just too difficult to understand the concepts."

But was it a worthwhile experience?

"Yes," Hart says. "It's good to be forced to do different things. But I would have liked us to have had more impact on the scientists – they were caught up in their own universe, involved in their own thing...obsessed."

Did it affect her art afterward?

"On reflection, I did come away with admiration for the scientists trying again and again and believing in a 'holy grail' type of way that they should keep on going," she says. "Not completely to do with this but since CERN, I have become a lot more confident about how I make art and am less easily swayed."

More importantly, her convictions about 'groups' and collaboration were confirmed. "I felt the artists failed to put on the greatest show as we did not work together, and this was at odds with the spirit of CERN – and science – where working together is very salient and obvious and provides a foundation for everything they do. Scientists were always talking about each other (in a good way) and things others were doing. Whereas we artists were each doing their own thing."

A few months before meeting Emma Hart, I'd traveled to CERN to meet antimatter physicist Dr. Rolf Landua, one of the scientists who'd been involved in YoungArtists@CERN. As I prepared for my trip, I found I wasn’t much more clued in than Emma had been about what antimatter was and how such experiments would manifest. So when Andy Charalambous, who arranged the interview, warned me sternly in an email not to "touch the antimatter," it took a few seconds to realize that he was joking.

Rolf Landua may be most indirectly famous amongst the general public for having been killed off by Dan Brown on the first page of the novel Angels and Demons (in the guise of the character Leonardo Vetra), but he is actually a celebrity of sorts amongst physicists, being the spokesperson for ATHENA, an antimatter research project taking place at the AD Ring at CERN, which was the first experiment to produce 50,000 low-energy antihydrogen atoms.

"The main thing I recall about YoungArtists@CERN is the reaction: the complete misunderstanding of the art," Landua says. We are sitting on a terrace table outside CERN's canteen, and the sun is sporadic. He is cheerful and relaxed, looking a lot more like a tourist than a resident boffin. "Most of the scientists didn't seem to have a clue what it was all about. There was this impression that you shouldn't even try to understand; the art had to remain mysterious. A scientist, however, wants to know 'what does this mean?' So when a scientist looks at art and doesn't understand it, he gets frustrated. This is different from the general public's reaction; they are used to ignorance, so this doesn't bother them so much: it just flows over them."

There were a few pieces of the final YoungArtists@CERN exhibition that nobody understood, but for Landua, Emma's suitcase was definitely an exception: "At least, from this, I got a glimmer of what she was trying to do."

Landua is a firm believer in the power of art to help science, namely when it serves as PR. He gives the example of images from the Hubble Space Telescope as being art-like and inspiring interest in the space exploration as a result. And the young artists program was not the first time art had come to CERN. "A few years ago," he tells me, "we hosted a performance group called Mimescope that performed a piece about antimatter and the physicist Dirac in the Pit at [the detector] DELPHI. It brought a lot of people to CERN – people who before didn't know or care about CERN or what was happening here. So in that respect it was very successful. This is what art can do for science."

And what about Angels and Demons – was that good PR for CERN? Landua says he likes the book at lot, even though Brown took some artistic liberty in his description of CERN. But then, the book never pretended to be an accurate reflection of reality. "It was good fun, and art has to be fun and accessible to act as good PR." He pauses. "In some ways, YoungArtists@CERN wasn't 'fun' enough to accomplish a PR function."

So was the project worth doing?

"Definitely yes," he says. "The scientists had great respect for the artists who came to CERN. They realize that it's very difficult to 'make it' as an artist and those that become famous are almost magical. For a physicist, there is almost an awe about being in the dark. It's like they are thinking, 'I am completely lost: this artist understands something that I do not, so I admire him.' "

Some modern art, Landua says, has an 'emperor's new clothes' feeling about it; people sometimes feel 'I could do that myself'.

"In the old days, artists were artisans: the stuff they produced was beautiful and required a lot of talent. It was obvious what had gone into it. It's not like that now: think of the scandal with the German artist Joseph Beuys and his dirty bathtub – some museum worker cleaned it by accident and was sued for half a billion."

But when art resonates in some way with science, scientists particularly appreciate this. For example, Salvador Dalí's paintings of melting clocks are popular amongst physicists, Landua says. "Dalí showed that he truly understood the process: time is not a constant. Physicists know that human beings are just one of a million possibilities of nature; the universe would exist without us."

Landua himself thinks in images when he thinks about his science. "I visualize physics in my mind in a special way, in a way that could be drawn, say by a police artist. I can see the wave packets...like a ghost water wave. It's all there in my head, clear."

Yet, Landua believes, it is impossible to apply a common measure to science and art. "In many ways they are completely opposed," he says. "Science is independent of humans: reality exists even if we are not there. But art requires a human response, even if this response is subconscious."

Landua was struck by the way that the artists saw CERN in a completely different light to how a physicist would. "A scientist might be trying to explain his research, and the artists wouldn’t be listening; instead, they would be delighted by the chalkboards, the dusty corners of the lab, looking at things from different angles. I might see only one particle, but the artists are seeing everything. And the general public see things differently yet again: you take them down the tunnels, and they say things like, ‘oh, it's cold, it's big’ – all the things that seem irrelevant to me."

Landua returns to his favorite theme: getting the general public more involved in science via art or some other engaging medium. "I've founded an education outreach group at CERN to bring in more sexy topics, like blacks holes, to the European school curricula. Teachers agree the way they currently teach physics is boring and want to know how to do it better. I’m working on a fun modular approach, using light at a pilot, which teachers can plug in to their own program as needed. And I’m writing a little book, an interactive, detective-like treasure hunt through the life of Einstein, aimed at kids between 14 and 17."

But to reach kids, a TV program would be better than a curriculum or a book, Landua believes.

"I would love to see scientist dramas on TV," he says. "But there would need to be love, intrigue, sex and crime to make it palatable."

He explains how a retired physicist called Leon Lederman at Fermilabs pitched such an idea 20 years ago to American producers but was turned down. "I have also thought of trying this. The problem is, although there is more interest in science than ever before, and lots of science documentaries, it's all boring: white-coated men making cryptic statements culminating in the inevitably clichéd conclusion. They are preaching to a small number of converted people, whereas young people are watching MTV all day long. Young people are more interested in magic than in science. Even scientists would hate a scientific soap opera – especially physicists" – Landua looks around the cafeteria terrace gingerly. "When you talk about science, the fun stops here."

Landua leans a bit to one side. "See that guy over there?" He points out an old man at another table. "That's the Nobel laureate Jack Steinberger. He actually attacked me for mentioning Star Trek to 15-year-olds during a school visit here. Jack said to me, ‘They need to know it's tough, not fun!’ To which I replied, ‘Then they'll never come at all – is that what you want?’ "

The cafe terrace has darkened with a few spots of rain, and all around us, men are eating and taking no notice of getting wet.

"I think of physicists as almost autistic, non-verbal weirdos, predestined to become scientists," he says in a low voice. "Not all scientists necessarily, maybe not biologists – I mean, biology has girls in it, which tells you something! But these guys are strange. The females you can see here are mostly wives – they have to come here to get the chance to ever see their men."

As the rain begins in earnest, Landua drives me to the antimatter factory (more properly know as the Antiproton Decelerator (AD)). It is mostly above ground, a nondescript silvery building. Inside, the large space is thrumming like the engineering deck of a Star Trek vessel. We clamor down flimsy aluminum ladders to see the braking magnets, coaxing tiny particles of antimatter into traps – as Hart mentioned, there is indeed a lot of aluminum foil and gaffer tape in evidence. He shows me the ATHENA area, where the first antiparticles had been captured, recognizable only by the unique signature of their annihilation.

As I look around the lab, I find myself trying to think like an artist, not a scientist: All this infrastructure and effort for such an ephemeral outcome – could it really be any weirder?