Art and Science in Creative Collision


It goes without saying that CERN is a place where exciting things happen. From the detection of the Higgs Boson to the creation of the World Wide Web, it is a gathering place for some of the world’s best scientific minds who are asking some of the most fundamental questions about the universe. It is also a place that has been on my radar for a little while now for their innovative Collide@CERN arts programme. Upon the recent Nobel Prize in Physics to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert for the prediction of the Higgs Boson (which CERN then detected), I rang up Ariane Koek, Director of Collide@CERN, to learn more about the philosophy behind the art programme that she founded to engage with the science and the scientists of this remarkable institution.


Art and Science on Equal Footing

The space of collaborations between artists and scientists is a ‘troubled’ area, says Koek, where artists and scientists rarely stand on equal footing as professionals. In an art/science collaboration, what is the role of the artist in relationship to the scientist? Are they there to communicate the work of the scientist, or are they there as an independent entity, for whom it doesn’t matter particularly what they produce in relation to the science?  It’s a tricky question without easy resolution, particularly as pertains to the artist’s funding.

If the residency of the artist is funded by the scientist, then are they not under some obligation to the scientist to do something ‘useful’? Utility may not always be a problem per se, but does it make good art? And, I am highly sceptical as to whether genuine creativity can be let loose by funding applications to even the most open minded of science organisations. Is it perhaps possible that even this implicit expectation impedes creativity? So, how can an environment be created in which the interactions between artists and scientists are nurtured and grown?

Performance of Quantum in CMS hall at CERN (Julian Calo)

Performance of Quantum in CMS hall at CERN (image: Julian Calo)

A basic premise of the Collide@CERN programmme is to place artists and scientists on the same level. While scientists at CERN are selected for their excellence, artists who are accepted into their prestigious residency programme are also expected to be of an exceptional calibre. Unlike other residencies where the funding is tied to the institution or individual scientists, here the funding for the artists comes from external bodies, such as Ars Electronica and the Canton of Geneva, amongst others. CERN is committed to the engagement of artists with their science, but is also gutsy enough to relinquish control of what they do whilst at CERN and to have only an expectation that the artist keeps a blog. No creative output is mandated; rather, there is a trust that if artists spend time there, they will be inspired by the rich environment of ideas and create something remarkable.


Creative Collisions

CERN has always had an open door to artists and has recognised the remarkable pallete of ideas that may act as springboards for creative inspiration. Antony Gormley, Mariko Mori and Chris Drury are amongst the artists who have passed through the doors of CERN of their own volition. However, it is the Collide@CERN programme that has enabled the prolonged residency of artists and facilitated their interaction with scientists. Two annual prizes are awarded: the Collide@CERN Prix Ars Electronica residency is the result of an international competition, whereas the Collide@CERN Geneva is awarded to local talent.

Subodh Patil (Bill Fontana's inspiration partner) listening to his sounds (Collide@CERN)

Subodh Patil (Bill Fontana’s inspiration partner) listening to his sounds (image: Collide@CERN)

But, according to Koek, it is not enough to simply put an artist in the lab with a physicist and expect them to figure out how to play nicely. Rather, she works as a kind of producer-in-residence, working with the artist-in-residence and CERN’s scientific community to facilitate ‘creative collisions.’ After being accepted to the residency programme, the awarded artists first participate in an in-depth induction visit three months before their residency begins. It is during this period that they are matched with their ‘inspiration partner’, a CERN scientist who will be something of a scientific touchstone for them (but by no means the only scientist with whom they will work or interact). It’s a bit of a matchmaking process—rather than looking for the scientists with whom the artist simply gets along, Koek looks for chemistry—she looks for a spark that might act as catalyst for creative inspiration.

Whilst at CERN, the winning artists are not stuck in a dusty corner of a lab—rather, they are busy testing, playing, experimenting, and – importantly – interacting with the CERN community. Much of this work is facilitated by Koek in her capacity as the ‘producer’ (this is also her background: previously for the BBC). These creative interventions (some of which the general public may never see) are an important part of the residency, giving CERN scientists new ways of looking. Artist Julius von Bismarck discovered a variety of underground passages on the CERN campus that few were aware of; he took a group of scientists into these secret spaces, engaging them in some experiments to alter their perception of space. Recalling Plato’s Cave, what did they see in their mind’s eye whilst in the depths? In another, more playful intervention, Gilles Jobin brought a dance troupe into the CERN library.

Strangels performing in the CERN library (Gregory Batardon)

Strangels performing in the CERN library (image: Gregory Batardon)

A key component of the Collide@CERN programme is the lack of rigid expectations upon the artist. No output is mandated, but it seems to happen. 2011 winners Julius von Bismarck and Gilles Jobin recently collaborated on a new dance performance, ‘Quantum’, which brought together CERN data transcoded into music, with a lighting installation designed by von Bismarck. The performance premiered in the CMS detector hall at CERN this past September and is now set to tour internationally. Sound artist, Bill Fontana (one of my personal art heroes), is the current 2012-2013 Prix Ars Electronica winner—with poetic brilliance has plans to turn the Large Hadron Collider into an enormous musical instrument, playing the recordings he made back in February of it operating (shortly before its two-year shutdown commenced) back to itself.


A model for art and science collaborations?

Science and art are both ‘tools’ with which to explore our world, and understand what it means to be human. In spite of their contemporary differences, there has historically been a greater level of interaction, and an individual might be both artist and scientist. Leonardo Da Vinci is the most famous of these—but there were many others—and there is no reason to believe there will not be many more to come (composer/chemist Alexander Borodin comes to mind). But for the most part, science (especially that practiced at places like CERN) has become incredibly specialised, and a student must devote such an enormous part of themselves to science (the same may be indeed be said for art) that a high-flying career in both science and arts is incredibly unlikely. And, while scientists and science organisations are becoming more open-minded about collaborations with artists, this is not necessarily easy for either the scientist or the artist. So how then, can healthy interaction and cross-pollination of ideas occur?

Versuch unter Kreisen, an installation by Julius von Bismarck (image: Collide@CERN)

Versuch unter Kreisen, an installation by Julius von Bismarck (image: Collide@CERN)

I suspect that Ariane Koek has it right, or at least has found one model for facilitating interactions between the artists and scientists: she allows each to be unabashedly themselves, but looks for the bright sparks between the constituent elements and works to create the conditions for ‘creative collisions’ between the two. While there are many reasons it is a model that is unique to CERN and shouldn’t be mindlessly duplicated across the board of scientific organisations offering art/science residencies, I would urge those involved in this space to look at what CERN is doing. It’s brave, it’s exciting and it’s resulting in great art (and science too).

All images provided by Collide@CERN. 

CERN just announced a ‘sister’ to the Collide@CERN, Accellerate@CERN, a one month research visit for artists who have never worked longer in a scientific laboratory before.


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