BY Metahaven AND Marko Gluhaich in Opinion | 04 NOV 22
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Issue 231

Metahaven’s ‘Capture’ Investigates Art and Quantum Physics

The artist collective shares the process behind their latest film, showing at Kunsthall Trondheim, that bridges art, anthropology and the philosophy of science

BY Metahaven AND Marko Gluhaich in Opinion | 04 NOV 22

Our latest work, the 40-minute film Capture (2022), interweaves archival material from CERN (the European Laboratory for Particle Physics) with footage from the slopes of La Palma’s active volcanic range, Cumbre Vieja, and lichen filmed in the vicinity of Trondheim to explore the relationship between art, anthropology and the philosophy of science. Commensurability between art and science cannot be presupposed, especially when looking at quantum physics, which operates as a description of nature at the most fundamental level. No matter how smart it is, art draws on sensory impressions to convey something, even if what is hinted at is deeply abstract. Art provides ‘images’ of one form or another that viewers are primed to understand on a formal level as a means of communication. In quantum physics, however, the ‘intuitive’ understanding of the world inherited from classical physics is not getting us very far.

Working extensively with the CERN archive – especially 16 mm films from the 1960s and ’70s, which used intricate cinematic or television techniques – we noticed changes in the way the project was self-narrated. In the beginning, the messaging was tightly controlled and directed, leaving these films looking like mini features at times, complete with melodramatic music and plot twists. CERN’s use of cinematic convention also plays into the construction of a narrative about Europe following World War II, in which CERN had an important role. With the introduction of video in the 1980s, however, we see a change in the tone, style and means of narration. Rather than employ dedicated filmmakers, CERN began to use its own engineers, who drew on their unique perspective of having an intimate relationship with something as massive as a particle detector. The archive reveals how the development of media since the 1960s, in terms of different cameras and techniques, affected the way scientific operations were captured: from centralized, directed and authoritative to intimate and slightly more chaotic. We filmed Capture with different kinds of cameras – using a wild cam, digital cinema cameras and a 16 mm camera – to include our own awareness of the texture of moving images, so the project in that sense defies being made at any specific time.

Metahaven, Capture, 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artists

There are three quotes in the film. One is by the poet Alexander Vvedensky, another by the theoretical cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and the third is by philosopher of physics David Albert. Vvedensky’s poetry, which mostly dates to the 1930s, disrupts categories, hierarchies and sensory impressions in a way that at times seems to parallel the then-emerging field of quantum physics. Although we are fairly certain that Vvedensky did not know of the latest developments in quantum physics, there are some ostensible equivalents in his work. Inviting us to observe the movements of a mouse, for instance, he writes in The Gray Notebook (1932–33): ‘Look around. There are no objects.’ The mouse begins to ‘shimmer’ and, consequently, so does the ‘world’. The parallel with quantum physics is that the mouse’s movement is not continuous but consists of discrete values. Vvedensky’s poetic instinct – translated here by Eugene Ostashevsky – then has it that the hierarchy of the scene is turned upside down and ‘the world is shimmering (like a mouse)’. Such a sentence seems profoundly, and successfully, concerned with the incommensurability between art and science, almost demonstrating it.

Prescod-Weinstein’s quote comes from her 2021 book The Disordered Cosmos. This citation is her argument about the premises of doing physics: ‘Before we can have neutron stars and gravitational waves comes sustenance – eating – and those who provide the food.’ Throughout Capture, we have employed the motif of cherries, in pairs or in stacks, to represent the realms of fundamental particles and food. The fruit serves as a means of talking about the gap between physics and art: a stand-in for having effective language for that gap.

Metahaven, Capture, 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artists

Albert’s work in the philosophy of quantum physics matches the absurdism we find, for very different reasons, in Vvedensky’s poetry. Albert presents an analogy about one of the troubling moments of quantum physics: the superposition of the electron, during which its speed and position can no longer be measured simultaneously. ‘There is no fact about where the electron is,’ observes Albert during a 2019 episode of Sean Carroll’s Mindscape. Albert suggests that ‘asking about the position of an electron would be analogous to asking about the marital status of the number five, or the length in metres of Catholicism’. Ultimately, to make sense, the three references need each other and their connection within the film. Capture ends with the cherry motif transforming into blue inverted commas, floating above the clouds, 2,500 metres high, at the La Palma astrophysics observatory.

As told to Marko Gluhaich

Metahaven’s Capture is showing at Kunsthall Trondheim until 13 November. The film is co-commissioned by Kunsthall Trondheim, Screen City Biennial and Arts at CERN, with additional support from KORO and the Arts Council Norway. Arts at CERN is supported by UNIQA Fine Art Insurance, Switzerland. The film was supported by the Netherlands Film Fund with additional support from La Palma Escuela de Cultura e Instituto canario de desarrollo cultural. 

This article appeared in frieze issue 231 with the headline ‘Particle Detecting’.

Main Image: Metahaven, Capture, 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artists

The work of the artist collective Metahaven encompasses writing, filmmaking and design.

Marko Gluhaich is associate editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.