BY Barbara Preisig in Profiles | 28 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 5

What colour is your Higgs particle?

CERN seeks collisions with art. On the potential for a philosophical alliance

BY Barbara Preisig in Profiles | 28 MAY 12

Inner part of the CERN LHC accelerator (Courtesy for all images: CERN, Photograph: Maximilien Brice)

In my imagination, the European Organization for Nuclear Research CERN is not unlike a science fiction film. I’ve heard that black holes are made there and that very big machines make very small particles crash into one another at the speed of light. The CERN staff are looking for the ‘God particle’ and trying to explain the origin of the universe. The now-iconic images in the media usually show only the futuristic forms of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which recalls an artificial sun or a gigantic kaleidoscope. The images aim to amaze, astonish and awe, to become a surface for the projection of fantastic visions of the future while triggering a certain sense of reverence. They look a bit like works by Olafur Eliasson – just more science and less fiction.

In spite of these striking media images, the world’s most international research project, involving several nations, hundreds of institutes and thousands of scientists, has a communications problem. CERN needs to justify the major funding it receives from the participating states and to inform the public of its findings. Obviously, quantum physics is not something people casually discuss over a beer. But even the scientists at CERN now have trouble presenting and explaining their work because the object of their exper­iments has long since overreached their own powers of imagination. How does one portray the fourth dimension or anti-matter, if not in the guise of mathematical formulas?

The ATLAS experiment: visualizing two protons colliding

Enter ‘Great Art for Great Science’. Using this motto, CERN has launched an art programme, including the clumsily titled ‘Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN Digital Arts Prize’ awarded in conjunction with a two-month residency at CERN. The first prizewinner is Julius von Bismarck – who happens to be a student of Eliasson’s. He first came to prominence in 2007 when he patented the Image Fulgurator, a device capable of projecting extraneous visual information into scenes at the precise moment when they are being photographed by others.

Von Bismarck is now at CERN to ‘playfully generate creative collisions between art and science’ – or so we are told in the press release, a text that makes the undertaking sound like one of the countless interdisci­plinary projects aiming to bring together art and science under the scintil­lating banner of ‘artistic research’. ‘Particle physics and art are congenial partners because both inquire into our place in the universe and explore what it means to be human’, writes CERN’s director general Rolf Heuer in support of the project’s unique quality. But is this not true of every encounter between science and art? Is science expecting substantial stimuli from art, or is CERN just interested in the PR effect?

The ATLAS experiment: visualizing two protons colliding

Von Bismarck has a small office on the campus, in one of the many shed-like storage buildings. When I visit, CERN turns out to have little in common with how I imagined it. The LHC lies 100 metres below ground and is currently out of bounds due to high radiation levels. So the artist spends his working hours, not in futuristic computer labs, but in the cafeteria, talking to theorists and experimental physicists. Their conversations revolve around concepts like dark matter, supersymmetry or hidden valley, and around questions that can no longer be framed in the imagination, let alone verified in reality. Such issues pose new challenges not only to particle physics but also to art. How can such abstract ideas be linked to the material world in real terms? Should we imagine a Higgs particle as having a colour and a shape?

My visit gets really interesting in the cafeteria, when von Bismarck tells me about CERN’s research, and it dawns on me that what goes on here really is science fiction – although less on a visible level and more on the level of an abstract, philosophical exchange of ideas between artists and scientists, where the conventions of perception and representation can no longer be taken for granted. After two weeks at CERN, von Bismarck is already seeing everyday objects as conglomerations of atoms.

It is hard to tell where this exchange between art and particle physics might lead; such openness is precisely what constitutes the potential of any experiment. But those at CERN have clear preconceptions. As soon as the residency is over, von Bismarck will show the resulting work in the Futurelab section of the Ars Electronica festival, which added ¤10,000 of funding to the prize. With his participation at Ars Electronica, the experimental research residency at CERN is brought back to earth and grounded in reality. The artistic output is channelled into the relatively narrow path of a brand of technology-friendly media art which all too often serves as a source of creative stimuli for (commercially promising) processes of innovation.

Particle detector with eight toroidal magnets

This outcome is a pity, since it restricts art’s scope for trying out genuinely new modes of presentation which might lie beyond the usual technophile science fiction fantasies. What might such new approaches look like? Von Bismarck mentions an in-house event at CERN where he invited scientists to a darkened room and served black coffee. Then he talked with them about non-visual images (like dark matter) and what happens in our minds under the sensory influence of darkness and coffee. Where the scientists at CERN reach their limits, art can indeed offer communicative support. It can help them to portray their ideas, to put into words and images what remains obscure in the world of numbers. A welcome consequence might be a shift in emphasis in the media reports on CERN: away from hi-tech glamour towards its fascinating world of ideas. As far as technology is concerned, CERN itself has always produced the most impressive images.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Barbara Preisig is an art historian who lives and works in Zurich and Berlin. Her dissertation project investigates ephemeral forms of Conceptual art from the 1960s and ’70s.