At CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, art and science are colliding. Experiments to further our knowledge of the Universe might not sound like the ideal candidate for art, but understanding complex scientific questions requires unusual ways of thinking.
Since 2011, artists have taken up residencies at CERN, on the outskirts of Geneva, to watch scientists carry out experiments. The Arts @ CERN project seeks to make this inscrutably complex work more comprehensible by interrogating the fringes of our scientific understanding in different ways. “Artists come to CERN looking for the fundamental questions about the Universe,” says Mónica Bello, head of Arts @ CERN. “The goal is to bring artists into conversation with scientists and see what happens.”
Art and science may initially seem like polar opposites, but they do share some common ground, Bello says. “The way the two proceed is very similar – through creativity and curiosity.” Put an artist and a scientist in the same room and, CERN hopes, something magical will happen. Cross-disciplinary conversations can help people rethink their approach and perhaps shed some new light on the work at CERN.
“It’s a way to understand the purpose of everything we do, to try to understand the world through science and art,” Bello says. “When science is giving us answers about the Universe we live in, it’s about looking at things that are not obvious. Artists do that in a different way.” In 2015, two British artists, Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt – known as Semiconductor – spent two months at CERN, delving into the archives and conducting interviews. In doing so, they opened up what can often be an impenetrably dense lab.
This year’s intake of artists travelling to the Franco-Swiss border hail from the UK, Switzerland, South Korea and Croatia. Among them are Haroon Mirza and Jack Jelfs of London-based studio hrm199. Jelfs is an artist and musician who studied theoretical physics at Imperial College London, and has worked with Mirza on installations at the Tate Modern and Serpentine Gallery in London. Mirza and Jelfs met in 2015; Mirza’s conversations with the physicist-turned-artist sparked his interest in theoretical physics, and how it relates to art. “There are some parallels, when you think about electromagnetism, light, electricity, electromagnetic spectrum and sound,” Mirza says. “The physics of all these things are another conceptual framework to help think about your existing work and to realise new works.”
The artists will visit CERN several times over the coming months, during which time they will watch scientists as they operate. “I’m interested in the way they work, the relationship to what I do and how all these different disciplines seem to be coalescing,” Mirza says. “Scientists at CERN are beginning to talk about this idea of science heading towards a brick wall. They’re starting to accept there are some things we just aren’t able to understand – something that artists encounter every day.” Mirza and Jelfs will be carrying out interviews with the particle physicists working at CERN, as well as documenting life inside the laboratory and the experiments that take place there. They are also keen to explore the Large Hadron Collider – following in the footsteps of sound artist Bill Fontana, who captured the sounds of the 27km tunnel as part of the Arts @ CERN residencies in 2013.
“I can’t wait,” Mirza says. “To be there and among these people who are doing something so precise and specific is going to be incredible.”