Sound

At the Large Hadron Collider, Art Inspired by the Origins of the Universe

by Allison Meier on August 8, 2013

Bill Fontana visits CERN (photograph by Anna Pantelia, © 2013 CERN)

Bill Fontana visits CERN (photograph by Anna Pantelia, © 2013 CERN)

As one of the most ambitious studies of space and time — recreating the origins of our universe and solving some of the biggest riddles of physics — the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, deep below the Franco-Swiss border, is an incredible inspiration for science. And art.

Currently, sound artist Bill Fontana is listening into the workings of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) for a project called “Acoustic Time Travel.” As Symmetry, an online magazine on particle physics, reported, the project is the focus of Fontana’s three-month residency that is part of Prix Arts Electronica Collide@CERN. Eavesdropping on the protons moving with his accelerometer, an engineering tool that can transmit the vibrations of sound in solid structures, he is then experimenting with altering the sound through the machinery of the laboratory. The work fits in neatly with his prior projects, which include contemplations of the expansion joints on the Golden Gate Bridge, or decontextualized noise as “sound sculpture,” like waves crashing off the cliffs of Normandy at the Arc de Triomphe.

Fontana is just the second artist to be part of this digital art residency, which is a collaboration between CERN and Austria-based Ars Electronica. The first resident was the German artist Julius von Bismarck, who carried out interventions in the CERN laboratory, among them taking physicists into its hidden underground tunnels for a walk through the darkness, later recording their impressions of that visual oblivion.

Julius Von Bismarck, CERN's first artist in Residence, with Physicist James Wells (photograph by Maxilimilen Brice, © 2012 CERN)

Julius Von Bismarck, CERN’s first artist in Residence, with Physicist James Wells (photograph by Maxilimilen Brice, © 2012 CERN)

ATLAS art mural at CERN Point 1 painted by Josef Kristofoletti (photograph by Claudia Marcelloni, © 2010 CERN)

ATLAS art mural at CERN Point 1 painted by Josef Kristofoletti (photograph by Claudia Marcelloni, © 2010 CERN)

While the residencies are relatively new, art has been part of the LHC since its inauguration in 2008, where Philip Glass and photographer Frans Lanting were commissioned for a collaborative piece called “Origins” to evoke the beginnings of the universe. Even before that, Swiss artist Gianni Motti carried out a performance where he walked the length of the LHC before it was on to contrast his pace to that of the future speeding protons. There’s also now the massive mural by Josef Kristofoletti that covers the outside of the ATLAS control room, its vibrancy inspired by the idea of the Higgs boson particle.

Gianni Motti, "Walking for art's sake" (2005) (© 2005 CERN)

Gianni Motti, “Walking for art’s sake” (2005) (© 2005 CERN)

Site specific choreographic intervention inside the CERN library by Gilles Jobin (photograph by Gregory Baradron, courtesy CERN)

Site specific choreographic intervention inside the CERN library by Gilles Jobin (photograph by Gregory Baradron, © 2012 CERN)

Currently there are residencies with Arts@CERN in digital arts, film, and dance/performance. The dance residency started in 2012 with choreographer Gilles Jobin, who visited the LHC and took its both infinite smallness and infinite largeness as inspiration for “Spider Galaxies,” while also holding some interventions in the CERN library. In addition, artists and creators of all media are invited throughout the year to interact with scientists and view the laboratory. There’s also the current collaboration Symmetry between ARTS@Cern and the Cultural Board that is a “visual opera-dance-science-digital arts project” with filmmaker Ruben van Leer, dancer Lukáš Timulak, choreographer André Gringras, and soprano Claron McFadden.

Choreographer William Forsythe in the ATLAS cavern at CERN as part of the Arts@CERN program (photograph Claudia Marcelloni)

Choreographer William Forsythe in the ATLAS cavern at CERN as part of the Arts@CERN program (photograph Claudia Marcelloni, © 2012 CERN)

Yet stepping back from all this art action, is it a minuscule component of the massive idea machine that is the LHC? What can art possibly mean in relation to the research on the laws of physics themselves? But it’s that largeness, vastness, and near-incomprehensibility of what the LHC is capable of describing to us that seems to make art essential. The need for an interpretation of these discoveries and the LHC’s potential, as well as an interaction between the artists and the scientists themselves, is an incredible opportunity to both take the complicated ideas out of the lab and into artistic expression, as well as to bring in diverse ideas of creation even while looking at the very creation of our own universe.

Ambitious enough to take on such a lofty place for art? The 2013 call for digital artist residents is open until September 26.

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