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Imagining CERN

Written by Postgraduate Community
Published date 14 December 2017
By Lisa Pettibone, studying MA Art and Science
at Central Saint Martins

Window Exhibition ‘CERN’ by MA Art and Science students at Central saint Martins

On November 28, over 100 people gathered in a Central Saint Martins lecture theatre to mark another stage of the MA Art and Science (MAAS) students’ involvement with CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). The Imagining CERN seminar and exhibition was organised to present an often difficult-to-explain message – that particle physics and creativity can mix in stunning and surprising ways. Invited guest rapper Consensus hammered out his attraction to CERN CMS detector, physicist Gavin Hesketh sharpened our wits with his subatomic wisdom, and five art students transcended visual language to describe their personal encounters with the most famous science experiment in the world. In the capacious entrance windows outside, the realisation of their creative responses drew a dazzled and curious crowd after the event.

The artworks and the seminar are part of a series of projects dating from December 2016 when a group of students were invited by Michael Hoch at Art@CMS to make an exploratory four-day visit to CERN near Geneva. This stimulating adventure cascaded into a second visit in May 2017 and an exhibition at the Four Corners Gallery in London in June. Grasping the creative and cultural importance of this alliance, the university proposed a window display covering seven panels of the public foyer from November 10, 2017 – high-energy particle physics had arrived at the University of the Arts London.

How has this series of events affected the students who wove their imaginations around concepts that go to the core of our existence, and perhaps more importantly, how have these insights shaped their work?

To begin with, the variety of particle-related experiments taking place at CERN surprised many of the artists. During the symposium panel discussion, Priya Odedra, MAAS student with a degree in biochemistry, explained, ‘I wasn’t sure what I was going to get out of it but it seemed like an amazing opportunity, so why not?’ As part of the group who returned to CERN in May, Priya was interested in the CLOUD experiment where particle detectors are examining how tree vapours affect cloud formation. After a tour of the facility, she found a deep connection to her interest in how man interacts with the natural world through encounters with trees. She produced a fresh piece related to these concepts for the CSM window display.

Also keen to know more about CLOUD, Helen Cawley kept in contact with the CLOUD team, developing her understanding of their work. She says, ‘I was interested in collaborating with the scientists on this important experiment. It takes place every year at CERN , as it is improving the fundamental understanding of aerosols, clouds, and their effect on the climate. Through access to their experiment site, data, team meetings, and through conversations with the CLOUD scientists, I have learned an incredible amount and hope to impart some of this knowledge and experience, and engage with people on climate change. The input from CLOUD scientists has reinvigorated my practice, and I have many installations in the works.’

Many of the students found the experience stimulated their imaginations in unexpected ways. The extreme environment inside the three-mile-diameter Large Hadron Collider ring and the near-speed-of-light particle collisions in the detectors pushed their ability to visualise events at such minute scales. Allison Barclay-Michaels, who is synaesthetic and sees colour in tandem with sound, found that the inventive musings of physicist Piotr Traczyk, who used data collected from the Higgs Boson discovery to make guitar music, gave her inspiration for artworks with sonic counterparts. Later she also discovered that colour does not exist at a quantum level (the wavelengths mean nothing) and made new work for the Imagining CERN window around the concept of polarized light.

Pandora Peng said, ‘I started recognizing that a variety of invisible particles exist in the world and these directly impact our life. I found myself using visual art to explore these invisible things and allowing me to feel and touch them in my own way. It is quite interesting process.’

Scale is a subject that came up consistently in both exhibitions. Stephen Bennett’s video Microscopic Macroscopic used this context of scale to address ways to motivate public interest in science. His work sparks this curiosity by pushing the viewer into a state of amazement by abutting particle-like images with human-scale patterns taken from the buildings at CERN .

Observations about the community at CERN and the nature of their work evoked comparisons between how artists and scientists approach their work. In her symposium presentation, Lisa Pettibone noted that while making her steel and neon piece Capture, she reflected on the compulsion of both professions to ensnare nature in order to study or enjoy it, often destroying it in the process. She also mentioned the unique energy of the community at CERN , where an impassioned search for knowledge fuels an open-minded ethos.

Amy Starmar, whose work G-String is also in the CSM window display, said later that connecting with the people there was important to her. During the May 2017 visit, a student-driven round table discussion was held with three scientists and Geneva artist Stephen Preece. He later invited her and others to join him at his studio. Amy said, ‘we were gifted an extraordinary day with the generosity of Stephen. Visiting the studio and seeing an artist with his own links to CERN helped to make a greater emotional connection with the site of CERN , a place that projects a more logical and rational appearance.’ She concluded, ‘CERN is a truly remarkable place to visit, and I feel it left a lasting impression on every one of us who visited. There is a conversation at work here that is more than the artist and the scientist, CERN or CSM, but one of seeking a greater understanding between two different groups of people and how they can communicate and work together to progress into an uncertain future.’

In a nutshell, this conversation is part of the dialogue that drives the MA Art and Science course. So expect further developments in Central Saint Martins’ links with CERN and in the work of the artists whose outlooks have been altered by their encounters with this pioneering science institution.

The Imagining CERN window exhibition is in the public area of the university entrance and continues until 4 January 2018.

Participating artists:

Pandora Peng, Stephen Bennett, Andy Charalambous, Allsion Barclay-Michaels, Victoria Westerman, Olga Suchanova, Bekk Wells, Lisa Pettibone, Helen Cawley, Maria Macc, Hannah Scott, Joshua Bourke, Reggy Liu, Priya Odedra, Jill Mueller, Amy Starmar