Contemporary art Switzerland

How to put the art into particle physics

The Cern research facility, home to the large hadron collider, is to offer a series of artists’ residencies

Physicists and engineers working on the installation of an underground particle detector at Cern in Switzerland

geneva. Cern, the European physics laboratory that operates the world’s largest particle accelerator, the large hadron collider, has unveiled plans to bring together a different set of forces: scientists and artists. As part of its new policy for engaging with the arts, Great Arts for Great Science, Cern has initiated a three-month residency programme over three years called Collide@CERN, inviting artists to its laboratory near Geneva where they will be mentored by leading scientists and given a stipend of €10,000.

The first part of the scheme, Prix Ars Electronica Col­lide@CERN, focuses on digital arts. It was launched in August at Ars Electronica, the annual festival for digital arts in Linz, Austria, and is a collaborative effort between the festival and Cern. The selected artist will spend the first two months of the residency at Cern and the final month at the Ars Electronica Futurelab, the festival’s studio space. The resulting work will be presented at both Cern and the festival in Linz. A second strand of the residency programme, focusing on performance and dance, will be announced in November. The project is overseen by Cern’s newly appointed Cultural Board for the Arts which is made up of Beatrix Ruf, director of the Kunsthalle Zürich, Serge Dorny, director general of the Lyons Opera House, and Frank Madlener, director of Ircam, the science and music research institute in Paris. Board membership will change every three years.

“I consider Cern one of the most culturally significant places today,” says Ariane Koek, head of Cern’s arts programme. “It’s really breaking the boundaries of what we know about the world and how we understand it. It seemed to me that it also had the potential to be one of the most inspirational places on earth for artists.”

This sentiment is echoed at the centre where Koek experienced a “rabid hunger” from the scientists for artistic intervention. How­ever, the residency programme was funded externally by private donors because the contributions by Cern’s 20 European member states, which totalled almost €1bn last year, are earmarked for science and technology alone. Ars Electronica will sponsor the €10,000 stipend.

The programme signals an attempt to cross the strict segregation of science and art. The British artist Antony Gormley, one of the patrons of the project, believes the two fields share ­important characteristics. “My whole philosophy is that art and science are better together than apart,” he said. “We have somehow accepted an absolute division between analysis and intuition but I think actually the structures that they both come up with are a very intricate mix of the two.” London-based Polish artist Goshka Macuga, who is currently visiting Cern, put it more bluntly: “Art and science both aspire to conquer the universe!” Her research has drawn her to Cern in an effort to find an “alternative language to describe reality” that will help her break away from a canon of work “largely rooted in the history of art”.

While confident of the ways that art and science can enrich each other, Koek says it is not about turning artists into engineers. “Particle physics and the arts have a particular affinity, but it is just as important—in fact crucially so—to accept and preserve the differences between arts and science. It’s what makes them what they are. If you don’t, the authenticity and meaning of both will be destroyed,” she says. For Gormley, the challenge for artists will lie in “making a visual equivalent to the non-optical world” that is being unearthed by research at Cern. In other words, “to make the invisible visible”.

Applications for the residencies can be submitted online until 31 October.

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