Premiering at FACT, Liverpool, Broken Symmetries – a new international exhibition – presents innovative works by artists taking part in the Collide International Residency at CERN. Questioning the physical world by navigating the shifting realities of modern science, the pieces explore complex notions of current fundamental research through a variety of approaches. Lesley Taker, Exhibitions Manager at FACT Liverpool and Jose-Carlos Mariátegui and Mónica Bello, Co-curators, discuss the show, highlighting the importance of interdisciplinary practice.
A: To what degree do you feel contemporary art and science are currently linked and why, as an organisation, was it necessary to curate this show at this time?
LT: Art and science are, at their basic level, searches for understanding more of the universe and our place within it. They have been inextricably linked since the age of Da Vinci, but in the modern era, artists are more interested not in the art of science itself, but the approaches and attempts used to understand the fabric of reality. Understanding just how much of our existence relies on changing narratives has long been a pursuit of both disciplines, and this relationship – something at the heart of both CERN and FACT’s ethos – is vital.
That is what is so interesting with the Collide programme at CERN, and why FACT was so happy to partner with Arts at CERN for the last three years. Now more than ever, it is of increasing importance that we understand that the world around us is not as it seems, and feel able to take from different and areas of research in order to do so. Broken Symmetries is very much doing that – acknowledging how shifting reality is within both a day-to-day and scientific context. The artists and scientists involved have collaborated to not only to try and understand some of the most complex fundamentals of modern physics, but also each other’s approaches and ideologies, which is a commendable and urgent message in a very chaotic world.
A: How far do you agree that art, as a whole, is a mechanism to understanding our planet, and how far does the show fit into this ethos?
JCM & MB: Art has always been in pursuit of understanding reality and everything that surrounds us. Such understanding can be translated to a language that we as humans are able to recognise and perceive. However, most of the work done in fundamental science laboratories such as CERN cannot be easily understood and in many cases it defies common sense, as many of its principles are rooted in complex domains.
Broken Symmetries tries to elicit the diverse ways in which new forms of knowledge and understanding about our planet arise when scientists and artists collaborate. We aim to rethink facts, experiments, the laws of nature and how these effect our cognitive and cultural systems, along with metaphysical and speculative questions.
A: How do the works perform experiments, and what do they communicate to viewers?
JCM & MB: The works delve into ideas from fundamental science – mainly particle physics, which is the main focus at CERN – or stories that could be traced to its philosophical foundations. Some of the works deal with experiments or the actual constituency of matter – such as Yunchul Kim and Juan Cortes. Others are much closer to observation, such as Semiconductor, or building on historical narratives, as in the work of Yu-Chen Wang.
More speculative works use language, fiction and spiritualism, for example the works of Lea Porsager, Suzanne Treister or hrm199 (Haroon Mirza in collaboration with Jack Jelfs). Finally, understanding the mechanisms, devices and systems of representation in science and technology provide artists like James Bridle, Diann Bauer and Julieta Aranda with alternative forms for social enquiry.
A: All of the artists included are either winners of, or have received honorary mention in the Collide international Residency Award. Why is this important in terms of artistic research for the show?
JCM & MB:It is fundamental that artists spend time at CERN labs working with scientists, acting as the observers and interpreters of the different strands of enquiry. In this way, artists unravel possible scenarios drawing upon the hidden phenomena that quietly surround us and that are revealed by the history of ideas and scientific research.
Collide is a highly competitive award, and throughout the years it has fostered novel models of dialog and cooperation between artists and scientists. The encounters happen under non-conditional circumstances, allowing a space for an ongoing dialogue, free thinking, and of course, a bit of madness.
A: Can you describe some highlights?
JCM & MB: Most of the ten works are new commissions presented to the public for the first time.
Some artists work on actual experiments and the artistic potential that can be found in the unique behaviours and transformative properties of different materials that are available in nature. Materials are not merely a basis for creating forms and images, but they have been essential elements for millennia for sensing, viewing and understanding natural phenomena. For example, Yunchul Kim’s installation Cascade explores matter by capturing the pattern of electrically charged subatomic particles called muons. Kim has built a heterogeneous, complex and yet beautiful set of equipment in order to visualize muons as a sort of kinetic experiment that consists of a complex assemblage of pumps, and an arrangement of several nanotubes through which fluid flows.
These practices contrast with more speculative works such as Suzanne Treister’s The Holographic Universe Theory of Art History where she investigates the theory that our universe could be a vast and complex hologram. By projecting over 25,000 images from art history in chronological order, her video work hypothesises that artists may have also been unconsciously attempting to describe the holographic nature of the universe. What is more fascinating is that this work includes a set of watercolours which were made by theoretical physicists at CERN along with audio interviews to describe the holographic universe principle to a broader audience.
A: How does the exhibition differ from previous programming at FACT?
LT: This exhibition is actually quite natural within FACT’s programming and follows a line of enquiry which can be seen throughout many of our major exhibitions. A lot of the time, we are interrogating the place of technologies and ever-developing digital processes within our lives as well as showcasing how digital tools can make some of the most effective, memorable art. Broken Symmetries is no different, shifting from personal stories and a micro-focus to something much bigger. It questions the nature of scientific enquiry, and even the very nature of knowledge: who creates, curates and disseminates knowledge and how might this be changed? These are the same questions we have been asking ourselves in regards to technologies, learning, access and voice over the last couple of years through not only our exhibitions programme but also our wide-ranging learning initiatves which will be looking at the STEAM agenda (i.e. the necessary inclusion of Art as one of the main areas of the curriculum) throughout the exhibition.
One of the most interesting things for me – which really follows FACT’s programming – is the weirdness of particle physics. Nothing seems to make sense when you first begin to comprehend elements of it, and how much freedom that strangeness can offer. It leads to understanding and appreciating the world in a completely different way than you anticipate – and for me, both personally and politically – that is never a bad thing.
Broken Symmetries opens 22 November. Find out more here.
1.Installation view of Yunchul Kim, Dawns, Mine, Crystal (2018),KCCUK. Photo: Mark Blower.