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Talking about subatomic particle collision around a kitchen table in Brighton, south-east England, is not exactly an everyday scenario. Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, who make up the artist duo Semiconductor, are explaining how their latest project — inspired by the Large Hadron Collider at the Cern laboratory in Geneva — will bring complex particle physics to life. The result is an immersive installation called “Halo”, which will be on display at the 49th edition of the Art Basel fair this week.
Semiconductor, who are partners in life and art, met in 1994 at Brighton University, where they studied fine art. “We started making music and then began putting digital art to our noise,” Gerhardt says. In installations and moving-image works, such as “Black Rain” (2009), they look at our place in the universe through the lens of science and technology.
The pair had done research residencies at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC and the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos Islands. But meeting the physicist Janet Luhmann during a residency at the Nasa Space Sciences Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley, in 2004 made a huge impression on them.
“She told us: ‘Science is a human invention, it’s nature that’s real.’ That was a real turning point for us,” Jarman says. “It made us start to look at the tools, as well as the language and the processes of science, in a different way — more as interpretations of nature than as facts about nature. It’s always been about the human signature; it’s about man as an observer of the work and of nature.”
Mining the data at Cern is a career high for Semiconductor: the huge data sets and technological complexities challenged them in new ways. They used raw data from a particle detector called the Atlas experiment, which is 46 metres long and almost as heavy as the Eiffel Tower, weighing in at 7,000 tons.
Protons are circulated in opposite directions around the Large Hadron Collider by superconducting magnets, and are then made to collide in the centre of the Atlas experiment. Particles can then be detected, measured by Atlas and recorded for analysis by more than 3,000 physicists worldwide who are part of the Cern collaborative effort.
Semiconductor have homed in on these particle clashes. The result is “Halo”, a 10-metre-wide cylindrical structure surrounded by vertical piano wires. The interior of the four-metre-high installation is covered with a 360-degree screen on which visitors can observe kaleidoscopic data projections. The effect is hypnotic, even otherworldly.
These projections are generated by a series of slowed-down subatomic particle collisions, drawn from the Atlas data, that usually occur almost at the speed of light. As they hit the screen, the animated data points trigger small hammers which hit the piano wires on the outside of the structure, emitting vibrations that envelop the viewer.
The piece is essentially about making the unfathomable fathomable, Jarman explains. “We’ve slowed down those events so that you then experience that data and get a sense of its physicality. We’re interested in the form that takes and how it’s representing nature in some way, and also in transcending the scientific meaning of that data so that it becomes something in its own right. It’s something that’s been technologically mediated by man but it’s still representing nature.”
“Halo” will be installed in an underground space below Basel’s central Messeplatz. There will be some context for visitors, with texts and films outlining the Cern back-story. “But we always try to create a scenario where people can approach our work naively,” Gerhardt says.
The work is the fourth Audemars Piguet commission; the Swiss watch manufacturer collaborates annually with a curator and an emerging or mid-career artist to realise a new work that is unveiled at one of the Art Basel fairs. Visiting the Audemars Piguet headquarters in Le Brassus last year made Jarman and Gerhardt think about scale, and about how the company’s craftsmen piece together minuscule watch parts. “In Cern, they’re working at the other end of the spectrum in terms of size,” Gerhardt says.
Mónica Bello, head of arts at Cern and this year’s Audemars Piguet curator, points out that there are parallels between horology and particle physics. Early in 2017, she drew up a shortlist of artists for the commission; she plumped for Semiconductor because of their scientific know-how and experience.
The artist duo had spent time at Cern before, participating in a three-month residency there in 2015, and returned several times last year. “It can be tough in this community, the language is complex,” Bello says. “But Semiconductor are so methodical, they’re so advanced in their methods.”
Bello has organised numerous artist residencies at Cern since she took up her post in 2015, bringing practitioners such as Suzanne Treister and James Bridle to the Geneva base. Touring the Cern campus — a kind of high-tech Swiss rabbit hole — with Bello brings “Halo” to life.
In the Atlas control room, ever-changing snapshots of the detector fan out on the walls. Bello points out that the multiple cables and rotated cylindrical form of “Halo” are reminiscent of the architecture of Atlas.
Mark Sutton, a research fellow at the University of Sussex working at Cern, shows us an image of space point data that inspired the Semiconductor work. “It shows the footprints left by many hundreds of particles from the various interactions,” he explains. The dotted pathways in the picture look like an abstract work of contemporary art.
“Halo” adroitly melds scientific and aesthetic elements, making the data beautiful. Semiconductor stress that there is more to their practice than simply interpreting scientific phenomena. “We are always fighting battles because some people assume that we are just illustrating science. We know we’re artists,” Gerhardt says.
June 14-17, artbasel.com