Great Science for Great Arts & Great Arts for Great Science: A brief diary of an artist residency at CERN

Dating on @atlasexperiment detector

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Text and images: Julijonas Urbonas 2016

“Great Arts for Great Science”, says Arts@ CERN programme. It is so great and yet so responsible to be selected to represent Great Arts on behalf of Lithuania.(1) Even more dramatically such a privilege is addressed to Great Science! Let alone the huge competition and very few who get selected each year. Being so fortunate and having just a month, I wonder how can I maximise my time at Accelerate@ CERN.

Once I am here at CERN, it does not feel as dramatic as I’ve just tried to depict. Actually it is quite relaxing. The programme is well structured, the scientists are very friendly and humble, my access card allows me to wander around freely without assistance, the online account is a super navigation tool within the vast scientific, technological, intellectual, media and administrative resources of CERN.

At first glimpse, CERN is a small village, or rather a group of several small villages with grey, shabby houses resembling some sort of poor student campus. The interior is no different, with tiny 9 sq. m offices akin to ship cabins. Such modest, unostentatious environment makes me wonder how on earth the greatest minds can work here. Some of them have worked here for decades! When asked about it, all the scientists I have talked to uniformly responded, “We spend all our money into equipment, experiments, into our science”.

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However, soon under closer inspection, certain architectural elements start to stand out, such as bunches of liquid helium or nitrogen tanks piped to buildings, huge chimneys, cooling waterfall facades, some leftover parts of decommissioned accelerators, exotic logos like Antimatter Factory. Later, I come across some buildings that look much newer and glitzier, and it turns out they belong to a different story – they are gifts from the municipality of Geneva or other institutions. But once you open a door to any of the labs, the initial picture is strikingly challenged. They are stuffed with loads and loads of all kinds of instruments, machines, thousands of cables accompanied with piles of steel reinforced concrete blocks used to shield from radiation. I can’t help but feel like touring in a sci-fi movie set. And, there are quite a few of them: from the cable-messy ISOLDE, a radioactive ion beam facility, to a neat and monotonic data centre, and from the Large Magnet Facility, big enough to test an airplane, to the ever largest Large Hadron Collider. Many of the labs have no equivalents anywhere in the world.

It seems so much is happening that it would take perhaps more than a year to familiarise yourself with the basics. And, it is not just science, engineering and technologies. Here at one corner a conference on cryogenic technologies serves liquid nitrogen-frozen ice creams, at another a dance club with salsa, a ballroom with tango classes, while at the library there seems to be some book presentation.

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The founder of the Arts@ CERN, Ariane Koek and the current head of the programme, Monica Bello, being aware of the immensity of CERN’s resources, have been providing the artists with intense programme packed with a sort of speed dating with as many scientists as possible. In reference to my artistic and scientific interests, Monica curated a list of relevant scientists – both theoreticians and experimentalists, engineers and designers – my potential inspirational partners. The first two weeks are quite packed with these meetings. Theoreticians tend to meet at the canteen No 1, one of the main canteens at CERN, which, by the way, has a corner favoured by them, whereas experimentalists like to meet at their labs, and engineers and designers at their work desks or workshops.

Once the list runs out, I start to do my own research into the resources using the internet and a bicycle. CERN has a very informative and convenient online directory where you may browse through all kinds of topics, sections, labs etc. You just type a keyword, and there you go – you have a list of relevant people and labs. Click on them and it shows all the contact details and the exact location on the map. Then you take a walk or if it is far, either ask Julian Calo, the coordinator of Arts@ CERN, who is more than friendly to give you a lift by CERN car, or cycle by yourself. I found the latter the most convenient method to commute at CERN. And they have plenty of them, more than 500! You just need to familiarise yourself with the statistics of cyclist accidents (around thirty a year) and pass an online exam.

Chatting with these people was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had at CERN. I thought it would be difficult to understand them, but it turns out they are great communicators, and this goes beyond clear and plain language – the way they present their work is radiating with enthusiasm and devotion. It is just viral, and you want to give them the same back. However, this requires some knowledge and skills (about this a bit later). If you don’t prepare yourself, the contact usually ends up as almost a monologue of the scientist, which is not necessarily bad – the artist is inspired by science or at least familiarised with unique scientific knowledge, whereas the scientist is encouraged to rephrase thus rethink his or her vocabulary, and also later science-inspired art by the artist may popularise science and engage the wider public. But if you think about Great Arts for Great Science, it should offer something more to science.

Most of the time I felt that I take much more than I give, even though, when asked, the scientific interlocutors would say that our conversations or my creative work made them see their field of knowledge from a different angle. Perhaps they are just too kind to say the truth. Great Science for Great Art. And it is not just about me. Think about the impact of CERN and particle physics on the artistic and public imagination. Take a look at website and you’ll see lots of Great Arts inspired by Great Science. Or consider the Large Hadron Collider, a sort of 27-kilometre circus of particles, as an example, from inspiring music and movies to sparking public myths such as catastrophic black hole growth, the creation of wormholes in spacetime that may cause an invasion from the future or the mutated ecosystem within the tunnels of LHC due to rat or insect exposure to radiation.

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In fact, CERN seems to be well aware of its inspirational potential which is radiating through the complex infrastructure of education, communication and outreach. One of the things that I find quite striking here is the great openness to the public. You can see groups of visitors wandering around all the time, sometimes even inside the labs next to scientists or engineers tinkering with their super instruments. You cannot help but wonder, how do the scientists cope with such a disturbance? Yet it seems they are quite accustomed to it – each lab has their own exhibition ranging from immersive interactive audio-visual installations to modest presentation stands with mock-ups and posters.

If you look from a certain perspective, CERN is a very unique theme park. It has all kinds of activities to “educate, spark questions and make fun”, in the words of João Pequenão, the founder of the CERN Media Lab. If you come as a tourist visitor, you’ll have to book a tour in advance, sometimes several months prior to your visit due to very high demand. The tours are guided by a volunteer scientist, free of charge! The tour includes walking through various CERN facilities, visiting site-specific immersive audio-visual presentations that provide a peek at the workings of CERN from the perspectives of history, the present and the future. For example, at the Synchrocyclotron, CERN’s first accelerator, a video presentation takes place on the very surface of the accelerator and its surroundings, creating a skin-like window into the time when the machine was operating. Actually, the window is a reoccurring element in the presentations, merging the real and the fictional. For example, at the Control Centre and the Data Centre, the windows to the facilities are also used as interactive displays.

Accelerator cemetery

A photo posted by @julijonas on

A photo posted by @julijonas on

A photo posted by @julijonas on

And, this is just a part of the “theme park”. There are also tours organised for special groups such as experts, VIP, children, etc. The “Lundis Découverte” or Discovery Mondays is worth mentioning. Every first Monday of the month, CERN staff, non-scientists, and members of the general public are introduced to a different facet of the laboratory. One Monday, visitors could play being the machine operator, twiddling the controls of a lift truck fitted with a jib to lift a dummy magnet into a wooden mock-up of a beam-line. Another Monday, CERN’s Safety Training Center curates a series of fake accidents teaching children about first-aid procedures, how to extinguish a fire or escape a building, etc.

Such exhibitions and activities seem to be such an integral part of CERN that I can’t help but assign them a separate field of science, sort of interscience, bridging the science and the public. Actually, it has even become one of my key interests here. I started to speculate upon the future of this tendency. Or rather, to dramatise: how CERN would look like if you turned it into the most sophisticated, the most international, the most expensive theme park in the world?

Sketching up possible answers, I’ve become particularly interested in the ways the intangible, the micro-world of particle physics could be experienced. This area is mostly occupied with data visualisation, but this is not what I am interested in. In the past 6 years, having researched and developed various technology-mediated gravitational activities that engage the whole body, I started to look into the choreographic dialectics between the macro and the micro. Namely, gravity in the scales of human and elementary particles. In some sense, you may consider CERN as an extremely unique performative stage on which humans and particles dance together to understand each other better. Maintenance cycling around the LHC tunnel, the “training” of the superconducting magnets, or the “collision dance” of particles are just a few examples.

Looking into such examples, I’ve started to notice one reoccurring element: the magnet. It plays an extremely important role in the experimental science of particle physics. It is used to divide, steer, propel, collide, detect — to choreograph – the minute elements of matter. It is a sort of a mediator between the micro and the macro. Thus, it is exactly what I am looking for. Moreover, after visiting CERN’s Future Magnets Lab, I became totally convinced that magnetic fields could also be used as means of creative expression or as sculptural material. For example, consider a wire with electric current as a thread, and a winding as a textile. The latter becomes interesting not much for its aesthetic potential of the woven pattern, but for the formation of unique electromagnetic meshwork. Magnetic fields interact with each other, they either attract or repel. Thus they intrinsically possess a choreographic potential. Just think of such fields either from the wearable, or the architectural scale, and all of a sudden a new field of spatial practice is opened up.

This is just a fraction of what I’ve discovered at CERN. And there is more than plenty for artists and the public to discover. But, again, is science fed back equally (putting aside the money)? Sitting here in one of these ship cabin-like offices, generously provided by Arts@ CERN, I contemplate about something that might contribute, at least a little. Something ready-to-hand, studioless, lonely, artist friendly, economic, quick – yet effective. Let’s stick to the meeting, the conversation, the oral collision between the two different tongues. Having considered dozens of such occasions that I’ve had throughout my career, I came up with a list of scenarios, the recipes for forming the discursive space(time). They have helped me enormously in collaborating with various experts from science, engineering and technology. Let me introduce them in a chronological order.

1. Do research on your interlocutor in advance. Know his or her scientific interests. Familiarise yourself with the basics of the topic. This knowledge will greatly help in understanding what the scientist is talking about, and allow you to easily form questions and engage more deeply into an interdisciplinary conversation. Also, it will show respect to the scientist and quickly form an empathetic bond.
2. Think of potential questions. This is a very important part, because it is questions that shape the path of a conversation and the emergence of collisions and meeting points of art and science. Think of something not just relevant to your own artistic or scientific interests, but also of something that you consider artistic, something that you think a scientist would not ask. It demands for original or challenging queries. Speculative, “what if” sort of questions work very well, for example. What experiment would you conduct if you had access to all the resources on Earth? Where would you channel your knowledge and skills if all of the sudden your field became bankrupt? If CERN turned into a theme park, what amusement ride you’d come up with? I hire you into my studio, try to sell yourself, etc.
3. Record and document the preparation, the conversation and the aftermath. The details and subtleties are forgotten very easily.

These steps are rough guidelines. What I want to do is encourage other artists to devote a substantial amount of intellectual effort into thinking about the contact with a scientist, an engineer, a technologist, etc. in advance. Maybe for some of you this is nothing new, yet I have met so many artists for whom such conversations have gone awry as a result of miscommunication. Preparation requires lots of effort, but it helps greatly. For the protons to collide and produce high-energy collision, it demands enormous amount of preparation. Yet there is a lot of unknown that may come out of the collision. No collision – no discovery.

Julijonas Urbonas is an artist, designer, researcher, engineer, lecturer, Vice-Rector for Art at Vilnius Academy of Arts, and PhD student in Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art, London.


(1) Let me express my wholehearted gratitude to Rupert, the Lithuanian Council for Culture, Permanent Mission of the Republic of Lithuania to the United Nations Office, and of course Arts@ CERN!
(2) Accelerate@ CERN is a country-specific, one-month artists residency award. The award is for artists who have never spent time in a science laboratory before. It is the sister strand of CERN’s flagship artists residency programme, Collide@ CERN. The two programmes differ in duration, budget and production: ACCELERATE is artistic research oriented, whereas COLLIDE also involves artistic production.
(3) I feel more than honoured to have been given an opportunity to meet Diego Blas, Karl Johnston, Michael Doser, Glyn Kirby, Herman Ten Kate, Matteo Solfaroli, Mark Tyrrell, Susana Izquierdo Bermudez, Edward Karakavis, Nicolas Bourcey, Johan Bremer and others!
(4) For example, the LHC is the subject of a (scientifically accurate) rap video starring Katherine McAlpine with some of the facility’s staff:
(5) For example, the movie Angels & Demons, by Dan Brown, involves antimatter created at the LHC to be used in a weapon against the Vatican.
(6) The 600 MeV Synchrocyclotron (SC), built in 1957, was CERN’s first accelerator. It provided beams for CERN’s first experiments in particle and nuclear physics. In 1964, this machine started to concentrate on nuclear physics alone, leaving particle physics to the newer and more powerful Proton Synchrotron.
(7) For example, the LHC magnets have to undergo a strenuous training programme to reach the required energy. The magnets are superconducting, which means that when they are cooled down current passes through them with zero electrical resistance. During training, the current is gradually increased and as it circulates inside the magnet coils the forces generated can cause tiny movements, which can in turn cause the magnets to “quench”, i.e. suddenly return to a non-superconducting state. When this occurs, the circuit is switched off and its energy is absorbed by huge resistors.
(8) If you remember school physics, a wire which carries an electric current radiates a magnetic field around it.