“You are here,” states a tiny sign in the Total Perspective Vortex – an outlandish device from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which lays bare the viewer’s exact position amongst the infinite majesty of existence. And now there’s an attempt to inspire this same level of awe at Brighton Festival.
Across their practice, Semiconductor highlight how our experience of nature is influenced by technology and media, and prompt questions about our place within it. Their latest ambitious work, HALO uses the modern age’s most plentiful raw material, presenting physical manifestations of data collected during Big Bang recreations at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.
This bold, large-scale installation is seeing its UK premiere at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA) and responding to the world’s largest science experiment has been a significant undertaking. “You have to rise to the challenge of building an artwork which has similar complexity.” Semiconductor’s Ruth Jarman, tells me. “So, we’ve dealt with similar electronics and hardware that you might see at CERN. We’re interested in framing nature through that technological language, so there was a suggestion of that complex physicality that those scientific instruments have.”
Together with Joe Gerhardt, she’s evolved the notion of engaging with scientific information as an artistic material. This Brighton-based duo develop scientific and technological mediations on nature, giving data a transcendent quality and allowing a glimpse beyond our daily experiences. “Scientists always say nowhere is centre of the universe, and the Big Bang happened everywhere at once,” says Joe. “But the opposite is equally true, that everywhere is the centre of the universe.” We’re sat upon ACCA’s sun-kissed terrace, just yards from a darkened room where their creation gently moans, twitches and displays fleeting glimpses of an enigmatic universe.
Over the past two decades, they’ve produced an energising and innovative body of work, which explores the material nature of the physical world and how we react to it. Right now, there’s a sense of excitement from the pair, at having Halo’s impressive piece of engineering up and running. Dominating ACCA’s circular main auditorium, this large cylinder recreates particle-collisions from CERN’s ATLAS experiment using MIDI-controlled 360-degree light projections and hammers hitting piano strings. The first thing which strikes you as HALO multisensory experience ebbs and flows is its overwhelming physicality. Constantly shifting sound resonates and light patterns start to change your perceptions. The machine’s aura curiously transforms from being faintly ominous to a placid benevolence, as moments of darkened silence slowly present intrusion instead of relief on its perpetual cycle. “We could have personified the data, by turning it into musical notes,” Joe tells me. “But that’s something we deliberately avoided. It’s a certain kind of anthropomorphisation, where you imbue a human emotional scale. We’ve chosen to create a spatial composition, so you sense it in a physical way rather than culturally.” This leaves HALO far more open to interpretation. It can be simply viewed as a thing of meditative wonder, where a bank of instruments sing and dance, or seen as the complicated workings of existence translated into a primal language.
Along with the installation, the pair are also presenting a film which adds context to their work with CERN, alongside a series of free online talks and workshops. Produced by Lighthouse and part of Re-Imagine Europe, co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union, these include Semiconductor in discussion with Mónica Bello, Head of Arts at CERN and University of Sussex CERN scientists, along with some inspiring creative activities for families and young people.
Through its form, lights and tones, HALO gives viewers a sense of that which is bigger than themselves, seeking to inspire awe at the complexity of nature and the elaborate systems our species has created to study existence. Both HALO, and Adams’ fictional Perspective machine, invoke the Overview Effect. Often experienced by astronauts after viewing the Earth from space, this cognitive shift in awareness recognises that personal experiences are objectively extremely limited compared to the almost immeasurable expanses of time and space. From this perspective, borders and conflicts seem irrelevant. “We realised, through the process of making our artworks, we often create these humbling experiences,” Ruth says. “We certainly position people so they question their place in the larger universe. Which then helps ask other questions about nature, science, climate change and the environment.” Broadly speaking, artists and scientists are both driven to observe and create. Both disciplines have evolved throughout history, so establishing a systematic standard link is tough, but the crossovers are persistent and undeniable.
From the use of complex geometry and materials in Islamic architecture, to the Renaissance-era’s constant attempts to quantify the universe around us, and Gaudi’s subversive interpretations of natural order, the pursuit of knowledge and the search for beauty repeatedly converge. In recent history, hyper‐specialisation has seen a huge reduction of individuals training in multiple fields. “Science is a constant refinement of questions to narrower points of view, which is how it progress,” says Joe. “Art is more about building connections between things. Science came from natural philosophy, and we’re more in that vein.” Intersections have been intentionally developed through collaborations between the artistic world and scientific establishments, which create spaces where people with diverse specialties can work and learn from one another. This has been formalised to the point of many institutions offering residency to artists.
CERN is just one organisation realising the value of art to enable understanding the universe. Semiconductor became resident artists in 2015 at the Geneva-based institute, which helped them further inform and evolve their craft. “With HALO we were trying to understand the matter they were studying and how this gets translated through science,” Ruth tells me. The pair spent three months at the site, immersing themselves in the project, investigating the archives and exploring different avenues of working. After the residency ended, they’ve returned several times to create works, and continued to engage with the CERN scientific community. “Scientists aren’t so interested in what the public gets from data,” adds Joe. “But science, as a process, is very interested in communicating stuff from nature to the world. Most artists who work with science are typically illustrating the data to communicate it. For us, the art is looking at things from a different perspective, to unknow and undo the preconceptions of something.”
These experiences at CERN directly informed the process behind HALO. Wandering around the complex’s corridors, they’d often encountered defunct equipment and the remnants of experiments. Some of these were particle detectors, which tend to have masses of wires. “You could stick you head inside these cylinders, and there’d be masses of copper. They’re really beautiful and really sculptural objects. We always had it in the back of our minds to incorporate these somehow.” The data set used by the pair used comes from a particular unit called the Transition Radiation Tracker, which itself is made from 3000 copper wires housed inside straws. When charged particles move through these, they create points of information. With a certain amount of serendipity, as Halo neared completion, they discovered engineers will pluck these wires, a tonal response indicating if they’d been deployed with an appropriate tension.
Semiconductor are not expecting people to visit the show with a broad, coherent understanding of the science involved. It’s meant to be an experience which appeals to a wide audience. Their work has consistently avoided personalities or stories, instead using the fleeting moments of flux from historic experiments to provoke conversation about how we observe nature. The average personal narrative may well seem insignificant against the humbling backdrop of time and space, but if we continue to query our place amongst the universe and pursue new methods to visualise this, then we’re inarguably a special species. “We’re interested in that raw experience; thinking about how we present information in a way which communicates to us as humans,” says Ruth. “What are the signals we need? What is the language that we’re working with? We’re always thinking about how its perceived, and then stripping it right back.”
Semiconductor’s HALO comes to Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts on Weds 19 May – Fri 4 June 2021, as part of Brighton Festival. Free entry (tickets must be booked in advance for one-hour slots to enable social distancing)
Find our more about HALO, tickets and associated events HERE:
Images by Claudia Marcelloni / CERN, except portrait, which is by Audemars Pigue