On a recent visit to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research I was lucky enough to be able to see the innermost chamber of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) as it was shut down for an upgrade after operating continuously for the past 2 years. I was struck by the aesthetic decisions made in the design and construction. I was also struck by the struggles of our guides to explain the functional results of the projects there – inventing the World Wide Web and promoting international cooperation seem to be the most notable. The Web was first begun by Sir Tim Berners Lee as solution to a problem created by the high staff churn at CERN combined with vast amounts of data ( images ) and information being generated, not shared and consequently lost in the course of their work.
The whole project could be seen as one of the world’s most most epic technology based performance artworks so I have written this short artistic review of what I saw of CERN.
The installation at CERN dances a delicate ballet between concealing and revealing, open collaborative freedoms and disciplined design. The ironic tin sheds that form the entry way are activated by hosts all wearing stylish yet functional dosimeters that have no doubt inspired similar neckwear such as the white/grey lanyards currently worn by Apple Geniuses. Petzl Elios climbing helmets (not an affiliate link) completed the air of ‘extreme performance’ with more than a hint of danger lurking below the surface. Below the surface is where things got really cool (more on that soon)
First we were treated to a quick visit to the control room, where banks of screens displayed graphs, numbers and a live video link to second control room, where we could observe a subtle movement piece was being performed. An installation of stacked Champagne bottles in the corner contrasted brilliantly with the crackling air of elite, high-status, purposeful, urgent dull toil with hints of an ephemeral sparkling reward. The control room was where we saw the first and only woman at CERN, who appeared to be in trance gazing into a screen. But rest assured gentle women of science, there is a serious CERN womens’ club.
Next the next clear-span industrial gallery contained the above-ground studio where the components are assembled, calibrated and customised. There was a wonderful performance by our host as he elaborated on the epic scale of the electric power consumed by CERN and the transcendentally titanic Teslas of magnetic field generated to control ‘the beam’.
The show saw us descend in a huge freight lift so far underground our ears popped. This brought us first to the most important piece of the artwork entitled “LHC computing grid” the trigger. The trigger is a piece of hardware computing designed specifically decide what data to keep and what data to discard from the LHC detector. There is no redundancy in the system, so this piece is where the most important creative works of the world maybe destroyed, ignored or captured. Conceptually, this work for me is the most exciting one.
Finally, we entered the collider chamber, a vast series of interlocking donut-shapes composed of silicon detectors (like in a digital camera), piping and wiring. Like the George Pompidou Centre in Paris, wiring and piping are exposed and colour coded for function. Colours chosen were around a very masculine mostly primary palette – yellow, blue, black, red, green, orange with exposed aluminium and galvanic zinc as framing. Pink, magenta and purple are absent – an interesting curatorial decision – perhaps alluding to the elitist connotations of ‘royal purple’ to reinforce the equalising nature of science. Or perhaps they are ‘girly colours’.
The elements of uncertainty, risk and implied danger were a strong part of the experience, they included: huge foam-sprayers – able to fill the space in 30 seconds, radioactive ‘activated’ material that had been exposed to the particle beam and the legendary ‘higly unlikely’ (IE it is possible) – black holes that might be created and destroy the Earth. Essentially this is a project designed entirely around what Egon in Ghostbusters already told is is a bad idea – crossing the streams.
A highlight for me was the ‘danger laser’ work. Check out the image below to see Kate Fielding posing with the semi-interactive live art work.
The CERN art installation in Geneva is c creative live-art project and semi-interactive installation not to be missed, its a mega-project with impressive attention to detail and style and lots of potential for the development of substance in the near future.
Image below: Kate with artist/scientist/performer in the background.