CERN visit, part 1

Uncategorized March 8, 2019

Off the back of my ATLAS visualisation in stained glass, some lovely people from ATLAS at CERN invited me to visit with a view toward possibly making a new artwork. During my first visit in October 2018, I spent about a week nosying around many of the experimental halls, quizzing grad students in the test beam sites, visiting the archives (with CERN’s amazing archivist), staying up late reading in the library, wandering the corridors of office buildings, visiting the server farm and the different control rooms, and having many, many, many conversations with different people about–or mainly about–data and data analysis.

But when I got back home, I realised that I didn’t want this new ATLAS/CERN project to overlap so directly with the focus of my PhD research and thought about what else from the visit caught my interest. In the end, I decided to propose a piece about non-scientific labour around the CERN site.

At CERN, I became especially interested in the idea of looking at how work done by others–by cooks and cleaners and landscape gardeners and administrators and on-site firefighters–enables the work of scientific research to take place. There’s a lot of song and dance made about the fact that CERN straddles the borders of two European countries and is a place where people from all over the world come to work together for the greater scientific good–as if it’s a kind of scientific utopia. But this idealisation would simply not be possible without the underpinning of labour carried out by others, by non-scientists. And surely such work is subject to the very real employment regulations of Switzerland and/or France.

In any event, something that often frustrates me about work made by artists working with, in or around the so-called hard sciences, but perhaps particularly with physics and cosmology, is the tendency to make work about the gee-whiz factor of scientific research. I think it’s probably that it’s a bit more difficult to find points of entry in terms of interesting conversations around the culture of doing science than in, say, genetics or other areas of biology where the ethical fruits hang much lower.

Still, it amuses me to think that even though I arrived at CERN fully expecting to make a work about event reconstruction and simulation or data analysis, when I came back home all I could think about were the many hours spent in the cafeteria enjoying the peculiar interactions between scientists and the women who worked behind the cafeteria tills. I suppose one of the great advantages of being an artist is that there’s an assumption built into the process of making work that one’s interests will shift and mutate in accordance with experience and experimentation along the life of any given project. And that, perhaps more importantly, the artist has permission and is in fact encouraged to freely follow those desires to make changes as a work is conceptualised and executed. Whether CERN finds the artists desire to change topic agreeable, however, is another matter altogether…