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…
Just back from an interesting week in Copenhagen researching for a project/article about the accidental introduction of Italian plants to Denmark in the 19th century. Some years ago, I read a very brief anecdote about a group of Italian plants which appeared one summer in Copenhagen, supposedly carried to the city as seeds in the hay used to carefully pack an artist’s works. I’d always wondered whether or not the story was true and have since been commissioned to write a piece about my attempts to determine the veracity of the story.
Rather delightfully, I’ve now found quite substantive evidence to indicate that the story was indeed true and have begun writing up the findings. I’ve also been having early conversations with the museum of the artist in question about a possible exhibition related to the subject, but it’s early days yet… The article, however, is to be published later this year in issue 5 of the superb Migrant Journal which will look at questions of migration on the micro scale.
Been a little quiet on the research blog front as most of late last year and the beginning of this year was occupied with the making of 100,000 (entirely by hand using a manual tablet press!) vanilla tablets for an exhibition on fakes at Science Gallery Dublin. Actually, quite a lot of the research behind the piece didn’t really make it into the installation, which is a shame and frustration (but rather par for the course), as much of this information is far more interesting than the four vanilla/vanillin tablets which exhibition visitors were able to taste. I’ll have to do a separate post on that when I get a moment.
In other exciting (read daunting) news, I’ve been accepted onto an AHRC-funded practice-based PhD programme with the BxNU Institute and the Cultural Negotiation of Science research group at Northumbria University. The research project is called Indirect Observations and will look at data taking & analysis, event reconstruction, computational visualisation and imaging processes in experimental physics (mainly HEP and neutrinos, possibly with neutrino-driven explosions of supernovae simulations on the side for good measure). I’ll be working through the idea of the image as a process, epistemological issues with observing secondary effects, and trying to figure out how to shoehorn in Wesley Goatley’s critical data aesthetics. No doubt, I’ll be writing more regularly about this come October.
Working on a translation of Propertius for fun + so as not to lose my Latin. I’m doing it in two stages. The first is a word-by-word literal translation with all the grammatical information. The second is a silly, modernised version of the translation which is, unsurprisingly, really very difficult indeed.
I posted some more information about the Paris quarries project up over here. It’s something that will remain in an ongoing state for as long as we’re in Paris, but I turned out perhaps a bit more nebulous than I would have liked. Partly, I think it’s because I didn’t set off with a very clear idea, but partly because it’s an enormous subject and I perhaps was trying to shoe-horn too much into one project (a perennial problem…).
Also, while I was at the Beaux Arts, I focused exclusively on photography which may or may not have contributed to the feeling of dissatisfaction with the project — I think it may have been more successful had I conceived of things as more of a mixed bag. It ended up feeling a bit too documentary, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but not exactly what I wanted either. It’s interesting, though, to end up with something that you aren’t very pleased with and to think about why and how to resolve some of those problems for the next project.
I’ve recently started working on a new project about the quarries underneath Paris, limestone and urban geology. Since it’s still very early in the process, everything is a bit of a jumble in my mind – I know I want to look at the relationship between the history, labour, materials and processes which contributed to the building of the city and the ways in which, historically and physically these things have become invisible, despite the fact that much of the infrastructure is just below the surface of the city.
I’ve been digging in the archives and reading everything I can find (which, incidentally, is a lot. Ahh, the French and their love of archives), but there’s nothing quite the same as first-hand knowledge. Before we moved to Paris, I contacted Gilles Thomas, who is one of the leading authorities on underground Paris. Although the office which was established under Louis XVI in 1777 – L’Inspection Générale des Carrières – has done much good by way of mapping networks and systems and reinforcing the former quarries to prevent sinkholes and building collapses, they are less interested preserving and promoting the history of the city’s underground. Gilles, on the other hand, is incredibly passionate about documenting and preserving these important spaces, without which, Paris would not be as it is today.
The following are photos from my first visit to the Grand Réseau Sud, a large network of 100km of tunnels under the 5th, 6th, 14th and 15th arrondissements of Paris. Prior to the 19th century, the GRS was in fact a series of fragmented quarries, dating from the 13th century onwards. By the 17th century, the city’s expansion began to occupy land formerly used for quarrying – a number of large construction projects in the late-1600s spent a great deal of money reinforcing caverns left by abandoned mining enterprises. 100 years later, the growing city continued to expand at an ever faster rate. The disaster which in part precipitated the founding of the IGC occurred in one of these far-flung expansions – in 1774, some 30 metres of street collapsed to a depth of 30 metres.
For this first trip, we visited the Quartier Sarrette, which is apparently one of the most visited areas of the GRS. Cataphiles is the name for people who visit the regularly quarries, but for people who supposedly love something, it was incredibly depressing to see evidence of pretty poor treatment. Graffiti covers practically every surface and there’s trash everywhere – I don’t have a problem with graffiti per se, but it’s so frustrating, when you’re trying to understand the history of a place, not to be able to see it properly. Gilles said that back in the ’80s, when he first started visiting the quarries, there was no graffiti at all. I wish I could have seen it like that, but then again, it’s pretty amazing to be able to see it at all, considering how many people will never be able to.
More trips soon.
I’ve just returned from nearly a month living and working on a limestone quarry in the Untersberg massif, just outside Salzburg. The workshop was lead by Greek sculptor, Andreas Lolis.
My main reason to participate was to gain a solid technical basis for working with stones (both by hand and with power tools) a little bit easier to manage than the gorgeous granite which covers nearly every square inch of Finland. However, because my starting point for work is often an idea/archive/other research and not forms, I found myself at a complete loss for the first few weeks. The teaching staff had a difficult time understanding my working methods – i.e. unwillingness to make a form for no reason – and I somehow couldn’t put my usual way of thinking to one side simply for the sake of learning.
Nevertheless, I managed to muddle through two not-very-interesting pieces to get to grips with hand tools (on one piece) and power tools (on the other piece), before making a series of rather adorable miniature pieces from shaping offcuts. The final piece was born out of intense frustration and turned out to be the thing I was most happy with.
We had a dedicated outside working area near the quarry’s main office. I had wholly misinformed ideas about a quiet working space, with the gentle clatter of chisel and hammer. How wrong I was! Every one of the 12 other sculptors used a Flex from morning until night and, even with sound and face protection, the noise and dust were horrendous.
All in all, it was an interesting, if ultimately disappointing, experience. I realised that, although I am absolutely mad for stone, I am definitely not cut out for a career as a contemporary stone sculptor. There’s a certain kind of intelligence required for working out the nuances of any given material, but if all that’s required is to think about material as material and nothing else, that’s not enough to sustain my interest for very long. And besides, especially with regards stone, there’s so much more to think about – cultural, historical, architectural, geological, etc. – why limit yourself to acontextual form-making? One of many sticking points between me and our instructor…
And yet, I did learn quite a lot about how to sculpt stone, as much (if not more) from the other participants as from the teacher. I also learned how to sharpen a knife on the bottom of a ceramic coffee mug, and how to make pancakes using nothing but eggs and bananas. Magic.
A few weeks ago, we went on a bit of a road trip across Finland to visit five of the six sites of the Struve Geodetic Arc which stretch across the country north to south. I’d already been to Mustaviiri Island in the Gulf of Finland, the sixth site, late last year – hence only five of six. I’m currently in the process of wrapping up my graduation artworks about the Struve Arc, its ramifications for our understanding of the shape of the Earth, with a bit of the history of the concept of progress thrown in for a bit of left-field good measure.
As one of the projects is a sort of series of small(ish) models for a proposed group of monuments for the Struve Arc sites in Finland, along with our visits to the Arc sites, we also visited six granite quarries in locations near each of the Struve sites to select stone for each of the sculptures.
A small selection of photos from the trip below!
Working on a new print in the lithography lab for an artist’s book I’ve made as part of my MA graduation project on the history of the idea of progress and the Struve Geodetic Arc. Lithography is a hugely labour-intensive, complex, and thoroughly exhausting process, but it’s beautifully direct, surprising and incredibly joyful.