1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Art and science collide

March 27, 2012

Young digital artist Julius von Bismarck is the first artist to be awarded a three-month residency at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, CERN. His task: to create a new art work inspired by physics.

Wenn bei der Kollision Model simulating proton-proton collision
Image: CERN

The home of the Large Hadron Collider is currently hosting a different kind of experiment. This month, CERN’s international staff of particle physicists have been welcoming a foreign body in their midst: a digital artist.

Julius von Bismarck is the first artist to be awarded a three-month residency as part of CERN’s latest research project, Collide@CERN. 10,000 of the world’s top scientists from over 100 countries work at the research center in Geneva, Switzerland. The artists in residence will have the opportunity to learn from and interact with them.

Receiving inspiration from physics

The idea - which was the brainchild of CERN’s cultural specialist, Ariane Koek - will run for three years, giving a select group of international artists from different fields the chance to spend time at CERN in order to create a physics-inspired new work.

Ariane Koek, Kultur-Expertin am CERN, zuständig für die Verknüpfung von Kunst und Wissenschaft. Copyright: CERN 2012
Ariane Koek had the idea to bring art and science back togetherImage: CERN

"The residency scheme collides the imaginations of artists with those of scientists to accelerate innovation in the 21st century and create surprising results," she explains, drawing parallels with a physics experiment. Collide@Cern collides elements even more elusive than the Higgs boson and even more invisible than particles. These are: imagination, creativity and ingenuity.

Art and science have gradually been divided in recent centuries, says Ariane Koek, who believes bringing them back together is essential to innovation.

Collide@CERN is about going back to the future, back to the time of Leonardo da Vinci. He was a great artist and scientist and you can see the interplay between the two. That's what we're trying to do at CERN: bringing the arts onto the same level as the science.

"I've always wanted to come here"

28-year-old German artist Julius von Bismarck was selected from 395 entries submitted by artists from 40 countries. His brother is a physicist and so was his grandfather; and his past works have often involved strong elements of science and technology, in particular gravity.

"I’ve always wanted to come here. I tried to understand particle physics but I only got this cliché version that you get in popular science magazines. You need to actually speak to the scientists to understand what they’re doing."

Still studying at art school in Berlin, he says artists have little opportunity to meet physicists and is thrilled to now have unlimited access to many of the world’s greatest theoretical and experimental physicists.

German digital artist Julius von Bismarck
Julius von Bismarck has received a warm welcome at CERNImage: CERN/ Brice

"I’m hoping to get a lot of inspiration out of my time here. I don’t even know what media I’ll use. It could be a technical work, it could be an image, it could be something, even not involving any matter!"

Julius von Bismarck says he has received a very warm welcome, with nobody minding if he wants to eavesdrop on their conversations in the canteen.

"Sometimes scientists look at me and say ‘Are you the artist in residence?’ and then they speak to me. But sometimes it’s just nice to be in the cafeteria and pick up some words at other tables. It’s really inspiring to get those bits of real scientific discussions."

A physicist acts as mentor

Central to the project is the pairing of the artist with one specific scientist to act as a mentor throughout the residency. Julius von Bismarck has chosen James Wells, a theoretical physicist and specialist in Hidden Worlds – the search for mysterious particles that don’t respond like normal particles to any forces except gravity.

"What James is doing is quite far away from what I’m doing as an artist, but also close from a different perspective. These hidden worlds I think are really special."

James Wells says it is refreshing to be around an artist, whose approach to life is not governed by scientific hyper-rationality:

The CERN artist in residence (r) and his mentor, James Wells
Physicist James Wells (l) acts as the artist's mentorImage: CERN

"It’s not that it’s a bad approach to life because, if you subscribe to hyper-rationality, you do better on your finances, keeping your car running, your apartment not falling apart. You can see the payback of hyper-rationality but you lose a bit of humanity in the process."

He believes this artistic experiment will produce very positive results.

"From the scientist’s point of view, the benefit of the artist is opening your mind, seeing different ways of approaching nature and life, adding more humanity to what you do, thinking about the implications of what you do for fellow humans and nature."

Upsetting traditional views

In fact, part of Collide@CERN is for the artist to challenge and criticize accepted scientific notions – an aspect which Julius von Bismarck is relishing. He has already discovered how to provoke a scientist.

"What always works is when you ask ‘why are you using so much money for this experiment, can’t you find a cheaper way to do this?’."

Although he agrees that scientists are rational, he thinks rationality can also be a point of view:

Theoretical physicist James Wells
James Wells enjoys being around an artist whose life is not governed by rationalityImage: CERN

"For some people maybe what’s happening at CERN is not rational at all – wasting time and money for particles that don’t make money or energy, they just waste energy. But from the scientist’s point of view it’s the most rational thing to do, and it’s the same for an artist. Like what I’m doing I think is totally rational."

So far, James Wells is amused by Julius von Bismarck’s provocations.

"He hasn’t yet tried to make me angry but maybe at some point he will and all sorts of things will come out and I’ll regret it!"

Turning inspiration into a work of art

Having swapped his usual artist’s studio for a scientist’s office, Julius von Bismarck will continue his research period onsite before spending the final month of his residency at the Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Austria, where he will create his final work. He admits he is apprehensive about people’s reactions and hopes they will not be disappointed.

"I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make a work that’s combining art and science. That’s really hard. The good thing about art is I don’t have to please everyone, but I would like to please the scientists here because I’m getting so much from them so I want to give something back."

Author: Dany Mitzman
Editor: Andrea Rönsberg