At the dawn of the second quantum revolution, when quantum computers are set to transform our data-driven world it is interesting to consider some artistic interpretations of Einstein’s withering riposte: ‘Spooky Action At A Distance’ in his battle with physicist Niels Bohr over the completeness of quantum mechanics. At the same time, in the light of CERN’s once-in-a-lifetime discovery of the Higgs boson it is worth considering that despite being able to detect backgound radiation from the big bang, astrophyciscists are still literally in the dark about 68% of the composition of the universe in the form of dark energy and still know very little about the 27% of dark matter.
At the same time, institutions like CERN, the European and Japanese space agencies and science laboratories around the world are beginning to welcome dialogue with artists, insome cases instigating formal residencies. They will need to accept that artists do not always wish to follow the prescribed formulas. For example Taiwanese artist Yin-Ju Chen actively flirts with pseudoscience and conspiracy theory in her Lemurian explorations in Interstellar Evaluations. This would normally get her kicked out of any self-respecting lab. Yet her ‘Action At A Distance’, directly referencing Einstein’s statement, which puts a quantum entanglement type of interpretation on incidents of state violence, invasive medical procedures and other external events ultimately describe cohesive and interwoven universe, which was not lost on visiting particle physicists and other scientists who visited the first edition of the new exhibition “No
Such Thing As Gravity” which investigates artistic interpretations of the limits of science.
In this exhibition I have tried to present a broad range of artists who approach these difficult areas of science while maintaining a dialogue with science professionals such as Professor Tara Shears from CERN and Liverpool University, Professor Chris French of Goldsmiths University and Professor John Hunt of Liverpool University. Alternative theories, backyard science, rogue science, ghosts and unconventional explanations are all explored here - areas that nowadays actually don’t scare off intelligent scientists with enquiring minds, we have found - although there will always be a debate. One might perhaps draw the line (if there is a line to be drawn) at lunar landing conspiracy theories or lizard world domination, although the latter might be a suitably satirical description of current world events.
Artists are also good at playfulness, which scientists can find refreshing after a hard day’s data-crunching in the lab. For example Semiconductor’s ‘Magnetic Movie’ in which the Space Sciences Laboratories apparently take on a supernatural, spooky, mad-scientist life of their own late at night shocked some when it first appeared as it appeared so real. It was shown along with their project ‘Worlds In the Making’ in which using similar techniques, the earth appears to ripple with seismic activity caused by volcanos. Likewise, Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s ‘Hammer and Feather experiment appears to replicate David Scott’s experiment on the moon in the artists studio. The legendary proof serves the artist as a metaphor for the inscrutability of reality and the obscurity of scientific research methods. It took a sharp-eyed scientist to point out the trick of making the hammer an feather fall at the same time in Earth’s gravity at the exhibition’s opening.
Equally spooky, but perhaps more in the comfort zone of science are Evelina Domnitch and Dimitry Gelfand’s ‘Force Field and ‘Quantum Lattice’ where the artists actually manifest quantum entanglement behavoiur in the gallery investigating the subtle interactions between light, electrodynamically levitated matter, and gravitational forces. While performative, these works are based on real science experiments and the spooky action can be physically experienced by the public. Treading the thin line between belief and observed data is Sarah Sparkes, in the Ghost Formula at FACT and also the mysterious Williamsons tunnels in Liverpool investigating different ways of ‘making’ a ghost using a neuroscience experiment and also creating portals that suggest spooky action at a distance and which also reference black holes, and the science fiction notion that these may be able to be used one day for interstellar travel. One theory that connects to this ‘spooky action’ is that ghosts could be a quantum ‘leakage’ from other universes. Using different means, Sarah Sparkes is collecting ghost stories from both Liverpool and Taiwan for her
online project The Ghost Portal. She works closely with anomalistic psychologist Professor Chris French and others who study ostensibly paranormal activity. She has never ‘seen’ a ghost and agrees with French when he says “A fairly substantial minority of the population claim that they have personally experienced a ghost. For me, this can only mean one of two things. If ghosts really do exist, this has profound implications for our scientific understanding of our place in the universe and for the nature of consciousness. On the other hand, if, as I suspect, ghosts do not really exist, this can potentially tell us a lot about human psychology.” In Taiwan she has set up a ‘ghost exchange’ of money and paper objects given to appease ghosts during Taiwan’s ‘ghost month’.
Artist Nick Laessing has spent the last ten years travelling the world tracking down the mythologies of free energy, particularly the notion that one could run a car on water. In ‘Water-Gas Car’, he has actually decided to try and build one, using all the available knowledge from his research. In the first version of No Such Thing As Gravity, he drove his car, a stripped-out Volkswagen, to the gallery, using hydrolysed water for part of the time. He neither accepts, or rejects the idea that the car might work. Some of the technology that drives the car was exhibited in Taiwan.
Heirloom (2016) by Gina Czarnecki and John Hunt (UK) tested the limits of medical science and the possibility of using cell growth to recapture eternal youth. Looking at the potential impact of innovation on personal identity, and being able to ‘make’ ourselves, artist Czarnecki and scientist Hunt have created a living process of growth tissue, where delicate skin cells frame portraits of Czarnecki’s daughters. It imagines and offers a cultural laboratory for the future of the face. Seeing her daughters faces in vitro we enter the ‘uncanny valley’ described by anthropologists to describe the experience between the real and the nearly-real.
The End is a Distant Memory (2016) by Helen Pynor explored the ambiguous borders between life and death at cellular and experiential levels. Working as artist in residence at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden during 2015, Pynor has studied ‘marginal’ cells that remain alive inside dead tissue, considering the implications of a breakdown between living ‘subject’ and dead ‘object’, and investigated the experiences of people who have survived clinical death. In a chilling video we see a dead chicken drop to the ground in slow motion and a near-death survivor being manipulated by actors in a re-creation of the operating theatre. Finally, Mexican artist Tania Candiani created a new work for Taiwan, ‘Vimana’ also based on a ‘spooky action’ form of flight, based on the historical transfer of technologies between India and the Chinese region. It uses Taiwanese traditional flying technology to create an Indian mythological phenomena of impossible flight. The Vaimānika Śāstra or “science of aeronautics", sometimes also rendered Vimanika, Vymanika, Vyamanika) is an early 20th-century text on aerospace technology that, controversially made the claim that the vimānas mentioned in ancient Sanskrit epics were actually advanced aerodynamic flying vehicles. In the Hindu tradition, flying vimanas have appeared in representations of different gods, on thrones, palaces and flying carriages.The ‘Vaimanika Sastra’, written in the early 20 th century by an engineer in Bangalore is an entire treatise on aeronautics, which, however unfeasible, which have inspired Candiani to try and create what was in the writer’s imagination. The project was first time as an experimental construction with Indian students during a collateral exhibition at the Kochi Biennale, India, a city with many links to ancient China, built in bamboo and coconut rope, it was raised in the middle of the exhibition space as a flying chapel. In No Such Thing As Gravity in Taiwan, Candiani explored ancient technologies of construction, addressing non-scientific approaches to defeat gravity, using ancient and local technologies for construction (kite and flying lantern construction techniques), working with Taiwanese artisans, to make real artistically the fantasy of vedic flight.
Now, in a world about to undergo changes wrought by the second quantum revolution and the possibilities of non-locality becoming real, (Taiwan is at the forefront of quantum computing), we should recall Bruno Latour, sociologist and philosopher, author of ‘We Have Never Been Modern’when he said: ‘The world is not a solid continent of facts sprinkled by a few lakes of uncertainties, but a vast ocean of uncertainties speckled by a few islands of calibrated and stabilized forms.’ What all these works have in common is that contrary to our expectations, science is a continuing quest for knowledge and that there are many unanswered mysteries to be resolved.
Rob La Frenais
Rob La Frenais is an independent curator and writer.