What happens when artists spend time at a nuclear research facility?

Quantum theory describes nature at the smallest scale of energy, the level of atoms and subatomic particles.

April 19, 2019 11:45
3 minute read.
“Quantum Universe,” is a virtual particle generator that shows the shape of particles based on scien

“Quantum Universe,” is a virtual particle generator that shows the shape of particles based on scientific evidence and is curated by Alex Posada in the Exhibition 'Quantum' at the Center of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB). (photo credit: CASSANDRA GOMES HOCHBERG)


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BARCELONA – The reality we live in is subjected to the laws of physics. Yet, there is another domain that rules our universe, even though we might not perceive it the way we do with classical physics: quantum mechanics.

Quantum theory describes nature at the smallest scale of energy, the level of atoms and subatomic particles.

Since its inception in the early 20th century, the quantum world has bedazzled scientists and philosophers alike. This is because as much as it is a science of fundamental laws governing the world that remains hidden from the senses, it also gives rise to disconcerting and fundamental questions.

Does chance exist? How does our perspective of the world determine what we know? And, if every time we conduct a measurement, do we effect change on that object? Finally, what is reality?

An international project of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, in collaboration with the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) in Liverpool, brought together a group of artists and challenged them to draw inspiration from quantum physics.

The project culminated in an exhibition at the Center of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) called Quantum, where 10 artistic projects now convey that the impact of quantum physics goes way beyond laboratories and university halls.

One of these projects, Quantum Universe, is a virtual particle generator that shows the shape of particles based on scientific evidence and is curated by Alex Posada.

“On smaller scales, the universe is uncertain, random and unstable and is constantly being transformed,” a description of this exhibit reads.

Concepts such as superposition – events that impinge on one another, producing results that are indescribable by classical physics; entanglement – the inability of separately describing the history of quantum particles due to their entanglement; and randomness – the postulate that when we observe something, the result isn’t fixed as prescribed by classical physics, but instead suggests that genuine chance exists – were transformed into fascinating, interactive artistic laboratories that allow visitors to reflect upon the captivating questions evoked by quantum physics.

Another installation, One1one, is a chamber where visitors are exposed to several languages simultaneously and overloaded with other sensorial stimuli, including audio and visual. The interplay between language, consciousness and physical matter is used in an attempt to question the appropriate way in which to describe the world and how choice determines what can be known.

“Perhaps the most important influence of science on the arts is in our fundamental picture of the nature and origin of the universe as a whole,” writes Frederick Turner in his essay “Quantum Theory and the Arts.” “Perhaps the most important effect of quantum theory on the arts in general is as a kind of reminder and challenge.”

Natural science is concerned with the description, analysis and understanding of nature based on empirical evidence. The macro-cosmic level of reality in which we live is enough of an inspiration and a challenge to be experienced and translated by the artists. Microscopic details have proven to be irrelevant to the art works and artistic creativity. The quantum world, however, is not only a representation of a zoom-in world, but a radically different reality. Energy is not separated from matter. Events do not take place, but possess a probability of happening. As natural science expands our understanding of the perceived – a source of inspiration for artistic and scientific endeavors – quantum physics lead us to question the reality of our perception.

“Our apparently spelled and predictable world is based on an underlying reality that does not operate by deterministic one-way cause and effect, but by a strange sort of harmonic correspondence among indeterminate entities, whose very being is only a probability,” Turner claims.

Art has the potential of adding an extra layer of comprehension to convoluted theories and breaks the rigid walls surrounding hermetically sealed disciplines. In its attempt to understand and translate nature and reality, Quantum shows that knowledge in general – and science in particular – is not the property of exclusive groups, but a commodity that can be equally shared. And equally inspirational.

“To grasp this [quantum] concept is to open the imagination,” Turner added.

"Quantum" Exhibition at the CCCB in Barcelona (Credit: CCCB)

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