Julius von Bismarck is a visual artist based in Berlin who appears to thrive on playful confrontation. His work tends to focus on themes of technology and mediation; he likes to play with old cameras and other image-capture devices. His best known invention is a machine called the Image Fulgurator, which looks like a professional-grade camera equipped with a telephoto lens but actually projects images onto nearby objects. In a great little introductory video at the Creators Project website, you can watch von Bismarck project the image of a dove over the face of Chairman Mao on a poster in Tiananmen Square, in homage to Rene Magritte’s "The Man in the Bowler Hat."
Von Bismarck’s latest endeavor ups the ante in his exploration of the intersection between science and art: He will be the first-ever artist-in-residence at the CERN Labs in Geneva, Switzerland, home to the Large Hadron Collider – the planet’s most powerful particle accelerator. For two months, von Bismarck and a theoretical physicist by the name of James Wells will collaborate on projects, working alongside the facility’s usual phalanx of white-coated engineers and physicists.
“Putting an artist in a place where thousands of scientists are looking for things that nature has never exhibited before is very exciting and, of course, I wanted to be that artist,” von Bismarck explained in a press release. “I am fascinated by making things perceivable which were never perceived before, and CERN is potentially a goldmine for unperceivable or even unimaginable things.”
The residency will obviously be a fertile one for von Bismarck, but what does the world’s foremost particle physics laboratory get out of the deal? Well, it turns out CERN’s more artistically bent than your average particle-accelerator operator – for a few years now, the Collide@CERN program has been sponsoring and promoting science-themed work in many different artistic fields.
Beyond this and a little flattering publicity, though, I’d wager CERN’s overseers recognize that the far-out aspects of modern science tend to be beyond the grasp of a general audience, and one of the things artists can do, at their best, is make theoretical concepts manifest. Art can bring story and metaphor and meaning to the abstract, microscopic and cosmic.
When I heard about the residency, I was reminded of the first Broadway play I ever went to see. It was on my first visit to New York. I was 21, and my then-girlfriend and I drove down for the weekend from Kingston, Ontario, where we were in university. After visiting the observation deck of the World Trade Center, we went to the discount-ticket booth at the base of the twin towers and picked a play almost at random. I recognized the name Tom Stoppard – I’d just seen the movie version of "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead" – and his latest work, "Arcadia," was playing that night. Robert Sean Leonard of "Dead Poets’ Society" fame was playing a lead character. Sounded promising.
I’ve seen quite a bit of theater since that night, but I don’t know if anything’s stuck with me quite the way "Arcadia" has. It wasn’t that it was Broadway, it wasn’t the acting or the sets or even Stoppard's superlative writing – it was the math. Stoppard’s "Arcadia" is, among other things, a meditation on the nature of numbers in the modern age.
There’s an excellent plot synopsis in this Independent newspaper retrospective from a few years back, but in brief, the play deals with the origins of chaos theory and the Mandelbrot set. A young prodigy living on an English estate in the early 1800s discovers the way Mandelbrot’s equation can predict the patterns of the natural world, but lacks the computational power to feed the equation enough variables to prove her discovery. In a parallel narrative set in the present day, we learn that a hermit spent decades in the estate’s garden, scribbling equations, trying to finish the proof that a computer can now generate in seconds.
Mandelbrot’s set is the equation that produces fractals (a common screensaver theme, among other things). It’s as foundational to modern math as Newton’s laws were to the scientific discoveries of the Enlightenment. It’s the kind of thing, though, that can seem inscrutable to non-mathematicians. Stoppard explains it – with playful, engrossing clarity – in a couple of hours, in a way I’ve never forgotten.
Will Julius von Bismarck figure out a way to bring Higgs Boson particles as vividly to life? Maybe. But in any case, CERN is to be applauded for its outreach. Art and science, despite their surface differences, are really just two different ways of explaining how the world works. They should collaborate more often.
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MNN tease photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images