Connect South Africa residency

Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, Arte+

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Kamil Hassim (South Africa) and Ian Purnell (Switzerland) are the selected artists for the first edition of the international Connect residency programme, aimed at fostering experimentation in the arts in connection to fundamental science.

Connect South Africa, the first edition announced in 2021, juxtaposes infrastructures and research which precisely complement one another: while CERN in Switzerland addresses itself to the very smallest particles, the infrastructures operated by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) attend to the very largest expanses and masses.

From a competitive open call, Kamil Hassim (South Africa) and Ian Purnell (Switzerland) were selected for the joint tandem residency, split between CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, and in the array of optical and radio astronomy observatories across rural and urban South Africa, concentrated in the vast semi desert expanses of the Northern Cape. These include SARAO’s MeerKAT radio telescope near the town of Carnarvon, as the precursor to the South African component of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, as well as the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest of a number of telescopes operated by SAAO near the town of Sutherland. The South African phase of the residency is convened by —defunct context, a curatorial project based at the University of a Cape Town by Dr Tebogo George Mahashe.


Meet the artists

Portrait of artists Kamil Hassim and Ian Purnell together with George Mahashe of —defunct context. Behind them are radio astronomical satellites.
Kamil Hassim and Ian Purnell with George Mahashe of —defunct context

Kamil Hassim

Kamil Hassim is a transdisciplinary artist and musician. His work is expressed through instrument making, video, sculpture, digital art, sound, music and painting. His current projects explore how our relative cultural paradigms influence how we interface with the universe and the kinds of information that become activated through these perspectives. With this interest, he is currently thinking through themes of art, science, indigenous knowledge systems and their intersections. In his residency project, Kamil aims to create resonant instruments to draw connections between diasporic South African cosmologies and fundamental research conducted at CERN, SARAO and SAAO.

In this interview, Kamil describes his art practice, the valuable spaces created when artists and scientists share common interests and how the residency at CERN has informed his work.

Interview by Antonella Fetta, residencies producer, Arts at CERN

Ian Purnell

Ian Purnell works across visual arts, documentary filmmaking and performing arts. He studied experimental film and documentary formats at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne and montage at the University of Film and Television Potsdam-Babelsberg. Ian’s film and installation works are showcased internationally. With his residency project, Ian aims to explore the visual concept of black holes and reflect on alternative imaging of the universe.

In this interview, Ian shares his interest in how scientific imagery influences our perception of the universe and how the encounters with astronomers and physicists informed and inspired his practice.

Interview by Antonella Fetta, residencies producer, Arts at CERN

The residency

During the South Africa leg of the residency Ian and Kamil spent several days at the SAAO field station near the small town of Sutherland. The Southern African Largest Telescope (SALT) can detect stars one billion times dimmer than the faintest star that we can see with the naked eye. The telescope enables imaging, spectroscopic, and polarimetric analysis of the radiation from astronomical objects out of reach of northern hemisphere telescopes. The artists spent time learning from the scientists about the instrumentation involved in the imaging of these complex skyscapes, as well as connecting to the community on the ground, reconnecting to indigenous ways of navigating the sky and our galaxy. They also encountered a “rock gong” on a farm outside Loxton. These flattish dolerite rocks are balanced naturally on three or more points and are almost always associated with rock engraving sites in the Karoo, but no ethnographic explanation exists for their use.

Ian Purnell and Kamil Hassim are in discussion seated on rocks in the semi-arid landscape of the Karoo at the Sutherland observatory. Large telescopes are visible in the background.
Ian and Kamil at the Sutherland observatory © —defunct context
Ian Purnell and Kamil Hassim are using their phones to record the instrument a scientist is demonstrating to them. They are at the SAAO observatory in Cape Town.
Ian and Kamil with a scientist at the SAAO observatory in Cape Town © —defunct context

“In the last weeks we got to experience larger-than-life instruments that collect information from the far reaches of the cosmos. These are required to be positioned in areas with as little human interference as possible, creating new opportunities for nature and technology to meet. Dark skies enabled us to see the Milky Way with our own eyes. While we were trying to hold on to what we were seeing through the lenses of our cameras our attempts at taking snapshots started to resemble the actions of the astronomers next door modifying the exposure times of their observational tools in order to best catch the desired waves from space.”

Ian Purnell
The artists Ian Purnell and Kamil Hassim are engaged in striking rocks to record their sounds. The landscape is semi-arid with many rocks in the background.
Ian and Kamil exploring “rock gongs” in the Karoo © —defunct context

“One night, alone in the dark and away from humans I sat and listened. There is something special in visiting places with little noise. Noise not just in the sonic but in the broader sense in which noise permeates as signals through the human world where listening, seeing and perceiving certain things becomes impossible. Only in the darkness and silence of the Karoo did I feel I could for the first time in my life observe and listen to the glow and sound of my own mind.”

Kamil Hassim
Kamil Hassim stands under a large radio astronomical satellite in Losberg near Carnarvon, South Africa.
Kamil at the radio astronomical site in Losberg near Carnarvon © —defunct context
Ian Purnell is crouched down by a camera on a tripod, filming the large radio astronomical satellites in Losberg near Carnarvon, South Africa.
Ian filming at the radio astronomical site in Losberg near Carnarvon © —defunct context

During their residency at CERN, the artists engaged with a range of scientists and encountered some of the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments to learn more about the fundamental structure of particles that make up the universe. Some of the artists’ activities included a tour of the Microcosm exhibition and meeting with theoretical physicist John Ellis, who has been working at CERN since the 70s and regularly engages with artists in residence at the Laboratory. The artists also visited the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) with physicist Tatiana Medvedeva. The AMS-02 is a particle-physics detector that looks for dark matter, antimatter and missing matter from a module attached to the outside of the International Space Station (ISS). 

The artists Ian Purnell and Kamil Hassim pose with theoretical physicist John Ellis. They are in the cafeteria at CERN.
Kamil and Ian meet theoretical physicist John Ellis during their residency at CERN © Arts at CERN

Projects

Event Horizon by Kamil Hassim

A light prism refracting in a dark space.
Kamil Hassim, Event Horizon installation at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg. Courtesy the artist

The project that Kamil developed through the residency takes us on a journey through the mysteries of black holes and the cosmic principles that govern our universe. At the heart of his work lies an exploration of how information permeates through social, cultural and physical systems based on notions of the event horizon, the information paradox, and the holographic principle.

In Event Horizon Kamil invites us to contemplate these complex ideas through the senses and emotions, rather than just through our intellect. By using defunct astronomical lenses to create optical effects, his installations immerse the viewer in an experience that is designed to facilitate a process of ‘embodied knowledge’. This process allows us to engage with these ideas on a visceral level, connecting us more deeply to the mysteries of the cosmos. The idea of embodied knowledge is central to many indigenous knowledge systems, which hold that knowledge is not something that can be acquired solely through intellectual pursuits. Rather, it is something that must be felt and experienced, in order to be fully understood.

The Event Horizon is the boundary around a black hole beyond which nothing can escape. It is a point of no return, where light and, therefore, information cannot be transmitted. The holographic principle, which suggests that all the information contained within a region of space can be encoded on its boundary, is another example of how information can be lost or obscured within a closed system. This principle implies that the universe may be like a hologram, with three-dimensional information projected onto a two-dimensional surface.

In the context of cultural systems and the effects of colonialism, the erasure of knowledge and the loss of information can be seen as similar processes. The study of black holes and the phenomena associated with them, such as the information paradox and the holographic principle, can be seen as metaphors for the way in which knowledge and information can be erased or augmented within closed systems. In the case of black holes, information that falls into them is thought to be lost forever, unable to escape due to the extreme gravitational pull. This presents a paradox, as information is thought to be conserved in quantum mechanics, meaning that it cannot be destroyed.

The colonial project often saw the suppression of indigenous knowledge systems and the imposition of Western epistemologies. This resulted in the loss of knowledge and cultural heritage for many communities around the world. The intersection of art and science, as explored in the Event Horizon offers a way to bridge these gaps and connect people to the mysteries of the cosmos, while also acknowledging the importance of different cultural knowledge systems.

The image is black. A hand is silhouetted in a light prism.
Kamil Hassim, Event Horizon installation at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg. Courtesy the artist

Event Horizon seeks to create an immersive experience that allows visitors to develop embodied knowledge of phenomena like light and data, while also engaging with the complex cultural and scientific concepts associated with black holes. By doing so, it offers a space for dialogue and engagement that can help to promote a more inclusive and diverse understanding of science and its relationship to culture. Due to how prismatic light behaves, certain wavelengths are only visible at particular angles, because of this no two observers in the room see the same thing despite observing the same event. Here another connection is made between a fundamental concept in theoretical physics, and a foundational idea in many indigenous cosmologies: that the act of observing the universe is in itself an act of creation because information and events exist in relation to one another.

The first iteration of Event Horizon at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg in March 2023 was curated by Bulumko Mbete and presented in collaboration with South African Astronomical Observatory and WhereWithAll, supported by the National Arts Council of South Africa as part of the Presidential Employment Stimulus Package (PESP). The second iteration, Event Horizon II, manifested as an installation in —defunct context‘s “Pavilion Prototype 2 U406” at Michaelis Art School in Cape Town and was curated by Sihle Sogaula. The opening took place on 1 June 2023 accompanied by sonic improvisations by composer and guitarist Reza Khota. Event Horizon – Composition no.3 is included in the group exhibition Into the Black Hole at Valkhof Museum in the Netherlands.

The Picture Behind the Hole: The Black Hole Image by Ian Purnell

Two screens are visible as part of an art installation in a darkened room. The screens show digital photographs with circle motifs.
Ian Purnell, The Black Home Image, installation at Valkhof Museum. Courtesy the artist

The project Ian developed out of the residency contemplates how images of the universe shape our understanding of it.

As the technological advances in observational astronomy allow us to see deeper into space, we are presented with stunning images of galaxies, exoplanets, and black holes. However, these are not ‘photographs’ in the conventional sense of the word, but visual interpretations of scientific data.

Black holes are one of the most challenging phenomena to visually render and comprehend. One of the reasons for this is that you cannot see a black hole. To get around this issue, so called “space artists” have opted in countless illustrations for a kind of idealised black hole image sucking up gas or other matter around it. Does the very image create a black hole in our understanding of the universe?

Animation shows a circle with text "We are staring at the information that surrounds it". Another disc passes over the one with text eclipsing it.
Ian Purnell, The Black Home Image. Courtesy the artist

Ian’s video installation The Picture Behind the Hole: The Black Hole Image questions how astronomical imagery shapes our perception of the outer space. Playing with the impossibility of capturing an image of the centre of a black hole, footage of the scientific sites in Geneva and South Africa is overlaid with a narration based on his conversations with astronomers and physicists, reflecting on alternative ways of seeing the universe.

The Picture Behind the Hole: The Black Hole Image is included in the group exhibition Into the Black Hole at Valkhof Museum in the Netherlands.

A large black dot covers the centre of a black and white photograph of an astronomical observatory in Cape Town.
Ian Purnell, The Black Home Image. Courtesy the artist

About

Connect South Africa is part of the Connect residency programme by Arts at CERN in collaboration with Pro Helvetia. Connect serves as a global platform for interactions and dialogue between artistic and scientific communities across Switzerland, South Africa, India and Chile, which will be realised during the course of 2021-2024.