In the summer of 2023, the curator Iris Long [China] fulfilled her research trip from northern to southern Switzerland visiting art spaces and scientific institutions, as well as attending a conference of particle physics. See through her eyes the microcosmic world of light.
At this moment, I’m sitting in my temporary home in London. Still under jet lag, I could still feel the chill of early autumn seeping into the room through the window seams. On my flight to London, I reviewed files collected during my research trip this summer from northern to southern Switzerland. While flipping through the photos, it felt as if I had relived the lingering warmth of the summer. Since about three years ago, my research interest has gradually shifted to the “backend” of technology – infrastructure. Data centres, super telescopes and large-scale scientific devices – these are giant observation apparatuses, complicated social engineering examples; and in the meantime, they are also science-fictional beings on the ontological level, which are somewhat beyond description and with a fuzzy edge. This is also the topic for my doctoral research. Now that I look back, I’m not really sure where my interest in things that are so far away comes from – perhaps from the first time I looked at the sky through a telescope when I was a kid, or from the summer ten years ago when I accidentally visited CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research). This summer, with the support of Pro Helvetia Shanghai, I visited art museums, galleries, art institutes and alternative spaces in Switzerland – a classic research trip. But this trip also took me to places that at first sight didn’t have much to do with “art”. I attended the annual conference of CHIPP (Swiss Institute of Particle Physics) in a small town. And following the guidance of a physicist I met at the conference, I went to PSI (Paul Scherrer Institute), the largest research institutes for natural and engineering sciences in Switzerland. And on the last day of my trip, I visited CERN for the second time. Taking an elevator that shook slightly and watching the numbers keep changing, I felt my body descend to the bottom of the ground. Following the footprints of these covert yet giant technological objects, it seemed I fell into a microcosmic world through a giant opening. In this world, light could further split into countless teeny tiny particles; randomness and fuzzy probability ruled all things.
The Coded Cosmos
The first stop of my trip to Switzerland was a small observatory – the Swiss Federal Observatory, which was established in 1855. It is now located on the campus of ETH Zurich. The first director of the observatory was Johann Rudolf Wolf, a Swiss astronomer best known for his research on sunspots. When I was there, a small exhibition entitled Data Alchemy–Observing Patterns from Galileo to Artificial Intelligence was on view. I’ve always been thinking about the possibilities of making exhibitions in research institutes (scientific space) since the Under the Cloud project, so as to relocate artworks pertinent to science and technology back to the very original context that produced the knowledge embedded in these works. Data Alchemy was based on the history of the observatory, and delved into man’s obsession with creating “meaning” from the data patterns attained from cosmic observation. The exhibition spanned from the time of Copernicus and Galileo to today’s data-driven astronomical observation (and prediction), attempting to search for a hidden continuity in histories. On the one hand, it’s about how we analyze laws through cryptic language (algorithms are also seen as a cryptic language used only by an exclusive circle of people); and on the other, it’s also about the entanglement between mysticism and faith in science. As it was written in the introduction of the exhibition: “The past still resides in the present”. Walking up along the rotating stone stairways, I found it hard to tell which objects were from the observatory’s permanent collection and which were works specially commissioned for this exhibition. All these works were scattered in the daily setting of the observatory seamlessly, reminiscent of clues from the past. In Blue Transmutations, microscopic particles in blue pigment from ancient Egypt were shimmering in an operation captured by a special black-and-white camera used by the Nanoparticle Systems Engineering Laboratory at ETH Zurich. And at another corner, inside the sculpture transported to the International Space Station (ISS), liquid droplets slowly climb up along a brass rod. There was barely anyone else on site, which made my footsteps highly audible. The top floor of the rotating stairway – a place that perfectly fits people’s imagination of “observatory” – looked like an abandoned site for cosmic observation. Telescopes stood silently in the empty circular space; and computer on the wooden desktop displayed numerical simulations of the large-scale structure of the universe. It felt as if the scientists just took off. However, the strong sense of ordinariness fell apart when I put on the VR headset that seemed to have been left there inadvertently: in the VR landscape, the ghost of Giovanni Bruno was lingering around the space where I stood, reciting ceaselessly his treatise written in 1540 (“On the Infinite Universe and Worlds”). The dome on top also began to dissolve into the vast cosmos. Afterwards, an unknown flight unfolded: fixed stars, planets, asteroids, and still-blazing remnants of supernova came into view one by one, fleetly, until everything descended into Gaia BH1, the closest dormant black hole to Earth.
The Edge of the Microscopic
Bearing in mind the visual memories of the black hole – and the phantom of Bruno – I went back to the sizzling sunlight of Zurich. I took a train to a small town called Sursee. When night fell, a taxi drove up a mountain and dropped me off at a hotel. I stood alone in the lobby, absolutely not knowing that in the next two days, I would be lurking around over a hundred particle physicists and trying to get into their world. Organized by CHIPP, the conference consisted of several sessions. The first session focused on the sustainability of large accelerators, which echoed some of the most pressing issues giant research devices had to face under the backdrops of global economic downturn and anti-globalization. The second session centred on technical evaluation, energy consumption and feasibility comparisons of several next-generation accelerators; and the third was about the latest progress of CERN. The two days of listening to the speakers refreshed my memories of some personal feelings I once had when I worked on the Under the Cloud project: all scientific and technological engineering projects are embedded and intertwined in a more liquid socio-economic relationship; and most of the time the most critical element does not derive from science or technology per se but is affected by the swirling and turbulence of this liquid relationship. During conference breaks, I met some physicists who were deeply curious about art and had even worked with artists. A PhD student from the University of Zurich gave me a detailed introduction to the differences among several types of accelerators, from standard mode to SUSY (supersymmetry) and then to neutrino detectors. We sat in open air of the hotel and kept on chatting till midnight. Caressed by the gentle breeze of summer night, tree shadows in the courtyard seemed to blur, while the stars in the wilderness far away lit up one after another. I knew in a world invisible to naked eyes, there were remnants of gamma-ray bursts, active galactic nuclei and supernovas. Just like the trees in front of us, they were hidden by this same colour of the night. When I went to bed, my mind began to wander. During these half-asleep-half-awake moments, I seemed to hear signals that were so far away and so subtle as if they were weightless and trembling faintly at the end of the infinite colour of night.
A scientist I met at the CHIPP conference, Philipp Schmidt-Wellenburg, took me to PSI, one of the Swiss national laboratories located in northern Switzerland and where he worked. In the common space of PSI, I saw some objects on display. In one vitrine there were different devices throughout history to “make vacuum” (he mentioned that though “vacuum making” was widely applied, it was first invented in the field of basic physics.); and in another vitrine there was an installation showing how a beam made of protons was split into two parts. On the wall there was a large engineering drawing of the whole PSI setup, which engineers worked here could easily refer to. During my visit at PSI, I was told that taking photos of the experimental devices was forbidden, which as a matter of fact allowed for a pure and bodily experience to unfold as I walked. In the space where the large proton accelerator (590MeV ring cyclotron) was situated, there were a great many concrete structures to shield radiation. Walking on the raised walkways, one could overlook the experiments ongoing in the different small sections. The scientist walked me all the way through the labyrinth-like and staggered passages. He told me that as early as ten years ago, he had worked with a local art school. He organized a workshop for the participating art students. “Guess what it was about?” While we walked past the square space of the n2EDM experiment, he revealed the answer. “I designed a class called ‘epistemology of light’.” Upon hearing of this name, I stopped right away. The thoughts I had in mind in the night at Sursee came back. So did the red device that could “split porton beams into two”- though here in this space it served the function of “science communication”. In the field of my research interests, be it photography (which was the focus of my earlier practice) or various types of technical imaging/visualization, there seemed to be a hidden answer to the same question in another field. Before I left, he gave me two copies of the catalogue of that collaborative art project. I read the book through on the train. When I closed the book, the train was passing through a charming lake, and I bumped into a mesmerizingly shimmering lake view.
Art, Technology, and Personal Memories
In the next few days, I went to Museum Tinguely to see Dream Machines by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller; visited various small galleries I happened to find on the streets of Zurich; met with Monica Bello, art director of CERN, and Adrian Hotz, head of ETH AI Center (one of the initiating organizations of “Data Alchemy”), at Art Basel; went to meet Sabine Himmelsbach, the then-head of the House of Electronic Arts (HeK), and took a look at Collective Worldbuilding – Art in the Metaverse – the exhibition on view at HeK; and of course, I visited the latest exhibition Lighten Up! On Biology and Time at EPFL Pavilions at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. In a way, these meetings and visits were like meeting online friends offline, (years ago when I curated Blue Cables in Venetian Watercourse, under the support of Pro Helvetia Shanghai, I invited Monica and Sabine to give online lectures); and on the other hand, it gave the opportunity to gain a panoramic picture of technology-art institutes in Switzerland: experiences and insights of institutional operations, intimate memories of the collaborations with artists, and thoughts and reflections on the same technological art issues in different cultural contexts were all unfolded and exchanged in these conversations. In a sense, these flashbacks reminded me that the preciousness of this research trip lay exactly in the fact that it would lead me to encounter specific people and scenes. These encounters, intertwined with a sense of unfamiliarity and curiosity, inspiration and disenchantment, could not be conducted and conveyed through a digitalized and informationalized interface.
As the train kept going southward, I arrived at the last stop of my journey – CERN. The last time I came here was in 2012. Back then a friend of mine was a resident researcher here on physics study. I ran into two Austrian artists and one researcher working on Australian aboriginal astronomy. We walked along the broad roads named after scientists. The surrounding buildings were reminiscent of the Eastern Europe of the socialist period: flat, matte and grey-colored. Combined with the extremely outdated data entry/passport registration system, it was perfect to make a retro sci-fi film. However, underneath the mediocre surface of these buildings there lies one of the most important scientific experiments in the world. Also, CERN plays an importantly role at the intersection of arts and basic science. Starting from ATLAS, we travelled in a trolley from the Swiss side to the French side to see another detector; and then we took an elevator to go underground. As the elevator went down, I looked up at the readings whose decimal points kept changing, feeling my body sinking into the underground fortress that had taken years to build and trying to make sense of everything around me in the midst of vast strangeness. I couldn’t see the particles moving through the loop (we were not even allowed to enter the tunnel while the device was running), just like I couldn’t see the shimmer at the end of the universe that night in Sursee. But such a feeling, which could not yet be put into words, seemed to have taken root as the journey unfolded.
As I am writing this, the chill of the early London morning has faded and sunlight begins to spread over the street. In this winter, I probably would want to further the thoughts I gathered during the summer trip, and to see what kind of possibilities can be produced from my work in this still somewhat obscure field of research. As with all my research and curatorial projects, it takes a long time to grow and develop. The research trip in Switzerland, though not that long in time scale, undoubtedly marks a significant point of departure – this summer I leapt into the shimmer.
Iris Long is a writer and independent curator with a research focus on megastructures of science and technology in China, astronomy and AI. She is also a Berggruen Fellow. She has curated exhibitions around art, science and technology, such as “Lying Sophia and Mocking Alexa” (sophialexa.com, Hyundai Blue Prize), “Blue Cables in Venetian Watercourse” (PSA Emerging Curator’s Program), the third Today Art Museum “Future of Today” Biennial, the art&tech sector of the inaugural Beijing Art Biennial, “Earth Heat Flow: the Visitor Who Returns to Solar Time”, and the inaugural exhibition for Chinese National Astronomy, “Cosmological Elements”. Iris’s research has been presented in “Space in Time: From the Heavens to Outer Space”(Warburg Institute), UCL Institute of Advanced Studies, “Art and Artificial Intelligence”(Open Conference, ZKM), “Art Machines: International Symposium on Computational Media Art (ISCMA)”(Hong Kong), Digital Research in the Humanities and Arts (London), ISEA and so on.