Semiconductor: ‘We're ultimately interested in nature and looking out for the unknown’

20 May 2021
Art Commissions

Three years after its premiere in Art Basel, the Semiconductor exhibit HALO for the first time in the UK. We spoke to the artists about the evolution of HALO as a work of art, their research at CERN deconstructing science as a process, and their ultimate interest in nature and looking out for the unknown.

By entering into a blackened theatre in the round, the viewer encounters the ten-metre-wide cylindrical shape structure, which houses a 360-degree screen surrounded by 384 vertical piano strings standing four metres tall. The monumental immersive work invites the visitor to physically experience a particle physics event, transcending its scientific context and reflecting on the technological mediation of nature. 

HALO is an Audemars Piguet Art Commision curated by head of Arts at CERN Mónica Bello. Among five nominated artists by Bello, Semiconductor was selected and supported to develop their proposal in connection with the scientific community at CERN. The animated projection resulted from the translation of raw data from the ATLAS Experiment into the 3D space. Each data point corresponds to a particle ejected from proton collisions that interacted with the ATLAS Transition Radiation Tracker – one of the tracking subsystems of the ATLAS Inner Detector– which also reminisces HALO’s architecture. As the light points appear on the screen, they trigger small hammers that hit the piano wires. The resulting synchronised soundscape builds up gradually through the artwork until the projection finishes and the hammers stop, leaving a humming noise that completes the sensory burden. 


We were interested in creating an experience with the raw data where people can get as close to the event of what’s happening at CERN as possible, but creating a human frame of reference, Gerhardt remarked. The deliberated installation dimensions and the slowed-down data speed in accordance with human perception envelop the audience in the work. ’We’re interested in how you look at the data, there's a certain complexity in it, which suggests nature, but there’s also a structure to it which suggests man and technology reading nature. We’re fascinated by what data becomes, what it tells us about nature and how we as humans respond to that.’

It’s been three years since HALO premiered in Art Basel. How do you see the work with our current perspective? Does this new spatial, time, and cultural context change or add any dimensions to the work?


Joe Gerhardt: We've developed quite a lot sonically. In Basel, there was quite a short time frame to make it considering its complexity. This time, the sound has nicer resonances, and it’s more subtle.


Ruth Jarman: We have made many modifications to the electronics and mechanics. It's really nice to have been able to evolve it as an artwork. It feels like a huge achievement to show HALO at this moment, considering we're just still emerging from the pandemic, the kind of collaboration it takes to bring it to the venue and what it entails to allow the public access to it. We were meant to be exhibiting at this time last year, and we weren't sure whether it would even happen.


Compared to its original setting in an art fair, how is this new exhibition space at the Attenborough Centre amidst a university campus? 


JG: This is in a way where the story of HALO started. Before we went to CERN, the previous director of Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts, Sally Jane Norman, introduced us to the physics department where Antonella [De Santo], Professor of physics, put us in touch with Sussex Fellow Mark Sutton, who was based at CERN. Mark was instrumental in HALO coming to fruition. It started from those discussions in this space five years ago. It's kind of come full circling in that sense; this is a circular building, it's a circular sculpture (laugh).


RJ: We also live in Brighton, and it's showing as part of the Brighton Festival. This brings quite different audiences from when we exhibited it at Art Basel; it opens it up to a much broader public who engage with the arts and culture. But like you said, it's also on the university campus. Part of what we're doing here is engaging with the music department at Sussex University. Many musicians work across music and technology, and they're coming to spend a day with HALO to see how they might perform with it as a musical instrument or alongside it, so we're developing those kinds of relationships.


JG: It's becoming an instrument and a stage at the same time. We want to think about HALO from every different angle, which it’s kind of like what happens at CERN. It's not just how that matter affects everything but how you can understand it from different perspectives.

In addition to HALO, you have worked with scientific data in many of your works, as for example in Earthworks, 2016 or 20Hz, 2011. Can you speak about why you decide to use raw data?


RJ: We work with scientific data – that could be numbers, points in space like here, or images – as close to how it comes out of the instrument as possible; before having any layers of information added or removed. If we’re talking about an event display, you end up with this very colourful diagram integrated with the instrument and all these lines and squares. The scientists can read that information in a very visual way. To get to that point from the raw data, it's had many things removed or added, so it becomes readable in a scientific context. We're interested in that data not in the scientific context but what it is as a material and what it says to us as humans. 


JG: Scientists are all trying to remove all the noise, which is a distraction from the results they're trying to find. But that noise is part of nature, and it's also part of the texture and story of what's really going on there. For example, NASA images are artificially colourised and are composed of multiple photographs. But the grainy black and white images they start from are to us just as beautiful, and they have more of the story. Here we're using what it’s called minimum bias data, which is data scientists collect, and before it's been filtered or changed in any way. For us, the nature of what is raw is a real thing rather than just aesthetics.

We're interested in that data not in the scientific context but what it is as a material and what it says to us as humans

At the same time, you are adding these other layers to that data, seeking to convey the ATLAS experiment that is creating and collecting this data as well as the human framework behind the technology. 


RJ: Yes, we’re interested in how you can look at the data, there's a certain complexity in it, which suggests nature, but there's also a structure to the form it takes, how it exists, and you get an idea of man and technology reading that nature, so we're trying to play those off against each other. When you go into the space, you’re experiencing those things. You’re not thinking of them in a scientific context; we’re interested in what that becomes, what it then tells us about nature and how we respond to that.


How would you describe HALO's immersive experience?


JG: We were interested in creating an experience where people can get as close to the event of what's happening at CERN as possible, creating a human frame of reference. For example, a scale and a speed that your mind can relate to. At CERN, they collect a billion events a second and record hundreds of thousands of them, the events happen close to the speed of light. We slow them down so we can experience them in a human time frame. These machines are also cathedral-size, we've scaled it down, so it places you at a point where you can imagine being the particle, placing yourself in relationship to the experiment.


RJ: At the same time, we also want to transcend the data, so it almost becomes like how you might experience a natural phenomenon. You don't need to know anything about the science to experience HALO; it is an experience in its own right. When we work with these different parameters, as Joe said, it is about how we as humans can process and perceive information. We work specifically with that, so it's like experiencing the sublime.  


JG: We could have sonified it, where you take all the data and associate each point with a note on the musical scale, for example, but then you have a cultural anthropomorphisation where you are introducing another layer of human language. With HALO, we hear the natural resonance of the sculpture, it's still raw, and you can build your own narrative from it.

We also want to transcend the data, so it almost becomes like how you might experience a natural phenomenon. You don't need to know anything about the science to experience HALO; it is an experience in its own right

During your residencies at CERN, you also examined the processes and the tools that scientists employ to conduct research, as you explored in your film The View from Nowhere. Can you speak about your encounters with theoretical physicists?


RJ: We interviewed many theorists and deconstructed science as a process with them. In The View from Nowhere, we play the theory off against the experimental side and the practicalities of doing experiments. You see that what the theorists are doing is really playful and that they're very creative with how they approach their science, and they have to be. On the opposite side, you have physical limitations. We spent a lot of time filming in the large magnet facility and the CERN workshop, where they make many prototypes for the instruments. A fact that always interested me about CERN is that the size of these magnets depends on the longest object you could drive along European roads. They are made somewhere else, and then they had to be driven to CERN. So they are limited by scale in many ways. In The View from Nowhere, you get this sense of them playing off of each other.

How would you describe your practice within the vast space between artistic and scientific research?


JG: We're ultimately interested in nature and looking out for the unknown. As soon as you start looking at the unknown, you have to use technology and scientific ideas to explore those areas, so it's simply just the medium to be able to look at nature. Our relationship with scientists is more that we experiment on them (laugh).


What's next for Semiconductor? 


JG: We're working with some scientists at Dundee University who are looking at planetary formation in the universe. We're working with some of their data and trying to get our heads around that. We're also experimenting with HALO as a sonic instrument.


When are you coming back to CERN?


JG: We hope soon. We’d like to show HALO at CERN, but not sure when that would happen. 


RJ: We developed so many ideas for projects while we were there. We have so many different strands of research we're interested in, so I know there are many loose threads that we need to revisit.

HALO at Brighton Festival is supported by Arts Council England and co-produced by Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts. Book your place to see HALO until 4 June here.


Interview by Ana Prendes, Communications and Content Producer at Arts at CERN.