CERN: Imagination lab

 Genève  |  7 March 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

In Geneva, the world’s largest centre for particle physics houses… resident artists. AMA went to Switzerland to visit this extremely productive lab where science and art collide. A day at the CERN.

What link can possibly exist between the Higgs boson, one of the cornerstones in particle physics, and postmodern dance? What connection can be made between video art and quantum mechanics? From a distance, antimatter has little to do with contemporary art. The answer lies at a proton’s flight from Geneva, on the banks of Lake Léman… At the headquarters of the CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, we quickly grasp the interest in drawing together the artistic and scientific fields. Just a few metres away from the Large Hadron Collider – a 27-kilometre circular tunnel recreating the conditions of the universe’s origins –, an artists’ residence hosts selected artists sensitive to high-energy physics for periods of two to three months. This is another way to explore the world, through theatre, music, digital literature… AMA went to the CERN to visit one of the planet’s most productive laboratories where 11,000 researchers and technicians from 680 institutions work together. So after giving particles a boost, has the CERN invented a “talent accelerator”?

It all began in 2010 with a formula: “Great Arts for Great Science”. From there, things progressed very quickly. The next year, Arts@CERN was launched by Ariane Koek, the first director of the project backing the fertility of unlikely twinnings, the magic of unusual encounters. Very quickly, a bridge was formed between fundamental research and creative intuition. While apparently remote domains, long considered as contradictory, the two banks drew closer. They finished by meeting via the creation of the Collide programme, launched in 2011. A type of “irrational moment” like those that sometimes precede great scientific discoveries… Artists from all over the world began to flock to Geneva, determined to get acquainted with cord theory and supersymmetry. For while particles collide, researchers and artists get closer to one another. For five years now, this productive mingling has allowed them to together explore the laws of nature, and to flirt with the mysteries of the universe. Julius von Bismarck, winner of the Prix Ars Electronica and the first resident artist – teaming up with physicist James Wells, a specialist in invisible worlds – set up his installation “Versuch unter Kreisen” (Experiment Among Circles) here. Julius, intensely geekish and heavily beared, specifies: “The basic motivation for my commitment to art is the same as that of scientists to science: discovering what our world is and trying to contribute to our understanding of it. I seek, in my work, to create a sensorial response to science, a response that transits through the body and the senses.”

Anchored in 21st century culture, the Collide project assembles worlds, as Ariane Koek reminds us, via “creative collisions”. Transforming physics theories into immersive sensorial experiences, creating choreographic performances based on mathematical models… At the CERN, transversality is at work. American artist Bill Fontana, for example, a pioneer in experimental music inspired by John Cage, even got the famous particle accelerator into the act: in 2013, the pope of sound sculpture turned the Collider into the world’s largest musical instrument!

Art can also be propulsive

In concrete terms, the CERN invites a new artist every quarter for a maximum period of three months. Endowed with a research grant, each resident artist is accompanied throughout his or her stay in Geneva by an “inspiration partner” selected from the scientific community. The artist’s only obligation is to deliver two public talks at the Globe of Science and Innovation, to take part in a video blog enabling the general public to follow the creative process, and to organise artistic events on the site. Apart from this residency programme (whose last call for applications attracted no less than 899 projects from 71 countries), visits by artists are also organised. Among those to have come are German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer, Finnish orchestra conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen. Meanwhile, the latest-born concept, the Acclerate research programme, promotes international collaboration: every year, two sponsor countries attribute a grant to an artist who has never stayed in a scientific lab. Monica Bello, the current director of Arts@CERN, insists on this culture of innovation founded on the intermingling of knowledge. This explains why the centre has teamed up with cultural partners which are the most advanced international bodies in their domain, including, in no particular order, Ars Electronica (Austria), IRCAM (France), the literature centre FreeWord (Great Britain and Scandinavia) and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, in Liverpool).

Of course, all this comes at a cost – one borne by external donors, thanks to a public-private partnership which is totally independent of the CERN’s budget. Among the partners are the City and Canton of Geneva (which contribute 15,000 Swiss francs to the Prix Collide-Genève, in the form of a grant). There are also private donors, who for example contribute to the financing of the Prix Ars Electronica awarded to artists working in the digital sphere. Donors also include a host of foundations and other ministries of culture from other countries, which contribute funds towards the Accelerate prize. Alongside Monica Bello, Julian Calo from Argentina, the programme coordinator, bears in mind one of the project’s major elements: the public. He is perfectly right to smile when he points out that in 2015, the sum of activities stemming from the Arts@CERN programme drew some 7 million visitors to the site in Geneva. And reached a global audience of some 18 million persons.

Expressing the beauty of human processes at work in the arts and science, sketching out the unfathomable depths of the mind, straddling over wide conceptual plains… The CERN is pulling off the feat of reviving the figure of Leonardo da Vinci, painter and man of science: a pioneer as far as modern machines are concerned. Just like the Hadron Collider, just like this experimental residence…



3 questions for…

Julian Calo, coordinator of Arts@CERN


A lot is said about “creative collision” here…

Carrying out fundamental research on high-energy elementary particles, we work, at the CERN, on the idea of propulsion. And our residency programme for artists is also a type of accelerating structure. The encounter between an artist and a scientist is like two beams circulating at a speed close to that of light before colliding. This is what the creative process is like.

How is artistic creation seen by the scientific community?

They are two distinct activities but with a common denominator: questioning. Where do we come from? What is the Universe made from? Physicists and artists, meeting on the topic of matter, attempt to answer these basic questions here. For the CERN researchers, the “inspiration partners”, this encounter is, I believe, an opportunity to engage in new approaches, both theoretical and experimental. Also perhaps the opportunity to raise new questions.

How do you see the programme’s future?

I think that Collide, the CERN’s main programme in the artistic domain, has systematically listened to tendencies ever since its creation in 2011. This is a visionary programme which is also turning its attention to new technologies today. Evolution is natural, and this year, for example, it is carrying us towards the digital arts and narrative media. Collide opens up a perspective.




Cassandre Poirier-Simon, 2016 winner

This season, digital writing took pride of place at the CERN. The competition, launched in January 2016 to writers born, living or working in the Geneva region, offered the winner of the Prix Collide@Genève, a residency at the CERN, along with a grant of 15,000 Swiss francs and the same sum for developing his or her project. And the winner was… Cassandre Poirier-Simon. A specialist in hybrid narrative systems blending different narrative media, this “interaction designer” obtained a master’s in media design from the HEAD in Geneva in 2012. She works in the field of digital narration and experience, telling stories dear to companies, those which haunt museums for example. One of her projects, “The Pillow Book”, won the Prix du Laboratoire des Nouvelles Lectures, and then was displayed at the LIFT festival and at Design Days in Geneva. Cassandre has participated in digital-literature colloquiums and shown several of her digital stories at the BNF in France, as well as the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva. For Tissot, she designed the interactive installation “Wrist Watch”, shown on the watch manufacturer’s stand at Baselworld 2012. She is also responsible for “À Circuits Ouverts”, a museum application for a “multi-touch” wall featuring in the Swiss pavilion at the World Expo in Milan. Cassandre resided at the CERN for three months from November 2016 to January 2017.



In Switzerland, discipline blending is in the process of becoming a national sport… Encounters between science and the arts flourish, such as the Manufacture (Haute École de Théâtre de Suisse Romande), which, in February 2016, launched a Lausanne lab for research into the performing arts in collaboration with the EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne). This new lab, baptised, SINLAB, is an experimentation space combining artistic creation, scientific investigation and technological development. It is partially financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (to the sum of around 1.4 million francs), in the context of the Sinergia programme. This bridge is further reinforced by the involvement in the project of the ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts) and the theatre studies department of the University of Munich.



CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research). 385, Route de Meyrin, 1217 Meyrin, Switzerland.

Visits. Tel.: +41 (0) 22 767 4052 or +41 (0) 22 767 2757. Email:

Tags: , , , , ,

Also in Genève: