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«SIMETRIA» When art and science are willing to conceive new ideas beyond inspiration

«SYMMETRY» Residency 2019

CERN in Switzerland >> 25 June to 12 July
ALMA in Chile >> 5 to 30 August 2019

by Carolina Martínez

There are human disciplines that, from their onset, are destined to inquire into the most fundamental aspects of existence and to uncover the secrets of the origin of the universe – and within that, of life itself. That is the case of art and science, both dedicated to creation and experimentation and, yet, perceived by many as opposite spheres.

Through its practices, art seeks to achieve an understanding of things through its reflection parallel to life, leading people to question the world, without necessarily reaching an answer. The sciences also seek such understanding, but working intensely to find accurate and exact answers. These two approaches, in a way, aim to get to the same place. These are their immanent vocations.

Understanding and emphasizing this common point, a mission – or desire – was undertaken: to create knowledge from both areas. This does not mean that one subject can replace the value of the other, but that together they have an exponential potential to create new thinking models, thereby improving the society and people’s lives.

On this premise, in 2018, three of the world’s leading scientific research centres joined forces to create an artistic residency program in Switzerland and Chile, connecting Europe and Latin America. One of them is the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN, in its French acronym), the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, based in Geneva (Switzerland) and whose mission is to research what the universe is made of and how does it work. The other two are the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), the largest and most ambitious astronomical centre, located in northern Chile, in partnership with the European Southern Observatory (ESO). And since ALMA is an international astronomy facility, is also in partnership with the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile.

ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI). ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning, and operation of ALMA. 

These two research centres gave birth to the «Symmetry» residency project, organized by the Chilean Video and Electronic Arts Corporation with the support of COINCIDENCIA, the Swiss-South American cultural exchange program of the Swiss Foundation for Culture, Pro Helvetia, and the Ministry of Cultures, Arts and Heritage of Chile. As indicated by its name, this project seeks to create and provide spaces for cross-cutting research, creation and dialogue between the associated fields of study and the countries and entities involved.


Nicole L’Huillier. The beauty of the vibration phenomenon in the universe

Nicole L’Huillier at ALMA in Chile

From Chile, the selected artist was Nicole L’Huillier, a Chilean transdisciplinary artist currently based in Boston, U.S. Her research topics relate to the exploration of sound in space and to how, through the encounter between art, science, technology and music, it is possible to imagine other scenarios beyond our terrestrial boundaries.

To describe the artist and her work, a trip to the past is in order. Nicole L’Huillier states that she was curious since childhood, her first explorations being related with music. The musical instruments and their mechanisms caught her attention. She started playing, not having any formal training in the area. Her academic training was in Architecture, at the renowned University of Chile. While studying there, she became interested in the notion of space and in how each element interacts and is affected by other elements in a given context. At that time, she was also attracted to materials as a language and to the proper balance of things and the harmony in the cosmos. It was at this time that the question arose about how to deal with sound as a construction material and how to work with these invisible materials, translating them from abstraction into something communicable.

To understand and answer these questions – and awes, at the same time – Nicole L’Huillier decided to pursue a master’s degree in Media Arts & Sciences at the MIT Media Lab, seeing it as the logical way to further her research. During her master’s, her key working concepts were the materials, the architecture, the space and the sound. Currently, as a doctoral student at the MIT Media Lab, Nicole seeks to go beyond in the exploration of vibrations and in the subject of sound as a building material in space. The artist says she always finds herself in these places and in the interstices where art intersects science and technology, places where collaboration is fundamental.

It is this idea of collaboration and exchange that Nicole L’Huillier highlights from the union and the relationship between art and science. It’s the ability to come up with new ideas and not simply to feel inspired by something and bring it into one’s practice: «What I really enjoy is the conversation that is sparked, not only from inviting artists to CERN or ALMA, but from being truly willing to build a new world».

Nicole L´Huillier sound installation at CERN

For some time now, the Chilean artist has been developing experimental works that intertwine with science. But it was with one of her recent works, «Telemetron», that she definitely stood out. «Telemetron» is a musical device that can issue sound under zero gravity conditions and is able to function almost independently of human action. In fact, this device depends more on the factors the artist says she tries to put in the right balance. This is how this project incorporates Nicole’s lines of research – and fascination.

Alongside the Swiss participant Alan Bogana, Nicole L’Huillier’s residence took place at different times and spaces. Between June 25 to July 12, 2019, Nicole was at CERN’s premises.In August of the same year, she visited ALMA Observatory and the Very Large Telescope located at Paranal Observatory in northern Chile, as well as Santiago offices of ALMA and ESO in Santiago. During these days, the exchange was very enriching and the conversation revolved around the things we cannot see, the beauty of abstraction. This is the importance of the perceptions’ extent. If there is one thing that has marked science and technology since the early twentieth century, that is the necessity and obsession that all functions, calculations, and measurements move from abstraction to materialization – or at least , to the possibility of being seen and understood by the human senses.

The value of such collaborations lies in the possibility of broadening the notion of reality and sharing it with the rest of the world, but not only regarding science’s relationship with the world. It is about being able to connect science and art with other capabilities. In the artist’s words, if we all had a chance to understand what happens in the action fields, understanding, for example, what is matter made of, we certainly would have a less divided and better world.

The process of research, conceptualization and creation is just beginning. Its materialization will occur through a project or artork that, for now, is difficult to define or delineate. Currently, her attention is focused on a work that will be at the Bienal de Artes Mediales (Media Arts Biennial), which will take place in Chile between November 2019 and January 2020, at different venues in the country’s capital.


Alan Bogana. Fictionalized Narratives of Light and Matter

Alan Bogana at ESO Library in Santiago, Chile

From Switzerland, the selected one was the multimedia artist Alan Bogana, who got involved with media arts even before starting the arts college in his country. His starting point were the tools, both those used to produce and research these artistic practices, as well as those used by science and technology. Then, the artist began to explore the phenomenon of recording and visualization mechanisms, such as video and photography, later involving other types of production phenomena. Understanding these phenomena enabled him to magnify our surroundings’ reality and, thereby, to operate and create from the visible reflection, the invisible, shaping the perceptions that modify the surrounding world.

The artist’s methodologies and works are based on the understanding of these tools, they allow him to make art from science. Alan agrees with Nicole that the relationship between the different fields an artist can travel through is fundamental. It is from this conception that the multiple narratives and styles that Alan uses end up intertwining with the fictional aspect of realities and sciences he studies.

This fiction of something totally tangible, such as the surrounding space, is constructed through his main areas of work: matter and its interaction with light. Thus, Alan has been focusing his attention on the installations, sculptures and videos that deal with these elements in various ways. The artist uses, in addition, computer graphics, electronics, time-based media and holography, to communicate the worlds built by him, which allude to the subjectivity inherent to the perception of the world.

In this form of production, the artist resorts to appropriation. That is, the incorporation of external elements into the field of art, to exhibit or make them emerge from a subjectivity that can sometimes be cryptic, insofar as it does not aim to illustrate or represent other knowledge. Therefore, through this reappropriation, he inserts and presents his research processes that became artwork, involving mineralogy, photography or chemistry in these reports. Thus, Alan is able, for example, to reconstruct in a video what a diamond planet might look like, or to recreate with a digital hologram the molecules of a component created by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

The question about whether the exchange between art and science flows proportionally in both directions is not new to this artist, who hopes that, from his approaches and methodologies, new perspectives for science may spark, opening spaces to new conversations and to create and think new ideas together.

Alan’s stays at ALMA and at ESO’s office were his first time in Chile and Latin America, places the artist characterizes as unique and singular contexts where there are still great things to be done and a focus to promote improvements in the fields of art and culture. The task is unfinished and there is still a long way to go. For now, what follows the «Symmetry» project is intense research and creation work, a process that was enhanced by the unexpected selection to be part of this initiative, which represented a great opportunity to gain greater knowledge and preparation.

Nicole L´Huillier and Alan Bogana at Paranal Observatory. The background is the ESOs VLT.

«Having the opportunity to research in these great physics and astronomy scientific centres, being able to establish bridges of discussion between both disciplines is not just a privilege or an opportunity. It is a responsibility to shape the things and impulses that involve great efforts on the part of various entities and people. Boundaries should not be eliminated but effaced, absorbing other sensitivities and other ways of doing, thinking and creating. This includes opening the possibility of making mistakes. There is no need to replace existing spaces, but to create new ones and exploit the opportunities.»