“Get into the heart of the Big Bang,” says the announcement of Hall, an accessible 360-degree audio-visual facility soon to open in Brighton. Go away, I want to reply. You couldn’t “step” into the Big Bang without first traveling 13.8 billion years back in time and then being extremely miniaturized. In the end, the universe was estimated to be only 17 cm in diameter at the beginning.
In addition, it was dark inside the Big Bang. In fact there was no light at all. Really, if you stayed about 380,000 years, according to NASA, you might be able to see something, because then free electrons met with nuclei and created neutral atoms that would allow light to pass through. But who has 380,000 years to wait waiting in the dark?
And then there was the heat, my God, the heat. If you stepped in the Big Bang, you would have more than a tan. I’m not a scientist, but I even know that there would be no self-confidence, nor actually eyeballs – because their melting points are much lower than the 1,000 billion Celsius rulers at the time. And that goes beyond the health and safety parameters at the Attenborough Center for Creative Arts at the University of Sussex, where Hall is receiving its British premiere this week.
Hall is the work of Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, artists who like to dramatize extreme cosmic events with visual aids. Astrophysicists also like to do this. Stephen Hawking imagined a passing astronaut spaghettied as he crossed the event horizon into a black hole (a slimmer astronaut would be vermiculated). The term Boom was derived from the astronomer Fred Hoyle, although he actually rejected the theory. Perhaps, like me, he found “big” and “banged” insufficient terms for an event that exploded even faster than my waist during a blockage, going from almost nothing to a diameter of 93 billion light-years (the universe, so not my belt- size).
Fearless, Jarman and Gerhardt converted raw data extracted from subatomic particle collisions at Cern in Switzerland, where they worked as artists, into a mix of light, sound and curious tactile effects. “We put data in a form where you can feel it,” Jarman says. “Data is becoming a sensation.”
I enter Hall to test this. Lights flash on screens and underfoot, creating dots that become spirals, trails, and other evanescent shapes. At the same time I hear a synthetic click of sounds similar to a cross between a spin cycle of a washing machine and a general industrial commotion. I don’t quite feel like I’m stepping into the Big Bang, but I haven’t yet experienced what they call “the technological sublime,” in which data is translated into something much more troubling than beautiful patterns.
“What we don’t want to do,” says Gerhardt, “is produce something like those color photos of nebulae and supernovae.” Their images on the contrary are lofi-black and white while what I hear is anything but symphonic. “We try to emit sounds that physically resonate in your body and create an emotional impact.” I certainly feel emotion, perhaps because I am regaining strength so far beyond my experience.
In Hall, 384 vertical wires are arranged in a circle surrounding visitors, each striking the patterns of data synchronized with the lights. If you touch a resonant wire, you can convince yourself that you feel the universe originate. “It lasts a 60-minute loop,” says Gerhardt, about the sound and vision. “But you can’t say that.” I want to stay complete, but, considering the reduced return of visitors forced by social distance, a stay would be selfish.
Jarman says Cern scientists have taken a good step into Hall, seemingly perceiving in it a simulation of the elegance they find in equations and theories. “For me,” says Professor Antonella De Santo, the physicist at the University of Sussex involved in the project, “this is the first time I’ve felt the scientific beauty I’ve experienced in my career in art form.” She tells me that she was standing in the center of Hall with her eyes closed and felt that she could hear the rhythm of material formation expressed as sound.
But Hall isn’t really about thrilling scientists. Semiconductors, as the duo behind the Hall call themselves, do something even more disruptive: to make people experience what happens beyond the limits of human experience, the vast natural forces that work on Earth and beyond, or change the inescapability of quantum physics. into visual and auditory form.
In 2016, their installation Earthworks used seismic data from volcanoes, earthquakes, glaciers and human impacts to create an attractive five-channel computer-generated animation that, in terms of sound and vision, simulated the evolution of landscapes for thousands of years. They then switched from macro to micro, creating an installation called Waving the Waves, which attempted to make the subatomic imperceptible perceptible by color-coded film. The next Semiconductor project will see them work with physicists from Dundee University who have collected data on the formation of planets.
Neither Jarman nor Gerhardt have scientific backgrounds. Rather they make some kind of external scientific art. That external perspective gives them a refreshing sense of what science is all about. “We think of science as facts,” Jarman says. “But what are the facts?” And what is data? Much of what scientists know is more like fiction. What we do is reveal their frameworks so that everyone can understand. Without a framework, we could know nothing. But that framework is not fixed. It’s an unfinished thing. “
Professor De Santo agrees. “The best scientists are humble. They are not supposed to know everything. They live in uncertainty. “Indeed for her this humble attitude guides her work, which is at the forefront of the new physics, which goes beyond what is called the Standard Model. That model, she explains, told us that there are 17 constructive elements of nature: six quarks, six leptons, four force-carrying particles and the Higgs boson. “But it was incomplete. It didn’t include gravity. It said neutrinos don’t have the mass they have. And it didn’t include dark matter. “I’m not arrogant enough to assume we’ll ever know.”
Jarman laughs when I suggest that Semiconductor performs some sort of ritual spell, turning gray data into something that shakes us from our daily lives, and makes us feel the strangeness and charm of the world beyond human experience – but she doesn’t deny it. When my visit is over, I prepare to re-enter the daily routine. As I follow the green neon exit sign and exit Hall, I reflect that there was probably no such sign in the real Big Bang.