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When art and science collide

Julius von Bismarck

Inspired by attempts to make sense of the unimaginable, Germany’s 28-year-old Julius von Bismarck beat 400 applicants to become Cern’s first industry-sponsored artist in residence. He speaks to Elizabeth Gibney about how we can learn from mixing up the status quo.

What made you want to take this job?

I’ve been interested in science since I was a child. My brother’s a physicist and my grandfather was a physicist. I work a lot with technology, but what’s particularly interesting for me at Cern is to work with invisible things. There are things that might not be imaginable. It’s a really good example to show the limitations of our brains by working on something we can only describe using models or numbers.

Your past work has incorporated algorithms of facial expressions, patent drawings and modelling gravity with falling spheres—what inspires you about science?

Well, for example, with the gravity spheres, it’s about finding a different way to show something that is there all the time. Making someone aware of something that’s been there since they were born is quite difficult. But our way of feeling it is really special. The same thing happens in art—I’m trying to express something that was not felt before or exhibited before, or imagined.

How much do you need to be able to understand physics to do the job?

As much as I can. Half the time here I’m trying to understand what’s going on. I’ve had the chance to go underground to the experiments, ask lots of questions and every day I understand a bit better. My partner in the residency here, [physicist] James Wells helps me.

How have other researchers at Cern reacted to you?

They seem to welcome me and in my experience, physicists or scientists in general are quite honest, so if they seem to be interested then they are. Every door is open, and I can go anywhere. In the future I want more discussion going back and forth; about things here and art, but also philosophy and all those things in between art and science.

Does it annoy you how much people tend to separate art and science?

Well there is a difference so it makes sense not to put them both in one pot, but there are also lots of similarities, especially in the drive behind them. People working in areas far away from science, in business or a technical job, ask why we are spending so much money finding particles that are not visible or usable for anything? But I wholly understand the true reason. Even if you spend a lot of money on something that doesn’t make money, you still make knowledge and something that changes how people see the world—that’s what artists are also interested in.

Is your work supposed to help people to understand physics?

That’s one thing that art can do, but that’s not the most important reason—art isn’t an instrument to explain science. Science can be used to explain art and vice versa, but they can be side by side and benefit from each other without explaining anything.

Do you think other labs will be inspired to take on artists in residence?

I hope so. People here seem to be quite hungry for it. I also know that a lot of artists are interested in science, but they don’t know how to make contact. It can sometimes be difficult because scientists have a clichéd view of art that’s not so true any more, and it’s the same for artists who don’t know what science is really about. It’s important to mix up any field. If an artist understands a lot about science it will make him a better artist. If a politician understands more about art it would make him a better politician, as it would if he knew more about science.

Do you hope to inspire the scientists themselves, as well as the public?

That’s the big goal. At the moment I’m learning more from them but I hope I can give something back by talking, and through the small pieces I leave. I hope I will give inspiration, and change a tiny bit their way of seeing things. I’m not here just to take away, I’m here to give something.