Material Sight: Re-presenting the Spaces of Fundamental Science 

The Laboratorie Nazionali del Gran Sasso (LNGS), accessed via the Traforo del Gran Sasso freeway tunnel

Material Sight: Re-presenting the Spaces of Fundamental Science was a practice-based research project evolved by artist and academic, Fiona Crisp, and hosted by Arts Catalyst, London. The project examined the use of visualisation in fundamental science and explored how non-documentary photography and film might be used to embody a sense of material encounter at three world-leading research facilities for particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology. Funded by The Leverhulme Trust under their Research Fellowship scheme, the project ran from October 2016 to July 2018.

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Dr Juergen Schmoll, Centre for Advanced Instrumentation, Durham University, UK, 2012

Many areas of contemporary science, including cosmology, particle physics and astrophysics, operate at scales and levels of complexity that lie beyond the imaginative and cognitive grasp of non-scientists. Historically, Western culture measured space and time through the body, but over the centuries science and technology have pursued knowledge beyond the edges of bodily perception, from the macro extremes of the multiverse to the micro-scale of the sub-atomic world. Today, with advanced science and technology, and with the accelerating impact of human activity on the planet, we live in new scales of size and speed that we cannot easily comprehend. If so much knowledge comes through scientific instruments, how can we make sense of it within our own experience? As the astronomer Roger Malina notes: “Our intuition, our languages, our metaphors and our arts are all built on the wrong data for understanding the universe”.

Crisp approaches this dilemma through the use of still and moving imagery to place us in a bodily relation to the physical spaces and laboratories where fundamental science is performed. Her research has taken her to the Laboratori Nazionale del Gran Sasso, sited within a mountain in central Italy, the world’s largest underground research centre for particle physics; Boulby Underground Laboratory, which occupies the UK’s deepest working mine, over a kilometre beneath the Earth’s surface; and the combined facilities at Durham University, UK, that include the Centre for Advanced Instrumentation, the Institute of Computational Cosmology and the Institute of Particle Physics Phenomenology. Within these sites, she is interested in whether the material environment can be a conduit to understanding and, more specifically, if photography can embody the spaces of experimental science and present them back to scientists and non-scientists alike as sites of phenomenological encounter.

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Professor Sean Paling, Boulby Underground Laboratory, UK, 2009

Arts Catalyst has hosted Crisp’s research process in the context of a broader consideration of the philosophical, cultural and practical issues of science coming to us through mediated data, and the challenge (to repeat Malina’s phrase) of “making science intimate”. An experimental workshop, The Live Creature and Ethereal Things: How Art is Transforming Science, was held at the Institute of Physics, London in October 2017 to explore the insights and strategies of artists and cultural practitioners whose creative work can help to transform and inform our intuitions and vocabulary about science. The book, The Live Creature and Ethereal Things: Physics in Culture was subsequently published in June 2018.  This website has documented  how Material Sight evolved over the course of the Leverhulme Fellowship and continues to archive events and articles that come as a legacy of the project.

About Fiona Crisp

Fiona Crisp is an artist and academic whose research resides at the intersection of photography, sculpture and architecture where the limits and capabilities of both photography and video are explored through the making of large-scale installations.  Her past projects have used sites that range from the Early Christian catacombs of Rome to a Second World War underground military hospital in the Channel Islands; works from this period formed part of her solo, touring exhibition, Subterrania, that launched at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead before touring.

Fiona’s work is represented by Matt’s Gallery, London and is held in many public collections, including the Tate, Arts Council and the Government Art Collection.  She is a Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University, Newcastle and a founder member of the research group The Cultural Negotiation of Science.

Find out more about Fiona here.

About Arts Catalyst

Arts Catalyst commissions art that experimentally and critically engages with science, producing provocative, and risk-taking projects to spark dynamic conversations about our changing world. Through commissions, exhibitions and events, it enables people to have distinctive, thought-provoking experiences that transcend traditional boundaries of art and science.

Got a question?

Contact Fiona Crisp via fiona@fionacrisp.com
Contact Arts Catalyst via admin@artscatalyst.org