By Joe Ferguson
The other day I visited a historic, working mill. Water from a flume poured over a 36-foot steel-and-wood wheel which then turned a gear to drive a shaft that powered the millstones. I stood inside the mill house for quite a while, staring at the gears and canvas belts. I snapped a few photos with my iPhone. Unlike the mill, my phone is digital. Turned off, the phone is an enigmatic, shiny black brick. If I turned it on, I could tap on an app and play a game. If cracked open however, the working parts would not indicate the motion that is occurring on the screen.
The inner workings of digital tools are of such small scale that we will never see what is happening inside. In Philosophy in the Flesh, Mark Johnson and George Lakoff write, “There is no such fully autonomous faculty of reason separate from and independent of bodily capacities such as perception and movement.” If perception and movement are necessary for understanding, and the inner workings of my digital devices are impossible to see, how can we understand their power?
Gilles Jobin undertakes this task with his latest dance piece Quantum. Jobin was the artist-in-residence at the Collide@CERN program. CERN is a site of considerable achievements in physics and computer science, including the birth of the World Wide Web and the confirmation of the Higgs boson.
On its website, the Collide@CERN program states that it seeks to bring “world-class artists and scientists together in a free exchange of ideas” to “…explore elements even more elusive than the Higgs boson: human ingenuity, creativity and imagination…We believe that particle physics and the arts are inextricably linked: both are ways to explore our existence – what it is to be human, and our place in the universe.”
For three months Jobin observed and interviewed scientists. He also conducted his own onsite investigations by bringing dancers to CERN and exploring how the body reacts in space to certain forces like gravity, with one such experiment taking place in the antimatter factory. Eventually he brought scientists to his laboratory--the dance studio. The result of his research and experimentation was the performance piece Quantum.
Quantum fuses choreography, installation art, and a musical score created solely for the piece. Six paired dancers pulsate, swirl, and scatter in an attempt to relate the concepts of subatomic motion and symmetries. Artist Julius von Bismarck provides an installation of industrial lamps under which the dancers perform. The lamps swing and move, programmed to follow precisely-defined traces that sometimes move in sync with the choreography and sometimes seemingly chaotically, implying separate but related systems. American composer Carla Scaletti supplies the score which incorporates data from the Large Hadron Collider.
One of the things I appreciated when I had the opportunity to watch Quantum was that the piece was not an attempt to directly translate data from a graph or spreadsheet. “It’s not a demonstration of science, it’s inspired by science,” Jobin stated. Instead of a linear narrative, he and his troupe attempted to relate the concepts of particle motion through human movement, and thus bring abstract information into a medium we are wired to understand. For instance, in one section of the performance titled Elusive Duo, dancers portrayed positively-charged particles, necessarily interacting in a system, but unable to touch. This may at first seem simple, but in contemporary dance connection between two bodies is typically related by touch. Here the viewer was required to look past convention to understand how relations are created between subatomic particles.
Though very busy with an international tour, Jobin took time to answer a few questions in an email interview.
JF: What exactly did you mean by the “movement generators” you mentioned in the post-show Q&A?
GJ: “They are like algorithms. I feed the dancers with a set of instructions that they apply to generate choreographed movements. They follow the instructions and create movements that I can relate to totally even though I did not precisely create the movement. Like electronic composers with sound and generative music, I create conditions for a movement to be created.”
Feynman diagrams are pictorial representations of mathematical expressions that describe the behavior of subatomic particles. You mentioned using these in the development of your piece. How?
“A Feynman diagram is a trick of the mind to avoid calculation! A visual representation of very complex mathematics. My dancers learned to draw diagrams to compose movement interactions.”
How did your residency at CERN affect you as an artist?
“At CERN I learned to learn. If I considered myself as science-disabled before, I am now science-abled! Science is like contemporary art, you need the key to open the door. As Jean Luc Godard said about cinema, as an audience you need to work, too! With science it is the same, it takes a bit of effort to get it, but it is so rewarding! I don't know if science will guide me through my future performances but I am a different person after CERN. And now I am looking in the direction of neuroscience.”
Jobin’s commitment to abstraction and refusal to relate a story or directly translate the workings and discoveries at CERN require a greater intellectual engagement by the audience. If movement and perception are two of the requirements of the “faculty of reason,” then Gilles Jobin did an admiral job of making the discoveries of CERN accessible and meaningful.
For videos about Gilles Jobin and Quantum, click here.