Week 20 – D.Cheeseman, O.Hagen, R.Trotta – 18-24 May (by Alix Mortimer)

CFTY6MPWEAED2XYThis is week twenty, and once more we are in the white room drinking a sticky drink. This is where the truth/beauty-makers show their pictures and other made-things. You will have seen that AJ has already written about week twenty-one and put it up in its own word-pocket before this one. That’s because sometimes space and time are wavy, dark and confusing, and wind around in ways you would never expect! That’s exactly what the truth-beauty makers of week twenty-one wanted to show us, and also exactly what week twenty is about to show.

But all that is in the not-yet-tomorrow, and this is now. Probably. Today there are black shadows in the white room, mirrors of space, which like space are turned in on themselves and covered with stars. There are coloured lights which you can turn on by pressing something several feet away. The big black shadows are like the walls teachers used to write on. One of the black wall shadows is wavy and cut three ways, and on either side of it stand Ole Hagan, a truth/beauty-maker and Dr Roberto Trotta, a student-person who loves space and the stars. They are going to tell us about their different understandings – as a truth/beauty-maker and a student-person – of the all-there-is.

black shadows, mirrors of space, which like space are turned in on themselves and covered with stars
black shadows, mirrors of space, which like space are turned in on themselves and covered with stars

The thousand most commonly used words in the English language are surprisingly impractical. How often are you called upon to use the words “aunt”, “chairman” and “tomato”? Have you ever “smirked” at the “police”? Does your “dog” have “glass” “eyebrows”? And do we really drink so much more “coffee” than… the other common hot drink? The common words are short on Latinate higher register entries, obviously, but they are also short on conceptual language of any origin. I settled for “wavy” in the passage above and it isn’t doing a very good job – of course I never expected to find  “concertina’d”, even if I did work out how to spell it, but I thought I could rely on “crunched” or “folded” – nope. And hard cheese, or hard white bar of animal-water-food, if you have to count anything that numbers between seven and ten.


Roberto Trotta’s The Edge of the Sky is a book about the universe written in these thousand most commonly used words, and among the words it cannot use is universe, hence “all-there-is”. He gets round the numbers problem with word-sums, and the terminology problem with charming coinages – “star-crowd” for galaxy, “big-seer” for large telescope. But on the basis of my tortuous ten minutes composing the above I imagine his real problem was the lack of common conceptual words. Think of all the words you use to describe any concept – whether in particle physics, art or any other theory field, and you will be struck by how many of them are lumpy old Anglo-Saxon words used metaphorically. Common (but clearly not that common) words used to uncommon purposes. We “crunch” numbers as well as crisps, the universe in some conceptions is “folded up” and so is the ironing board, and all new theories or works “build” on previous ones. And in the biggest metaphorical catch-alls imaginable we talk about the “stuff” the universe is “made of”. In fact, public intellectual discourse is in the grip of a bit of a pride movement with the words “stuff” and “things” right now, and academics below a certain age are right there in it.

CFUcuUzWoAA7gWPAs such, The Edge of the Sky doesn’t actually make its subject matter any simpler. Leaving aside technical jargon which is easily unpicked with a glossary, we use simple words to talk about this big fundamental stuff already, and it’s still difficult. You’d be hard pushed, even in this elegant little book, to find a more pure and childlike coinage than the respectable jargon term “space-time” but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to get my stupid great ape brain round. Trotta describes his special subject, dark matter (both words which make the top ten hundred) as a metaphor for the bits of the universe that… well, frankly, we don’t have a damn clue what they are or what they’re made of. Really most of particle physics reasoning takes place on such a theoretical plain that the whole discussion is made of pure metaphor.

CFxBsGOWYAAyGysAnd what else is made of pure metaphor? Art. Art is as logical a way as any to represent the theoretical realities that particle physics seeks to describe. It certainly lends itself to depicting what dark matter might be. Trotta understands all this, because in the accompanying interview he doesn’t talk about his science communication work in terms of simplifying as such. You can’t simplify this, er, stuff, it’s just complicated. Instead he is concerned with “speaking to people’s hearts”, a subtly different proposition, and this is why he is interested in collaborating with artists.

CFxBpMKXIAAHTWDThis has happy potential, but I feel it all needs to gel a bit more before it can produce anything genuinely collaborative and new. I read the book as a result of going to the exhibition and I think I now understand – in a WTF way – dark matter. So that’s a result. And I liked David Cheeseman’s scrunchy, glittering blackboard sculptures and I understood instinctively that they were post-Newtonian models of the universe and were going to do as well as anything else at helping me conceive of what the universe is. But I didn’t really understand anything from Trotta and Hagan’s performative conversation (see if you can do better here), other than that they like collaborating with people from other fields. The conversation is not itself the exhibit, it’s just the happening that draws your attention to all the ideas underlying the exhibits. And at the moment I think the participants are still figuring out how these ideas fit together and how they can help each other.

CFhWDW3WEAAm6nMThere’s a point in their interview when Cheeseman discusses the parallels between the tools of the most advanced astronomy and physics and the perception-bending props of the magician. And you can hear Trotta demurring slightly, insofar as people of such charm and positivity ever demur. Perhaps this isn’t a useful parallel to him in terms of his mission. He wants to show – and find new ways of showing – what the all-there-is is, with the most direct and simply constructed metaphors he can find (whether made out of words or other artistic media). So maybe metaphors that wilfully introduce further confusion and baggage, like the intersection between science and magic, are unhelpful. On the night Trotta spoke engagingly about the history of particle physics and how the whole enterprise had been conducted for a number of decades in a spirit of “shut up and compute”. The twentieth century was the age of the pointless and sterile science/arts standoff, and the discipline of physics did not entertain the idea of collaborating with philosophy and the arts to find ways of describing reality. The next age of physics may well unfold differently, but only if all cross-field collaborators strip back everything they think they understand about each other and create a very basic new discourse in which to communicate. Possibly this is what Trotta was grasping towards by writing The Edge of the Sky.

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Alix Mortimer writes at https://fabulousblueporcupine.wordpress.com/, tweets at @alixmortimer, and has previously written here about Week 7.

Week 21 – The Rot of the Stars – 25-31 May

CGHQHSTW8AAo7Kd“Rot of the stars” is one name given to ‘star jelly’ – the gelatinous substance found on grass and branches that folklore records as having been deposited by meteor showers or shooting stars or formed from the inedible bits of frogs and toads. Whether it’s bird vomit or extra-terrestrial star-slubber, it’s a fascinating example of a substance whose explanation seems to elude science.

“Rot of the Stars” is also the name of Week 21/50 of fig-2’s collaboration between visual and performance artist Jo Fisher Roberts and experimental musician, Strange Attractor founder and writer Mark O Pilkington. We met Mark back in Week 14 when he led a ‘world tarot’ reading using Suzanne Trister’s HEXEN 2.0 tarot deck which seemed to accurately predict the outcome of the UK election.

Fig-2_Rot_of_the_Stars_21_50_-install-12He’s a far out guy, and their fig-2 installation was pretty cosmic. The ICA studio space was set out with the minimum of light. In the corner a crawl-in fungal mycelium, a space like Shelob’s Lair hung with strands of silky crap that left you picking star jelly out of your clothes and hair. Hung charcoal drawings depicted cell structures at once beautiful and grotesque, depicting scales at once infinitely small and infinitely large.

CGP4_3EU8AE99oMThe performance itself was commendably weird, involving Jo draped in black crawling around a silk wigwam in the middle of the completely darkened performance space, splashing perfume and drawing a large circle around it with rock salt. Mark created feedback loops of sound that he manipulated electronically. A peculiar revery was set up by the strangeness and the darkness.

The handout at the show was a 1991 paper published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration Conditions That Appear to Favor Extrasensory Interactions Between Homo Sapiens and Microbes” (C.M. Pleass & N. Dean Dey). The authors attempted to study the possibility of extrasensory interactions between humans and unicellular microbes (actual ones, I don’t mean Daily Mail readers) through three series’ of experiments, concluding that it didn’t work but going on to blame science for not usefully understanding anomalous phenomena.

The Society for Scientific Exploration is “a professional scientific society” that publishes “peer reviewed research” into unconventional subjects including “consciousness, physics, alternative energy, healing”, that sort of thing. Crypto-zoology and that fun mindbending Fortean stuff. I’m sure they’re awesome but I must admit their name rings the same alarm bells as when you hear of a “Democratic Republic of…” – a moniker that instantly alerts one to the absence of any democratic republicanism in that country. Scientific exploration, that’s a methodology rather than an object in itself, unless your object is to apply scientific methodology to subjects that stubbornly resist such approaches. Arguably this is what Freud did in ‘making scientific’ the study of the unconscious, but we have been less successful in studying ghosts and UFOs.

CFeSmE0WIAANnLXThe ostensible purpose of the fig-2 show was to make an attempt to enter into an extrasensory interaction with the unicellular microbes that inhabit the plastisphere, an ecosystem inhabited by more than 1,000 species of bacteria and algae that have evolved to live on microplastic debris. This might even have been a serious attempt, given the precedent of the apparently serious experiments of the Society for Scientific Exploration.

As they explain in their interview with fig-2 curator Fatos Ustek, the idea of Jo and Mark’s collaboration and the Rot Of The Stars performances is to change your perceptions of space and time through plunging you into darkness. The ROTS performances chart an ongoing battle to black out spaces, in crypts under churches, in the Royal Academy, in studios in Berlin. They concede it would be easier to blindfold people rather than the space.

I can offer two experimental cases to illustrate the sensory deprivation in an art or entertainment context. Back in 2011 I attended “an evening of psychodramatic music” called “Disturbia”. The concert concluded with Luciano Berio’s long two-track tape piece Visage (1961), during which the audience was blindfolded with eye-masks. Something about sitting in an auditorium without the hallucinations of the imagination, the little flickers that think you see in darkness, demonstrated that sensory deprivation is not necessarily immersive and can be a bit boring.

_67505602_not-i-allan-titmussBetter was seeing Lisa Dwan in Samuel Beckett’s short play Not I for which the theatre actually switched off the Exit signs to present the spectacle of a disembodied mouth in otherwise almost complete darkness. The actor’s face was painted black with just the mouth showing, and the mouth seemed to move within the darkness, but this was an optical illusion: the actor was strapped in. A strange phenomenon and a unique theatrical experience.

Fig-2_Rot_of_the_Stars_21_50_-install-5In the Pleass/Dey paper they suggest (though can’t prove) that “the environment which an individual perceives may be a manifestation of their conscious and subconscious expectations”  which might give a clue as to why ROTS attempt to upset your perceptions. If the attempt to communicate with microbes is to be successful it might require stripping away other noise from the senses: to take away quotidian sense stimuli and replace them with suggestive images, sounds and smells to channel thought toward the object.

Maybe the illusions are more real than reality; in an atomic sense Lisa Dwan’s mouth speaking Beckett’s lines in the pitch black really was moving around. Our brains have to smooth out what we perceive because otherwise we’d go mad. What we experience as reality is in reality a simplification of noise.

CF7dFrgUMAAZnnBThere is plenty of anecdotal record of sensory deprivation as sensory immersion as sensory overload as sensory awareness, and its expressive and communicative potentiality. Jo and Mark connect it with the experience of epilepsy, and Dostoevsky describes the “amazing God-like God-visiting overwhelming feeling of connectedness to everything” that comes during an attack. It is at such moments that people go on about alpha waves and beta waves and how we move into different scales and non-rational modes of being. Out of body experiences would count among these, and the feeling that sometimes goes along with that (maybe while on drugs, who knows) of being able to talk to God.

Can we talk to the (micro)animals? We’d better hope that we can get in touch with these new microbes and try to chivvy them along to get stuck in and start eating up this plastisphere and turning it into something delicious. Plankton are eating plastic, meaning we are all eating plastic too, which is not delicious so much as incredibly toxic and harmful.

We need to literally sort out our shit as a species. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is almost bigger than Ed Sheeran, already six times the size of mainland Britain, a black hole of plastic waste sucking in hope, and growing, filling the sea, a continent of chemical disaster just below the surface of the water, a thick desert of death. Reports of sailing through it are pretty harrowing, and soon, when the sea finally congeals into Hello Kitty, there will be a place in history for the first person to walk on foot from San Francisco to Hawaii.