Monica Bello, Head of Arts at CERN, Geneva

MONICA BELLOMonica Bello is a critic and curator. Between 2010 and 2015 she was artistic director of VIDA, Art and Artificial Life International Awards, founded in 1999 by Fundacion Telefonica, Madrid, Spain. Since March 2015 he is the head of Arts at Cern the official art program of the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva whose main objective is the promotion of dialogue between artists and particle physics. It fosters the creation of new expert knowledge in the arts by extending artists’ practice in connection with fundamental research.

During our video conversation, Monica Bello ponders about the relationship between arts and science, presents the program “Arts at Cern” and describes the experiences of a few artists.

Tiziana Casapietra: I’d like to focus more on the project you are working on at the moment and the upcoming ones, firstly, and secondly what do you think, which I think is the main issue, about what science can add to the arts and viceversa.
Monica Bello: Ok, well, I’m the head of “Arts at Cern” which is the official arts programme at Cern. Cern is located in Geneva and it is the largest laboratory dedicated to particle physics and it hosts the most famous experiment: the large Hadron collider. The Arts programme at Cern is intended to be a framework to invite artists to be part of this huge community of scientists who are looking at the most invisible and subtle events in the universe and the hidden phenomena of nature. Cern scientists are mostly particle physicists as well as engineers who try to go deeper into the nature of matter to understand the properties of this matter and furthermore to understand what is the origin of the universe, the world, and everything that surrounds us as well as ourselves. So this is an amazing opportunity for an artist to go deeper into fundamental questions of being, of nature, of the cosmos, of systems etc… And for the last six years we have been working intensively to make artistic and scientific connections happen in this environment. “Arts at Cern” brings the opportunity for artists to become researchers within the scientific environment. So to do that, we set up four programmes per year and four different ways to participate in Cern’s dynamics. Two of them are under the umbrella of the “Collide” programme which provides the opportunity to carry out extended research at Cern. At the moment we have the open call running, the international one, so any artist from any country in the world can submit a proposal for developing research at Cern over the course of three months. We invite a committee to select the best proposals, make a short list, then we decide on one. The artist comes here for two or three months and works intensively with a scientific partner, a scientist who is involved in the research process, and in this way they establish a partnership, finding a common ground in their own practices. Then we have “Accelerate” which is another project. We have two candidates per year. “Accellerate” offers the opportunity to be part of our programme and in this very moment we are about to announce the artists who come from Croatia and South Korea. Last year they came from Lithuania and the United Arab Emirates; next year it will be two other countries. We develop international relationships with institutions to put forward artists from their country to take part. These are our programmes and we are really focusing on providing a place for artists to develop research and these are the mechanisms we have for that.

TC: Do the artists receive a salary?
MB: This is very important to us. We are looking for high standards in the practice but also in the way we can support research, so when an artist comes here, he or she receives the same amount of money as a scientific researcher and the residencies are fully funded. We cover accommodation, travel and expenses as well as the prize award.

TC: Are there any artists working at the moment or is there any specific project you would like to focus on?
MB: At this moment we have an artist, Cassandre Poirier-Simon, from Switzerland. She is a writer. She works with narratives allowed by using digital technologies and she has been with us for almost three months and she is almost at the end of her time here. She is working on new narratives around collective memories in the scientific environment; we will have a presentation at the end of the residence with an audience of colleagues, scientists and cultural producers. Next month, actually in a few days time, Yunchul Kim, a guy form South Korea, Seoul, will come to stay with us for two months. He has been working for a few years now with phenomena happening with different kinds of materials that he mixes in his laboratory. He is experimenting with a sort of contemporary alchemy. These are the artists that are coming here. Cassandre is already here and Yunchul will come soon. In our case at Cern the thing that makes this residency unique is the fact that Cern is a fundamental research laboratory. The focus of Cern is particle physics. This is basic science; it is not applied science. At some point it might affect industry and development but the focus and the goal of the thousands of people who work at Cern is just one: to understand the nature of the universe. With that it is interesting to see how the artist adapts and reacts to this kind of environment, to make the intellectual effort to understand things that are really hidden and that are far from our logic. Understanding the quantum nature of phenomena is something that is not very accessible for any of us. I think this is what makes it so unique. And then of course there is the aspect of being, like many other campuses in the world, at this moment Cern has giant collaboration with people from all over the world and everyone is trying to communicate with each other about what they are doing because in science it is very important, as you know, for people to communicate with each other, because this is the only way they can extend their research. When we invite artists to be part of this process, it becomes really relevant for them as well, because artists tend not to be so connected, not so keen to express what they are doing every day. In science communication is fundamental, really, it is the only way to progress. This environment is very welcoming to anyone with good ìdeas and interesting questions because people are very keen to engage in discussion and dialogue. Yes, I think it is a beautiful opportunity and a very intriguing place for any artist.

TC: What do you think art can give to science?
MB: Well, art provides the realisation that wonder and curiosity are fundamental for humanity and our species. We are always a bit dissatisfied by the unanswered question. This is part of our nature as a species. This is positive in the way we are always trying to improve things, and to understand better. Nowadays, all of us are really informed about many things that are going on around our world. Information is being processed, it is fluid, it is all over our environment, but being knowledgeable, the urge to know more, and trying to understand further, is something that artists and scientists do really well. It is all about creating meaning out of information. Cern is looking at the meaning of conversations between people who are looking at what the universe is made of. It is a fascinating environment.

TC: From my experience I see that scientists’ approach towards the future is very positive. Sometimes artists’ approach can be sceptical. They criticize technology and scientific development more. Do you also see these different approaches in your experience?
MB: I think both of them are very sceptical, but scientists in some ways have a better plan. The plan is a collective one and it is long term. There might be contingencies in the way the plan is delivered but these contingencies are also part of the plan. While artists are more open to find things that are unexpected, unplanned or not drawn up in the scenario of what is going to happen in the next twenty years. I think artists are more free to improvise and to fail. If we talk about failure we can say that is a very positive topic for both art and science. Mistakes are things that are important in science, they form part of the contingencies, and in art they are part of the aesthetics. I think that there are many things they don’t have in common, which they disagree with, but the general feeling is the same, the differences are in the choices they make. Of course, artists are those who makes the awkward questions. Artists come with these questions that bring other layers closer to epistemology, the nature of knowledge, what are the boundaries of humanity, the social issues, the economical, political and the anthropological etc… There are many more layers to add and this is systemic, it can become very complex. In science, in my humble opinion, it happens similarly but it is not so open to speculation. Although I think many artists practice right now a bit of counter culture to what is accepted and science, as well as other structures in our society, is being criticised by many, many of them. This is how I see it.

TC: The last question Monica: do you have specific examples you want to talk about of an artist working with a scientist?
MB: Well, as I said before the residencies are focused on research and are very much focused on the proposals that come to us. When the artist develops the project, the proposal changes or goes much further than the initial idea or is dropped directly. Particle physics is really a very expert field and it is not very common for people to understand what fundamental physics is about a priori. We had the luck and the chance to work with artists who really knew and were very informed about particle physics, like Ryoji Ikeda, who came to work with us in 2014 and 2015. Ryoji Ikeda created, during the residency and afterwards, two major installations which have been touring the world since then. He is a very good example of how science is affecting the research of an artist, who for a long time has looked at physics and mathematics in a very detailed way. Ryoji Ikeda went to work with still experimental theories like supersymmetry, he dedicates most of his research to understanding physics and the equations around it and later he went to talk to the scientists to contrast his ideas and his understanding of the theories. So, yes, I think he gave us one of the most successful residencies so far.