Some kind of invisible matter is having a gravitational effect on everything. Without the gravity of this dark matter, galaxies would fly apart. Dark matter hasn’t been directly detected, but observational data in astroparticle physics indicate that it exists.
Drift: Art and Dark Matter is an artist residency and exhibition project developed with the Arthur B. McDonald Canadian Astroparticle Physics Research Institute and SNOLAB, Canada’s underground science laboratory. For this project, artists Nadia Lichtig, Josèfa Ntjam, Anne Riley and Jol Thoms were invited to make new work while engaging with scientists, theorists and engineers contributing to the search for dark matter at SNOLAB’s research facility in Sudbury, located two kilometres below the Earth’s surface.
The residency’s first stage took place over two extended site visits in July and October of 2019, during which artists, scientists and other scholars connected with each other in both Sudbury and Kingston. Interactions ranged in focus from the basics of dark matter and neutrino physics to ancient underground water and Anishinaabe cosmology, and included artist talks, discussions and hands-on engagement with the unique research experiments in SNOLAB. The second stage took place in the artists’ home studios with continued online conversations with specialists. With the exhibition in place, a selection of scientists was invited to directly respond to the exhibition.
The title Drift draws from the mining term for a horizontal tunnel, in this case the passageway in the copper and nickel mine stretching between the cage (mining elevator) and the clean lab spaces of SNOLAB. The project originated from reflections on the forms and energies that connect scientific research to art, landscapes, cultures and histories. To drift is also to stray from a path or standard.
Scientists know the quantity of dark matter that must be in the universe due to its gravitational effects on visible matter, but they don’t know many of the qualities of this matter, since it doesn’t interact with the electromagnetic spectrum. Emerging theories about new particles, cold gasses, massive halo objects or micro black holes speculate on these qualities and encourage varied forms of experimental detection. For example, the experimental infrastructure, expertise and lab site of SNOLAB are focused on direct detection of rare particles and processes—the quiet depths of its underground setting might allow for the detection of dark matter. While each refinement of these theories is productive for science, the continued non-detection of dark matter through direct methods is an invitation for new ways of thinking and searching.
In addition to creating new paths for viewers into rich scientific questions, one of the provocations of Drift: Art and Dark Matter is that art, as a different way of knowing, could spark insight for this search—whether through approaches to the actual details of dark matter science or through approaches that might be science-adjacent, exploring the unconscious or metaphorical. Evidently, this moment invites imaginative thought about what dark matter might be. It is also a moment for reflection on the ways science is attempting to detect dark matter, for reflection on why we want to detect it, and for generally passing dark matter physics through the prism of artistic making-thinking.
The residency organizers asserted the value of both disciplines as research practices, and readers may notice instances of commonalities, shared practice and cross-influence between contemporary art making and dark matter physics. Each discipline has a drive to see outside of itself, to invent something new, to build on and surpass its own traditions and shortcomings. Readers may also notice blind spots, tensions and urgencies within this project’s encounter between artists and scientists, engineers, science communicators, laboratories and broader contexts.
The residency experience revealed what is already deeply aesthetic and inventive within science. For example, in her conversations with the Drift artists, cosmologist Renée Hložek called attention to the different ways she approaches imagination in her field. Josèfa Ntjam has woven this presence of narrative and aesthetics within science into her artistic work.
The friction of different ways of knowing cannot help but bring wider contexts to light and suggests that one could ask “why/how is it that we search for dark matter?” If we look to artist Anne Riley, whose practice is founded on a decolonial and indigenizing love ethic, we can see how invisible matter might be understood through the blind spots and openings experienced in the process of language learning and cultural translation. Whose voices, theories and ideas are guiding our search for dark matter? By encountering different ways of knowing, physics and art can open up to voices not often heard.
Dark matter is an appropriate agent in a physics-art exchange, for it exists beyond normal human perception yet it provides coherence between all things touched by gravity. An artist’s practice weaves together the gestures of acting and being acted on—acting on material forces of being and allowing oneself to be acted upon by them. Through this process artists create new direct sensory knowledge that can only be completed by viewers. Perhaps, in this way, artworks and exhibitions are like science’s experimental apparatuses, which set up conditions with possible, variable results.
The scientific method aims to reduce uncertainties: in physics, researchers work together in an ongoing cycle to advance our understanding. Theorists propose possible explanations for observed data, experimentalists design experiments to test these explanations, and in turn those results provide additional data which helps to refine theories and generate new questions. Artists are not necessarily motivated by a drive for answers, but rather a proliferation of questions, and their works are often made to increase the free play of meaning. We may think about artworks as being like scientific theories in the way they test proposals about how such free play might be situated in the world or might move through it.
Innovations in art, as in science, have material effects. Can we take up an artist’s ideas and methodologies as tangible solutions or pathways toward understanding our world? For example, Jol Thoms’s concept of landscape laboratories invents new techniques for wider awareness of the interconnections of being through productively critiquing the heritage of science and art. We may also sense the possibility of a new hybrid genre that traverses both art and physics.
Driven by goals of equal exchange and innovation, the residency evolved with a program invented by Elvira Hufschmid (Graduate Research Fellow at Queen’s University) called “Understanding the World through Aesthetics.” This workshop program allows scientists to access and play with complex contemporary artistic processes, while providing a platform for discovering and creating more shared processes and goals.
Exchanges within this particular residency raised questions about how we practice knowledge-making: do we project the biases and hierarchies of Western worldviews onto encounters with the new and unknown? What role do cultural narratives play, consciously or subconsciously, in shaping tools of observation, in framing innovation and its uses? Drawing on movements within contemporary culture, artists ask whether “queering” and “decolonizing” physics and art are productive approaches.
Through a web-call series designed to encourage dialogue between artists and scientists, the Drift: Art and Dark Matter artists and organizers have been introduced to scholars and experts from fields including geography, cultural studies, curatorial studies, Indigenous science, Black studies, feminist and queer science studies. They led discussions that often arrived at the question, “what could physics and art do together?” These conversations show how we can be reciprocal with others and with cosmic dynamic forces. They suggest a need to practice a being beyond a dualistic “taking,” beyond extraction, whether it is extraction through information gathering or through form-making.
The organizers hope that within and beyond the project, these cross-disciplinary moments of exchange will continue, further elaborating the question of how physics and art can persistently learn from each other.
Other Ways to Listen
Tap or click on “Transcript” under each track to read or download the full transcript of each audio commentary.
Note: This conversation was edited for content and length.
Josèfa Ntjam: I made the relation between the really hard science part of what we heard when we were in Canada, and I really want to ask you about how would you connect the Drift project and this ancestral knowledge? And how can you do that if you have to do that? How can you connect science and really hard science, not just the science of basic science, and ancestor, and maybe magical knowledge we can have in African continents or in America too? So, for me, it is a big question because we have this aspect of distance and surveillance in science. And last time, we were speaking with Mariam Diamond, and it was the first scientist who talked to us. Her relationship, maybe – comment-on dit (how do you say) — not magical relationship of the — with science, but it was a big part of mystery. And it was more philosophic than science when she told us about her relationship. So, I wonder, I was wondering how you can, if you have maybe some ideas about the drift project and your own research. So how can you link and connect them?
Sebastian De Line: Mm-mmh — You know, sometimes I think it is helpful to look at our stories, because our stories, you know, we did not maybe use the word science, but they very much were, they were scientific. You know, so, like, I am not an expert on this, I am also still learning this myself. But, you know, one of the things that we talk about that in the Haudenosaunee culture, right, is that we are star people. So what they say is that we come from the stars, and our creation story is descendent from Pleiades And so what they talk about is, right, how our first ancestors came from Pleiades And that it is, a way I can relate it to you is like — sometimes, I think people have a hard time when they hear a story in a certain way because, but if we think of it in a different way, we can also think of it like, you know, when the Earth was forming, and when they say that when Turtle Island, how Turtle Island was formed, right — I don’t know if you have heard people talking about this in your research here, but, you know, at the beginning, when the Earth, they say, was — did not have a landmass that we know of, there was only water — that is how the story starts in the creation story. And so, what it talks about is it talks about how these, let us say, we call them, I don’t know, atomic cosmic particles, you know, enter into the Earth’s atmosphere, you know, and they form different kinds of relationships with the elements and the, you know, the — those lively energies and beings — this electricity, this water, you know, these other elements that are already here. But in the Earth, on the bottom of the ocean, was, as we talk about the creation story — this is where they say, in the story, where the formation of the kind of beings that become us, like insects, you know, animals, four-legged, the swimmers, the fliers, us human beings, medicines, etc. — you know, what it is talking about is that, you know, it is talking about a kind of an evolutionary story that is formed on relationality. So, the reciprocity between the animal world helping, you know, Sky Woman so that she does not die, right? And helping her down to land on the turtle’s back. The relationship between one of the oldest beings that we still have from the dinosaur period is still living. You know, today, the turtle, right — The sea turtle. And that turtle is, you know, as we know, a very old ancestor that lives from a time period that their ancestors remember a very early time of the Earth. And so, in the — all these kinds of scientific knowledges are embedded, you know, within our stories, like when they talk about how, you know, the animals like the muskrat and the other beings that try to retrieve some of the ocean’s seabed to bring the Earth and put this little handful of Earth on top of the turtle’s back. There is actually an article I read about, I was researching about clay a while back, and there was an article, not that many years ago, like five or six years ago, from Cornell University — And the research is basically a scientific research that talks about the hydrogel formation of clay and how clay being wet and the oceanic formation of the hydrogel in clay created a stable environment enough for, in which life to be able to grow within it. And so basically what they did was their scientific research proved, you know, this part of the creation story that we are made from clay, right — and that story, you know, is not just a Haudenosaunee story, that is shared by many cultures all over the world talk about stories, right, of how we are descendent of clay. So, from a scientific perspective, they would say that in the bottom of the ocean, it was so tumultuous that it was the stability of, the plasticity of, the hydrogel within clay that was able to form a kind of a container in which life forms to flourish. So, when you take that idea, and that bundle of clay is brought up then unto the surface of the Earth, and then it is encountered with other living beings, and also air, etc, and there is another evolutionary kind of relations that happen. And so, within that story is science, very much, quantum science, it is, you know, it is evolution, it is biology, it is many different things encapsulated. Right, but it is how we interpret our stories.
>>Do you, are you all, have you looked at Leroy Little Bear? He used to, was one, I think the founder of the, this is not the correct title for it, but the Indigenous program at Harvard. And He is now retired. He is an emeritus of the University of Alberta.
Nadia Lichtig: Mm-mmh
Sebastian De Line: He wrote, he gave this lecture at Arizona State University, and it was called “Native Science and Western Science: Possibilities for Collaboration.” If you look on YouTube —
Nadia Lichtig: Mm-mmh, yeah.
Sebastian De Line: I can send it to you all. But — I can — I took a transcript from it before for an article and I would like to read a really short paragraph for you because it is a really nice way from a Blackfoot perspective of how he talks about quantum physics. I will be interested to hear from your knowledges of that, what rings true or what stands out, you know, and how you might relate to it — Maybe we should strike the word true. What does that word even mean? It is so subjective. Okay, so he says, “The first tenet of native — of the native paradigm is what we refer to as constant flux.” So, he talks about three tenets of native science. “If you were to imagine this flux as animated, you would see a constant motion or energy waves, light, and so on, going back and forth. Things are forever in motion; things are forever changing. There is nothing certain. The only thing that is certain is change. Things are forever moving, things are forever dissolving, reforming, transforming. A second part of the native tenet of flux is flux itself. Everything in existence, everything in creation consists of energy waves. In classical physics, we talk in terms of matter, particles, and subatomic particles. In the native way, we talk in terms of energy waves. Those energy waves are very special because it is those energy waves, not you, that know. All of us are simply combinations of energy waves. Spirit is energy waves. Energy waves are still there. A third part of the paradigm is that everything is animate. There is nothing in Blackfoot, for instance, that is inanimate. Everything is animate. Everything, those rocks, those trees, those animals, all have spirit just like we do as humans. If they all have spirit, that is what we refer to as all my relations.”
Nadia Lichtig: Yeah. I mean, it is — I am missing the words for what I want to say in English but, yeah, I love the idea of, you know, like, you just have to zoom closely into a table or into anything and then you see that the atoms are moving, okay. So yeah. So, it is all a question of density, right?
Josèfa Ntjam: Yeah. I just want to say I really love the idea of fluidity. And when I have to talk about it, I always take the reference and I make the analogy of the spaceship from Battlestar Galactica because they are always moving, and there, they can’t hang anywhere else. So, they are always moving. So even the history in the spirit of people is always moving in the universe. So, this is not the same of Earth because when we are on Earth, we hang, we are hanging in Earth with a gravity, etc. So, they are in the spaceship, so they can’t really build a real territory so that they don’t have the concept of territory. And they really don’t have even the concept of frontier. And so, what’s the concept of time and territory in this spaceship always moving. So, from it, I really love the reference of the spaceship in Battlestar Galactica, and I am always using this reference in my writing, etc. So, I think the fluidity is, for me, the most beautiful concept I use in my work because I really love the fact that the particle can be both two thing in one time, and we can’t measure those two thing in one time too, so we have to make a choice. And this choice takes us in another way. And maybe if we made the other choice, we’d be in another way too. So, you have two time in one time. And I really love this.
Zachary Kenny: I just wanted to, sort of, come back to what you were, that excerpt from, is its Elder Little Bear? Was that — — the researcher that you were talking about there, Sebastian?
Sebastian De Line: Leroy Little Bear.
Zachary Kenny: Leroy Little Bear. Yeah. I thought that was so interesting because it is, it is a concept that I think — that it would be very accepted. Like, you know, I think of the physicists, you know, that I work with now and in dark matter research, if they would, if you were to read that excerpt, you know, they would be like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that is exactly right.’ Because I think that is becoming a more and more understood reality of matter in the Universe. And I think you are right, and when you are talking about classical physics, we talk about things in this kind of textbook, kind of, ‘we are looking down on them and they are in this flat plane and we can study with the bits and pieces and,’ but you are right. Like things now are fluid and moving and everything has an energy and, you know, the energy within a rock and the energy in, you know, in a lake and all these different things are really interestingly interconnected. And there is a lot of research, you know, about, even — so, there is a concept called quantum entanglement, which is like, the idea that — I don’t know exactly because I am not actually a physicist. But it is like, it is like the, you can, if there is this pair of particles that are kind of created at the same time, and if you send them out in different directions, they will behave identically.
Josèfa Ntjam: Oh, yeah. I heard that. I was like, ‘What!’
Zachary Kenny: Yes. And so, it is kind of this like weird, like telepathy or something.
Josèfa Ntjam: Yes. This is crazy. This is a really crazy story.
Zachary Kenny: Yeah.
Josèfa Ntjam: So, these two particles can be separate and really, like, really far away, and they behave, like, the same at the same time. So, it is really weird because I was looking at a documentary about a mushroom and this mushroom, it is name is the blob. And in fact, this mushroom has the particularity that even if He is cut in every piece, he always can reconstitute himself with his own information because in each particle of himself, he has all information to grow, like, in a really, really big mushroom. So, every particle of the blob is the entire blob, and in fact, is just a particle, but it is the entire shape of the mushroom too. I don’t really know how to explain that in English. It is really complex, even in French. So yes, I really love the connection between one particle separate in two parts, and these two parts could be still connected between them. So yeah.
Sebastian De Line: I sent you an article, because I heard you say swarm, by Dolleen Manning, who’s an Anishinaabe professor at York University. And she, her dissertation was about murmurations. So, she talks about, from an Anishinaabe perspective of worlding, she calls it Mnidoo-Worlding — and she relates that kind of similar wave theory, a lot like what Leroy Little Bear is talking about but talking about the phenomenology of bird murmuration and insect murmuration. So, where there is this kind of way in which they are in such close proximity, all the time that actually something else is going on phenomenologically in order for them not to crash into each other. Because, you know, this, so there is this kind of blob, like what you are saying, that has to do with the unifiedness, while at the same time, they are all distinct, distinct birds, you know. But within, you know, kind of moving fluidly, like within this kind of formation that is unified.
>>One way in a Haudenosaunee perspective, how I have learned it, that could be related to that is in, you know, when they talk about the Thanksgiving address, you know, you’ve ever heard of that? Like, so often —
Josèfa Ntjam: What is the Thanksgiving address?
Sebastian De Line: So, the Thanksgiving address, the Ohén:ton Karihwatéhkwen is opening words. It is called the Words Before All Else. I am not an expert on this, I am just learning this, but I can relate it — what I know of it relates to what you are talking about from how I learned it from my elders. So, when they say that, what happens is, it is like a, some people call it a prayer, but it is not really like a prayer, it is more, it is really the words that you say because people believe that, you know, what you say, those words that you say, they create, you could say they create a movement too, you know. They create, they create, they set things in motion. Right? So, when we say that, they become actualized. Right? They have a mattering. Right? Because of how we relate. So, because we are having conversations, we are sharing knowledge with each other, those words, they are not immaterial, they have a relational effect on us. And they are really actually changing how we relate. Right? So that is a kind of a basis of one thing how we are taught. You can think of that even in terms of matter, but in another way too — So with that in mind, what people say is that in order to have a good mind, and what they call, the concept they talk about in Haudenosaunee perspective of the good mind, with the way I am taught about it is that the good mind is when they say those words to all of creation, and they say, they say gratitude, and they say thanks, and they acknowledge all the beings in the world, and to bring us all together what they say into one mind. So oftentimes, when like, there is a ceremony, or there is a meeting of more than two people, they say that you are supposed to say the Ohén:ton Karihwatéhkwen, the Thanksgiving address or the Words Before All Else. So, in a gathering of more than two people, and let us say even if this was done in Haudenosaunee way, the Zoom will start with Ohén:ton Karihwatéhkwen and some form of that. And then what it does, what they say it does is it brings everyone together in what they call one mind. And you can think of that one mind, kind of, like what you are talking about like wave theory coming together in this kind of, like, a murmuration, or maybe like a blob that you say where, it is what they are really talking about is like a collective consciousness. But it is a collective consciousness that you can relate to in terms of wave theory coming together, in terms of wave mattering, that we are already connected anyway through these wave theories. Right? I mean, that is what they are saying. Right? That is what Leroy Little Bear is saying. I hear it is that, you know, He is saying those words that we talked about like spirit or a creator, or other people have different words for it, God, Allah, he is saying that this is matter in waveform also. And that those energy waves are running through everything and everyone. Right? So, if you think of it in terms of, like, a perspective on more of a scientific perspective of that. And so, there are, I think there are in an Haudenosaunee perspective, there are stories that could be related to the twins, like we have a lot of twinning going on in our stories. In particular, like there is a story, you know, that talks about, you know, the two twins, or the two brothers in a Christian story. That were –
Josèfa Ntjam: Yeah.
Sebastian De Line: Right — right? And so, they, oftentimes, it is more psychological, the way that people relate to it, kind of like, you know, your consciousness around choice and stuff like that of, like, the so-called good and bad twin kind of thing. But it could also actually be in relationship to, you know, what you are saying, as well if you look at it in a different way, about this kind of twinning. And I think it is really interesting that, what you just — what you shared about the blob and about, you know, that even atoms having this — kind of particles having this twinning effect where they really share certain knowings, knowledges and being reciprocally, no matter where they are, and maybe still deviate from each other. Sometimes, like twins do.
Note: This conversation was edited for content and length.
Katherine McKittrick: And for me the radical possibility or what I have learnt from Black studies, particularly from people like Sylvia Wynter, but also Gilroy and Fanon is the role of art and cultural production. And the one question that I have for myself is how do we, — how do non-artists and artists have conversations where the artists’ work isn’t the object of analysis, but is instead part of the theoretical conversation? So, is there a way to think about art as theory and theory as art? So, the typical example that I give in my work — — when I am giving a presentation on interdisciplinary is how do we read Toni Morrison’s novels? Not her essays but — how do we read The Bluest Eye as a theoretical text? But that isn’t to discount the theorist, right? So, Judith Butler is usually my example. So, the example is what can Judith, — what can Toni Morrison teach Judith Butler, but also what can Judith Butler teach Toni Morrison? So, it has to be a conversation.
>> I think there is a tendency, particularly with black art to, — and I see this in the courses that I teach so, so often, to only position the art as object. And for me, the only way I could have survived this world, this academic world, was to believe with everything in my heart that black artists are intellectual interlocutors and brilliant. And often anticipate theory.
Jol Thoms: Yeah, that is something else I would — you know, which is part of like feminist decolonial practices also is this rejection of these universalizings and absolutes and rejecting the idea of, — you know being able to exactly define, which came up quite — it was quite apparent in your text. And we are having these situations where as artists, we are working in the science fields and kind of rubbing up against these onto-epistemic divides which are sometimes kind of generative, but I just — am worried which — in which direction those generative things are flowing.
Josèfa Ntjam: Because I really like the concept of indiscipline. And for me indiscipline is the porosity between multiple and different discipline in how you can connect history with poetry, with sociology and music and everything. And when I started to make some research when I was in my first year of school of fine art I made a lot of research about Afrofuturism and what is Afrofuturism. And for me, this is the same for you when you say about the concept of collective and not the individual concept, because Afrofuturism is not a movement and is not even a concept, but it is a kind of a flu [unintelligible] — and like you cannot touch the shape of Afrofuturism because it’s always in movement. So, you always have a new reference to put in Afrofuturism. It is – you will always have a new story and subjective, and maybe global story to put in Afrofuturism. And this is how I can connect your texts and your concepts. Even when you speak in your text about the shadows, it is also a concept I use in my work because we do not pretend to create in the shadows and maybe not in the lights. I have developed a lot of concept about the shadows and melancholy and like the soul adage. This is how you can create around this, — around the, — and in the darkness sometimes. This is maybe a really particular place to create revolt and build a new revolution away from light and public.
Katherine McKittrick: We use scientific concepts in a way that is — that enmeshes with our liberatory project in our art worlds. So rather than inserting, like for example, rather than hiring a black scientist, right? So rather than sort of looking for the black person, who is going to fix the problem and instead, like, are there any scientific concepts or ideas that we find useful around openness that can, — that are in conversation with the work we are doing, the anti-colonial work we are doing? So here, — you know, I am very interested in Glissant for example, and his relationship with computers. He is interested in computers; he is talking about computers. Sylvia Wynter’s very interested in AI as a recursive system. So, is there a way for us to sort of have a relationship with science that, — where we are not just talking about how we are oppressed by it?
>> And I think, I mean, because you are an artist, I feel like you have, — you know, at your fingertips creative ways to integrate this into a visual project. So is there a way for you, like, as an artist to sort of, — you know, use these tools in a liberatory, — like in a practical, concrete, liberatory fashion. So, what happens when you go up and you do an eye scan, right? And, or fingerprinting? So here Simone Brown’s work is really important to me. Like, fingerprinting, branding, tattooing, all these types of things that are produced. That produce the black subject and other marginalized people as always oppressed. How do we turn that around and subvert the very system that is seeking to enclose us? So those are the kinds of questions that I think about a lot — — in relation to science. But I don’t, — but I mean, I think the other thing that, — you know, that you said, and I think it’s important. And I think it’s something to keep in mind is that that’s hard work, right? Like that this isn’t, — it’s not easy to go up against science. It is not easy to sort of — because it — because science is a god, right?
>> There is that supposed neutrality that is very, very hard to — — call into question, I guess. But again, I’ll call up Sylvia Wynter in her reading was Aimé Césaire which is — this is what Césaire’s project is and this is what Sylvia Wynter’s project is, is that the sciences are half starved and they need the creative text in order to provide us with a fuller definition of what it means to be human. We need to parasite the scientific and the creative or Césaire said the science and the poets. That the poetics and the science, they have to be understood as always in conversation with each other.
>> So, to imagine the artist as the, — as someone who conveys an — like a rigorous intellectual theoretically nuanced project is I think part of — — you know, something that really — is something that is really helpful for interdisciplinarity and for practices of liberation. Because it — dislodges that idea around science as the only knower.
>> But also, in my research, I learnt that there are a lot of really interesting ideas in physics or in mathematics that are about openness, right? So, I feel like as a non-scientist. I am trained to understand science as a practice of — — finding definite answers. But then I started like looking at like the theoretical physics, like theoretical physics like the, those folks that come out of university of Waterloo. And they are like thinking about like endlessness and like mathematics that go on forever and infinity. And so, there is this generosity there that is really useful. And it is something that like black scholars talk about. Like, they write about this and artists, — you know, produce work like that. So, there is a conversation there. So, I think it is great that — if we are making those links.
Sunny Kerr: You – Katherine brought up this idea of kind of grabbing metaphors that are useful and beautiful and generative in the work.
Katherine McKittrick: Yeah.
Sunny Kerr: And you also at some point mentioned the idea of, — you know, recognizing or agreeing together on what we cannot tell and what maybe we should not know, or we should not even try to know. And then at another moment, — you know the idea of creating in the shadows of or using the darkness as a place for building a revolt. And so, — you know, there is a sense I think from our science partners that artists are going to make visible dark matter for us.
Katherine McKittrick: Right.
Sunny Kerr: — from this — the basic terms. And — you know, their understanding is a lot more nuanced than this I know. But there’s — it always seems to be the kind of default nature of this relation. And so, I am curious to know how this metaphor of dark matter resonates for you? And what does it — how does it relate to this question about why are we looking for dark matter?
Katherine McKittrick: Uh-hmm. That is a hard question for me to answer. So, — I mean, I don’t know much about dark matter, but I think it’s like fleeting and it’s not material, it’s not touchable, correct? So, for me, the materiality of that, — of the dark matter would be the narrative that produces it as what it is, right? So, which is manmade right? So, I think, — I mean, I think that I would think along those lines. Like I would think of it as a narrative that is produced by science, and itis also produced through the desire to know and pinpoint. But what does it mean to desire to know and make material dark matter? Why can’t we just sit with it and be okay with the fact that it is not knowable? Can — or can we — are we not designed to do that?
>> So is there a way to sort of keep these, like some sort of relationality, even though it is going to be uneven and clunky where the art is not beholden to the science.
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Renée Hložek: There is always a lifecycle of everything, right? And in science, I suppose the lifecycle of some of our projects is very long. It is sort of 10, 15, 20 years of planning because you are building something that is going to go into space. But also, I am really curious, you know, Elvira you were talking about the, — you know, the changing perspectives, and that kind of process of art making and I am super intrigued as to the — just as a scientist, what it means for me to be in a position where I am just receiving and generating ideas but not forcing anything to happen yet. Which is really not my nature, like, I am definitely a person that wants to like, okay, go, go, go, go, go, we need to like plan things, I need to create a piece — you know, make actionable items from everything. But it is really useful to just have these ruminations and germinations and see — because I know that all the artists have very different perspectives, and that They are taking from a particular conversation –something that is very different, something that is, — you know, uniquely speaks to their modality. And so that is really interesting for me just being like, pausing the action and just absorbing and reflecting information which is great.
Elvira Hufschmid: I think, on the other hand, I feel like there are, — well, there are differences, but there are also in terms of the creative process. And I am very — I would be very interested to hear, — or some more about your creative process in terms of generating ideas —
Renée Hložek: Yeah.
Elvira Hufschmid: It is actually — — maybe similar, right? Like what artists do. And so, yeah, that would be…
Renée Hložek: And then, it is interesting because we — I actually develop sort of tools and exercises with my students to try and, — you know, generate creative ideas. So, my brother is a graphic designer and when I was growing up, you know, I did art at school. But when I started in university, it was very science focused. And so, I always used to enjoy watching him as he studied the visual arts, being trained to think in a different way just to approach creativity. And so, I used to joke with him that the kind of creativity that he would generate if he was coming up with a visual representation of some of his ideas — he would have this like, plethora of idea generation, and then kind of whittling everything down into being whatever he wanted. Whereas I sometimes — — think the way initially we are creative in the sciences is — sometimes it is creating, like, logical pathways from a point rather than, — you know, — I mean, sometimes we actually do, do the thing where I just say, ‘take two words from a scientific paper, if you put them together would you be able to come up with a new scientific paper? Are there any linkages?’ But often it is, — you know, I have some problem and I am trying to find potential avenues of solution that are somehow, — you know, linearly linked to the thing that I am doing, but the interesting point often comes about when all of those avenues prove unsuccessful at solving the kind of problem. In your next step, you have to generate more. And so, you have to be willing to think, — not necessarily outside the box but like around to try and come up with these new solutions. But They are often — often the creativity is solution driven to problems or finding the problem. Yeah, so it is really fun the different ways in which we’re trained to be creative. And then my job as I am sure is the same with the artist, is to throw away some number of those, — you know, avenues and — until you find the one that is truly speaking to you that is truly making sense, that is generating — — the correct or the satisfactory kind of modality. So yeah, it is really fun to think through the similarities.
Elvira Hufschmid: So, I was wondering if you — — if you have a kind of a set of strategies in terms of processing information and then generating ideas from that, especially in regard to this non-logical pathway? Is it that — — yeah, I was just wondering, do you have a strategy, or does it just sometimes happen? Does it happen, — you know, on the way to the canteen or whatever that some — that you are kind of processing things, and then something comes up or…?
Renée Hložek: Yeah. So, it is interesting. So whenever — you know, we have a few different ways you can — a few different kinds of situations that need creativity. So — — someone joked with me that there are three things you do as a scientist: you either generate brand new ideas, — so like, you know, the genesis of some new model, some new hypothesis or whatever, or you nurture an idea, so I take a burgeoning idea and I develop its complexity a little bit more, or I kill something, right? So, someone wrote a paper, and I find the way that it is wrong. And typically, every individual has more strength in different areas. Some colleagues are really good at generating ideas, but They are not really — they do not really care about checking if they make sense in terms of the cosmos and others are really good at tearing down, finding the mistake that you’ve made. And one of the ways — so if you want to be creative in that destruction mode, you basically will read a scientific paper and then you start questioning — you just write down one of the assumptions that they made and let me take those and throw it away. So, an example would be, — — we wrote a paper where we said, — you know, when we want to — when we talk about the expansion of the universe, we talk about its size changing with time. And the size is measured in these units of space, we call it a scale factor. And that is a sort of theoretical concept and it comes in all of our equations in general relativity, and that makes sense. And we link it to the red shift of the galaxy which is a measurable quantity. But the link between the measurable quantity and the sort of abstract concept, we assume they have a — one — They are just the same. And so, we asked in one of our papers, we just said, what if that isn’t true? What if the thing you measure is slightly different from the thing you assume it to be a proxy for? And in that way, we generated a new paper just by saying, what if this thing that everyone has always believed is wrong. So that is one mode of sort of generating creativity. And one of the ways in which I have to be the most creative is if I have something that is broken. So, I’ll write some computer code and it doesn’t work or it gives me an answer that doesn’t seem logically consistent with the things that I’ve assumed. And that is a very difficult way to be creative because, — you know, I joke that it is like up against the wall creativity. Because There is not a lot of freedom. Actually, you can’t just throw everything away, that doesn’t necessarily help me. So, I am maximally constrained in the, — like, freedom of my mental movement, and yet I have to be creative. And that is the thing that works very well if you, you know, switch off and have a bath or go for a run or go to sleep. And then I’ll wake up and I had some thought of something to try. And that — those are the things where you, you know, you take little steps left and right, and just say, could it be this, — you know, could I have relabeled some variable, you know, so it is kind of very constrained. And because I do a lot of computational work, that mode is the one that I am in a lot. It is maybe the least sexy of the ways of creative thinking, but I am in that mode a lot. And then the really, really fun one is just, — — you know, imagining ‘Are there new things I have not thought about testing? Are there new models, — you know, dark matter models that I have not thought of before? And what if I took this person’s theory of dark matter and then I took these people’s observations, can I find a way to link them and test them together?’ And that, of course, is the hardest for me, anyway. It is the hardest creative way, and it is the one I need to coax myself into relaxing into. Because that — 90% of the ideas I have in that mode will be instantly falsifiable or instantly incorrect, or vanishingly small, like, you have this beautiful idea of this beautiful model and you realize, if that model was true, the sun wouldn’t exist. You know, like, very quickly, you realize — well, it would cause this huge inconsistency that we would have seen by now. So that mode is the one that requires often — just thinking, just sitting and reading a paper and thinking, jotting down things that we know about the universe. Things that we do not know and trying to make links between them. And that is really fun but, yeah, but daunting.
>> Yeah, and it is interesting because I think a lot of the time too, — you know, I think of musical improvisation where, — you know, you know the rules of the game in the sense of you understand the key signature, and you understand the time, and it is all about improvising within that space. And, –you know, I tell people, I do not know what the universe is. My job is to find out what it isn’t. And so, I spend a lot of my time trying to disprove myself. Disprove my theories, disprove my assumptions. And I really appreciate that, I really like that. It means you have to be slightly careful that you do not become very critical of everything and just cutting it down that you remain open-minded. But, you know, we generate new ideas with roughly the same frequency that we kill old ones, so that is good. And when I say kill, I really just mean, — you know, you do not ultimately say this one thing is wrong, but you just say this extension couldn’t — isn’t — would be detected already or is not detectable or whatever. So, I kind of — — yeah, I think I work best in that mode where we’re trying to, — you know, finish the puzzle and hunt down that final piece a lot, rather than making — rather than generating brand new artworks every time or puzzle pieces every time.
>> No, I was just going to say I do improvisational comedy. And I found that that helps. I do not know, necessarily, if it helps my scientific thinking, but I definitely think it helps —
Elvira Hufschmid: I am sure.
Renée Hložek: — my communication. Because it helps me think of analogies and it helps me sort of go — left field a little bit, yeah.
Elvira Hufschmid: Yeah, I was just thinking about the education that physics students go through and education that artists go through. And I — it is probably safe to say that as an artist, you definitely are trained to go down the non-logical pathways.
Renée Hložek: Okay.
Elvira Hufschmid: But we can dispute that. Meaning that in terms of the cognitive process of — in creative processes, it is a lot about thinking in what was — Labuan Satoshi [sic] she is an Austrian theorist – [inaudible] — and other people said that — talking about — thinking in analogies or analogue thinking, instead of logical — not instead but analogue thinking and logical thinking. And there might be, — you know, like, all these different layers of the way we think. So, it is not just one or the other but just to give a framework to talk that these phenomena that, if you, — let’s say, just look at brainstorming in this cognitive process of producing associations that usually occur in a non-logical manner — and it actually offers a wide range of meanings suddenly, because my associations in regard to a certain topic can jump to a place that, — you know, could be connected to my memory, to my life experience and various things. So, it is a wider field than just, — you know, trying — let’s say, connecting it in a logical — a subject matter in a logical sense to a next — another topic.
Renée Hložek: Yeah, and I think it is interesting, because I think maybe in the scientific generative creative process, it — you make the most success early if you can start with some — bringing some illogical things or analogous things together. Because then you come up with truly groundbreaking new ideas. And then, you know, that is followed by like a second round of logical pruning, or whatever. And I think one of the problems with science communication sometimes and the visual representations of science can be if scientists choose to communicate that second half and forget that the first analogous moment is really where a lot of the new understanding came from — and you find this a lot. I am giving a public science talk next week actually.
Elvira Hufschmid: Mm-mmh.
Renée Hložek: In the evening. And I was — I met with the host last night – met me and another colleague to ask questions — and she was asking questions about my work, you know, like, talking about the Big Bang and how can we explain it to people and how can we explain the physics that I do. And my colleague was using these very interesting and quite abstract concepts, but because she was assuming that she would go from A to B to C, the host initially was super lost. And so, we had to then turn it around and — — start with a very simple analogous abstractions before trying to make it logical, because if you do not understand or you do not feel the import of the way things are going, it just is — it is just facts. And I think that those can be — in terms of communicating science, those can be really frustrating because we respond to the narrative, it is just that the narrative is now deeply entrenched in us. And so, we take that for granted, but then — and then do the logical jargony stuff, because that is my practice. But the logical jargony stuff is not the key.
>> To me, the — if you understand the scientific concept, of course, the generative process is about trying to match my understanding of the narrative of the physics — and I do think narrative is very important with your understanding of the narrative and the concepts, and if those do not mix, I can give you as many jargon words as possible — it is not going to help. So, if I just — if I can try to change mine until something locks together, then you can really start to grow, right? Because then your understanding of the physics is correct but also mapped onto your understanding of all concepts in a way.
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Emelie Chhangur: As a curator who has often worked at the intersection of disciplinary edges. But also, with the idea that it is not to participate in one another’s disciplines so much as to think of like what comes out of these experiments. And it is so difficult sometimes to translate the process — — into — like to reveal the process to a public or to make a process known to a public. Because the process and these strange synergies or these, — like what I like to also call like these, like electrified moments where it is like, ‘right, this is what we’re doing.’ And it is like building organically and over time. Itis really hard to translate that process into — to a public without already, — like killing something about how exciting the process is. You know, just by putting it into language even.
>> And for me, the curatorial is always about how you bring things into relation and bring new things into the world. I’m not completely tied to the idea of the curatorial as curating as in an exhibition-making. But like even the drift project is curatorial in its very sensibilities of how it brings various disciplines together and brings new forms of thinking into the world. For instance.
>> Thinking about what it means to be in relation, to — — something that we do not know and then articulate something about it. The question for me always comes up around the how of doing that. And whether that means changing one’s methodology of making artworks when one encounters other disciplines — — in which, Mark, is reciprocal. Because we would really hope that artists contributing research in other fields also means those fields are adopting the methodologies of artists as well. So, to me, it is like a – it is both an ethical question and it is a question of doing.
Sunny Kerr: Emelie, I was reflecting on something you had said earlier about, — you know, this problem with the film [My Octupus Teacher] which is about projecting really your own stuff onto the unknown. Just thinking about the project that we are all working on the drift art and dark matter collaboration and residency and exhibition and set of processes — it occurs to me that the, — you know, the dark matter itself is a kind of a rich space there because it is already imperceptible matter. And, — you know, the notion of projecting your own stuff onto it is already there. It is kind of like the obvious thing. In a way, it’ is like, nobody knows what it is, — let’s, — you know, get the artists to tell us what it is. But the — I think what it really does is, — you know, instead of calling on people to insert an image it is really turning us back to this methodological aspect that you’re describing. It is kind of pointing to — — contexts of how the work is being done. Itis pointing to, — you know, the question of why is it called dark? It’s, — you know, how is the science being done? Where is the science being done? And what interests me especially, are the kind of dark spots or the kind of shadows that we are creating between each other’s disciplines. Or in a way that we, — you know, between indigenous knowledge, art, and science which are kind of overlapping and in, — hopefully, in this kind of hybrid way in the project. Revealing, — you know, these kind of epistemological tensions or places where we do project and or do not understand each other. That are — they are kind of revealed in the process. So that is not to really take up, — you know, your last provocation, which is, — you know, ‘what are we taking from it?’ It is more just kind of stating the place where we are with the project from my perspective.
Emelie Chhangur: Yeah. And — but I think this is beautiful because what I take from that is this permission that it continues to get — to be dark. Or this permission that opacity is a trajectory that’s worth taking. So, it is not this commitment to elucidation all the time or this commitment to — on the one hand getting at some knowledge thing that we can barely get at. Or wrapping a formula around it so that we can understand its fundamentals. Or on an artistic side giving an image to it so that we could see something more. It is actually like, what do we learn from dark matter — is like, the beauty of unintelligibility, or the beauty of opacity. And is that — can that then become not a subject but a methodology?
>> I love this. I love when a project is both about something and is the thing itself. So, if it’s like this, — you know, you are drifting. I mean, I could not help but sit here and I was like, I feel like we are all like on a spaceship and we are all like we have all come in, like checked in and we are like talking from different time periods. And there is this sort of portal sensibility of this particular Zoom call, and I don’t always feel like I’m in a portal on the Zoom. Sometimes I am like, ‘yeah, that really was time passing in a linear way.’ But, you know, it really does feel like a portal and I — like always being like, sort of attuned to even, — you know, what Zoom presents to the drift. And that this — and that, like, sometimes projects never have to really culminate. You know, like, you could continue to drift and it can continue to morph and change, and people come and people go, and that in and itself, I think takes up very deeply this relation to dark matter, not the occupation of dark matter or the need to like, — — create something about it but just to be it.
Anne Riley: Thank you so much for sharing all of those thoughts about your work. And it is so refreshing to hear those things be talked about. It is not often that I hear those kinds of thoughts in the art world. Yeah, I’m thinking about how, — like, even dark matter if we think of it as a spirit. It is — because it is. Everything has a spirit; it has an energy. And so, when you are talking about — and something I think a lot about is the way we are taught to make art, which is to extract. You know, like to take things and the way I’ve been thinking through dark matter is to treat it as a spirit. You know, it is like it is not something that I need to possess. And I treat every project like that. But I’m thinking through how is this — how — what is my willingness to be changed by this thing? And that’s not often the way we are taught to make or be in the world.
>> For me, a project never ends with an exhibition, it is like I have committed to that thing for the rest of my life. You know, like, it’s not something that, — like for example, like, with dark matter I — when I say yes to a project, I am committing for the rest of my life to be asking these questions. So, I don’t take these things lightly. So, my commitment to being with a thing and a spirit is not — and that kind of commitment is not something that — because that commitment involves a consistent transformation.
Emelie Chhangur: Mhm.
Anne Riley: Like, I have to be committed fully to being changed by this thing. And I will be — that will be because of those thoughts that — and I think of this in the line of like I love ethic. Because it involves an ethic, it involves my ethics and values and what I think, — who I want to be in the world. And like who do I want to be in relationship with. So, it is like, — I am thinking of dark matter, or gardens that I am planting, every flower that I have planted for a project is like, I am committing to loving that thing for the rest of my life, — you know. And the challenges of that which is quite contrary to the way I was taught in art school to make, — you know and I have also been thinking so much about, — you know, I’m like, I really have been thinking about this thought within, — you know, the conflicted reality of being in a place like the art world. And I’m always thinking, like, ‘is this a place I want to be in, continue? Like, what does sustainability look like for me? As someone who does not fit the norm, who is a queer, indigenous person? And where do I find the places that are sustainable for me, you know? So, for me, it is about creating projects that offer some kind of alternative. You know, where it is like whatever little bit I can offer that is an alternative to. And I know only certain folks will see that alternative. But it is like, no, we can be here and we can exist and our love can exist and like we can be sustainable. We just have to be really picky about the places that we desire to make in, who we want to make with, who we want to be in conversations with.
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