The Theory of Supersymmetry, Visualized by CERN's Artist-in-Residence

Data artist Ryoji Ikeda's installation reflects the work going on at CERN on as-yet-undiscovered particles.

Jul 9 2014, 12:40pm

Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda deals in information. While data art is very of the moment, Ikeda has been working with it since at least 2000. 

For his latest project, supersymmetry, Ikeda presents an audio-visual installation where data, in the form of particles and shapes, collide and flicker upon an alley of screens and multiple cubes. It's an elaboration of his multimedia performance work superposition from 2012, which dealt with the reality of nature at the quantum scale.

Ikeda describes supersymmetry as a platform to update the process and outcome of his 2014-2015 CERN residency in Geneva, the location of the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator. 

Supersymmetry experiment. Image: Ryuichi Maruo

"During the period I’m staying at CERN, there are experiments being carried out with the aim to prove the existence of as-yet undiscovered 'supersymmetry particles' that form pairs with the particles that make up the so-called 'Standard Model' catalogue of physical substances," Ikeda told Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media's curator Kazunao Abe in an interview. "Data and technologies of these experiments are not directly incorporated in the work, but I’m going to discuss a variety of things with the physicists at CERN, and the results of these discussions will certainly be reflected."

Supersymmetry, as detailed on the CERN website, is a theory that helps explain why particles have mass and describes the basic building blocks of matter. It predicts a partner particle in the Standard Model that could, if the theory holds, fix the mass of the Higgs Boson (discovered at CERN), which is currently a bit of a puzzle.

As Ikeda noted, this heady physics won't directly appear in the supersymmetry installation, but it will surely influence it.

The installation itself features 40 DLP projectors, 40 computers, and loud speakers, its dimensions dependent upon the space. Ikeda brought in Norimichi Hirakawa, Tomonaga Tokuyama, and Yoshito Onishi to carry out supersymmetry's programming and computer graphics. 

Originally, Ikeda exhibited supersymmetry at Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media (YCAM) in Yamaguchi, Japan, from April 2 to June 1. But the artist, who co-developed it with YCAM InterLab and Gallery Koyanagi in Tokyo, is now retooling the installation as part of his 2014-2015 CERN residency. 

In a video announcing supersymmetry's YCAM premiere, rhythmic clicks and synthetic bleeps sound as flickering bursts of white, geometric shapes and grids flow tunnel-like toward a vanishing point. In another clip from the same video, black particles flow along a curved, electromagnetic representation of space-time. 

Screenshot from supersymmetry teaser video. 

Michael Doser, a particle physicist working with anti-matter, and current head of the AEGIS experiment and member of the CERN Cultural Board, described the audio-visual sensations evoked by Ikeda's supersymmetry in a recent blog post

Images fly over the panels, appear and disappear from the individual screens, the two dual walls projecting similar but not identical imagery, flashes of light zipping along the alley or illuminating all screens at once, followed by an abrupt plunge into deep darkness. The metronomic, perfectly choreographed precision with which the dynamic images of clouds of particles, of millisecond assignments of labels to structures that flash up on the screens, of bursts of pixels following a starling-like choreography is underlined by a chirping, chittering, rumbling sound track that raised goosebumps on my arms. 

Supersymmetry's other hall features three illuminated cubes, where the tiny particles—which Doser describes as "clouds of tiny spheres"—dance. These particles accumulate then disperse in ephemeral fashion, "like constantly shifting magnetic domains at the Curie temperature, others like so many individuals collectively following a random walk, to be occasionally frozen in motion."

Sure, it's incredibly difficult to visualize supersymmetry and the Higgs Boson. But Ikeda, inspired by quantum computing, isn't after a true visualization. After all, he is an artist. And so supersymmetry can only be a creative evocation of one of physics' most mysterious theories. 

Image: Ryuichi Maruo

"After encountering the quantum computer’s fundamental idea of '0 and 1 at the same time,' I commenced work on the superposition performance piece that supersymmetry is based on, as an attempt to continue my quest and eventually get further," Ikeda told Abe. "The title 'superposition' refers to that state of superimposition of '0 and 1' in quantum mechanics, suggesting a state of things that even the best scientists cannot describe, and that no-one is able to perceive."

That last sentence is telling. With supersymmetry, Ikeda is, in his own artistic way, attempting to convey the indescribable and imperceptible foundations of the universe. It's poetic, ambitious, and incredibly rad.