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Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, the artists behind Semiconductor, are interested in how humans interact with nature. They work with scientists to find data in its rawest form, in order to answer the question, Are we experience, science, or nature? Recently awarded the 4th Audemars Piguet Art Commission, the U.K.-based duo worked with curator Monica Bello to unveil a project at this year’s Art Basel. Their focus is the ATLAS experiment at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), which asks, What are the basic building blocks of matter? What are the fundamental forces of nature? Could there be a greater underlying symmetry to our universe?
Given their previous research at the NASA Space Sciences Laboratory at UC Berkeley in California, the Mineral Sciences Laboratory within the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and the Galápagos Islands at the Charles Darwin Research Station, Whitewaller was curious to hear about Semiconductor’s discoveries and how they learned more about watchmaking for the Art Commission.
WHITEWALLER: How does the interaction of art and science play a role in your practice?
SEMICONDUCTOR: We came to science through our interest in how we as humans experience the physical natural world. By wanting to explore the limits of our perceptions—the matter we can’t see, hear,
or events that happen over very long or short time-frames—we started to turn to the tools and processes of science, initially as a way to reveal these things to us, but as we spent more time in science environments we started to question science as a process. Janet Luhmann, a space physicist, once
said to us, “Science is a human invention; it’s nature that’s real.” We felt this gave us a license to start asking more philosophical questions of it.
WW: What was the starting point for the project you’re creating for the 4th Audemars Piguet Art Commission?
S: Our starting point was thinking about the
data that is being captured by the science experiment ATLAS, which is part of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the particle physics laboratory in Geneva. We’re interested in how science translates nature, often retaining the signature of the technology and the capturing process in some way. To look for this, we go searching for the data in its rawest form, as it has left the experiment and before man transforms it into something more useful scientifically. In this instance, scientists would often describe the experiment to us as re-creating the conditions thought to have existed in our universe shortly after the Big Bang. Through working with the raw data, we want to make an immersive experience of matter formation in the early universe that’s framed through the technological and scientific devices that are made to study it. It becomes what we call a technological sublime.
WW: Given your interest in connecting art and the natural world, what aspects of watchmaking did you discover that intrigued you within Audemars Piguet?
S: Technologically, we couldn’t help but notice so many similarities between the watchmaking and the many workshops we spent time in at CERN. They’re both operating at the limits of what is physically
humanly possible. The watches on a tiny scale, where aids are needed to see the minuscule parts required, and at CERN, at the other end of the scale, where the limitations become how to maneuver, install, and run experiments on such a large scale. The length of the long magnets that they use inside the Large Hadron Collider was limited by the longest object that you can move on European roads.
WW: What aspects of watchmaking did you connect with?
S: We had never seen chimes in watches before. They are incredible to see operating and sound amazing. Whether we were influenced by this or it was just serendipity, it can’t be ignored that we have made a giant instrument which is played very similarly to them.