Quantum Physics Meets the Visual Arts: Taking Science To The Max In Moscow

I’m watching bright strobing light flash intensely before my eyes. Among the flickering geometry I can make out a silhouetted figure nodding along to the bass-loaded roars pounding from nearby speakers: Evian Christ, the 24-year-old UK electronic musician and sometime Kanye West collaborator. He’s playing to a crowd of young Muscovites who are as mesmerized as I am by what’s taking place on stage.

We’re at an event run by UK-based digital innovation lab FutureEverything. They’re in Moscow as part of a “cultural exchange” programme run in partnership with the British Council to cross-pollinate global cultures, ideas, creativity, networks—the kind of things that sound great when typed up in a Powerpoint deck. But the reality on the ground is much more fun. And Moscow is a fascinating city for it all to take place in.

Tom Higham, executive director at FutureEverything, says the company got involved about a year ago, seeing it as an opportunity to build links with and learn from a country with a thriving social, technology, and art scene. “The new media art scene here is grounded in a rich history of technical innovation, and the open source community around programming languages like vvvv is extremely high level.” he notes.

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Memo Akten's ' Equilibrium' at Quantum Entanglement exhibition, part of FutureEverything Moscow festival. Image: Memo Akten.

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Dmitry Kawarga's 'Object-antiobject. Superposition'. Two robotic objects interact with one another at Quantum Entanglement exhibition, part of FutureEverything Moscow festival. Photo: Oleg Zhirov

My first contact with this kind of appreciation came when I visited Laboratoria Art & Science Space, a gallery/discussion forum established in 2008, that gives artists opportunities to work with scientists from various fields in order to explore the intersection of the two disciplines. Currently residing there until January 25, 2015, is an entrancing exhibition called Quantum Entanglement, curated by the gallery’s founder Daria Parkhomenko and co-curated by Higham. Showing work from both Russian and British artists, along with US graffiti artist Futura, the exhibition kicked off the four day FutureEverything event, which also featured a series of fascinating talks, workshops, and hackathons, UK electronic musicians (Lee Gamble, Evian Christ, Koreless, a Hyperdub showcase), and immersive and engrossing audiovisual shows (with stunning visuals by Emmanuel Biard). Plus, vodka.

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Sergey Shutov's video installation 'The Butterfly Effect' at Quantum Entanglement exhibition, part of FutureEverything Moscow festival. Photo: Oleg Zhirov.

At Quantum Entanglement, contemporary Russian artists, like Electroboutique—comprising Aristarkh Chernyshev and Alexei Shulgin—and Sergei Shutov sit alongside newer ones like ::vtol::Dmitry Kawarga, the collective Where Dogs Run, and UK artists Memo Akten and Semiconductor. The artists had each been tasked with grappling with the strange and exotic world of quantum physics; namely, the phenomenon known as quantum entanglement which, in layman's terms, involves how particles interact with and affect each other over vast distances. It’s this mind-bending, almost magical aspect of nature that struck the curators as an interesting subject for artists to tackle.

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Electroboutique’s 'Visual Uncertainty' at Quantum Entanglement exhibition, part of FutureEverything Moscow festival. Photo: Oleg Zhirov

And tackle it, they did: Electroboutique’s piece, Visual Uncertainty, explores the dual-natured reality that is presented us when we use scientific instruments to look into the subatomic world. It involved a piece of customized glass—what they call “magic glass"—hanging between two walls, with light projected onto each one. The walls are painted with a special material that is a silvery color to look at, but once you stare at them through the large lens, they come alive with swirling, colored patterns. How exactly this is done remains a secret that the artists weren’t willing to reveal—the process has a patent pending. “For me, quantum physics is something magical," explains Shulgin, "something that I do not understand but I do respect. In our work we do something where people don’t understand how it works. They see it and they enjoy and they admire it. You could draw this parallel with quantum physics and our artwork.”

"Equilibrium" by Memo Akten

Akten’s screen-based installation, Equilibriumis an interactive piece where viewers touch a screen and throw a harmonious structure into chaos, which eventually finds its way back to harmony again. "Equilibrium is an interactive abstraction of the delicate balance in which an ecosystem hangs in. A fragile structure, a snapshot of a moment of harmony amongst chaos and disorder," says Akten. For him, science and art are are two sides of the same coin. As such, they are closely related and remain an integral park of his work.

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'1, 4… 19' by Where Dogs Run at Quantum Entanglement exhibition, part of FutureEverything Moscow festival. Photos: Oleg Zhirov 

In 1, 4… 19 by Where Dogs Run, a live mouse darts about a Tron-like maze. At each of the many turns it can go a variety of ways. These possibilities are presented to the viewer on a screen above the maze, displaying the various paths (or realities) that could have been. It’s a place where the past, present, and future co-exist as one, a great analogy of some aspects of quantum theory. If you stare at the screen you are presented with the many possibilities present in the quantum world, look down at the maze and you have just one path, one outcome: the observer-created universe. Semiconductor featured their video piece 20Hz, which turns a geo-magnetic storm occuring on the fringes of earth into an audiovisual sculpture.

It all tied in with Laboratoria’s admirable mandate to explore a world where science and art can coexist together. Where the ideas of hard science can be softened through the immediacy of the visual arts, readying them for the general public to come and engage with.

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Koreless and Emmanuel Biard's 'The Well' part of FutureEverything Moscow festival. Photo: Dmitry Vinokurov

Situated 200km outside of Moscow is a giant land art park called Nikola-Lenivets, home to the New Media Night festival in July. This year saw 5,000 people camp out at the festival along with Kimchi and Chips, who were invited over to run workshops for Russians interested in learning about projection mapping. Kimchi and Chips created a piece for the festival which involved projection mapping onto smoke using mirrors. The festival has previously played host to UK-based Quayola and, while one of its aims is to teach and share with Russians the skills they need to create new media art themselves, a more important objective for Polissky is to unify the scattered new media art scene in Russia.

I spoke to Ivan Polissky, the son of celebrated Russian artist Nikolay Polissky who created the towering land art that dots the landscape there: “We have festivals and events, like Plumsfest and Future Everything that are running at the moment, exploring contemporary art happening in Moscow,” Polissky explained. “But we don’t have something like a Biennale, or a festival that has many locations, which could be a really strong name on an international level. For some reason they have separated and everyone is doing their own thing and no one is thinking globally.”

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Koreless and Emmanuel Biard's 'The Well' as a part of FutureEverything Moscow festival. Photo: Dmitry Vinokurov

Higham echoed Polissky's thoughts that some unification and organization needed to occur. “There is huge development potential in the new media art scene out there.” he says. “They just lack physical meeting spaces, convening organizations, and intermediaries like FutureEverything, Eyebeam or iShed. They have extremely strong talent, and it’s often soaked up by the advertising agencies, media production houses, and technology startups thriving and growing in modern Russia.”

And they do have actual, real value for both Russians and the West: they help build up a dynamic and initiate a dialogue outside the political sphere, while also subverting it. The art itself might not necessarily be overtly political, but the methodologies behind it—DIY hacking and coding and making—aim to empower.

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Evian Christ Live with visuals by Emmanuel Biard as a part of FutureEverything Moscow festival. Photo: Dmitry Vinokurov

These kinds of thoughts run strong through the work and ideas of a four-year-old collective of burgeoning young artists and designers from Moscow known as Varenye Organism. Varenye means “jelly or fruit preserve” in Russian and the group see this as analogous to how they want their art to influence people’s thought, to mix together in the recipient’s mind and congeal into something new.

Their art has a playful, mischievous tone and a graphic, colorful aesthetic. One piece features a button in a wall with warning signs plastered around it, urging people to press it. One of its members, Fëdor Getmanov, explains their philosophy, “At Varenye Organism we think that instruments of new media art now need to be used to achieve a real, tangible impact on people, to become training machines that change the way we think. To help people dive out of routine lives, out of our comfort zones that keep them from evolving. To help them achieve fresh, new perceptions on the ordinary things around them. To think more abstractly, and with this, broadening the range of things you can think of. To make people want to learn, to improve intellectually.”

Evian Christ Live at FutureEverything Moscow

This strain of thought has a historical precedent in Russian art, but art also acts as a form of escapism for them too. “We don’t have Disneyland over here,” Polissky said. “Art is our Disneyland. Art is our entertainment.”

"Artists tend to create their own comfortable escapist world to dwell and evolve.” Getmanov notes. “Now we have another period of huge growth, and more and more people are involved in it. We have a lot more instruments, and there is basically no way of controlling all of them. Moscow artistic life is rich and diverse, no matter what.”

via The Creators Project