A source of mutual inspiration for artists and scientists
EPFL is currently host to three artists for the 2023/24 edition of the College of Humanities Artist-in-Residence program “Enter the Hyper-Scientific”. Each spent three months visiting labs and working with scientists to create works that answer both artistic and scientific questions. These works will be exhibited at Pavilion A in early 2024.
The three artists – Rosa Menkman, Sarah Oppenheimer, and Gary Zhexi Zhang – have embedded in labs and engaged in in-depth conversations with researchers on campus. Each artist came to EPFL with a project idea, which then morphed and expanded thanks to their collaborations with a variety of researchers on campus. Along with inspiring the creation of impressive works of art, these interactions offer scientists at EPFL the unique opportunity to question and discuss their research through the spectrum of artistic lenses/artistic thought.
The results of these interactions will be exhibited in early 2024 as video, mixed-media and architectural installations at EPFL Pavilions - Pavilion A, beginning with Sarah Oppenheimer's exhibition opening on January 18.
“The presence of an artist helps us see our work from a different perspective”
Sarah Oppenheimer is an architectural manipulator from the United States who creates interactive, mobile installations with invisible mechanical links. For her residency, she worked with Prof. Dario Floreano in the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems (LIS), where she had her own studio.
“It has been profoundly stimulating on creative and intellectual levels,” Oppenheimer says of her experience. “The deeper my immersion in the lab, the greater the number of connections, conversations, and collaborations, all of which contribute to a relay of ideas. There is incredible potential for play!”
Oppenheimer credits her time in the lab with helping her develop and change the architectural system she will exhibit in January 2024. When she arrived, she had the plan to develop a tactile, pneumatic network. Her time in the lab introduced her to new materials and shifted her thinking about robots, from heavy fabrication tools to lightweight, mobile, and collaborative systems.
“My work deals with human manipulation of built environments,” she says. “LIS’s research on biomimicry and embodied networks has shifted my understanding of human-space and human-human interaction.”
Floreano found it equally inspiring having Oppenheimer in his lab, where she engaged with students, regularly participated in weekly lab meetings, and provided helpful suggestions and unexpected questions.
“I think that science is similar to art in that important discoveries sometimes require creativity in finding novel solutions, linking apparently diverse fields, and questioning established methods and knowledge,” Floreano says.
“The mental, social, and cultural processes that lead to those creative discoveries are poorly understood and deliberately ignored in the scientific reports, but it is important to cultivate them and the collaboration with an artist in residence can be an effective way to do so. Having Sarah in our lab helps us to see our work from a different perspective.”
Sarah Oppenheimer’s exhibition “N-03X67” will take place at EPFL Pavilions - Pavilion A, January 18 – February 18, 2024. Vernissage: January 18, 6 pm
“Stepping into a future where speculation and pollution degrade reality”
Dutch artist Rosa Menkman was invited to EPFL with a proposal titled “im/possible rainbows and unnamed colours”. She engaged with scientists at CLIMACT (Center for Climate Impact and Action) and collaborated with Dr. Edward Andò at the Center for Imaging, a collaboration that marks the second year of Andò’s and the Center for Imaging's participation in the AiR program, highlighting the value he sees in the collaboration between artists and scientists.
“Seeing art as a means by which we can understand the increasingly technological world around us, I hope that we can either provide inspiration for topics that are worth discussing and bringing to light, or provide hardware or software tools to help realise an existing artistic vision,” Andò says.
Menkman and Andò explored the challenges Generative Artificial Intelligence faces in distinguishing between symbolic - such as rainbow emojis - and the actual, natural representations of rainbows. This difficulty leads to a 'polluted' portrayal by AI, where the true essence of real rainbows is not accurately captured or distinguished from their symbolic counterparts.
At CLIMACT, Menkman had conversations with scientists about how climate change and pollution could influence future rainbows: “What stood out to me was the fact that heightened levels of pollution could potentially modify the atmosphere's capacity to create rainbows,” Menkman says. "A change that may lead to a transformation in the colours we observe in rainbows, ultimately guiding us to a new understanding of how rainbows should be depicted.”
The exhibition will feature a video installation inspired by Menkman's practical and speculative dialogues at the Center for Imaging and CLIMACT and asks: what if AI fails to distinguish between the symbolic and the real, while natural phenomena lose their distinct visual markers?
"I envision a future in which the two-fold degradation and distortion of the representation of a rainbow has become reality. In this future, a media archeologist is forced to sift through numerous images and perspectives, in an effort to reconstruct the true essence of what rainbows once were, in order to understand how the imaging of the rainbow has changed.”
Rosa Menkman’s proposal for “Lost and Unnamed Colours” will be exhibited February 22 – March 17, 2024 at EPFL Pavilions - Pavilion A. Vernissage:February 22, 6 pm
Playing with a non-intuitive version of reality
Gary Zhexi Zhang is artist and writer from the United Kingdom and China whose work looks at the history of conceptual categories that make up our reality and the times of speculations of when those categories begin to fail and paradigms shift.
He came to EPFL with the idea to explore how the structures of time could be thought about and represented and how narrative plays with this non-intuitive version of reality. He named the project “The Inadequacy of Grammar” from a line by the physicist Carlo Rovelli.
“It has expanded a little bit now as I have engaged with scientists here and I have delved deeper into the history of perception,” Zhang says. “I have become more interested in not only our sense of what reality is made of, but also this idea of how we model the world between a material physical reality, a sensory apparatus of the body, and a world of mental representations and how that feedback loop functions.” To this end, Zhang has explored different ways we perceive time, looking at chronobiology and the multiplicity of time.
He has been working mostly with Prof. Michael Herzog of the Laboratory of Psychophysics, which looks at how humans experience external reality. For Zhang, his conversations with Herzog demonstrated just how much of our experience as humans is constructed or integrated in the brain. For Herzog, the experience has been “great fun and a source of mutual inspiration.”
Zhang’s exhibition will be a video installation, seeing how cinematic narrative form can be played with and deconstructed.
Gary Zhexi Zhang’s exhibition “METAMERS” will take place February 22 – March 17, 2024 at EPFL Pavilions – Pavilion A. Vernissage: February 22, 6 pm