WORKS – Drift: Art and Dark Matter

In ALL, WORKS by Vrinda Nair

“Some kind of invisible matter is having a gravitational effect on everything. Without the gravity of this dark matter, galaxies would fly apart. Observational data in astroparticle physics indicate that it exists, but so far dark matter hasn’t been directly detected. Given the contours of such an unknown, artists Nadia Lichtig, Josèfa Ntjam, Anne Riley and Jol Thoms reflect on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of physics and art as diverse and interrelating practices of knowledge. Through open exchange between disciplines, they have created works that are sensory agents between scientific ideas of dark matter and the exploration of that which has never been directly sensed.

Drift: Art and Dark Matter is a residency and exhibition project generated by the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, the Arthur B. McDonald Canadian Astroparticle Physics Research Institute and SNOLAB.”

Agnes Etherington Art Centre website, 2021 (links added)

A series of large, multicoloured, translucent organic shapes/blobs.
Organic Nebula (detail) (2019) by Josèfa Ntjam, carpet, photomontage. Collection of the artist.

Tell us about your inspiration behind the project name, Drift.

Sunny Kerr (curator): At first, I was inspired by “the drift.” My colleagues at McDonald Institute described it as the long dark hot passageway from the cage (mine elevator) into SNOLAB’s ultra-clean laboratory spaces and “drift” is a common mining industry term for such tunnels. “Drift” is a title that grounds us in a stable material space, and the word also offers a poetics of waywardness that was appealing, because “drift” also refers to unpredictability, involuntariness, wandering or indeterminacy and even delirium. I believe there are two kinds of curiosity: major and minor. The major kind belongs to the nobler pursuits of capital “S” Science and capital “A” Art. Minor curiosity is always at work inside science and art, stealthily migrating into unfettered solidarities. The urgency of our historical moment makes me interested in how artists and art institutions can stray outside of their safe zones in ways that might allow us to recognize latent commonalities and to stay with our entanglement with planetary beings. So, I was inspired to refer to the “the drift” for its tracing of the action of connecting: it connects the lab to its geographical, historical, cultural contexts and so it might also connect dark matter physics with the world of art. In this way, the title can also be a metaphor for what happens to distinct but compatible disciplines when they connect (for one, we see how each is less distinct than we thought, already having influenced each other). Have you ever listened to the way McCoy Tyner plays the piano with John Coltrane? To my inexpert ears, he sustains an especially open modality. He accompanies Coltrane in a different sense than we normally expect. He does not close down multiplicity; nor does he alienate. His sound is a companion that doesn’t “comp,” but instead opens new directions repeatedly. This is how I imagine art moving together with science.

The project frames unspoken anticipation of (hope for) presence and visuality. “Drift” sets an expectation of openness and acceptance of unknowing within such a charged space and allows the subterfuges of minor curiosity. For something as obscure to human sensory faculties as dark matter must also have a structure of psychic projection, unconscious drives accompanying its mathematics; it can only speak with our voices, bound up with the subjectivity of the observer. In the same instant, it decentres human perception, suggesting something like an inhuman unconscious. Finally, I was thinking of the unforgettable scene in Peter Mettler’s Picture of Light (1994) in which a crew member tries sculpting a snowdrift and is disappointed with his creation, as compared to natural drifts made from unrepeatably complex multiplicities of inhuman forces.

The corner of a large room. From a tall frame hangs a screen showing a blue background with a bright blue stripe of light. From the ceiling hangs a sculpture that looks like a series of metal geometric cube-like shapes. On the wall is a colourful graphic print.
n-land: the holographic (principle) (2021) by Jol Thoms, video, sound, steel slotted angle posts, acid burn rocks from Sudbury basin, shatter cone rock from Science North, reproduction of RobinsonHuron Treaty, isomorph c-prints, brass and rock sculptures, plug plate, gantry crane, work desk, computer. Collection of the artist. Installation view from Drift: Art and Dark Matter.

How did you come across the idea behind Drift: Art and Dark Matter?

Zac Kenny (project organizer): I am an artist and have worked for many years as a medical illustrator. Since starting my work with the Arthur B. McDonald Canadian Astroparticle Physics Research Institute (the McDonald Institute), I was constantly making sketches and diagrams to help wrap my head around what the physicists were talking about. Illustrations, photographs, and videos can be extremely helpful to people processing new information. For medical patients, being able to see a simple animation of the surgery they need can help put their minds at ease, as it demystifies the procedure. Visualizations can help people understand the choices they have to make and empower them to make informed decisions about treatment options or recovery exercises. 

When it comes to dark matter, neutrinos, and particle physics, accurate visual representation reaches a limit. While it can be helpful to draw a neutrino as a circle for simplicity’s sake, it is far from accurate, and as a result, someone’s understanding and assumption about the nature of a neutrino is skewed. 

Art presents an alternative way of engaging, communicating, and understanding. Through the Drift: Art and Dark Matter project, we wanted to show how art can provide uniquely imaginative and abstract insights about the dark matter research happening in Canada. We ambitiously envisioned our researchers viewing the artwork and reflecting on their practice in a way that might generate some new idea about a theory, technique, or even a team dynamic. In this way, we wanted to demonstrate the potential that art and other ways of knowing have in terms of expanding the scope of how science is currently done. 

Neutral-coloured panels attached together to form a large rectangle. There are dark brown splotches on some of the panels.
Blank Spots (2021, ongoing) by Nadia Lichtig, frottage on canvas, theatre lights, sound. Collection of the artist. Installation view from Drift: Art and Dark Matter. Photo by Tim Forbes.

What are the tools and techniques used by the artists? 

Michelle Kathleen Bunton (curatorial assistant): One could consider analogous thinking to be the primary tool of Drift: Art and Dark Matter residency, as both sides of the collaboration sought to extend their disciplines into the unfamiliar and unknown. This drifting beyond comfortable boundaries into multi-dimensional, multi-species, and multi-disciplinary orientations was a way of raising new questions, dismantling assumptions, and breaking out of routines and expectations. And while an expectation might have initially been placed on the artists to somehow represent dark matter, encounters between the artists and scientists quickly revealed a primary interest not in giving form to dark matter, but allowing this invisible mattering to guide questions about ideas and idea-making: are we taking a linear pathway, or is our approach decentralized? How do we map the biases and hierarchies of our particular worldview onto encounters with the new and unknown? And alternatively, how can we approach ideas through cultural narrative and storytelling? How can we engage with science and art, and with theory more generally, in a way that is generative rather than extractive? These initial questions along with the artists’ practices reveal macro and microscopic entryways into the question of what is (or why is) dark matter. 

Travelling two kilometres below the Earth’s surface and through the dusty, windy tunnel known as the drift, one can’t help but be sensitive to the effects of pressure on your body. Your change in breath attunes you to the unfamiliar space in uncanny, subjective ways. Artist Nadia Lichtig’s work Blank Spots plays with the subjectivity of breath and with language as a non-communicative thing. The rhythms of audio in her work resist the meaning-making of the symbolic, and the series of frottages, illuminated by a lighting pattern matching the artist’s breath, use dust to capture forgotten spaces of knowing.  

Alternatively, Josèfa Ntjam uses narrative, mythology, and poetics in Myceaqua Vitae as a conduit for speculative fabulation. Her installation takes aesthetic cues from science fiction and spacecraft, presenting a narrative in which a bioluminescent organism holding clues and riddles of unacknowledged worlds is sought after in the stars and under stones. Inspired by the liquid argon scintillation of the DEAP-3600 detector at SNOLAB, Luciferin Drop is a fantastical interpretation of dark matter sensing equipment that prompted a SNOLAB physicist to question the necessity of their experiment’s minimalistic design. 

A series of multicoloured and metallic shapes, more geometric, small, and square at the bottom of the image, and becoming increasingly large and organic moving up.
Orthomorph (Tunneling) (2020) by Jol Thoms, digital print. Collection of the artist.
A large, dimly lit room. On the left is a large vessel holding a glowing green substance. On the right is a man looking at a series of three screens.
Left: Luciferin Drop (2020) by Josèfa Ntjam, glass, metal, ABS filament, and luminescent liquid. Right: Myceaqua Vitae (2020) by Josèfa Ntjam, video with sound. Collection of the artist. Installation view from Drift: Art and Dark Matter. Photo by Tim Forbes.

And while some of the artists offer a sort of transparency into SNOLAB and dark matter research, others take up the technique of refusal and opacity. Take the work of Anne Riley, for example, whose project dark matter garden inherently questions and dismantles the established practices of Western institutions by operating outside of both the gallery’s walls and timelines. Negotiating presence is one of Riley’s tools, evidenced also in her video the heart of the matter which recognizes the emotional labour often placed on Indigenous people when they are invited to engage with both art and science institutions.  

Artist Jol Thoms’s approach to the Drift project is through a pre-established interest in laboratory landscapes and holographic thinking, a methodology that views sites such as SNOLAB through layered and interconnected histories, timescales, and ecologies. Borrowing aesthetics, techniques, and principles directly from physics, Thoms filters these through posthumanism, feminist science studies, general ecology, and queer theory to question the ethics of both science technology and art exhibitions.  

In summary, if I were to distil four main tools and techniques used by the artists these might be: remaining in a space of unknowing; speculation via cultural narrative, storytelling, and mythology; refusal and resistance; and holographic thinking. 

A person faces the camera and holds up their hands, showing their fingers. They look like they are in mid-speech. Plants line a window in the background.
the heart of the matter (still) (2020) by Anne Riley, video with sound. Collection of the artist.

How should people consider or rather explore the drift project? 

Bunton: Drift: Art and Dark Matter is not an exercise in the translation or visualization of scientific concepts, rather it is rooted in the notion of radical openness and mutual exchange across both scientific and artistic research/creation practices. The goal was always that, by bringing scientists and artists together, an opportunity would be created for both disciplines to learn from and influence one another, resulting not only in new artistic work by Nadia Lichtig, Josèfa Ntjam, Anne Riley, and Jol Thoms but also in new ways of thinking about dark matter science. As an extension of this logic, the hope was that new science audiences would be introduced to contemporary art, and our typical gallery-goers would in turn be introduced to advances in dark matter science. 

There is no one way someone should consider or explore Drift—it is a fundamentally transdisciplinary project whose strength comes from the intermingling of a plethora of voices, research interests and ways of knowing. Like with the artists and scientists directly involved, Drift invites its audience to bring their questions, interpretations, and interests to the foreground. This is something we also aimed to build into the design of the online exhibition—we wanted to create a site with multiple streams of content and points of access that could be navigated freely by our audience. Whether your entry point to the project is an enthusiasm for physics, artist residencies, cosmology, contemporary art, Indigenous methodologies, transdisciplinary exchange, etc., you can find a personalized way to “drift” through the content. 

And so, while I wouldn’t claim that there is one way to engage with Drift, I might still recommend a methodology that arose during the project and could be taken up by its audience: to exercise or practise sitting with the unknown. What I mean by this is resisting the urge to force interpretation, definition, or resolution when encountering the unfamiliar. Instead, you might ask yourself how trajectories, timelines, values, hierarchies, etc. shift when we embrace opacity and unintelligibility. In other words, not to feel limited by our unknowing but to see it for its potentiality.  

A large room showcasing a metallic geometric sculpture, that looks like a series of cubes, hanging from the ceiling. There is also, hanging from a high frame, a screen that reads "voluminous".
n-Land: the holographic (principle) (2021) by Jol Thoms, 4k video, gantry crane, 5.1 sound, steel slotted angle sculptures with Fresnel lenses, mirror ball motors, Robinson-Huron Treaty: Library and Archives Canada, RG10, Volume: 1844/IT148, Microfilm reel: T-9938, acid burned rocks from Sudbury landscape, Sudbury basin “shatter cone” rock-sculpture from Sudbury’s Science North, Sloan Digital Sky Survey “plug plate” from the collection of Stéphane Courteau, isomorph c-prints, sculptures of brass and rock sourced from Sudbury’s Dynamic Earth, work desk with computer showing group portrait with SNO+ detector video, Robinson-Huron Treaty annuities case court documents, physics essay by Ningqiang Song & Aaron Vincent, Sudbury Bedrock Compilation map from Canada’s geological survey, coloured floor tapes, neutrino particles and shadows. Installation view from Drift: Art and Dark Matter.
A man in a blue coverall and orange hardhat takes a recording in a long tunnel. There are pipes and metal pieces running along the tunnel walls. At the end is a large piece of machinery.
Artist Jol Thomson documents researchers working on CUTE (a Cryogenic Underground Test Facility) at SNOLAB. Photo by Gerry Kingsley.

What is the message you want to give to future participants?

Kenny: For the people viewing the exhibition, and especially the high-school student audience, we want to capture the imaginations of those who understand science to be all chalkboards and Petri dishes, and show them how it can be so much more. For folks who love math and experiments, we want to show that there are incredibly creative people out there who can help push the boundaries of knowledge. And for those who spend their time doodling in the margins, we want them to know that their talent, insight, and originality, can play a role in ground-breaking science. 

Ultimately, we hope that through this project, people can come to appreciate art as a valid and authentic way of doing and thinking about science. 

What are your plans for the future? Are you planning to expand the Drift project?

Kerr: Yes. First, Anne Riley’s piece called dark matter garden is an expansion of the project in the sense that it occurs outside of the gallery and outside of the exhibition dates; it will be akin to an earthwork, composed of nutrient-rich soil that is allowed to wild-seed on the grounds of Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Among other outgrowths such as the online version of the exhibition and the Drifting Together school program, is Dark Matter Playgroup. We invited a group of local artists to engage with the ideas, artworks, and mentors who had also worked with Drift: Art and Dark Matter. The Dark Matter Playgroup presents new work in Superradiance in summer 2021. Second, with artist Elvira Hufschmid, we organized a set of workshops for physicists to learn about encountering art and to make connections between the commissioned artworks and their research in dark matter physics.

Most centrally, the exhibition and its partnerships with SNOLAB and McDonald Institute continue as the project begins a national tour. The show travels to university galleries where McDonald Institute has astroparticle physics networks, including Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC this fall and then Carleton University Art Gallery in the winter. In this way, the project can deepen questions or incite new conversations, and programs can be shaped by what we learn along the way. For example, Belkin is inviting a further set of artists into a micro-residency in collaboration with the Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute. Finally, the project’s accompanying book is due in September 2021 and will feature images of the residency and the art, and texts by the artists, Art McDonald, Denise Ferreira da Silva, and myself.

A group of people sit around a table in a dark room. They wear hair nets and look at an illuminated presentation screen displaying some sort of metallic object.
Artist Josèfa Ntjam delivers an artist talk to SNOLAB staff and the Drift: Art and Dark Matter team. Photo by Zac Kenny.

How did you come across materials and strategies of physics and make them into art? 

Jol Thoms: I have been working at the intersection of physics, philosophy, and the environment in an artistic and experimental context for just over a decade now. I am quite interested in how knowledge of reality is construed and devised specifically with and through new material assemblages: Gases, minerals, crystals, optical devices are consistently arranged and re-arranged by inquisitive humans called ‘physicists’ to try and understand what reality is or could be, to try and discover new energies and forces that might make living less difficult for future generations. That experimental physics is materially embedded in the world’s minerals and elements gravitationally pull this quite far-out knowledge and practice back into and for the world, its matters of concern.

Observatories embedded in planetary bodies like deserts, mountains, ice-shelf, and meteor impact basins signal that our western concepts of nature, technology, and place are each in need of considerable review and renewal. Since the articulation of quantum mechanics at the beginning of the 20th century, reality has been fundamentally described as indeterminate, fuzzy, and statistical, yet these findings, harnessed for all modern technological innovation of global society, have yet to seep into our organizations and institutions, our responses and responsibilities, our thoughts and logics. Of and in a planet that consists of many worlds and worldviews, many world-making practices, histories, and futures, quantum methods and processes can help us dislodge from traditional ways of dividing up what counts as real, what matters, entangling us in cosmic webs of meaning. We can refer to meta/physics in this sense, a term to recognize the philosophical implications of physics and the realities it describes.

Three large screens showing a photomontage: a dark background with white dots and lines and what looks like a lens flare on the right.
Top: Myceaqua Vitae (2020) by Josèfa Ntjam, video with sound. Bottom: Organic Nebula (2019) by Josèfa Ntjam, carpet, photomontage. Collection of the artist. Installation view from Drift: Art and Dark Matter. Photo by Tim Forbes.

With all of my love and interest in physics, the strange and powerful views it articulates on reality, I would say that it overlooks other important possibilities. That’s partly why I feel so privileged to work inside its domains, bring other perspectives and attitudes through their laboratories and landscapes. Physics, of course, cannot do everything, but it can stretch our imagination to reach beyond. I am very interested in the frictions between cosmologies (astronomical and cultural / or, say; scientific and spiritual), between worlds of quantity and quality because they seem to point to a new broader reality. Physics draws us to what is mystical about the existence of the world.

Cosmology in an expanded sense helps us ground in time and space, if ever so briefly, and yet signals far beyond our senses into eternal mysteries and ancestralities (a term speaking to deep aeonic times of pasts and futures). Materials, concepts, and logics of physics offer tools and ideas that can be used more generally, outside of physics, to help us think, for example, about connections and relationships – relations to each other, to nature, to technology & the cosmos. That is why I am drawn to physics processes and concepts: because they are so helpful for thinking about and discovering new horizons and possibilities of space-time matter (See Karen Barad: Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Mechanics and The Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, 2007).

Find out more about Drift: Art and Dark Matter on the Agnes Etherington Art Centre website.


All images courtesy of the artists and Zac Kenny at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University.

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About the Author

Vrinda Nair

Vrinda Nair is a doctoral student and public scholar who is pursuing her PhD in Physics at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. Currently, working on drug design of small molecules implementing deep learning. She also serves as the treasurer of the Forum on Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA) at the American Physical Society. She is a published author-poet of three books which include two poetry books: It’s a carnal world (physical book), Abuzz (Kindle eBook) and one self-help book: Motivate your genes (Kindle eBook). Vrinda also holds a record in writing a poem in alphabetical order from the India Book of Records. She writes on diverse themes on her blog and designs many art forms. She is a freelancer who provides services like content writing, resume/CV editing, SOP, presentation making etc. She is also a certified professional life coach, instructional designer, artist, and digital illustrator and is passionate about playing the violin. She actively supports many causes like women in STEM, supporting sci-artist and has worked with various organisations and offered volunteering services. She believes to live in sanguinity.