Creative Collisions – Beyond Paradigms

Ariane Koek

Director and creator of Collide@CERN Artists Residency Programme
CERN, The European Organisation for Nuclear Research


“We are creating ourselves continually.” (Henri Bergson, 1911)

Creativity is the last frontier.  We have landed on the moon, mapped the human genome, and found the particle, which gives matter mass. But creativity defies our definition and capture. It is elusive and invisible – the truly wild beast of existence, which cannot be tamed and caged in our human zoo – however hard we try.

There is a race in our society to own creativity – to commodify, package and sell it back to culture in what the philosopher Michael Sander calls the ‘market society.’ Management consultants, psychologists, neuroscientists, education and cultural specialists – all come up with the promise of having discovered the secret formuli which makes creativity accessible to all in our communal age. Then these formuli are smashed to smithereens. Just look at the theory about ‘the right brain’ being the seat of creativity, ‘the left’ being the seat of logic. That has now been disproved and emphasis is now placed on the interplay between the two, which together make creativity possible.

Even so, we continue to press on to control creativity. Standardised procedures, evaluation and testing are introduced to provide evidence that define new processes and methodologies for creativity. But is it really as simple as that? I would argue defiantly and definitely it is not. It is only when we also accept the unknown, ambiguity, messiness, play, and the individual, as well as structure, definitions and the collective, that creativity can really flourish.

This is why, at every talk I give about the Collide@CERN Artists residency programme, which I created and direct at the world’s largest particle physics laboratory outside Geneva, Switzerland, I begin with this deliberate public creativity health warning. Do not copy this. Do not have a cookie cutter approach to culture and creativity. If you do, you kill it. Reductionism does not work.  What does work is engaging with the paradoxes as well subtleties of people, place and the culture(s), which make up the environment where you wish to be creative and make the conditions where this can grow.

What follows is a deliberately random seeming series of personal reflections on the thinking behind Collide@CERN programme – why and how it is happening – which is reflective of the creative process itself.

But first I will put these reflections in context to show the critical thinking which underlies what may deliberately appear random personal thoughts but which have very solid and critical foundations.


Scientists are the new rock stars. As the future trends think tank, The Future
Laboratory’s report “Re-Enlightenment Rising‟ says, “science is now
breaking out of the laboratory – onto theatre stages, the fashion catwalks, into galleries and shops, and into the minds of the brightest creatives.”

The ideas of science are the food for creative thought and the new source of inspiration for future society in the 21st century. Social innovation, artistic expression, technological change – all are now beginning to feed on the ideas of science in our age of austerity, where the value of money has been replaced by the value of ideas. The capital we have in this new age is not financial capital – but cultural and creative capital. The last time science, the arts and technology interacted this powerfully in Europe was over 300 years ago in the Enlightenment – hence the title of the Future Laboratory’s report. At that time, separate academies for arts and science did not exist in Europe – both were seen as part of the sea of culture which was constantly intermingling and interacting.

Today we are at a moment which sees the return of this inter-culturalism. We are on the threshold of a new world of thinking and creativity – part of what the German philosopher Karl Jaspars identified as the “axial age‟ – when new values, new narratives, new transdisciplinary engagement and new perceptions are evolving. Society is in the midst of a great “paradigm shift‟ – in the words of the great thinker about science, the physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn.

This can be seen in the narratives we have traditionally used to engage with science, which are already undergoing this seismic shift. We are far more likely to see science communicated by the imagery on the catwalk on the dresses of Moschino and Agnes B or the world of quantum physics and beekeeping colliding on the West End stage in London than we are to only see a stuffy science lecture on television or a straight newspaper report which tells the story from a to b in logical precise steps.

The stories of science are no longer transmitted in straight forward
communications methods which only describe and illustrate the science. This is because the power of the arts is to reach the hearts and parts which science alone cannot reach or communicate. Inspiration and innovation, not illustration or description, is the new motive of communicating science today – and this may involve telling the story of science in seemingly illogical and spiraling ways, which defy linearity or even the compelling narrative which dominates science of certainty.

In fact, the ways of telling the story of science and engaging with it are being busted wide open due to the worldwide web and access to science, creating new genre-defying formats and domains by the force of the engagement of the arts. Look at the rise of big data, including scientific data becoming food for artistic inspiration and practice with the rise of data art as a new artistic form. In this century in which the visual has come the first communications pathway, the seemingly impenetrable world of numbers becomes both alluring and beautiful – appealing to our senses in the work of United Visuals Artists or the artist Carsten Nicolai and his alter ego, the club-meister Alva Noto.

Science fact, such as the halo effect around the sun or cloud formation becomes the bases of work by architect and artist Asif Khan with his installation for Design Miami, Parhelia based on the atmospheric phenomenon known as the ice halo, or Cloud Cities by Tomas Saraceno.

From these interactions, and from the arts being in the position of being global agitator, questioner, free radical and catalyst, our new axial age will come into being. And technology – whether through mobile apps, google glasses, GPS, devices in our clothes or on our bodies will become the means of distribution, ownership as well as part of the art and its creation.

But as ever, it is quality and not quantity which counts. And one of the ways which can foster this quality which will lead to innovative and radical thinking are arts science residencies. Placed in a scientific laboratory or environment, artists, technologists intermingling can lead to new thoughts. Take for example the Experiments in Arts and Technology programme (E.A.T.) at Bell Laboratory Residencies of the 1960s. Or the work of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and their artists residency scheme which has existed since 1961. Both are pioneering programmes which informed the 4 months feasibility study looking at setting up the Collide@CERN artists residency programme in 2010.

What follows is the series of reflections on the new residency programme at CERN, which first took place in 2012, within the context of the New Enlightenment outlined above. (At the end of the essay, you can meet the first Collide @CERN artist, Julius von Bismarck and his CERN inspiration partner, James Wells talking about why and how they feel this engagement is important to them personally.)


“Knowledge is limited, imagination encircles the world.” These are the words of the great physicist Albert Einstein. Often he would take breaks from his science and play the violin, which took his thinking and imagination further, pushing him beyond the paradigms of science of the day. In many ways, this is reflective of the Romantic ideal of the 18th century, when the word creation was actually first applied to the arts, in particular poetry – a period when the imagination held centre stage: imagination as liberation.

When I was asked recently how I ended up at CERN, creating the artists residency programme in the ocean of 10000 physicists, engineers and technicians from around the world, it came to me that everything I have done in my career to date has been focused on the imagination.   It is this power of the imagination to liberate which I realized recently is behind everything I do and this influenced the creation of COLLIDE@CERN.


In 2009, I won a Cultural Leadership arts fellowship, that gave me the opportunity to have 3 three month attachments anywhere in the world, I wanted to go to CERN. I couldn’t think of anywhere more exciting on the planet – where new ideas and technologies beyond the paradigm are being forged at the Large Hadron Collider which is recreating the moment after the universe was created 10.7 billion years ago.

CERN was poised at the greatest moment in its history – switching on  the LHC to discover the Higgs Boson. The great discoveries of 20th century physicists, Einstein and Heisenberg had deeply inspired the modernism movement as, exemplified by the Irish writer James Joyce, the Greek composer Xenakis, and the Spanish painter Picasso. The laboratory was poised to influence even further a new generation of artists in the 21st century; Arts + science + technology = culture – the expression of what it is to be human in our world.

In order to be a real cultural force in the 21st century, it is not enough to be just a science or technology institution. I proposed a feasibility study on setting up an artist’s residency scheme.  CERN showed extraordinary openness, through an almost immediate reply, “’When can you start?”  Openness is another important condition for creativity – in both the arts and science alike.


In the 21st Century, art/science is very much on trend. Partly driven by economics, partly driven by endless curiosity, there are three aspects to this art/science trend, which are arguably potentially damaging to creating a truly valuable art/science aesthetic.

First, the arts are used as a communicator of science, the artist representing and illustrating the science to the outside world. This is, essentially, art as a publicity and communications tool. This is becoming dangerously critical in the current cash crisis, when artists are seeking new ways of funding their work and science promises new purse-strings.

Secondly, science as a means of production, where scientific methods, experimentation and technologies become the sole channel through which art is processed and made, subjugating the imagination to reductive processes.

Thirdly, science as art – for example, when a snapshot of a cell is admired as beautiful or a chemists’ laboratory is found in an art gallery. Both instantly become art, “daringly” crossing the threshold of the arts/science boundary, but in reality saying nothing more than that. It is an intervention that leads nowhere.

But there is a fourth, more invisible, strand, where the arts and science are in fluid interchange – just as they were in the time of Leonardo da Vinci, when he moved easily between the two. Here, the disciplines are honoured for their similarities as well as their essential differences and interact and influence each other.

This fourth strand, embodied in the twenty first century by for example the work of Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson, constantly crossing boundaries between science, technology, design and art, is the most exciting and the most productive. It is this fourth strand, which is the focus of the Collide@CERN programme. Out of collisions, like in the large Hadron Collider, innovation, rather than assimilation, can happen, leading to new creative discoveries.


When the arts and science are placed on the same level of expertise and standing, then real exchange can happen on an equal basis, with neither subservient to the other. The artists at CERN are selected through international open competition by a jury of peers and funded during their residency, for their expertise, innovation and knowledge, equitable to the process of recruiting CERN’s scientists.

Collide@CERN artists are assigned a science inspiration partner. The use of the word partner is deliberate – showing again the equality of mutual exchange and interchange, rather than a hierarchical structure of teacher and pupil.


Ideas are springboards of the imagination. They are the nexus where art, science and technology meet, interact and exchange in order to leap to new creative dimensions and challenge paradigms in both the workings of the arts and science.


In our product driven world, trust in the artist and the artistic process is being lost, being replaced by systems, evaluation and deadlines. Collide@CERN is a deliberate provocation – saying trust the artist. An art piece at the end of the 3 month residency is deliberately not included. An artist exists to create and make.  So any artist selected will create a work out of their residency – but not within a short or defined timescale.

After two months of the first artist in residence, Julius von Bismarck, a scientist asked me ‘Where is the art piece?’ I replied, ‘How long did it take you to make your experiment?’ ’15 years,’ he replied. He thought for a moment, and then said, ‘Good point.’

A work of art, like a scientific experiment, takes as long as it takes, deadline or no deadline. There is no getting around this fact of creativity.


The winner of Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN competition 2012, the eminent American sound artist, Bill Fontana, could not have put it more perfectly than he did in his personal testimony to win the award. ” I am 65, but I want to extend myself and go into the unknown. You are never too old as an artist to do that.”

It is only by being unsettled and disturbed – taken out of our comfort zones into the glorious messiness of the unknown, beyond our knowledge and experience, that we evolve and develop. Discovery is the key. But what is also vital in this unknown environment is there is also a producer/curator there – a fixed point in the turning world guiding one through another key part of creativity:


Collide@CERN’s second artist, the choreographer Gilles Jobin, admitted his confusion to me after a week. At first he was terrified by the fact he couldn’t hold onto his understanding of what the scientists were saying: after they left the room, their meaning just seemed to disappear. So used to being in control of his own dance company, Gilles was now out of control, in a world of discovery and research, where the focus was on the mind and the unseen, rather than the visible and the body like it is for him in dance.

Relax into the confusion. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Don’t feel as if you have to understand everything: you don’t need to. That’s why you are here. You are bringing with you your own knowledge – your embodied knowledge. React with your body and your senses to what you are encountering. You have a knowledge they don’t have. Respond with your gut, your head, your heart and whatever moves you. That is what I said to Gilles in the middle of his confusion, as the language and intensity of particle physics swirled around him.


One of the key ways artists engage with the laboratory is through a series of interventions of their own devising, as a producer I facilitate these deliberate provocations. This interrupts the flow of the laboratory and challenges the ruling status quo, enabling the artists to assert themselves – 1 in the ocean of 10,000.

Bismarck locked thirty physicists up underground in pitch dark, playing them Bertrand Russell expounding on Plato’s cave and asking them what they saw in their minds’ eye. Gilles Jobin and dancers, swept away the central restaurant’s forest of tables and chairs to create a live dance rehearsal space at peak serving time.


But none of this would work, if there wasn’t structure in the residency programme. The artists with their science inspiration partner have to give public lectures at the beginning and the end of the residency. This acts as a bookend to their residency and a focus. The interventions are another structured part of the residency, as is meeting their inspiration partner once a week. Structures including freedom and freeplay, allow creativity to breathe and lead to the unexpected.


The first two Collide@CERN resident artists, 2012 have of course created pieces from their residency. Unexpectedly, they are also collaborating. This September, Quantum – a new choreography developed by Gilles Jobin out of his CERN residency, with the light installation by Julius von Bismarck created during his time at CERN, has its world premiere at CMS experimental hall – above the very spot where the Higgs like Boson was discovered. But is it that really so unexpected? I will leave it to you to decide…


This end is the beginning of further reflections on creativity. Yours. As Henri Bergson says, “We are creating ourselves continually.” Change is creativity’s natural state – as well as our natural state of being.


Fig 01: Julius Von Bismarck, CERN's first artist in Residence, with Physicist James Wells, 2012, Photo credit: Maximilien Brice, ©2012 CERN. (Used with permission.)

Julius Von Bismarck, CERN’s first artist in Residence, with Physicist James Wells, 2012, Photo credit: Maximilien Brice, ©2012 CERN. (Used with permission.)


1. Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans, Arthur D Mitchell (Dover Publications, New York 1998).
2. Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2012).
3. What Isn’t for Sale? (accessed September 30, 2013).
4. A Cultural Revolution, (accessed September 30, 2013).
5. Making More than a Big Bang: Art and Science Collide at CERN, (accessed September 30, 2013).
6. Manifesto for arts and science, Arts@CERN published in The Art Newspaper, accessed October 2011, (accessed October 2011).
7. Collide – A Cultural Revolution, (accessed September 30, 2013).


Ariane Koek created and directs The Collide@CERN Artists residency programme. She also leads on International Arts at the world famous laboratory outside Geneva where she also created their first Cultural Policy for the Arts. She came to CERN thanks to the Clore Fellowship – a development award for leadership in the arts, which she won for her work as CEO of the Arvon Foundation for Creative Writing and her award-winning career as a BBC producer/director in both radio and television.
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