‘HALO’ Makes Art Out of Subatomic Particle Collisions at Art Basel

The site-specific installation by British artist duo Semiconductor revisits the universe’s first moments

The goal, Ruth Jarman says, is to “transcend the data so that it becomes something else" Claudia Marcelloni/CERN

HALO,” a 13-foot-tall, 33-foot-wide cylinder encircled with stretched-out piano strings that emulate the sounds of protons colliding, is simultaneously a goldmine of advanced scientific data and a transcendent experience designed to overwhelm the senses.

The site-specific installation, commissioned by Swiss watch company Audemars Piguet for the 49th iteration of Art Basel, is the brainchild of Brighton-based artist duo Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, better known as Semiconductor.

According to Artnet News’ Taylor Dafoe, the immersive work draws on data from the Large Hadron Collider, the powerful particle accelerator housed at Swiss particle physics laboratory CERN. The LHC simulates conditions found fractions of seconds after the Big Bang: Superconducting magnets guide protons through more than 16 miles of tubing, enabling them to travel at close to the speed of light before colliding and generating new subatomic particles.

In “HALO,” slowed-down versions of these collisions—lasting 25 seconds rather than 25 nanoseconds—are rendered as dots of light whizzing across the installation’s interior. As visitors take in the 360-degree projections surrounding them, they are simultaneously assailed by the piano strings, which emit sounds in accordance with collision data.

Wired’s Matt Reynolds reports that Semiconductor developed the project while conducting a three-month artistic residency at CERN back in 2015. The pair worked closely with the laboratory’s particle physicists to translate raw data from the LHC into an aural and visual experience.

Jarman tells Dafoe that the experiential aspects of “HALO” can be appreciated without extensive knowledge of the science behind it. The goal, she says, is to create an interplay of the natural world and humanity, something that “transcends” the data.

"We call it the ‘technological sublime’,” Mónica Bello, head of arts at CERN and installation co-curator, explains in an interview with Dafoe, “experiencing nature, but through the language of science and technology.”

“HALO” is just one of many projects that exhibit Semiconductor’s unique melding of science and art. Previous works include “Time Out of Place,” a 2007 multimedia installation designed to simulate a non-linear experience of time, and “Parting the Waves,” a 2017 visualization of quantum systems.

Despite Semiconductor’s name and gravitation toward subjects of science and technology, the British duo is quick to assert they are artists first. “We are always fighting battles because some people assume that we are just illustrating science,” Gerhardt tells the Financial Times’ Gareth Harris. “We know we’re artists.”

HALO” is on view at Art Basel’s Messeplatz exhibition space through June 17.

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