Back in May 2016, a group of artists visited Boulby Underground Laboratory to meet scientists working on dark matter detection in a hidden environment 1,100 m below ground, beyond the reach of cosmic rays and background radiation.
Here we gained a glimpse into the dedicated world that the scientists inhabit, and found we had common ground as we both seek to understand the mysteries of the universe and our role within it.
Our guide for the visit was particle astrophysicist Dr Chamkaur Ghag, whom I met when he gave a talk on dark matter organised by the creative agency super/collider in London. During his explanations on the theories of what dark matter might be and the direct detection experiments he designed and worked on, I learned that this was taking place on the north east coast of England in the UK’s deepest working mine. I was intrigued to visit this extraordinary location where scientists spend their time in search of something so elusive.
In my own practice as an artist I had become interested in intangible ideas and had been photographing prosaic places called paradise, such as Paradise Industrial Estate in Hemel Hempstead, and wondering if I felt differently about a place because of its name. A week spent at the Princes School of Traditional Arts learning about geometry and biomorphic patterns in nature led me to think about structures that might be clues to what it was that I was seeing in the landscapes around me if I looked beyond the surface. I realised that within that ordinary space were hidden the building blocks of the universe.
In my search to discover what matter was made of I turned to particle physics and learned that the matter we know is less than 5% of the content of the universe. This incredible realisation led me to make connections between the aura of place, the pursuit of paradise and the search for the origins of the universe – all ephemeral things that are hard to grasp.
Joining with other artists whose research explores the structures that underpin our existence we planned the trip to Boulby Underground Laboratory, hosted by lab director Professor Sean Paling. Visiting the lab was a surreal experience, which began with a two-hour health-and-safety induction and being alerted to the hazards of life underground.
We were kitted out in orange boiler suits, heavy boots, shin pads, hard hats, ear defenders, goggles and flashlights. Most alarming was the issue of the self-rescuer breathing apparatus that converts carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide with the instruction “better to use in doubt than die in error”. Only three breaths of deadly carbon monoxide and you are unconscious – possibly dead.
We crammed into a narrow container, descending the shaft for seven long minutes into blackness before arriving in a hot and dusty subterranean world. Ears popping, we stepped through a series of airlock doors, adding to the feeling that we had arrived on another planet, to enter the vast network of tunnels that stretch out under the sea. With our headlamps dimmed here is total darkness.
It was a 20-minute walk in the salt-laden atmosphere to the research laboratory. The three hours we spent underground passed very quickly as we were in constant awe at what we saw and heard about the extraordinary past and present projects that take place in this hidden arena. Prohibited from taking anything battery powered below we relied on borrowing a lab camera to take a few snaps before returning to the lift shaft to be hauled back to the surface, this time tightly packed among the silent, salt dusted mine workers. We returned to the surface exhausted and full of information to assimilate.
We were all struck by the faith of the scientists who spend many years designing and building experiments, waiting for data, searching for clues, hoping for outcomes.
The visit to Boulby Mine was a catalyst for us to develop new artworks reflecting our personal responses to dark matter research and the broader issues it touches upon. Coming together for a residency in April 2017 at Guest Projects London, sponsored by Yinka Shonibare Studios, we aimed to echo the ethos of the scientists, testing ideas and embracing unexpected outcomes.
The workshops we have been running offer some unique hands-on experiments led by artists. The science behind the phenomena is explained while the outcomes are also creative. It’s a chance for participants to experience new things such as activating phosphorescence with lasers, deconstructing and drawing particles, and witnessing unseen cosmic particle trails made visible in a cloud chamber.
The artworks created are informed by our underground experience in the extreme environment of Boulby Laboratory, the unswerving quest for knowledge and the unique detection methods employed, as well as the reliance on the interpretation of data and the difficulties of visualising the invisible. We also look at how this search to discover what the universe is made of might relate to our notions of humanity, our myths and beliefs.
It was important to us to be able to bring the outcomes back to the north east and we were delighted when Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum offered to host our exhibition. We have been met with nothing but enthusiasm from the mining museum community who have embraced us wholeheartedly. By installing our work at the mining museum we are reaching a completely new audience and engaging them in thinking about physics and art from new perspectives.
The public engagement award from the Institute of Physics has enabled us to offer free workshops and events at Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum, including hosting a dark-matter-themed day of activities on 19 August with artists and scientists inviting the public to explore the mysteries of the universe in a fun and informal setting. Members of our artist group come from across the UK and funds for expenses are enormously helpful in offering access for all to participate in events at the museum. The support of IOP, along with the Science and Technology Facilities Council, has also helped us to make a successful application for a grant from Arts Council England for a grant that favours projects that include funding partnerships.
We have had wonderful support from the IOP outreach team and have been awarded additional funding from the Yorkshire and North East Branch as part of the IOP Summer Sessions initiative. This has given us the opportunity us to present an afternoon of talks from scientists and artists at Whitby Museum on 4 August as a satellite event to the exhibition.
Already our project has reached many people who had never heard of dark matter before, and people in and around the north east who didn’t know they had a cutting-edge scientific facility on their doorstep.
And as artists, it has given us a rich source of research material and ideas that we can take forward to future projects.
- Our Public Engagement Grant Scheme provides up to £2,000 to individuals and organisations running physics-based events and activities in the UK and Ireland. The next round opens in September 2017. If you would like to be notified please email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to be added to the mailing list
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- Art project on dark matter enlightens north east England - 3 August 2017