What Particle Physics Sounds Like: Meet Bill Fontana, Artist in Residence at CERN

American sound artist Bill Fortuna becomes the third artist in residence at Europe's leading particle physics laboratory.

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Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty Images

A woman passes behind layers of the world's largest superconducting solenoid magnet (CMS), at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)'s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland on March 22, 2007.

The worlds of art and science have long intertwined, often with spectacular results — consider the oeuvre of  Leonardo da Vinci, as both inventor and artist. But it’s relatively rare these days to see a major institution for scientific research go out of its way to invite artists in. An exception to the rule: the Collide@CERN artists in residency program, set up to see what happens when particle physicists meet artists, which has just announced its new laureate. The latest artist to win one of these sought-after residencies is the American sound artist Bill Fontana.

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CERN has already hosted two artists in residence as part of the program:  digital artist Julius von Bismarck and choreographer Giles Jobin. While physicists quietly studied in the library at its headquarters on the Swiss-French border, dancers hung off bookshelves in Jobin’s piece ‘Strangels’.

Fontana, an Ohio native known for his experiments with sound sculptures using urban landscapes as a starting point, says that he is “intrigued” by the space at CERN. He has already proposed a working title of  “acoustic time-travel” for his new work, a project he says which will “mimic the protocol of a scientific experiment”. Fontana will be matched with a “science inspiration partner” while at CERN, a process which Ariane Koek, the creator of the program, says is best described as “speed dating”.

Koek initiated the project after she was awarded the Clore Fellowship in 2009. Speaking with TIME, Koek says that it was as she cycled to the British Library in London that she realized she wanted to spend her fellowship at CERN setting up an artist in residency program. “I was thinking about what really makes me excited,” says Koek, “a place that pushes the boundaries but is also itself outside of these boundaries. CERN immediately came to mind.”

Once she presented the idea to the scientists at CERN, they immediately said yes. “They were a bit astonished by the level of interest from the art world already, but they voted for it because they wanted to be a cultural force.”

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research headquartered in Geneva, welcomes about 10,000 physicists and engineers from all over the world to its labyrinth of corridors and labs every year. It was the birthplace of the world wide web and is home to the Large Hadron Collider, a high-energy particle accelerator that played an instrumental role in the possible discovery of the Higgs Boson earlier this year.

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The fact that Fontana, an established artist, chose to put his name up for this competition shows the attraction the project holds for nonscientists. “I think art and science are parallel activities,” explains Fontana. “They are both asking fundamental questions about the nature of our experience and perception of the world”.

Koek says that she and her fellow jurors, who picked Fontana from the hundreds of artists who entered, found his testimony to be extraordinary: “He really thought this was the ultimate challenge for him, he was very humble.”

Fontana, who says that he has long been interested in the physics of sound, is keen to visit the facilities soon: “I really want to listen to CERN, to see what kind of musical language I can discover.” He says he will be commencing his residency much earlier than planned, in part so that he can observe the Large Hadron Collider in action before it is shut down in April next year for a two-year renovation period. He will also undertake a residency at Futurelab at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria, as part of his award.

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