Berlin Science Week with Light Art Space

What can quantum science teach us about the way we make sense of our world?

A talk with Berlin-based Light Art Space for Berlin Science Week.

Libby Heaney is a London-based artist, researcher and physicist whose practice connects quantum physics, machine learning and our environment through performance, Virtual Reality and participatory experience. She makes use of new technologies such as artificial intelligence to question the machine’s forms of categorisation and expand technology beyond its predominant purpose. On the occasion of Berlin Science Week 2020, Heaney delivers a talk on the uses of quantum computing, its controversies and potential applications in society.

What are quantum computers and how do they depend on quantum physics? Why are corporations and governments interested in quantum computing? What can quantum science teach us about the way we make sense of our world? In what way can the discipline impact how we tell stories, build meaning and create art?

In this lecture, Heaney gives insight into quantum computing and the challenges it holds for the future of making art. Her talk is followed by discussions with philosopher Professor Jenann Ismael and quantum scientist Professor Vlatko Vedral. Together, they will explore the impact quantum physics can have on our day-to-day-reality when transposed from the micro to the macro world.

This talk conveys the core subject matter of a new work being developed by the artist and commissioned by Light Art Space (LAS), for which Heaney uses IBM’s cloud-based Q System One quantum computers. Art can acquire the tools to rupture causality by following the tenets of quantum science, which creates a space where entities – human, non-human, machine – relate, interfere and entangle.

5 Nov 2020, 6 PM
Berlin Science Week 2020

Next generation story-telling: AI and language

On Tuesday, Libby will join Luba Elliott, Ross Godwin and Pietro Gagliano to explore new forms of story-telling utilizing machine learning and other artificial intelligence systems. The workshop, held in Manchester’s People’s History Museum, is hosted by The and asks the question: How can AI and machine learning be harnessed as creative tools to help artists, writers, poets, film and theatre makers create compelling narratives and experiences for the audiences of the future?

The Space helps artists and organisations make great art and reach new audiences digitally. Theycommission projects, develop skills and find audiences.

“AI and machine learning are no longer futuristic technologies but are being increasingly integrated into our everyday lives; used to help us access creative content, from image and video content, to music, radio and podcasts. Artists, writers and organisations are already exploring whether AI can help them develop new creative worlds for people to discover but as a cultural sector there is nothing like the widespread interest and uptake there is in immersive technologies. The Space is interested in exploring what some of the potential barriers to adoption are and how we might facilitate creative access to these powerful new technologies.”

Quantum Computing and Art at Sonar – Video of Talk

In this talk, which was held at Sonar+D 2019 and moderated by Wired’s Victoria Turk, three quantum scientists -Holly Cummings, Artur Garcia Saez and artist Libby Heaney – explain the processes behind the quantum computing revolution and explore what the leap in computing power will mean for creativity in the not so distant future.

You can watch the talk on YouTube here.

Machine Learning Matters talk at Somerset House

James Nissen with a 40 x 80 cm ion-beam etched multilayer dielectric grating 1780 lines/mm

Artist Libby Heaney spoke about her recent artistic practice exploring the intersections of machine learning, pop culture and identity at Somerset House‘s (Inter-) event. Using the concept of diffraction as a pivot to explore her artworks Britbot, Euro(re)vision, Oh Brian and Top of the Bots, Heaney drew on feminist theories and quantum science to unpick identities and deconstruct limiting categories usually enforced by machine learning algorithms.

(Inter-) is a 2-day programme of installations, presentations, panel discussions and live performances exploring image, sound and digital art. Saturday’s programme opens with discussion and presentations exploring the politics of virtual and physical architectures and the new ways of queering digital.

Somerset House Studios is an experimental workspace in the centre of London connecting artists, makers and thinkers with audiences. Located inside the repurposed former Inland Revenue building, the Studios offer space and support to artists pushing bold ideas, engaging with urgent issues and pioneering new technologies.

‘Quantum Weaving’ on Soho Radio

Artist Byzantia Harlow and Libby Heaney speak Quantum Weaving on this month’s Monthly Howl guest slot on the Free Seed cultural show on Soho Radio.

Weaving together fragments of art, science, technology, sound and image, the artists discuss mutual interests centred around their individual practices.

To catch the show, listen here from 27min40.

Soho Radio is an independent online radio station based in Soho, London. It was created in 2014 by Adrian Meehan, a musician and studio owner, to showcase Soho’s vibrant and diverse culture.

‘The Monthly Howl’ is a new monthly art segment on Free Seed on Soho Radio. Each month an idea is explored in conversation with guest collaborators.

‘The Weaver was utterly alien. Like a tarantula, the Weaver picked one leg up at a time, lifting it very high and placing it down with the delicacy of a surgeon or an artist. A slow, sinister and inhuman movement.’

‘The Weavers evolved from virtually mindless predators into aestheticians of astonishing intellectual and materio-thaumaturgic power, super intelligent alien minds who no longer used their webs to catch prey, but were attuned to them as objects of beauty disentangling from the fabric of reality itself. Their spinnerets had become specialized extradimensional glands that Wove patterns in with the world. The world which was, for them, a web.’

‘To act – to Weave – was to bring about more pleasing patterns. They did not eat physical food: they seemed to subsist on the appreciation of beauty. A beauty unrecognized by humans.’

‘The Weaver stepped sideways and was gone. It had peeled away from the physical space. It was running acrobatically along the space of the worldweb.’

– – China Meiville, ‘Perdido Street Station’.


Membrane presented at London Design Festival with Space10

Libby presented a new interactive VR artwork ‘Membrane’ with Space10 at their pop-up as part of London Design Festival exploring Spaces of Tomorrow.  She also gave a talk about her practice in the evening.

How do materials and textures affect our experience and understanding of space? How do materials change the perception of a space when the substance of that space is ever-changing from solid to fluid? How will materials evolve our spaces in the future?

In order to respond to the theme, Spaces of Tomorrow, Membrane uses a quantum games engine to explore spaces that come into being depending on the movement of the user.  As a user moves the controller through a translucent membrane, their behaviour causes a new delocalised space to emerge.

Two part blog ‘Imagining quantum computer art’ for the V&A

Over the last few months, Libby has been running a research project with the Systems Research Group for the Royal College of Art in collaboration with the Centre for Quantum Photonics at the University of Bristol and the V&A museum exploring what it might mean to make artworks with emerging quantum technologies.

What does it mean to make artworks using technologies from the edge of our understanding?

Alongside some of her RCA students, Libby set out to answer this question.  She presented the outcomes of this project at the V&A in May and exhibited the works last week at White City Place.  V&A digital art curator Melanie Lenz invited her to write an article for the V&A blog about the collaboration and the works, which you can read here and here.


Quantum photonics chip.  Photo: Joshua Silverstone

Discussing Time’s Tattarrattat

Tonight I’ll be giving a talk about my recent project Time’s Tattarrattat at the Creative Data Club at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch.  While I have written a short blog post about the project already, my collaborator and I managed to record a discussion in Turku about the science, philosophy and the process we went through while working on this art and science collaboration.   If you would like more insight into our work keep reading below.

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 10.30.14 AM


Libby and John chat about Time’s Tattarrattat

Libby: So John tell me a bit about yourself, obviously I know you pretty well.

John: [laughs] Well I’m an Irish researcher based in Italy in theoretical physics and my work basically spans I guess interests in quantum physics, many body physics, statistical mechanics and particularly focusing on thermodynamics of quantum systems at the moment.

Libby: So let’s talk about the work we’ve done this week!

John: Yes an interesting project! Well there’s this arts festival here in Turku, Abo-a-gora, it’s always difficult in Finnish no?

Libby: Yes, Aboagora.

John: Which was an idea by Professor Sabrina Maniscalco and is basically an interface between the arts and quantum physics, but I guess more generally research in physics and the [more specific] stuff that we do.  Is there a way to represent what we do as scientists through the medium of art or can art add even more to the description of scientific concepts?

Libby:  Yes you set me up with Sabrina in London.

John:  Yes, that’s right.  Well I mean Sabrina is someone who is very dynamic and active in these things and I knew that she’s very much interested in outreach and doing kind of ambitious projects, and I thought given your background in physics yourself that it’d be only natural to put you two in contact.  I guess that’s where it has started from – she had the idea to put the two of us together to do this thing, which is something I didn’t envisage, given that I have collaborated with you as a scientist before and I genuinely didn’t think that once you had left science and went into art that I’d collaborate with you again. But it happened! It’s kind of funny you know.

Libby:  We’ve got some sort of gravitational pull.

John:  [laughs] That’s it like.

Libby: The idea for this arts jam was that we have thirty minutes to make some sort of interactive performance, an installation that responded to a topic that we chose.  In the end we went for the idea of time.  So we chose a really easy problem there.

John: [laughs] Yeah it’s probably the most difficult one in physics.

Libby: I was driving for something else initially, I remember I wanted to focus on complexity, what drew you to this?

John:  Yes, because I find complexity in physics a vague concept in general and I think you know, it’s almost TOO vague for me.

Libby: But time is such a big topic as well.

John:  It’s a big topic but at least it’s a specific topic and we chose in particular to focus on the thermodynamic arrow of time and the second law.

Libby: So what interests you about the second law?

John: So I suppose at a scientific level for me the second law of thermodynamics is one of the, if not THE most interesting laws in physics. It is really amazing how all other physical theories must obey this law. It governs things at vastly different scales from galaxies to your refrigerator. In some sense it’s really an example of an emergent law meaning that it emerges from the microscopic behavior of the atomic world and manifests itself in our macroscopic world.

Libby:  Can you just tell us what the second law is in a really simple way?

John:  Well this is one of the interesting things about it because the second law of thermodynamics is something that you can state a number of different ways.  For instance, one of the ways you can state it is well ‘heat can never flow from a cold place to a hot place.  The Kelvin statement of the second law is that, you know: ‘no work can be extracted from a single heat bath in a cyclical process”. Also you can state it by saying things get more disordered or that entropy tends to increase.

Libby:  By work you mean that a mechanical system can push something.

John:  Exactly.  Work is something you either do on something or you “extract” it like in an engine. You need two baths, a hot and a cold one, to make an engine, but you cannot do it from one bath. In fact, this idea of thinking about engines led to thermodynamics in the first place. Carnot, a French military engineer, worked out that heat engines were limited by a fundamental relation, which links the efficiency of an engine to the ratio of the temperature of the baths – this is the second law in action. What is quite amazing is that this holds irrespective of what you make the engine from – so it’s truly universal!

Libby:  And this would be like a car engine.

John:  Almost. A car engine that runs at the efficiency of Carnot would be useless. One of the assumptions that Carnot made was that the strokes were done so slowly that no friction or excess heat is generated. This excess heat is known as entropy production and it basically decreases the efficiency – nevertheless you gain power at this expense. You oil your car to try to reduce the frictional effect. With more power, you can extract more work from your engine. Engines that run at the maximum Carnot efficiency are practically useless, as they have no power.

Libby:  Entropy production sounds technical and complicated.  We have no intuition for it.

John: So loosely speaking, you can say that in any particular system, the tendency of that system is to go from an ordered state with low entropy to a disordered state with high entropy. Your bedroom does not become tidy by its own accord, eggs do not unscramble and you do not get younger. The real world we live in is what we call ‘out of equilibrium’ but everything around, including ourselves, seems to evolve to reach the state of maximum entropy. This is very deep, but amazingly the principle is like that of the engine – everything around us produces entropy from car engines to your central nervous system .  All of our life we are struggling against equilibration – to live we have to stay away from equilibrium, we have to stop ourselves reaching the same temperature as the surroundings – in the process we are producing entropy. Whether you are in Finland in winter or Italy in summer – your body has to work hard to stay at the same temperature through marvelous control techniques that produce entropy. When these stop working – well – its over.

Libby:  How does this relate to time then?

John: This production of entropy leads us to the emergence of what’s called ‘time’s arrow’.  The idea of a time’s arrow, a direction in time, is something you’re probably familiar with because you see things getting older, you’re getting older yourself, you don’t get younger.  There is a certain directionality associated with time.  And how and why is that emerging?  Because in physics, basically all the microscopic laws, the laws of the individual constituents are basically time reversible – there is no reason for us to have some directionality with time, but we absolutely experience this sensation of time passing. Irreversible processes are ones that produce entropy – these seem to have a strong causal imprint, but crucially the issue of time’s arrow seems to be due to a low entropy initial state. Which in my opinion is still mysterious.
Libby:  Okay, does is mean that the laws of physics are time reversible?  Does it mean that time can flow backwards if we can engineer the system correctly?

John: In principle there’s no reason from the primordial physical laws, so the mechanical laws, the quantum mechanical laws.  They run equally well in reverse as they do in the forward direction.
Libby: So could there be some sections of the universe where time is running backwards natually?

John: There could be, I mean who knows.

Libby: Or like a parallel universe, where time went from zero to minus our time….

John: Well we’re already skipping ahead quite a lot, but I mean it’s an interesting question.  Why is it that we see time going in THAT direction in our universe?  And probably, you know, one why that you can address it, skipping over a lot of stuff, is it seems to be very crucial that the universe did start in a very low entropy state.  And there’s no per se reason why this is the case.

Libby:  So a low entropy state means a highly ordered state. And we don’t know how that occurred?

John: Not really, there’s some speculation.  You might see some more risky statements like it’s due to gravity and all that.  But in the end, there’s no real, particular definitive proof that’s the case.  You can speculate and it’s interesting and it’s still very much a topic of interest for cosmologists etc as to why the universe began in such a low entropy state.

Libby:  Absolutely, it’s fascinating.  I remember when we first started our initial discussions and I was trying to imagine or I asked us, actually, to both write down some ideas about what it would be like to experience time running backwards, but when I started to think more deeply about this, it kind of just killed my mind.  I mean, it was like you kind of regress back to thinking about the start of the universe, because ultimately you cannot even think about time running backwards here on earth unless you go right back to the start.  But then it’s like how would time running backward even look?  I was thinking about quantum physics, if you could do an experiment where time run backwards could you ever observe it?  And it is such a hard thing to think about, even for someone who was used to thinking abut physics problems in some sense.

John:  Yeah, I remember when you had the old VHS video tapes, if you remember when you were a kid, watching ET or whatever.  I mean, I remember when you, what you have to envisage is a situation whereby you press rewind on the video and then you watch it, like you would watch it in the normal direction and it looks so bizarre.  The weird thing is that what’s normal in reverse can be highly abnormal in the forward direction. Think about it!   Definitely it is a difficult thing to think about, because we’re just so conditioned in our lives to thinking about the past running into the future through an ephemeral present.  It’s an interesting concept to play with and I guess it’s interesting concept to play around with as an artist.

Libby:  Yes, well visually or aesthetically, in some sense it’s like thinking about how disorder goes to order, in terms of pattern making in particularly, and also how that would make us feel, as you say, this is a highly unusual thing to see.  Also imagine if there was some way of locally going back in time and then all of these strange things could occur.  For instance, you could meet your mom before you were born.  Well this is time travel, which is somewhat different and it’s been discussed in science fiction a lot.

John:   and you could get a glass of whiskey and it spontaneously forms ice cubes, and these types of things that are very strange events in the real world.

Libby:  [laughs] Absolutely.  So after our first conversation, you mentioned some really nice, interesting visual imagery from, was it Kelvin’s paper, about waterfalls running backwards.

John:  Yes right, actually this arrow of time issue, even though it arose in the early twentieth century, it had been around for a while.  People were kind of questioning what would happen if the time arrow ran backwards and one of these was an influential paper by Kelvin. I guess it was in the 1870s, I could be wrong there, to Nature [journal] actually whereby he talks about the irreversible process, dissipation and what would happen. He had these beautiful things – if we could reverse all of the molecules in the universe then we see the waterfall coming back from the bottom of the river back up the top.  It’s a very beautifully written piece and actually it has a lot in it already.

Libby: Are there illustrations?

John:  There are no illustrations, but it’s really beautifully written though.

Libby: It sounds like an Escher drawing.

John: Exactly.  But [Kelvin] was well aware of the issues like irreversibility and etc and there were many other big name scientists at the time were worrying about these things.  There was Boltzmann, Maxwell, all of these great scientists were wondering what would happen if you could hypothetically reverse time.

Libby:   You were saying to imagine a reversing a gas expanding. You would need to change all the momentum coordinates of all particles.  In principle could you do this for all particles?

John:  Some people like to appeal to information theory to explain time and irreversible behavior. Its an interesting perspective – the intuition would be that somehow irreversible processes (like entropy production) are not fundamentally irreversible in the sense that they could be made reversible if we actually could compute every thing about our system. What you are getting at there is something, which is a well-known paradox in physics, which is the so-called Maxwell demon paradox.  And what that is, is that imagine you were some sort of super intelligent being in the sense that you could know all the particles positions and velocities and simply reverse the dynamics by really swift manipulation. Its very difficult to do this because there is not the computing power in the universe available to achieve such a task for gases which contain 10^23 atoms. In this view you could see time as emerging out of a kind of computational complexity.

Libby:  Can you clarify exactly what you mean by computer power.  What would a computer need to be doing?

John: Well it would need to monitor the velocity of each individual molecule at the one time and be able to then reverse the sign.

Libby: Constantly as well?

John: Constantly, yes.  That’s a HUGE computational task.

Libby: I suppose you would need more bits than the number of atoms in the room.

John: Exactly.  And you would need a memory basically. In the simplest situation you would need the demon to basically know what’s going on at all times in order for him to perform this time reversal.

Libby:  So in some sense could the demon be what some people would call God, because he has this overview of everything?

John: [laughs] I dont know about that …….
Libby:  [laughs] So of course this is impossible to do for the whole universe and is why time cannot run backwards…

John: Yes, exactly.  I mean I’m not a cosmologist and I don’t know these things, but I remember listening to popular talks by cosmologists when they were talking about basically three possible scenarios for the end state of the universe. I’m not entirely sure, but I think the consensus now is that we started from a small point, we had the big bang and then the universe is expanding and expanding and at some point there was a debate as to which ending we have, depending on how much dark matter or energy there is in the universe, whether or not the universe would contract, keep going or reach a stationary state.  And I think, if it actually had this big crunch meaning that it went backwards, then we would actually live in world with time running backwards. I think the consensus is that it wont happen.  I’m wildly speculating about these things.

Libby: So this was the science and the ideas we were thinking about when we were working on this project.  Can you tell me a bit about the process?  What did you read and how was it to work with me?

John: In some sense, I probably had to work a bit harder to give the talk in the way I gave it, than I would normally for a standard physics talk.  For a number of reasons: Number 1 there was the interactive piece that you made that I guess we will talk about in a second.  Number 2 the audience there was going to be different than scientists, although there were scientists there.  They are people that are interested more in the arts and literature, in exploring different concepts, I was very conscientious when I made the talk, making it accurate, interesting, but not over the top and it was probably borderline [laughs], because I put a lot of philosophy in it as you saw.

Libby: I think you asked more questions than gave answers.

John:  Which is always good I think.

Libby:  It’s like how good artwork should pose questions for the viewers.  Your talk was actually quite poetic.  You used a lot of imagery in your talk, for instance the trees.

John: Yes, exactly.  I mean even in literature, the liberal arts – it’s not just science where time is an important topic – in philosophy.  Take literature, I think I used the example of how some novelists like to play on the perception of time like and I used the example of James Joyce from Finnegan’s Wake when there’s a scene with two women who are washing their clothes and as the night falls, if you read it it’s really wonderful because you don’t know what is happening, what’s going on, in typical Joyce way.  Basically as the night progresses, these women sort of, well as you read it you realize they are starting to morph into something else, their communication starts to becomes something completely different and they basically change into a tree and stone and I always found that really fascinating.  It was really a play on time and the perception of time of the reader etc.  I used this thing to motivate my talk.  Time is such an important thing for the arts and literature etc.

Libby:  So for our Skype discussions throughout this project, did anything come from those discussions that helped to shape your views or contribute to your research?

John: They did! I knew a lot of the fundamental problems with the arguments and the philosophical issues that we have spoken about, but I really had to sharpen them, because at the end, if you give a talk, and you want to do your best job and you really think you know something, but when you have to explain it to bunch of people, you really, really have to know it.  I’m not saying I understood everything, but it definitely gave me a greater appreciation of the different viewpoints in this resolution of the thermodynamic arrow.  (If there is a problem with the thermodynamic arrow, some people would say there is not.)  So I understand the different strands of the argument and I think that was important for me.  Also it definitely gives your work more context.  When you’re doing any creative process, it gives you more ideas, I thought about different things that I’d been working on, some ideas came to my mind – we talked a lot about macroscopic irreversibility and of course I’m a quantum physicist and it’s no different there and I was thinking about how you can describe irreversible processes using quantum mechanics.  I have an idea now that was inspired by the piece, which is to try to construct a proper understanding of irreversible motion through a technical thing.  Anyway, it was the art piece that really inspired those feelings and ideas.

Libby: I think for me this project was really interesting because I never deeply studied thermodynamics again after my undergraduate although I knew the basics of course, but I have started to understand it in a deeper way.  It was really fascinating, as our conversations would go from hardcore science to philosophy to chatting more about the artwork.  I remember the conversation we had that was discussing the palindrome idea and how it could feed into the visual elements and then we started discussing random walks.  I liked how the discussions ranged a wide range of topics, before we eventually settled on some of the ideas that I finally used.  I think we were both excited by my palindrome idea and our dual agreement is what spurred me on to implement it.

John: What I thought about your palindrome idea was that it was clean and simple enough and at the same time it sort of evoked the spirit of the second law and the increasing of entropy of something and the beginning in a low entropy state.  Your work really had it’s own thing to say about the second law, in my opinion.

Libby: What I liked was that my palindrome analysis, uses information in language.  While it is not the same sort of information you would have to gather up when reversing time, i.e. we spoke about this room full of gas molecules and Maxwell’s demon. Well it’s not that type of information, but it uses text and shows through words and through language that even this type of information has an intrinsic irreversibility.  My text analysis here are a very different thing, but it evokes that idea of Maxwell’s demon.  In our initial discussion we spoke a lot about Maxwell’s demon and this is what came out from it.  Due to the brief requiring interactivity, I some how had to extract some information from you!

John:  By the way, I planned to talk a lot more about Maxwell’s demon and information processing in the performance, but in the end I got so much into the philosophical side of it, I almost cut out a good section of the science part, which is okay I think.

Libby: I think it’s great to pose all the different questions that are being asked and then to allow the audience to take away what they want.

John:  It seemed afterwards from talking to certain people in the audience that they appreciated it, that they learned something from it and that is the most important thing for me as a scientist.  I don’t know about you as an artist, but for me the fact that they learned something in a different way is really wonderful you know.

Libby: I suppose as an artist, I don’t really mind if someone loves or hates my work, but I would like them to feel something.  It doesn’t necessarily need to be like scientific information, something concrete, but it could be a viewer gains some sensory knowledge related to the ideas.  I think it was the right decision to put the projection across the ceiling.

John: Yes I think it was better on the ceiling.  If we had it on the screen behind it was too typical of a science talk.

Libby:  I think since the image was based upon the clouds, it made sense for people throughout your talk to be looking up and pondering your words.  Maybe it was somehow clichéd, but by thinking about big ideas such as time and the universe for people to gaze up and have a think about this seemed apt.

John: I was looking at the audience when I was giving that talk as well, because you want to see how it’s going and it was interesting because people were really looking up during the talk and I think that was something we were worried about.  That they would just look at me and wouldn’t look up.

Libby:  I think it helped that we were both looking up at certain points – we were guiding the audience.

Libby: Okay, so just one more question before we wrap up.  While we were rehearsing the project, Sabrina came to us and asked me to explain the details of the work before hand to the audience when we performed our piece, so the audience really knew exactly what was going on.  I kind of pushed back against doing this, because as an artist, I didn’t want to be didactic.  I wanted to allow the audience to take the elements they wanted, to come up with their own interpretation and to interact with it in different ways.  What do you make of that?  In the end, I presented our piece just by discussing the title ‘Time’s Tattarrattat’ so it introduced the project but not the details.  Were you happy with that degree of abstraction?

John: Well, I understand.  This is something else I learned from a project about art.  My opinion would have been very similar to Sabrina’s the first time I talked to you etc.  The point is you know with these artistic things and shows in collaboration with a scientist, they shouldn’t be just a way of trying to explain the scientists work.  It’s not illustration.  For scientists, the automatic thing is to say ‘how is this working’, how do you find the nuts and bolts and it’s a very reductionist point of view.

Libby:  Scientists want an equation.  They want to know how everything works to come up with the main idea.

John: Yes, it’s a reductionist picture, where you want to know the inner working of the nuts and bolts rather than appreciating the whole, which is more in the spirit of art.  I think I agree with the artist there, let it be.  Let people think what they think and it should be good enough in the end that they get something from it.

Time’s Tattarrattat

Looking Up

For the last month or so I’ve been thinking about time.  Not in the sense that I’ve been running late for meetings (although this happens frequently), or that I’ve been having another existential crisis, but rather I’ve been thinking about the nature of time while wearing my artist-scientist hat.  I’ve been chatting with a friend and scientist John Goold, who is fascinated by a famous law from physics called the second law of thermodynamics.  Basically, the second law explains why when I drop a wine glass on the floor it never spontaneously reforms itself, even if I continuously shake up the pieces for the rest of my life they will never at any point fit back together.   The second law leads to the arrow of time.

Piece on ceiling

In recent weeks, I’ve made an interactive digital installation responding to this.  It is called Time’s Tattarrattat and I will be presenting it later today at the Aboagora festival in Turku, Finland.  Tattarrattat is not only a brilliant sounding word, but it also happens to be the longest palindrome in the English language.  A palindrome is a reversible word – it reads the same both forwards and backwards.  Tattarrattat, which was coined by James Joyce in Ulysses means to ‘knock on the door’.  So this project, in some sense, is about knocking on time’s door.

So what is time?

There is still no consensus.  John explains that “it is very mysterious, I don’t know what it is.  It’s a very difficult question to answer.  Depending on the era you live in, it’s a very different thing – and it could be both subjective or objective depending on who you talk to.  I would say now, it is seen as (to some people at least) an emergent phenomenon resulting from the underlying microscopic complex world… maybe…”.

Later today, John is talking at length about these ideas and explaining the fascinating relationship between information and time: that if we could keep track of all the information about the movements and interactions of all the particles of our universe, we could in principle reverse time and instantly reform that broken wine glass.


While scientists and philosophers are still split about whether this is really the case, I took it as the initial inspiration for my projection, which takes the form of a digitized cloud, whose evolution is driven by the information in John’s words.  It works by analyzing the words for their ‘relative palindromicity’.  For instance, the word ‘Dad’ is reversible – it reads the same forward and backwards and the word ‘tad’ is pronounced in a similar way forwards and backwards, so it is close to reversible.  Whereas, on the other hand, ‘time’ reads ’emit’ backwards so it is irreversible.  The irreversibility of most words in the speech randomizes the artwork, we can never predict which direction the triangles will move.  For however long John talks, like the wine glass dropping on the floor, the pieces of my cloud will never move back to their original positions, no matter how long the installation is run.   Like the clouds continuously changing their form in the sky, for each different text read into my piece a previously unrealised art work will be created.

Setting up


some photos from last weeks performance

Last week I performed ‘Up and Downloading the Memory’ at the BA CCC degree show at Central St. Martin’s.  It was first time I had experimented with performance and it was pretty interesting to play the roll of the art object, even though I chose a tough time throughout the show to do this (at the PV while everyone else was getting drunk!) and I allowed the performance to last for over two hours (until all the words in my mind had ‘dried up’…).  It was fairly hard going.

While I didn’t use my body as such, it was the interconnectivity between my voice and my laptop (google) that became the art object.  Since I am interested in interactive art in any case, being on the receiving end of the viewers attention helped me to understand how interactivity can be encouraged or disrupted.  For instance, it happened a few times that when I looked someone strongly in the eye and randomly uttered a dry line from the top hit page on Google in a meaningful way, the recipient felt uncomfortable and moved away.  On the other hand, when I was softer and perhaps more playful with the choice of words, I could engaged with the audience in a different, more intimate manner.  I’m hoping that I can use these findings to understand how I can more effectively engage the audience with interactive objects and installations.  Furthermore, I would like to try incorporating a performative element into interactive installations in the future to develop audience participation.

See this previous blog post, for more details about the concept behind ‘Up and Downloading the Memory’.

Here are some photos from the show all credited to Viv Du.