On 18 October 2018 the photographer Thomas Struth and the physicist James Beacham had a conversation at the LAC in Lugano that touched on a series of important issues: the seduction of technology and the danger of manipulation that we are exposed to in the digital society; what it means to do research today; the limitations to which scientific results and artistic communication are subject; and the required patience that unites the work of the researcher and the photographer.
The result was a fascinating picture that was not obvious at the outset, which revealed strong affinities and similarities between two activities that are so different on paper.
Below are the most noteworthy parts of the dialogue between the scientist and the artist.
Thomas Struth: We both try to make invisible things visible. My work and your work have a great deal in common: we both work in an international context; we are both concerned about the direction that politics and science has taken. The promise of science of a magnificent future for humanity has raised several doubts (more of my own than of James). And then there is the relationship that has been created between the body made of flesh and bones and virtual reality: I find the splitting of body and mind to be particularly shocking.
James Beacham: I was very struck by the image of Zuckerberg in the midst of those watching him through virtual reality. People that use Facebook abandon their identity and enter a microcosm. We are subject to the manipulation of Facebook. It is a massive company.
Thomas Struth: Yes, it is digital seduction. I ask myself: will it take us to a place where there will be real people? Perhaps it will be no longer important for us to have relationships, to know other people, to talk to one another. But I want to ask you: why do you continue to do what you do?
James Beacham: A very deep question. As a US citizen living in Geneva, I am very privileged. I ask myself questions and investigate incredibly fascinating things. Research for me has a value: we do it because we are curious about nature. The fact that I dedicate myself to research shows that our species has not yet given up on the value of things.
The goal of our team? At times it is vague. We don’t do specific research. Rather we create a map of all the places where there could be discoveries. There are open questions: what is dark matter? We represent only 1% of the matter in the universe.
CERN is a social as well as a scientific experiment. Its goal is not only theoretical. It is an example of real and organized cooperation. There is an entire department responsible for the transfer of knowledge. Particle physics is the research of the invisible: you cannot see or hold a Higgs Boson in your hand! Research, which is the highpoint of human knowledge, is usually characterized by concrete experiences. In this case it isn’t. The space between scientific emotion and the possibility to physically interact with it becomes increasingly wider.
Thomas Struth: The potential of new inventions is extraordinary, and could strengthen the will of political decision. In Germany there are 30,000 wind turbines throughout the whole country. This is only one aspect of climate change. On the radio I listened to a young politician, born in 1980: he published a pamphlet in which he appealed to political organizations to do something. You can have everything with one click, immediately satisfy all your needs: this generation, when it has to implement political decisions, wants the same thing. In Germany 80% of people go around by bicycle, but almost everyone listens to their cell phone with headphones in. We mustn’t forget what the past was, as well as the way we are in the present.
James Beacham: Ours is a model of virtual collaboration. We have to try to build both cultural and scientific bridges. We carry out collaborative research, delving into the most absolute unknown in the world of physics. There is an exchange between the world of research and the real world. I cannot give you any guarantees or predict the outcome of research.
We are talking about a level of abstraction: what we want to discover is different from what we can experience. And this attraction can be used to manipulate and abuse.
Thomas Struth: I have always been struck by the patience you scientists have. An absolutely essential quality. We can lay the fertilizer. But there is a limit. As soon as technology becomes a product, capitalism ensures that this impatience emerges. The idea of exponential growth is very seductive.
James Beacham: We cannot go forward and grow indefinitely. You cannot force nature to tell you its secrets. The majority of your photos convey the time that you needed to extract those images, to extrapolate what you wanted to communicate. Also in your case you need to be extremely patient.
Thomas Struth: Usually I am an impatient person. But taking photographs is a field in which I manage to be very patient. You have to become one with your goal. I turn myself into the subject that I have to portray.
James Beacham: Physics for me is the best way to explain reality. If we discover dark matter, this will not affect us in our daily lives. It is a thing that goes beyond our capacity to define it. We cannot interact with it. I am moved, gripped by your photographs. I ask myself what is behind them.
Thomas Struth: As an artist you don’t cook with ingredients that already exist. It is important to also take strange items, from other environments. I have to put what is around me, now, into practice. There are conscious and unconscious things. Vibrations, the collective unconscious…I try to make them come out in my photos. Making art is tiring. There is a commonality of uncertainty. And then there is the hope of making a difference. For us and for the rest of humankind.
James Beacham: Research has a final goal. Success is not the discovery, but the mapping of the place where discoveries may be found. What I can do is participate in this research. This is something that makes you humble. The point is: if the discovery is made, don’t let it get away from you.
One of the greatest problems of our society is our lack of patience. If people stopped for a few minutes, they would change their behavior.
Thomas Struth: It is fundamental to have to reflect on consequences. And to take the time to do so.