CERN Accelerating science

Bill Fontana

Bill Fontana

Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN Award Winner, 2012-2013

"I began my artistic career as a composer. What really began to interest me was not so much the music that I could write, but the states of mind I would experience when I felt musical enough to compose. In those moments, when I became musical, all the sounds around me also became musical."

Bill Fontana

Loud & Underground from Arts@CERN on Vimeo.


Bill Fontana (born 1947) is an American composer and artist who has developed an international reputation for his pioneering experiments in sound.

Since the early 1970s, Fontana has used sound as a sculptural medium to interact with and transform our perceptions of visual and architectural spaces. He has realized sound sculptures and radio projects for museums and broadcast organizations around the world. His work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, the Post Museum in Frankfurt, the Art History and Natural History Museums in Vienna, both Tate Modern and Tate Britain in London, the 48th Venice Biennale, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, the Art Gallery of NSE in Sydney and the new Kolumba Museum in Cologne.

He has done major radio sound art projects for the BBC, the European Broadcast Union, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, National Public Radio, West German Radio (WDR), Swedish Radio, Radio France and the Austrian State Radio.

Fontana is known for his interest in revealing hidden sounds in unlikely places, from the Millenium Bridge in London to a lonely whistle buoy in the ocean to an abandoned construction crane. His careful attention to the relationship between materials and the spaces they inhabit yields stunningly beautiful results.

Sound sculptor Bill Fontana's opening lecture at CERN:



Photo: Stuart Davidson

Blog: Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN 2013: Bill Fontana


In January 2013, Bill Fontana visited CERN with Horst Hörtner from the Ars Electronica Futurelab for a four-day induction visit which was specially designed and tailor-made for Bill’s interests by the creator of the Collide@CERN programmes, Ariane Koek.

During this time, Bill Fontana explored the ideas of particle physics with a series of one to one seminars and meetings with leading CERN physicists as well as exploring the different spaces of the laboratory. During this time also, Ariane matched Bill with his CERN science inspiration partner: cosmologist and Marie Curie Intra European Fellow, Subodh Patil, who works in the CERN Theory department.

Bill started making recordings almost immediately during his 4 day visit which also spanned 10 different locations on the vast CERN site. One of the first places he visited was the CERN proton source, where the particles begin their journey just under the speed of light from a bottle around the 27 km journey. He recorded the sounds of the magnets propelling the protons from the bottle, which produces a rhythmic pulse every 1.2 seconds. It could be called the heartbeat of the LHC. The recordings were done with accelerometers mounted on the machines holding the magnets to pick up the sounds inside them. Bill was so inspired that he mixed a 24 track audio recording of different sounds across the CERN site and machines whilst the LHC was running to create a new visual sound art work – even before his residency officially began. Watch/hear it here.

Bill said of his induction experience:

“The visit to CERN was inspiring and renewing. It put me back in touch with myself. Being at CERN and having these conversations and then intensely listening and recording was like going on a spiritual retreat.”


Video Blog Week 1

The month of July (2013) was Bill Fontana’s first part of his residency at CERN. And he was not alone! He came also with his family, which included his photographer son, Michael Fontana, 18. Every week, Michael interviewed his father and his inspiration partner, CERN cosmologist Subodh Patil about what they were thinking of the week ahead to make a video diary.

What follows over the next four weeks is a series of interviews as well as photographs of Bill Fontana’s experience of the residency at the world’s largest physics laboratory. It will give you insights and glimpses in the creative interchanges between Subodh and Bill as well as the experience of the residency which is produced on site by Ariane Koek with the assistance of Julian Calo. Only by producing the residency, can access to the myriad of facilities here at CERN, as well as the scientists,  can the artistic research of the CERN residency really happen. As Subodh said, even he hasn’t seen the Large Hadron Collider tunnel before. Now thanks to the Arts programme at CERN, both Bill and he have had unprecedented access to many of the detectors and unusual sites,  specially selected to inspire their love of discovering the world through sound for Bill’s project  for the Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN residency which is called Acoustic Time Travel.

Before the adventures underground began, in the first week on July 4th – the first anniversary of the Higgs Discovery –  both  Bill and Subodh gave the opening Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN lecture at The Globe of Science and Innovation at CERN. These twin lectures set out their individual areas of expertise – before the creative collisions began.

You can view edited versions of these lectures here.


Video Blog Week 3

We are now at an amazing part of the residency experiment making creative collisions between the arts and science. It has been decided to turn the LHC into a massive musical instrument, playing back the sounds which Bill recorded in February during his induction visit when the LHC was running back to itself.  He wants to bring a loudspeaker like one used at rock concerts into the tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider and playing the sounds that he had recorded in February. These were sounds of the magnets propelling the protons from the bottle, which produces a rhythmic pulse every 1.2 seconds. It could be called the heartbeat of the LHC. The recordings were done with accelerometers mounted on the machines holding the magnets to pick up the sounds inside them.

Subodh Patil listening to the sounds of th LHC being played back to itself by Bill Fontana

Both Subodh and Bill are tentative and have no idea how this will work. You can tell this by listening to their video log above. However during the week, they also made visits to other parts of the LHC, finding an incredible space like a mighty golden cavern which Bill shouted into with his voice coming back. Bill has plans for that in the future – so watch this space.

But for now he and Subodh are concentrating on  the big day, going down into the LHC, with accelerometers and exciters and seeing how excited the LHC gets when it hears itself when it is running.

Where would this idea take them? We’ll soon find out next week in the next posting for Week 4. This experiment seems to be just the beginning of a much bigger piece that Bill named “Acoustic Time Travel”, and it will be revealed in autumn 2014.

Bill Fontana shouting in LHC cave

Video Blog Week 4

CERN is the largest particle physics laboratory in the world with the biggest man made machine ever built – the Large Hadron Collider. Research is carried out into the unknown to discover fundamental knowledge about the world – the questions which drive scientists to work very hard because they are passionate to find out the answers.

Collide@CERN artist in residency Bill Fontana is no different. Over his first four weeks in residence, he had carried out many experiments in the LHC and came up in the end with the idea of taking a loudspeaker into the LHC and playing the sounds of the LHC 100 meters underground, back to itself. Even the scientists who went down with him in the tunnel, who included Ralph Steinhagen and Robert Keiffer with Subodh Patil were baffled by the echoes and resoundings which happened in the tunnel when the LHC was turned into the world’s largest acoustic instrument. But the questions didnt stop there and many remained unanswered from this last experiment.

This experiment has not only awoken the curiosity of the scientists at CERN, but it has also created a shower of ideas for a bigger piece by Collide@CERN artist Bill Fontana with Subodh Patil and scientists from the CERN community. The experiment with a loudspeaker in the LHC is just the beginning of what Bill Fontana calls “Acoustic Time Travel” which is his ongoing project at CERN. Watch this space to see what happens next year and how far Acoustic Time can really travel!

Collide@CERN in Athens 5 November, 2013.

Ariane Koek, Creator of the Collide@CERN program, Bill Fontana Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN artist 2012 and his Inspiration Partner Subodh Patil, CERN Costmologist gave a presentation at the Onassis Cultural Center, in Athens, Greece to discuss  sound as a tool for discovery in art and science. It is the first of our Collide@CERN  talks with the OCC exploring different themes in our culture. Next up are  Collide@CERN Movement and then Collide@CERN Vision in 2014.

Watch the Video: Collide@CERN wtih Sound: Discussion Cycle, CERN at the Onassis Cultural Center