A few scientists work with some GEMs particle detectors laboratory at the CMS Experiment at CERN. Photo by Ian Purnell

Ian Purnell on becoming part of CERN’s community and his first feature film

25 Jan 2023

As the Swiss artist concluded his second stay at CERN, we delve into his first feature film, his immersion in the Laboratory’s community and his interests in machine learning and the material infrastructures of our digital world

Following his first residency in early 2022, Swiss artist Ian Purnell returned to the Laboratory for a second research and exploratory stay. Purnell is one of the Connect South Africa-winning artists, alongside Kamil Hassim, the first international residency of Connect – the collaboration framework between Arts at CERN and the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia that serves as a platform for dialogue between artistic and scientific communities worldwide. Connect is now calling for applications for its national format, a three-month residency at CERN for artists and collectives based or from Switzerland, until 3 March.

With a background in documentary filmmaking, Purnell’s practice involves using tools from cinema and the cinematographic space to explore the visual narratives humans create, such as scientific imagery, to understand the world and universe around them. His work often blurs the lines between fiction and reality, experimenting with performative elements, archive material and actual footage to wander around the limits of human perception.

This interest drew Purnell to improvisational theatre sessions held for the scientific community. ‘I just went to observe, but I was part of the group activities after a few minutes’, he said about his attendance at the sessions, ‘I was interested in how scientists choose theatre to look for ways to talk about their work and how it provided an opportunity to find performativity in everyday situations within a scientific context, working with an existing narrative rather than imposing ones’. Purnell plans to stay in touch with the group to continue exploring these themes and see how they have evolved.

Purnell’s first feature film partly shot at the Data Centre

Ian Purnell’s current project, his first feature film, delves into the physicality of the Internet and how we perceive it as individuals. In 2022, he spent three weeks on a ship to film the manual work behind the building of broadband infrastructure in a remote part of Alaska, US. Exposing the unseen depths of the digital world, the film aims to give a glimpse into its hidden backbones and the raw, physical labor that make it come to life, revealing a new perspective on what usually falls beyond our perception. In connection to this work, Purnell returned to shot at the Data Centre, the heart of CERN’s scientific, administrative, and computing infrastructure, since ‘its tangibility is a central part of the digital ecosystem that is hard to sense’, he commented. 


The artist also engaged in conversations with scientists that witnessed the birth and development of the World Wide Web. Invented by scientist Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 while working at CERN, Ian’s interest drew from its original conception and development aimed at meeting the demand for automated information-sharing between scientists in universities and institutes worldwide. The first website at CERN – and in the world – was dedicated to the World Wide Web project itself, which was restored in 2013 to be openly accessed: info.cern.ch

Diving into the Laboratory’s community

During his second stay, Purnell had the opportunity to resume conversations with physicists and engineers he had previously engaged with, as well as to reach out to other scientists and have time for some new first encounters. ‘With a renewed sense of curiosity and a fresh perspective, I was able to delve deeper into the inner workings of CERN by revisiting key locations and reconnecting with scientists I had previously met. Each encounter was a chance to fully immerse me in the experience and gain a deeper understanding of the work being done.’

‘Talking with artists helps us remember the broader perspective and fuels our creativity’ – engineer Maria Elena Angoletta

Particularly, Purnell engaged several times with electronics engineer Maria Elena Angoletta to converse about CERN’s research in machine learning and human-machine interactions. ‘From discussing machine learning and how it is used at CERN, our conversation evolved into human learning and life lessons driven by Ian’s questions,’ described Angoletta. The scientist, who has recently taken part in Suzanne Treister’s project Scientific Dreaming, commented about her regular participation in Arts at CERN programmes, ‘Talking with artists helps us remember the broader perspective and fuels our creativity. I believe that creativity and lateral thinking are greatly needed in our work at CERN, where we often have to step away from well-worn paths and create new ones.’


In ongoing conversations with Angoletta and his upcoming visit to the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, Purnell is exploring the developments of machine learning in the detection of anomalies through unsupervised learning, as well as the potential of these systems for image construction. 

Examining CERN’s broad complex technological infrastructure

In addition to his visits to the Data Centre, Ian Purnell also revisited other laboratory facilities to dive into CERN’s broad scientific research programme. One of these places was the gas electron multipliers (GEMs) Laboratory, where physicists assemble new muon detector technology for the CMS Experiment. ‘It was fascinating to witness and film the meticulous work that goes into putting all these pieces together. The unpredictability of the final outcome, where a small error can be challenging to detect, made it feel like a living organism. I felt like I was a part of the process, not just an observer.’


Purnell also visited the Linear Electron Accelerator for Research (CLEAR) facilities at CERN, where he learned about the research and development of accelerator technology. Guided by physicist Pierre Korysko and Lead of Operations Wilfrid Farabolini, Purnell dived into how high-energy electron beams are employed in FLASH radiotherapy research, a cancer treatment technique that delivers highly energetic particles to tissues almost instantaneously.

The artist also explored the ISOLDE Facility at CERN with Technical Coordinator Joachim Vollaire, the Antimatter Factory with applied physicist Gunn Khatri, and went on a tour of the ATLAS control room with experimental physicist Despina Sampsonidou. These visits gave Purnell a deeper understanding of the complex and rewarding work that goes into fundamental science.


This year, the artist will finish shooting his feature film, which will be released in 2024, and he plans to go back to South Africa to revisit and film some of the astronomy observatories. ‘There are many threads from the residencies that I want to dive deeper into. I aim to develop a few projects, but these experiences have fed and will feed my artistic practice in a general but such impactful way,’ said Purnell. As he continues to narrow down all the information and inspiration he has gathered, Purnell is staying in touch with scientists he met, working towards closer collaborations in the long term for his next stay at CERN.


Connect is the collaboration framework between Arts at CERN and the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia that serves as a platform for dialogue between artistic and scientific communities worldwide.


Article by Ana Prendes, Communications Producer at Arts at CERN