Joan Heemskerk

Joan Heemskerk: ‘AI could bridge the gap to a universal language’

28 Feb 2024

The artist discusses her groundbreaking work in web-based art, her involvement with CERN’s community, and the potential for a universal language that could reach future generations and computers.

As the inaugural recipient of the Collide Copenhagen residency award, Dutch artist Joan Heemskerk undertook a two-month residency between CERN and Copenhagen Contemporary.


Heemskerk’s practice spans photography, video, software, games, websites, performance, and installations. As a member of the art collective JODI, she has been at the forefront of artists investigating and subverting the conventions of the Internet, computer programmes, and video games in the mid-1990s. By radically reshaping the language of these systems—interfaces, commands, errors, and code—her work disrupts the relationship between computer technology and users, challenging our expectations of the systems we rely on daily. 


During her residencies, Heemskerk focused on artistic exploration to develop her project Alice & Bob after Clay +=-> Hello, World! It refers to Tim Berners-Lee's proposal for the World Wide Web, which the scientist developed while working at CERN. His aim was to meet the demand for automated information exchange between scientists around the world. Through a re-assessment of the cryptographic characters Alice and Bob, and the basic string of any computer language, Hello, World! Heemskerk investigated the possibility of developing a new universal language that would transcend galactic and life-form boundaries.

At CERN, she immersed herself in the Laboratory environment, engaging with physicists, IT experts, and engineers, just like any other researcher. One of her primary focuses was on exploring the development and materiality of information exchange and storage systems, as effective archiving of vast amounts of data is pivotal to the operations at the Laboratory. Delving into the CERN Tape Archive (CTA), she closely examined the nature of magnetic tapes, the main long-term storage medium, contrasting them to historical methods of information transmission, such as clay tablets. 


Her exploration extended across various scientific facilities, from the bustling Data Centre to the complex detectors of the Large Hadron Collider, including ALICE and CMS. She also expanded her work on the origins of the WWW, delving into the archives of the world’s first website,, and meticulously examining the computing records of esteemed physicists such as Louis Dick, who contributed significantly to CERN's advancements during his over three decades of service since the 1950s. 


In this video interview, she shares her early fascination with the web's development and how her artistic experimentation evolved alongside its rapid technological advancements. The artist discusses the references behind her project, her engagement with the scientific community, and explores how we could bridge the gap towards a universal language for future humans, non-humans and computers.


During her residency in Copenhagen, Heemskerk conducted independent research in collaboration with the city’s largest research center, The Niels Bohr Institute, and continued her interviews with physicists and engineers. Additionally, she commenced the development of her art production with the support of the curatorial teams from Arts at CERN and Copenhagen Contemporary. This body of work is slated to be featured in an exhibition at Copenhagen Contemporary in 2025. 

Collide is the international residency programme of  Arts at CERN in partnership with a city, which invites artists worldwide from all creative disciplines to submit proposals for a research-led residency grounded in interactions with CERN’s scientific community. Collide Copenhagen is the collaboration framework between CERN and Copenhagen Contemporary that will be taking place annually over a three-year period (2023-2025).