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Rasheedah Phillips: ‘The boundary between art and science may be arbitrary’

18 Oct 2021
Collide

How does your work as a physicist impact your perception of time?’, ‘what would time reversal violation look like?’ are some of the questions that swirled around the conversations between Rasheedah Phillips and physicists at CERN and Barcelona. Having completed the first part of their Collide residency, we dive into their artistic research in the Laboratory, their meetings with the scientific community, and the first preview of their Collide-winning project CPT Symmetry and Violations.

Thinking of time as a physicist is very different to how I think about time as a human. As a quantum field theorist, time goes forwards and backwards. It is reversible; there’s no arrow of time. Obviously, as a human, there is. How you go from having no arrow of time in fundamental physics to have an arrow of time in our human scale is a massive question, and we don’t know the answer’, theoretical physicist Dorota Grabowska responded to Rasheedah Phillips during one of their encounters. The interdisciplinary artist, writer and housing lawyer has finished the first part of their residency at CERN and Barcelona. Together with Camae Ayewa, they form the artist collective Black Quantum Futurism, recipients of the Collide Award in 2020.

Weaving quantum physics, Ancient African cultural traditions of time, and Afrofuturism, the collective Black Quantum Futurism aims to develop a new experience of time that subverts hierarchical linear understandings. Their work spans writing, visual art, film, creative research, and music, creating counter-chronologies through a variety of tools – maps, time portals, and their coined concepts: quantum time capsules and bio clocks. Through their practice, they focus on recovering communal memories and histories and on envisioning futures for Black communities that rupture exclusionary versions of history and future.

Black Quantum Futurism’s Collide-winning project CPT Symmetry and Violations

Phillips spent three weeks at CERN and one week in Barcelona researching for their Collide-winning project CPT Symmetry and Violations. In physics, CPT is a fundamental symmetry that dictates that all physical laws are unchanged when subjected to the combined operations of charge conjugation (C), reflection of the coordinate system through the origin (parity, P) and time reversal (T). CPT symmetry would imply that any physical system made of particles that moves forward in time will obey the same laws as the identical physical system made of antiparticles, reflected in a mirror that moves backwards in time. On the experimental front, particle physicists have shown violations of C, P, and CP symmetry. In the search for new physics, numerous experiments, many of them at CERN, are testing for violations of CPT symmetry, but no experimental evidence has been found yet.

 

The artists argue this same acronym also holds another meaning in the phrase Colored People’s Time–a stereotype commonly employed in the United States that refers to Black people being chronically late but also a cultural understanding that experiences do not adhere to strict schedules and linear time. Intrigued by this double meaning of CPT, Black Quantum Futurism’s research at CERN examines how quantum physics can influence how people think about, experience, and measure time in everyday reality. From retrocausality to time reversal, they explored the possibilities that particle physics offers beyond traditional notions of time.

Getting immersed in the Laboratory’s community

From exploring several experiments–including the ATLASALICE and CMS detectors at the Large Hadron Collider–and spending hours in CERNs library, to interacting with particle physicists, engineers and IT staff, Phillips became immersed in the Laboratory’s community and research. As the artist remarked, The residency reinforced for me that the boundary line between art and science is somewhat arbitrary. There was art all over CERN, from the colours, sounds, and shapes of the machines used in experiments to use visuals and animation to convey ideas and educate. As an artist, I drew so much inspiration from the environment and the visual expression of the science and experiments being done, not just the ideas and concepts behind them. Art was everywhere I looked and listened.

As an artist, I drew so much inspiration from the environment and the visual expression of the science and experiments being done, not just the ideas and concepts behind them. Art was everywhere I looked and listened.

Interested in the violations of CPT Symmetry, Phillips also delved into the antimatter research conducted at CERN, visiting the facilities of the Antimatter Factory and engaging in conversation with physicists working in the field. The matter-antimatter asymmetry problem is one of the greatest challenges in physics, and violations of the CPT Symmetry might shed light on why we live in a universe composed almost entirely of matter, but no antimatter.

 

As matter and antimatter annihilate within billions of seconds of being formed, experimental physicists have excellent control of time in their experiments. However, research physicist Michael Doser found it more complex to describe time than to control it. What is time? I think not one single physicist in the world has an answer to this question. [...] Time just flows. We have no way of moving forwards or backwards in time, ourselves, and we want to step back from time, but it is not under our control. I have no idea what time is; I know how to control the sequence of things that occur in tiny slices of time and to study the phenomena that happen within, but I can’t change the ordering, I can’t go backwards, and I can’t change my subjective perception of time, remarked the scientist to Phillips.

Expanding their research and their chronological tools through Barcelona’s scientific and cultural network

After their time in Geneva, Philips travelled to Barcelona to expand their research and start the production of their conceptual time tools. They were supported by the Interaction and Production labs at the Hangar Centre for Art Research and Production, which provided their equipment, facilities, and production team within its context for experimentation and free knowledge transfer. To expand their research, Phillips also engaged with Barcelona's scientific community, including theoretical physicist Diego Blas from The Institute for High Energy Physics (IFAE) and Xavier Luri, Director of The Institute of Cosmos Sciences (ICCUB).

Rasheedah Phillips with theoretical physicist Diego Blas from the Institute for High Energy Physics (IFAE)
Rasheedah Phillips with theoretical physicist Diego Blas from the Institute for High Energy Physics (IFAE)
Rasheedah Phillips with the teams at the Hangar Centre for Art Research and Production
Rasheedah Phillips with the teams at the Hangar Centre for Art Research and Production
Rasheedah Phillips with several physicists from the Institute of Cosmos Sciences (ICCUB)
Rasheedah Phillips with several physicists from the Institute of Cosmos Sciences (ICCUB)

From fluctuating its rotating speed depending on the viewer’s distance to being triggered by sound volume, BQF’s series of bio clocks seek to challenge how we engage with clock time. At the Manifesta 13 Biennale Marseille, they presented a large-scale bio clock installation conceived as an interactive public space. Pointing at different time dimensions instead of numbers, the work responded to each visitor’s movements through a series of dials, giving voice to varying communal, personal, and global temporalities.

 

Their conceptual quantum time capsules, which they recently explored on an e-flux essay and built for their latest exhibition at Philadelphia's Hatfield House, can communicate with ancestors and future generations. Including stories and objects usually rendered invisible, they elude linear space-time, trouble our notions of past, present, future, history, and progress, and question expired presumptions and understandings of time.

CPT Reversal, first preview of their project

Through videos, collages, maps, sounds, and other visual works, the first preview of their project, CPT Reversal draws on their research in the Laboratory and examines time and temporality at various scales and dimensions–personal, interpersonal, communal, global, and cosmic. One of the works in the show, CP Timeline (2021), illustrates the usage of both dimensions of the acronym in several media, including books, magazines, considering these incidences as interconnected rather than accidental. CPT Reversal will be on view at REDCAT, CalArts' center for contemporary arts in Los Angeles, US, from 6 November to 5 March 2022.

 

After some time working in the studio, both Phillips and Ayewa will come back to Barcelona in November and to CERN next year. They will complete their three-month Collide residency and continue expanding their research in connection with fundamental science.

 

Collide is the international residency programme of Arts at CERN in collaboration with a city. Over the three-year period, 2019-2021, Collide is in collaboration with the Barcelona City Council and the Institute of Culture of Barcelona.

 

Article by Ana Prendes, Communications and Content Producer