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Once a physicist: Libby Heaney

How did you make the shift from physics to art?


Libby Heaney is an artist, researcher and lecturer. She works at the intersection of art, science and technology. (Courtesy: Daria Jelonek)

How did you make the shift from physics to art? 
Although I was intrigued by the weirdness of modern physics – in particular quantum mechanics – I always also loved art. At school I would skip other lessons to hide in the art rooms, but decided to take the sensible route at university and study physics. During the five years I spent as a postdoctoral researcher, I used to dash home after work to make art. But it was really difficult to reconcile the two fields as a physicist, as there wasn't enough time to do both properly. I was also keen to start exploring science and technology from a wider range of viewpoints, which art allows for. For example, there seems to be very little ethical or critical debate in the physics community, as scientists often overlook the social and political consequences of new technologies. Retraining as an artist at Central Saint Martins college in London meant I could bring together my two passions. My Master's degree at the college was without a doubt the most difficult thing I've done.

You are interested in projects that bring art and science together – what does that involve? 
I take two approaches to my art practice. First, I am interested in how concepts from quantum physics can be used as inspiration for new aesthetics. This is not about literally representing the science but thinking differently about form, materials and interaction. Often scientists think that combining art and science is about creating a nice visualization of their data, but that's just illustration. It's important to move beyond illustration – to speculate and pose questions. I'm also interested in re-examining systems through a quantum-computational lens, both theoretically and through making. This means that I take some aspect of quantum physics, such as superposition or entanglement, and explore metaphorical resonances and disparities with other systems. I might question how our interaction with technology in general could be analogous to quantum measurement – for example, how being monitored through data leakage alters how we act. Last year, two colleagues and I made a piece where Floodwatch advertising followed the audience around a space – this was somewhat analogous to the quantum zeno effect. It was really cool to see people behaving oddly, or freezing when they couldn't escape the projection.

What are you working on now? 
I'm collaborating with the Centre for Quantum Photonics at the University of Bristol, UK, exploring the potential for producing artwork with early-stage quantum technology. This will look at the consequences of an artwork residing inside a quantum computer – so it cannot be copied or even viewed – and questioning what that says about the systems we live in. To document that research, I'm making a moving-image piece using classical data from the photonics lab, thinking about connections to meaning and memories. When I put contact microphones onto the superconducting chamber that detects single photons, it sounded like a techno track. Who would have thought? Amazing!

Is anyone else involved? 
I'm also a research tutor at the Royal College of Art in London and some of my students are also collaborating on this project. We have one group using quantum simulations and data to play with architecture and space, while another team explores the gestures scientists use to talk about their work in an elegant video piece. We've been awarded a public-engagement grant from the Institute of Physics [which publishes Physics World] and have been in dialogue with the computer art curators at the V&A Museum in London where we are giving a talk about the collaboration. I've also just become a resident at Somerset House Studios, also in London, where I'm making an immersive virtual-reality artwork using quantum algorithms as a creative medium to explore narrative and space. This will be presented in Aarhus in Denmark with ScienceAtHome and Non-Space Gallery as part of the 2017 EU Capitals of Culture.

How has your physics background helped? 
Quantum physics is so complex that it's difficult to appreciate its subtleties unless you have been trained in it. Often, laypeople think it's just more classical randomness – multiple copies instead of superposition, for example. I would say that researching at postdoc level has been essential for me to move beyond popular accounts of quantum physics in art and design, to probe new metaphorical connections in a rigorous way.

Any advice for today's students? 
I think that it's difficult enough to become an academic, so if you have other interests besides science that you want to pursue don't be scared to work across disciplines. Carve your own path. It's tough but fun and not many other people will be doing it.