Tate Modern and the IOP collaborate to show Light and Dark Matters

27 November 2015

Everything from a session using retro typewriters to write in invisible ink to thought-provoking discussions on the power of light were part of the Light and Dark Matters festival at Tate Modern, organised in collaboration with the Institute of Physics.

The series of events over a 24-hour period on 20 and 21 November was part of the IOP’s public engagement programme and was aimed at attracting the public at large as well as scientists, artists and anyone with an interest in using or understanding light.

It included a sunrise walk and breakfast with solar physicist Professor Lucie Green and a sunset walk and talk with artist Susan Schuppli, as well as a workshop to display selected images created by instagrammers who had responded to a challenge to capture the transformational effects of light. The workshop, curated by Oliver Lang, also explored mobile cameras, alternative light sources and devices brought by physicists from Imperial College London.

The festival started with an open discussion chaired by Professor Sean Cubitt between Professor Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in the US, and Liliane Lijn, an internationally acclaimed artist. Dijkgraaf, a string theorist who also trained as an artist, and Lijn, who has engaged with physicists for around 50 years and was shortlisted to have her work displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, discussed the way that light is helping us to understand space and time and is shaping our material world, from the perspectives of physics and art.

A panel discussion chaired by architect and designer Asif Khan on the second day explored the question “Are we darkened by light?”. It looked at the implications of most of humanity now spending more time exposed to artificial light than light from the Sun. Astrophysicist Dr Catherine Heymans (pictured), whose research focuses on the dark universe, Dr Marek Kukula, public astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, and Katie Paterson, an artist who has engaged with astronomy, discussed what we may be missing as we are saturated by light.

Tate story pic

Later that day a discussion on “Harnessing light”, also chaired by Cubitt, explored the ways in which artists and scientists use light as part of their discoveries. Contributors included Professor Harald Haas who has developed LiFi to allow wireless transmission of data using light, Turner Prize-nominated artist Roger Hiorns, art collective Flow Motion and Professor Kishan Dholakia, who researches in optics at the University of St Andrews.

In the final workshop, artists Labern & Lloyd of The Drawing Shed worked with the IOP to explore light, dark matter, the environment and the things we keep hidden. Participants were invited to write messages using typewriters fitted with ribbons that use invisible ink. These were displayed around the room and could only be read under UV light.

The IOP’s head of outreach and engagement, Johanna Kieniewicz, said the IOP had approached Tate Modern with the idea of organising a collaboration as part of the International Year of Light. At first a single evening session was envisaged, but it soon became clear that so much material was available that it merited the two-day festival.

Discussions started eight months ago with a brainstorming session at Tate Modern with representatives of the IOP and a small group to discuss light and the possible themes that the festival might explore. This engendered a long list of names and ideas, and led to monthly meetings between the IOP and Tate Modern as the festival took shape.

Kieniewicz said: “Along with curatorial expertise from Tate and the IOP’s public engagement team, we benefited from the expertise of independent curator Hannah Redler. She was a constant source of inspiration along the journey, with many practical insights into the workings of art–science collaborations and the artists who work in that space.”

The collaboration had gone incredibly well, Kieniewicz believed, and she pointed to the types of audience with whom the IOP wanted to engage in the future: “We are interested in using the arts as a link into physics and providing a way in for people who would not normally consider themselves to be a ‘science’ audience.

“Physics is not just something that one learns in school or goes on to have a successful career in. It’s part of our culture, and can be seen through many different lenses, such as art. In this collaboration with Tate Modern, we demonstrated how rich conversations can emerge when we bring artists and physicists together, each shedding light on the others’ fields.”

Grace Riley, a physics student at King’s College London who visited the festival, commented afterwards: “It was nice to see art and science together and to relate them to each other. It was quite inspiring and captured your imagination through art.”