Steven Bode, Gavin Bower (x2), Martin Herbert

Andrew Stones Atlas (Installation) - Commentary



Steven Bode

Working to Scale

Extracts from introductory essay:Outside Inside artist's book/monograph
(London: Film & Video Umbrella, 2004, 148pp, full colour; ISBN 1904270093)
Outside Inside available from the Film and Video Umbrella bookshop


Twenty kilometres outside Geneva, in an enclave of neutral Switzerland that has grown to become one of the main intellectual stamping grounds of the international scientific community, are the laboratories of the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, also known as CERN. Although the organisation's boundary-breaking activities have attracted increased attention in recent years, the nature and extent of what goes on there is still largely unknown or unfathomable to the majority of people. Not that the buildings themselves give much of a clue. Set in its green-field site in an otherwise anonymous suburban hinterland, the exterior of the complex offers scant indication of either its purpose or its scope. But, as advanced-level science so often reminds us, appearances can be deceptive. Like a metaphor for the mysterious world of sub-atomic particle physics, CERN's distinguishing features are not to be found on the surface but remain to be encountered deep within.

It is only in the passage from outside to inside that CERN reveals its extraordinary, supra-human scale. In a network of underground chambers and tunnels that stretches to the nearby French border and beyond, some of the biggest machines on the planet are trained on the study of the smallest elements of matter. Foremost among these are CERN's famous particle accelerators ­ vast circular tunnels, where streams of protons are accelerated to phenomenal energies, along beam-pipes encased in giant electromagnets. Straddling the largest of these tunnels, as if marking the next stage in a steepening descent into the underworld, is a newly constructed, colossal chamber. This gaping void is the site for one of CERN's latest state-of-the-art devices, a gigantic particle detector named after the mythological figure of Atlas. The detector will act as the receptacle for a series of miniature Big Bangs, in which the fall-out caused by billions of sub-atomic particles colliding will be studied for further insights into the fundamental properties of matter's underlying structure.

Andrew Stones's impressive twenty-year portfolio of video and mixed media work, much of which has cast a sophisticated sideways glance at the language and institutions of science, was instrumental in getting him behind-the-scenes access to some of CERN's lesser-seen spaces. His video installation Atlas [...] charts some of the farthest reaches of the complex in a vivid and elliptical multi-screen portrait that not only renders the architectural immensity of the site but, equally skillfully and intriguingly, captures something of the intellectual force-field in which it operates. Orbiting around the cavernous maw of the Atlas vault, then picking up speed along the breakneck curves of a particle accelerator, the piece also detours to visit less obvious locations, including the offices of two of the centre's research scientists. Within these surprisingly cramped inner sanctums, Stones' camera records another pile-up of matter, in which every available centimetre of desk, shelf and floor space is buried under a white-out of paper. If there is order here, it is hard to discern, other than as the material agglomerations of a rarefied, uninterrupted milieu of high-powered abstract thought. Counterpointing inside and outside, conflating physical and mental space, Stones' deft juxtapositions draw out a host of connections. In the shadow of an architectural undertaking whose overwhelming size and ambition invites comparison with some of the wonders of ancient history, and in an echo of a wider epistemological project whose pursuit of celestial knowledge increasingly resembles a mirror image of the Tower of Babel, little wonder that he alights on these precarious ziggurats of paper, expressions of that impulse in spontaneous, miniature form.

Switching from screen to screen, constantly modulating its centre of gravity, Stones' installation often reads like a controlled experiment in the variables of scale and perspective. Over time, like eyes adjusting to the dark, our response to the piece (and its mapping of space) subtly changes. Moving backwards and forwards within the compass of the seven separate screens, little details start to loom large. A chalk-marked equation stands out on a blackboard; which, in turn, evokes the black hole of the detector chamber in which this theorem might shortly come to be tested and validated. The motion-blur of the high-speed ride through the accelerator tunnel settles into a perceptual loop of lingering, accumulating impressions. Time and space become shifting and fluid. Passing unobserved through these strangely unpopulated locations, we look on; and, as we do so, are reminded of one of the paradoxes of the physical universe at its smallest sub-atomic scale: how observation confirms the nature of what we see there, but how the act of observation itself so often changes the reality of what we see


Stones' fluency with sound adds another element to the mix. Where the video sequences loop and pivot in regular and predictable orbits, sound squalls in waves across the gallery space. Pulsating from sources that are hard to pinpoint, running in and out of phase with the visuals, it red-shifts and ricochets across the room, or emits a ghostly rumble, like subsonic, tectonic activity. In the same way that the granular qualities of the video image become part and pixel of his subject matter, Stones' use of sound is absolutely integral, creating an ambience of indeterminacy that not only establishes the conditions of the work but also guards against too fixed and singular a reading


Leading-edge science, and the work conducted at its frontier outposts, usually falls so far beyond our everyday experience that it is easy to defer to its higher authority or become seduced in the contemplation of its uncanny, otherworldly qualities. Reluctant to settle for the role of spectator, and always looking to establish his bearings in this unfamiliar universe, Stones highlights a feeling of ambivalence that often accompanies an encounter with many of these sites. Atlas sums up that ambivalence exactly, conveying the continuing aura of scientific will-to-knowledge but leaving us with the nagging suspicion that as close as we may get to the heart of the matter, we will still always be somehow on the outside.

Copyright © Steven Bode 2004


Andrew Stones - 'Atlas' Installation - Commentary by Gavin Bower, for Flux Magazine


Gavin Bower

For Culture Wars, the reviews website of the Institute of Ideas



Atlas is Sheffield-based artist Andrew Stones' new installation at the Chisenhale Gallery. Footage shot by Stones at CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory, on the Swiss/French border, is shown in a continuous cycle on seven screens.

Images of CERN's detector chamber, the underground Super Proton Synchrotron, and the offices of two prominent CERN-based physicists, are manipulated and transferred to the viewer. On two of the screens, the process of particle acceleration is depicted; one screen, in front of us, shows what we move involuntarily towards, while the other, immediately behind us, shows what has been passed. We are incapable of leaving the pressurised space; we are transfixed, the experience visceral. At the same time, we are excluded by the unintelligibility of the process; it is somehow larger than us, exalted, and beyond our comprehension.

Science as subject rarely generates anything more than pious forewarnings of the destructive consequences of technological innovation. The exemplary novel - a paradigmatically bourgeois and insipidly didactic art form - has been consistently used for this purpose, with Huxley's Brave New World a case in point; its vision of scientific dystopia merely emphasising the characteristic pessimism, as well as the myopia, of modernist art regarding humanity.

Stones looks to transcend the traditional and the asinine with his work, challenging the viewer with something that for most is unknowable. Atlas synthesises the postmodern critique of modernism by juxtaposing the presumption of human progress, of incorrigible evolution, with the endlessly exponential nature of scientific advance. The inference is clear; though technology seemingly knows no bounds, our mortality and limited comprehension, our sheer exiguousness, keeps us from fully partaking in that progress.

Stones posits Western man as merely the consumer of science, utilising technological advancement for his own limited purposes - in the home, for entertainment, for communication - without actually comprehending how these innovations work. This is how we are able to grasp the unknowable, by adopting the arcane for the prosaic, using what we can and disregarding the rest. This is the logical conclusion of a commodity culture precipitated on a mass level throughout the twentieth century.
In using the installation format, Stones suggests a parallel between the commodification of science and art itself. Art as a commodity - accessible in a gallery space increasingly similar to a shopping mall and consumed by the window-shopping general public - is absorbed and applied to the everyday, the esoteric meeting the exoteric. Consequently, we are able to access seemingly unintelligible bodies of knowledge, not as knowledge, but only in accordance with our needs.

Paradoxically, Atlas confronts the viewer with this dialectical movement - the contradiction of inadequacy and unintelligibility that finds its 'solution' in consumerism - whilst simultaneously asking: is this progress at all?

Copyright © Gavin Bower 2004


Martin Herbert

Time Out


Andrew Stones - 'Atlas' Installation - Time Out preview by Martin Herbert


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