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Material Sight


The Laboratorie Nazionali del Gran Sasso (LNGS), accessed via the Traforo del Gran Sasso freeway tunnel.


Crisp's recent research project, Material Sight: re-presenting the spaces of fundamental science used non-documentary photography and film to embody a sense of material encounter at three world-leading research facilities for fundamental science. Funded by The Leverhulme Trust under their Research Fellowship scheme, the project ran from October 2016 to July 2018 and was hosted by Arts Catalyst Centre for Arts, Science and Technology, London.

Areas of fundamental science such as cosmology, particle physics and astrophysics operate at scales and levels of complexity that are beyond the imaginative and cognitive grasp of most lay-publics. Historically, western culture measured space and time through the body but over the centuries science and technology have pursued knowledge beyond the edges of perception, from the macro extremes of the multiverse to the micro-scale of the sub-atomic world. In response to this seemingly inexorable process of distancing, Material Sight employs non-documentary photography and film to bring science back within our world as experience – what the philosopher Edmund Husserl referred to as the ‘Life-World’ – by using still and moving imagery to place us in a bodily relation to the physical spaces and laboratories where fundamental science is performed. 


Professor Sean Paling, Boulby Underground Laboratory, UK. 2009


Sited within a mountain in central Italy, the Laboratori Nazionale del Gran Sasso (LNGS) is the world’s largest underground research centre for particle physics; by contrast, at over a kilometre beneath the earth, Boulby Underground Laboratory occupies the UK’s deepest working mine. Both environments are distinguished by their powerful materiality yet the science being performed in them is both abstract and imperceptible.  The third site that Crisp worked with was the combined facilities at Durham University, UK that include The Centre for Advanced Instrumentation and the Institute of Computational Cosmology where the super computer, COSMA, contributed to the creation of The Millennium Simulation used by scientists working in physical cosmology to compare observations with theoretical predictions.  


Dr Juergen Schmoll. Centre for Advanced Instrumentation, Durham University, UK. 2012


The curiosity of Material Sight sprang from the paradoxical relationship between the deeply-material, phenomenological presence of the environments on the one hand and the absent, immaterial nature of the science being pursued in them on the other. Within this context, Crisp was interested if the material environment can actually be a conduit to cognitive understanding and, more specifically, if photography can embody the spaces of experimental science and present them back to scientists and nonscientists alike, not as illustrations of the technical sublime but as sites of phenomenological encounter.



Material Sight  Installation view, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland. March-May 2018.



Material Sight was presented as two distinct solo exhibitions in 2018, first at The Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art in Sunderland [March-May] and then at Arts Catalyst in London [June-July]. In both installations, the idea of material encounter was approached through the presentation of a series of large-scale photographic objects and plasma screens built into an architectural scaffolding structure. The sound from the four high-definition films within each installation was edited into a single, immersive soundscape, that the visitor experienced as they moved around or sat on one of the seven steel benches fabricated for the exhibition.

Material Sight  Installation view, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland. March-May 2018.


Within the exhibitions, the concept of physical embodiment was central to countering the imperceptibility of fundamental physics that, being performed at micro and macro levels, often creates what Crisp has referred to as a kind of ‘radical remoteness’ to the body. To this end, the multi-channel soundscape was designed to produce an experience that was felt viscerally, being described as "intense, uncompromising and invasive" by Catherine Spencer in her review of the NGCA exhibition in Art Monthly.



Material Sight Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland. Installation detail: OPERA Archive.



Within the installation, the photographic works and film screens were shown alongside wiring and technical equipment as undifferentiated, equally-charged material objects, whilst the benches allowed the visitor a haptic encounter with their cold steel surfaces, provoking a simultaneous sense of distance and intimacy.



Material Sight  Installation View, Arts Catalyst, London.  June-July 2018.



Material Sight  Exterior view showing seating, Arts Catalyst, London.  June-July 2018.


In contrast to the large, singular and hermetic space of the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art in Sunderland, the gallery spaces at Arts Catalyst in London are small and permeable.  The three plate glass windows that open out onto the busy streets of Kings Cross, allowed for a visual, and to some extent audible, exchange with the outside where three of the seven benches were placed in the public space of the pavement, thus inviting passers-by to stop and engage with the work, or simply pass the time of day.


Material Sight  Exterior view showing seating, Arts Catalyst, London.  June-July 2018.


Further Information

A film showing Fiona Crisp talking about the Material Sight exhibitions can be seen here


To see more about the project research, including texts, films and interviews, visit the Material Sight website.










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