To some, Agnes Chavez’s “Origination Point” might seem a mesmerizing abstract work, with geometric shapes floating and morphing amid a shifting soundscape.
But to her, it tells a very scientific tale that, in six minutes, takes viewers from the Big Bang to the emergence of the first life forms. “To me, it’s very literal,” said the Taos resident, whose piece, which premiered at the 12th Havana Biennial in Cuba last year, will be seen for the first time in the United States when it opens Saturday at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos.
When she says it’s informed by actual physics, she’s not kidding. She spent a two-week residency last year at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva, Switzerland, where a particle accelerator uncovered evidence for the Higgs boson, often called the “God particle” for its role in providing mass for particles. “It was two weeks of immersion,” she said of that experience, adding that she is continuing a partnership with the CERN scientists. “It was really radically transformative.”
“Origination Point,” she said, “is about the visualization of these ideas.”
It starts, she said, with lines of light, “like little white needles,” that jiggle and are meant to represent the Higgs field. In a random progression, the points of light begin to stick together, driven “by actions in space we can’t see” – but, in the art installation, driven by a computer algorithm.
The accumulating points come together in a circular pattern that “represents to me the birth of matter, a combination of particles that creates an organism. It can look like many different things.”
Many different forms then develop to symbolize the diversity of life that arose and still exists, “then it fades away and goes back to the beginning of time,” Chavez said.
The work was done in collaboration with two Berlin artists: Marcel Schwittlick, who produced the algorithm for the images, and Robert Schirmer, who programmed the interactive sound design, which includes sounds of nature, as well as those from space contributed by NASA.
Because of the random nature of the algorithm and the viewer influence on the sound, the six-minute loop of the piece can vary with each viewing.
That interactive portion involves a set of four rocks, which viewers can move in and out of a circle of light on the floor, influencing changes in the 36 different sound layers. Chavez said she included that element to experiment with how the different sounds might affect a viewer’s perception of the overall piece.
“The idea is to play with particle dualities,” she said, referring to how a quantum-scale entity can have properties both of a particle and a wave.
Before physics grabbed her attention, Chavez said her artistic focus had been on exploring her heritage. She grew up in “a very big Cuban family” in New York City before moving to Miami when she was 19.
Then she headed off to college in Berkeley, Calif., and also lived in Paris and New York for a time before coming to Taos when she was 24 “to find my style,” Chavez said.
“I meant to stay here for six months,” she said. But “this is my 30th anniversary in Taos.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the idea of exploring both her heritage and physics are not unrelated.
Chavez said her interest in physics was piqued in the 1980s when she was studying holography in New York. As she started reading books on quantum physics written for the layperson, she was fascinated by how space itself could move matter. “We come from a field rather than particles,” she said. “It really changed the way I approached design and content.”
And while she might have explored before how her heritage made her different, physics showed her “how we are all connected,” Chavez said. “An object can have an effect on everything else.”
Rather than seeing a fragmented world, where each person can act independently, particle physics shows us a world where everything we do can affect others, she said.
And we all came from the same energy field. “We are made of the same things as stars,” Chavez said. “I find that (realization) life-changing.”
She came to see ethnicity or heritage as just one component of who we are. “When I get to particle physics, I go beyond my little stuff,” she said.
She is active in sharing her discoveries with students, operating a STEMarts Lab and presenting a pARTicles workshop in Cuba when the installation was on display there.
Chavez said she plans similar activities in Taos in conjunction with the Harwood exhibit. Also, a roundtable and artist’s talk are set for March 24, she added.