The Swiss Plasma Center of EPFL in Lausanne is researching the future of electricity. In the thick of things is David Simon, an MA Transdisciplinary Studies student at ZHdK. During his three-month Master Series residency, David is exploring the complex interplay of science, infrastructure and aesthetics from an artistic perspective.
Steam rises from a tangle of cables and wires running criss-cross from server cabinets and gas cylinders to a vessel covered in more cables, wires and magnetic field coils. Well-lit, the vessel can be accessed from all sides via ladders, stairs and bridges. Somewhere amid this merely seemingly chaotic assemblage lies hidden a small glass window, similar to a porthole, behind which stands the fusion reactor. This bears the enigmatic-sounding name Tokamak. Here, in the multi-storey Swiss Plasma Center (SPC), experiments are being conducted to help fulfil a great promise: that of producing electricity through nuclear fusion. Essentially, this corresponds to the process that generates solar energy: two atomic nuclei combine to form a new, larger one. In the reactor, this process is imitated by heating gases to 150 million degrees Celsius within a magnetic field to guide them through a ring-shaped tube. In the far from distant future, it should thus be possible to ignite plasma and generate a stationary state, a kind of stream in which deuterium and lithium nuclei continuously fuse to form helium. Unlike today’s nuclear reactors, in which atoms are split, nuclear fusion would become massively more efficient, cleaner and — almost — risk-free.
A transdisciplinary setting
Loudspeakers blare out a warning: “On commence le tir 77555.” Yves Martin hurries to the security gate, leaving behind a space in which concrete walls stand several metres high before the room behind the porthole is illumined for a few seconds by bright lights. “It’s going to take green energy, it’s going to take a global effort, to make fusion energy a major factor,” says the SPC’s deputy to the director about the construction of possible fusion power plants, which are not expected to begin operating until 2050 at the earliest. Despite the recent successes in the United States, many questions still need to be answered. As part of an international consortium, the 180 or so SPC staff want to contribute to this energy revolution. As self-evidently as the researchers, but with his own agenda, artist David Simon moves through the building situated at the southern end of the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) — whose campus overlooks Lake Geneva and the French Alps. “The staircases and hallways are where the brief but important informal conversations take place, where ideas are exchanged or appointments made,” says Simon, who is spending three months at the SPC researching, talking to scientists and accessing most of the research centre’s infrastructure.
His stay is a “Master Series Residency,” a format offered jointly by the artists-in-labs program and the MA Transdisciplinary Studies at ZHdK’s Department of Cultural Analysis. MA students from all departments can submit a project idea to the annual call for two residencies. The format offers applicants able to demonstrate a genuine interest in scientific research and motivated to exchange ideas in a complex transdisciplinary working environment a unique opportunity to pursue mentored, process-based artistic research leaving plenty of freedom for exploration. Here, the journey is the destination: the output comprises sketches, notes, drafts and prototypes, as well as a final report. An artwork is not produced until after the residency.
Understanding and not understanding
David’s explorations start from the group office that he shares with PhD candidates and postdocs: “I am privileged: as an artist, I can ask questions or say things that others can’t afford to.” The biggest challenge, he says, is the lack of a common language; any conversation about plasma research or his artistic practice threatens to get lost in complex thoughts, which are difficult to convey across disciplines. David began with the idea of taking pictures of the plasma as it flows through the Tokamak for a few moments. And yet, the reality of the experimental set-up quickly caught up with him: “My search for images of plasma heralded the beginning of the end of the original idea. It was naive to believe that plasma could be imaged.” Plasma defies visual engagement through photography or film: it is too fleeting, too diffuse and too determined by the technical apparatus setting it in motion. Instead, David created a 3D simulation of the Tokamak, which he fed with experimental data. The resulting virtual plasma stream can be used for future artistic projects. Now, however, it is about using the access provided by the residency. Suddenly, the past matters more to David than the present or the future.
Fusion energy has been researched for decades, and more than once the breakthrough was said to be one experiment away. Grounded in the momentum of the postwar belief in progress, which in many respects is the cause of today’s problems, this research also has something anachronistic. Its very own timeline, which now projects well into the mid-21st century, is rife with ruptures, dead ends and bifurcations, which have manifested themselves materially. This is also the case at the Swiss Plasma Center, which David roams around every day: “I collect recordings and artifacts, trying to gain some sense of what has happened here so far. It’s a form of archaeology: digging, discovering, attempting to reconstruct the challenge of fusion.”
The dream of the terrestrial sun
As a globally effective symbol, the sun is a focal point of philosophical, religious and artistic reflections that touch on the essence of being human. It occupies a major role in mythologies. One myth from ancient Greece states that Icarus fell from the sky when he flew too close to the sun. Might the promise of nuclear fusion be so alluring because it promises to reverse the status quo and subjects the sun’s powerful forces to human control? David Simon interprets the dream of the terrestrial sun as a narrative that fits into existing mythologies. While it has kindled his interest in plasma research, it also amuses him: “It’s a sort of Promethean promise that works extremely well as a hook, as an image in the discourse on nuclear fusion. On the other hand, it also covers up the peculiarities and problems of a technology yet to be explored.”
This discourse will remain mythical until the time comes, a time when atomic nuclei fuse, and when the liquid heated by the slowing of particles produced by the fusion reactions propels a turbine that generates electricity — without disposing radioactive waste in the ground or spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as happens today. To operate our factories, to cook our food or to coax a stream from our screens, similar to that we also hope to gain from plasma — when at last it burns. So that the streams of images — and of plasma — never run dry and thus fulfil the promise of having brought the sun to earth as their avatar.