Material Sight: Research

Tunnel entrance in mountain
Laboratorie Nazionali del Gran Sasso, access via Traforo del Gran Sasso freeway tunnel
Boulby Underground Laboratory
Professor Sean Paling, Boulby Underground Laboratory, UK. 2009. Photograph: Fiona Crisp

Arts Catalyst hosts this artist-led research project by Fiona Crisp, who is using non-documentary photography and film to embody a sense of material encounter at three world-leading research facilities for fundamental science.

Many areas of contemporary science, including cosmology, particle physics and astrophysics, operate at scales and levels of complexity that lie beyond the imaginative and cognitive grasp of most people. Historically, Western culture measured space and time through the body, but over the centuries science and technology have pursued knowledge beyond the edges of bodily perception, from the macro extremes of the multiverse to the micro-scale of the sub-atomic world. Today, with advanced science and technology, and with the accelerating impact of human activity on the planet, we live in new scales of size and speed that we cannot easily comprehend. If so much knowledge comes through scientific instruments, how can we make sense of it within our own experience? As the astronomer Roger Malina notes: “Our intuition, our languages, our metaphors and our arts are all built on the wrong data for understanding the universe”.

Crisp approaches this dilemma through the use of still and moving imagery to place us in a bodily relation to the physical spaces and laboratories where fundamental science is performed. The artist's research is taking her to the Laboratori Nazionale del Gran Sasso, sited within a mountain in central Italy, the world’s largest underground research centre for particle physics; Boulby Underground Laboratory, which occupies the UK’s deepest working mine, over a kilometre beneath the Earth’s surface; and the combined facilities at Durham University, UK, that include the Centre for Advanced Instrumentation and the Institute of Computational Cosmology. She is interested in whether photography can embody the spaces of experimental science and present them back to scientists and non-scientists alike as sites of phenomenological encounter.

Arts Catalyst is hosting Crisp’s research process in the context of a broader consideration of the philosophical, cultural and practical issues of science coming to us through mediated data, and the challenge (to use Malina’s phrase) of “making science intimate”. Through an associated symposium with the Institute of Physics and other activities, we will explore the insights and strategies of artists and cultural practitioners whose creative work can help to transform and inform our intuitions and vocabulary about science.

Funded by The Leverhulme Trust under their Research Fellowship scheme.

Keep up to date with Fiona Crisp's ongoing project research by following the Material Sight website.


Fiona Crisp is known for creating installations of large-scale photographs that question the ontological presence of the photographic image. Her works are often generated by spending intensive periods of time in particular locations, past projects having involved working in the Early Christian catacombs of Rome and a Second World War underground military hospital in the Channel Islands. What unites these apparently disparate sites is that, contrary to their historic purpose that allowed access to a defined group of users, they have now been opened up as tourist sites where the boundaries between heritage, leisure and historical truth become inevitably blurred. Significant solo exhibitions include Negative Capability: The Stourhead Cycle, Matt's Gallery (2012), and the major touring show Subterrania that launched at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead in July 2009 before travelling to Impressions Gallery, Bradford and finishing at Newlyn Gallery, Cornwall in April 2010. A monograph entitled Hyper Passive surveying Crisp’s work over the last 10 years was published to coincide with the show by Matt’s Gallery. Crisp is currently an Associate Professor in Fine Art at Northumbria University Her current project Material Sight, funded by the Leverhulme Trust pursues these questions through collaboration with three world-leading research facilities for fundamental science.


Negative Capability: Imaging and Imagining Fundamental Science Through Productive Doubt
This article was published in the journal GeoHumanities in 2015 and outlines some of the formative thinking behind Material Sight.