The big bangers: grime smashes into the Hadron Collider

They rapped in its tunnels and played instruments made out of old science equipment. Could this be Cern’s most amazing experiment yet?

‘Anyone attending the performances,” says Jack Jelfs, “will find themselves in a 12-dimensional quantum superposition.” This superposition, adds the artist, will contain three overlaid elements: our mythic past, our scientific present and our unknown future. “So,” concludes Jelfs, “you may wish to prepare appropriately.”

Jelfs is talking about The Wave Epoch, a high-concept performance piece that is the result of four British artists spending time at Cern (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), where particles are accelerated and bashed into each other to reveal the secrets of the universe. When it’s described as “something between an installation, a music performance and a rave”, The Wave Epoch might not sound like anything particularly new, but it all becomes a lot more original when you realise it was conceived 175 metres underneath the Franco-Swiss border in the presence of the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest single piece of machinery in existence.

For Jelfs, one of the artists who was in residence at Cern, the overlap between art and science has always been part of his work. He studied theoretical physics at Imperial College London before his full-time focus became sound, visual and sculptural work. Jelfs and fellow composer-cum-visual-artist Haroon Mirza (who considers electricity to be his main medium) were the joint recipients of the 2017 Collide prize, awarded by Arts at Cern. Winners receive a two-month residency at the research site, tasked with bringing art and science into a collision of their own.

The 1,000-year view … Jack Jelfs inspects some machinery.
The 1,000-year view … Jack Jelfs inspects some machinery. Photograph: hrm199

While scientists at Cern deal with questions about the fundamental patterns of nature, the artists behind The Wave Epoch are interrogating the fundamental patterns of humanity: in this case, our inherent desire for gathering, ritual, music, performance and culture. The core question, says Jelfs, is this: “If the Large Hadron Collider was unearthed a few thousand years into the future, when its original purpose had been forgotten, how would people interpret it?”

To answer that question, Jelfs and Mirza enlisted the help of two other artists who joined them at Cern: electronic musician Gaika, whose work has previously included an imagined future, and (perhaps more surprisingly) Elijah, a DJ and promoter best known as co-founder of prolific grime label Butterz, who – since last year – has also been associate artistic director at Lighthouse, the Brighton-based art organisation behind The Wave Epoch.

“It’s like the way people look at Stonehenge,” says Elijah of the notion behind the project. “That could be like Cern 1,000 years in the future – maybe not even that far ahead. ‘Why were people smashing particles together to work out how the universe started?’ This is the biggest machine ever created, maybe nothing will ever be bigger. So it might be seen as a ritual site.”

Describing how this concept will materialise as a performance seems a complicated prospect for the artists. Elijah says it is likely to change a lot over time, but does at least give some idea of what we might expect: “I was only at Cern for a couple of days, but you’re struck by the scale, the amount of people working on it, the scientists. I couldn’t imagine what would happen if you did film, art or music at that scale. That hasn’t really happened before.”

The Wave Epoch, he says, isn’t an attempt to create something at that scale; it’s more a reaction to the awe it creates. “What we’re doing is somewhere between a screening, a gig and an installation, because that’s all our practices together. We filmed inside the collider, which is kind of rare. Gaika did a rap and we filmed something that will resemble a music video.”

The centre’s idiosyncratic physicality is something Jelfs touches on, too. “Cern’s been at the same site since it started in the 1950s,” he says, “and there’s a weird contrast between the often semi-dilapidated cold-war-era buildings and the incredible futuristic technology. The big, iconic experiments are deep underground, and can be visited only with special permission when the Large Hadron Collider isn’t running. So a lot of our time was spent exploring old buildings, finding electronic and engineering waste, looking through archive material, making sound and video recordings.”

All of this will feed into the live performance, along with music played on instruments built from hacked and repurposed objects that were used in experiments. There will also be clips of interviews with scientists. “We had some amazing conversations with the physicists,” says Jelfs. “The open-source nature of the place is really refreshing. The scientists gave us much of their time and seemed genuinely interested in what we were up to.”

Elijah found these conversations hugely rewarding. “Scientists were asking me questions like, ‘Do you understand what we’re made of as humans?’ I don’t know all that stuff – and you don’t have to. But it’s just interesting that it doesn’t need to be that far away from our work. If I’m thinking about making grime, there’s overlap, even if it’s not obvious.”

The first performances of The Wave Epoch will take place at this year’s Brighton festival, followed by further shows at FACT Liverpool. Young DJ collectives Shook and Off-Peak will be part of the initial performance, helping to realise this unique project that bridges art and music with incantation, anthropology, cognitive science, maths and neurobiology.

While the specifics of this rave-meets-installation-meets-particle-physics remain to be seen, for the artists it has already been an unforgettable experience. “At Cern,” says Elijah, “I was questioning everything I know about everything I think I know about the world. The experience will affect my work for ever.”

  • The Wave Epoch is at the Brighton festival on 24 May.
  • This article was originally launched with a picture of the exterior of Cern’s Globe visitor centre, incorrectly captioned as showing the exterior of Cern.


Tara Joshi

The GuardianTramp

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