Visual art, class struggle and the ‘magic’ of quantum

11 Oct 2023

Libby Heaney. Image: Andrea Rossetti

Visual artist and former scientist Libby Heaney discusses the ‘magic’ of quantum entanglement and the challenges of her tech-art practice.

Visualisations and artworks are often used by scientists to present information in digestible and interesting ways. In these circumstances, art can be said to be a useful tool for scientific communication.

However, for artist Libby Heaney, the opposite is true. With a PhD in quantum computing, Heaney uses her scientific knowledge and skills as tools in creating her art.

In Heaney’s work, you will find tech elements including quantum computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and graphics “entangled” with visceral elements such as slime, fabric and watercolour painting to create immersive, contemporary visual and performance art.

“When I work with machine learning, training my own GANs (generative adversarial networks) on text, images or sounds for instance, instead of trying to copy reality, like ChatGPT or Dall-E, which acts like a mirror with no change, I program the machine learning system to blend or weave together new forms,” Heaney says.

“Instead of reinforcing fixed categories and identities, like how scientists and technologists use AI, I’m constantly working to blur and deconstruct boundaries.”

Quantum technologies seem to provide the best real and metaphorical tools for Heaney’s art.

“Quantum mechanics and art fit nicely with each other.”

“For me, publishing original research in quantum information science required lots of imagination and creativity because quantum phenomena are entirely different to anything we experience in the macroscopic world,” she explains.

The ‘double-edged’ power of quantum

In an article a couple of years ago, Heaney wrote about the possibilities of quantum technology.

“Quantum computing can give artists a completely new way of seeing and sensing the world. It offers a framework to move away from the binary of digital technology and embrace plurality, through concepts like entanglement,” she wrote.

Heaney describes quantum entanglement as “like magic” but it “really exist[s]”.

“Entanglement is when two or more particles are remotely connected across vast distances – a measurement of one particle changes the state of the other. This non-local portal can be used for information processing tasks like teleportation and the future quantum internet,” she explains.

Crucially, people don’t need to know anything about quantum computing to understand her art, Heaney says. “It works on many levels.”

“My immersive artwork Ent- from 2022 talks about quantum computing and both its future positive and negative impacts by conflating it with Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings.

“Audiences encounter hybrid creatures that move in a non-binary way and speak to the invisible processes within a quantum computer visually and sonically.”

For this project, Heaney won the 2023 Immersive Environment Award from The Lumen Prize, a global competition that “celebrates the very best art created with technology”.

Ent- is described on The Lumen Prize site as “a quantum reinterpretation of the central panel of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, situated between heaven and hell, providing an analogue for the double-edged potential of quantum computing”.

“Just as The Garden of Earthly Delights can be read as both a celebration of and warning against desire, Ent- explores the dangers implicit in our desires for new technologies.”

The dangers of tech

Though clearly very much ‘entangled’ in emerging tech herself, Heaney is not shy about pointing out the limitations and failings of these tools.

In the article mentioned previously, she wrote that “algorithmic systems are eroding our agency and autonomy in the pursuit of guaranteed financial outcomes for advertisers and the giant tech companies”.

She also highlighted the “historical and cultural biases” in AI systems that “disproportionately affect poor people and people of colour”.

One of the problems, as Heaney sees it, is that the development of these technologies is often concentrated in the hands of Big Tech.

Particularly, quantum is very expensive to develop and therefore it is difficult for smaller start-ups or poorly funded researchers to get the funding or access necessary to make advances. Heaney used an IBM quantum computer for her work and wrote that the company and some others work to “include other voices” in the quantum sphere.

One of the aims of Heaney’s art is to tell stories and inspire conversations about emerging tech “before systems become rigid and difficult to change”.

Class, money, tech, art

It is possible to see parallels between the lack of access to quantum research and the lack of access to art as a career.

For Heaney, coming from a working-class background meant that it was very difficult to break into the art world. A UK study from 2018 revealed that just over 18pc of people working in the performing and visual arts were from working-class backgrounds.

Heaney says that although she always knew she wanted to be an artist, she was “heavily discouraged” and this is why she pursued research.

However, she explains: “It was only a matter of time before I retrained as an artist.

“Eventually I saved up enough money, which I should have probably used as a housing deposit, and I went to art school at Central Saint Martins in London.”

The biggest challenges in her artistic career have often related to money, Heaney says, but her passion for her art meant she wouldn’t give up.

“Most of the art world in London is very privileged and comes from wealth. London is also a very expensive city to live and work in – yet I feel it was essential to be here to launch my art career.”

“I have had to be super inventive and persistent to break into the art world and at times this has been incredibly hard. I was driven because I love making art and I knew I had something important to say about what it means to be human in a world threaded with technology.

“I’m lucky to have such good friends (and good therapists) to help me along the way.”

To experience Heaney’s art in person, her work will be showcased as part of a new arts and technology festival being held in Dublin in November.

The Beta festival is organised by The Digital Hub, with support from Science Foundation Ireland, and will focus on technology’s impacts on society. Heaney is one of many artists, performers and researchers who will be taking part in the programme of events.

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic