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Maria Euler, Yang He Xiang

This collaboration provides the space to explore new models, concepts and vocabularies to develop and analyse art and design practice in dialogue with quantum physics. Our role is to pose questions from multiple perspectives. To be able to “test” (not just simulate) the metaphors and ideas that arise from that against the professional opinion of our counterparts from science, is valuable, meaningful and inspiring. It leads us, in this essay, to compare the experience of an art piece, to the state of superposition and collapse in quantum physics. We look to explore this approach in analysing existing works, as well as in developing new concepts.

Our “partners-in-science” are the theoretical physicist, Sam Pallister, and the experimental physicist, Henry Semenko, from Bristol University. From the first meeting, we already find ourselves situated on a common wavelength. This is perhaps due to our own initial backgrounds in science (physics) and engineering (aeronautical), and due to Sam’s and Henry’s openness for philosophical ideas and interpretations. It might also be due to the extensive use and exchange of sketchbooks and metaphors during our discussions. We discussed the non-cloning and non-deletion theorems, and quantum teleportation in connection with the notion of copy and original in art and design. Sam also provided a light-hearted extensive thought-experiment on splitting strawberries to approach the topic of entanglement.

As designers and artists, we are always searching for the “border” or thresholds that are beyond existing and accepted vocabularies or models. One other interesting topic was the states of superposition and collapse, and how they could be understood in terms of concrete experience. As information experience design students, this particular parallel is also what we want to go more in-depth for the project.

After the trip we kept on thinking about the superposition, which is the “being of multiple things at the same time”, a wave and a particle, here and there, one and 0 and everything inbetween. And the collapse of this odd, seemingly counterintuitive state into what we would call the “normal” state of being one thing. Being one, wave or particle, here or there is a characteristic of classical physics. Being 1 or 0 is the crucial principle of classical computers as we are currently utilising. The quantum computer is different from those because it uses qubits instead of classical bits. Instead of being either 1 or 0, a qubit can represent a 1, 0  or any quantum superposition of these 2 qubit states. This is why they are often visualised using the bloch sphere:

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The quantum computer could be so much faster than the normal computer, not because it just makes all the calculation steps faster than a “classical computer”, but because it makes them “all at once”. All the solutions and possibilities and all the steps are in superposition until the state collapses to become “classical”, “useful” solution(s). In a quantum computer calculation the solution of the problem theoretically comes into being instantaneously all at once, but it has to “printed” as a stream of information, and has to read that way by the human observer too. Thus, it has to be transferred into a chronological method of reading. In reality there are of course physical processes, for example the different gates at work in quantum calculation, which actually “take time to act or happen”. Therefore the instantaneous is not perfect and it is theoretical. Nevertheless, this can be the basis for subsequent thoughts about the meaning of simultaneity and chronology it is very interesting.

The longer we thought about this model the more we realised that such a model is actually very useful to analyse our and other artworks, particular the process of experience as well as the communication of experience.

In our intervention, we drew parallels between the experience of an art piece or a thought complex and the description, communication or statement of the experience or thought. First we used this model to try to analyse the superposition or collapse states of our recent works and established art and design pieces. This use of such vocabulary felt beneficial. Therefore, we are looking to establish a model of the experience (superposition) and the communication (collapse or entanglement) for subsequent approaches and practice of art and design. In the next step we introduced this idea or reuse to our “partners-in-science”:

When initially experiencing “everything is at the same time”, and in order to communicate that experience or the thoughts inspired by it, we have to “collapse” this everything at the same time into something chronological. Of course those experiences at the same time are not fully equal. The outcome of the quantum calculation and the statement we make about our thoughts and experiences are not fully random, but subject to probability and weighting.

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For the quantum computer those probabilities are ruled by the basic rules of quantum physics and influenced by the design of the chip and the programme.

For the human experience, coupled with the underlying rules of the “human condition”, the makeup of the brain, and previous memories and experiences influence the probabilities. Some thoughts and experiences are more prominent therefore. The interesting question for us is in how far this “human condition”, setup of the brain and previous experiences could be understood in parallel to the rules of quantum physics, the design of chips and programmes and if especially the first isn’t in a way on the sideline of everything. We are interested in this exercise and theory to understand how we think and how we can design models to effectively inspire and direct thoughts in a high potential superposition and when to collapse, concretise works.

Therefore we experiment with the scale of superposition and collapse.

A work which opens many lines of thought and can not easily be described or defined is very much on the superposition state and of the spectrum, a work which has a very clear message or statement, is on the Communication collapse end. Yet seeing this scale like this can convey a wrong impression of how we which to use it, as we do not wish to use it to sort and evaluate works, but to do that to understand what makes them sit on different point on this scale, and how we can create works which move along this slide themselves, creating superposition through complexes and collapsing partly into readable, communicable statements. Thus the work of art or design becomes the chip, which is designed based on the learnings about the behavior of the superposition and collapse. The human experience or thinker traverses this work, like the photon the chip.

Drawing parallels between the human experience and thinking and quantum physics and computing raises the question of whether that means that the quantum computer could recreate the human mind. Our position on that is, that we, of course as layman but on basis of our intuition, think that the quantum computer could create maybe “a mind” somewhen, but never recreate “the human mind”. Even if the processes are parallel, the brain is a different hardware from the chip, and the previous experiences of a human being can not be translated into a program or values to be imputed into quantum computer simulations. This point possibly connects to another parallel to quantum computing, namely quantum cryptography and highlights one of the core problems of our quantum art simulation project: datafication.

Like the key of a quantum cryptography process can not be recreated by Eve after she read it, the “thought or experience superposition” can not be recreated after we “eavesdrop” on ourselves to give the information to the computer. In order to get a meaningful simulation, the main question is how can we get meaningful data to use it as a basis for analysis. Therefore the output of the machine does not only depend on its makeup and programmes, but also on the input. And how can we input ephemeral, sublime, and inherently messy processes?

And even further, and in parallel to very basic experiments around superposition, the “initial experience” is retrospectively changed by the statement we collapsed it to. After describing my experience of an art piece to you, it is more as I described it to you to myself then it was before. As with the observer in quantum physics…

And, while the physicist performs experiments to understand the rules of superposition and collapse, of quantum physics to be able to program the quantum computer with we  search to understand the perception of art and design and its effect on the viewer by producing works or models.

Sam reacted to this line of ideas very positive, answering to our art and science Facebook messenger chat:

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“I really like the idea of using superposition as a metaphor for cognitive dissonance / the messy nature of human experience. Setting up superposition states is in principle pretty easy (both in Henry’s experiment and in a simulator), so we shouldn’t have too many problems. I guess you’d want to make the “experience” state as messy and complicated as possible, which might be a bit tricky for Henry’s chip… I can simulate superpositions of lots and lots of things, though”.

This led to the next step in our cooperation. We had already established the value and pleasure in the exchange of thoughts and models, but the next question is how could that be materialised. As a first step, we wanted to try to take up Sam’s offer of “simulation superpositions and lots and lots of things”. We use it as a step before moving on to a more literal materialisation.

Moving on, we decided to try to simulate the experience of an art piece through his theoretical quantum computer simulation. Yet, the very process of this is contradictory in part of what we where thinking, and what we are trying to communicate. To generate the data necessary for a simulation, we have to totally collapse (communicate) the experience (superposition).

The more we think about trying to capture the data that represents our experience of: a digital sound hug, an abstract piece by Barnett Newman called “Who Is Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV” and the changing values in the story of the art forger, Van Meeren, the more we recognised the paradox of the attempt.

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Image references [2], [3], [4].

This paradox is our inability to intuitively understand what data and simulation even means in different contexts. Yet, this did not lead us to abandon the attempt. We rather aim to follow it through in awareness of its paradoxical nature and try to convey such a contradiction through that process, in addition to the connection of this strain with other modes of materialisation of the thought complexes provoked by this cooperation. We are interested in embracing the constraints, and therefore to work around it.


[1] When shoot at one, two or more slits a beam of photons or a stream of electrons displays a wave pattern, as long as it is not “observed” or “measured” through which slit each photon or electron goes.This means it goes to all of them, usages all possibilities at the same time. But if a detector is placed to measure each slit, it is detected goin through only one, and therefore is even retrospectively determined to have always been taking this path, resulting in an particle pattern instead.

[2] Barnett Newman: “Who Is Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV”, we tried to describe and quantify our experience of in connection with background knowledge and the influence of the title to change the picture through simulation accordingly. After putting down all of that we again recognised, that all of it is part of the art piece, but not necessarily visible in the picture. How do you for example “datafy” a title? And why?

[3] One way of gathering “datafication” of the experience of the picture: Recording Electricity level in the brain with an EEG- Headset while looking at it and describing it/ thinking about it. Satisfaction level: lower medium.

[4] Van Meeren was accused of collaboration with the nazis after world war II because he sold valuable original Vermeer paintings to them. Yet he responded to the accusation by revealing those as forgeries produced by himself. read more here This opens a frame for the questioning of evaluation, contextuality and originality. All of those terms are relevant for art, but also for quantum physics.