By Ryoji Ikeda
Superposition, an audio-visual performance written by Ryoji Ikeda, is not for the faint hearted. We certainly wouldn't ever be tempted to listen to the sound track on its own. But despite its challenging nature, the UK premiere at the Barbican back in March was a wonderful experience which evoked a sense of beauty from chaos, mathematics, and physics, carried across by visual art and music.
The work feels very immersive. You are surrounded by an edgy soundtrack of grating and percussive sounds that alone seem unordered and uncomfortable. But with the addition of the visuals, displayed on a total of twelve screens, two large ones on the stage and ten evenly spaced smaller ones in front of it, the soundscape starts to make sense. Order appears from the noise. And the sound track in turn seems to provide a narrative to the apparently random streams of images.
The piece seems to encapsulate the central endeavour of science: to find meaning, patterns and order in the mass of information the world throws at us. Look at a set of apparently randomly scattered points in 3D space from a different angle, and they begin to line up, making sense as a pattern emerges. Mathematics is the language underlying this endeavour and Ikeda's love for it is apparent throughout the show. Various numerical constants flash across the screens, beautiful scatter plots are reminiscent of the collision data from the LHC, realtime tracking data captures the movement and position of balls rolled across screens on the tabletop. Sound, emotive and disembodied when it first hits your ear, is displayed as wave forms, a process which simultaneously elucidates the workings of nature and strips them of some of their meaning.
There are two human performers who operate more as part of the technology rather than as active participants. In one section they tap out slightly different messages in morse code, creating a stream of monotone notes. But the visuals, particularly the spelling out of the messages on the screen at the back of the stage and the meaning of the texts they were spelling out, seemed to combine with the monotone rhythm to produce something richer and more musical. The way the individual elements combined to create the experience reminded us of a Steve Reich piece, Drumming, where a complex melody is created by the combination of the simpler melodic lines of the individual instruments. superposition really is more than the sum of its parts.
The tapping of morse code also hints at the fragility of meaning. The two performers tap out slightly different messages, permuting words such as "knowledge", "belief", "science" and "religion", showing how light our hold on meaning is and how easily and drastically meaning can change with a slight change in the words we use. The sequence beautifully illustrates a central difficulty with our quest for understanding. To be successful it necessitates abstraction, beautifully captured in the language of mathematics. Yet this bare bones approach leaves gaps we are eager to fill in, leaving science vulnerable to misinterpretation.The tension between science as a morally neutral, yet beautiful, quest for knowledge and a force for evil is also picked up elsewhere in the show, when newspaper headlines reporting scientific results are flashed across the screen.
As the name suggests, superposition is based quantum mechanics, which perhaps throws up the most fundamental limits to our quest for meaning. Looking at the fundamental building blocks of matter, quantum mechanics finds that processes at the tiniest scales are essentially random, uncertain and fuzzy. The relation of the work to quantum mechanics is not always obvious, but there are intriguing examples of places where it is. One involves a piece of text that is displayed on the large screen but with the letters alternately displayed and obscured. It was amazing how strong the urge to understand was. We found ourselves leaning forward, squinting at the screen, trying desperately to piece together the whole text. It reminded us of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle: you can never have all the information you want, capturing information at one point in the text means you miss the information in another.
According to the programme notes for the show, it is an exploration of the question: do art and science mix? We agree that they certainly do. Superposition is an engaging, confronting, intriguing experience that allows us to explore some concepts from maths and quantum physics in a dream like terrain. Ikeda himself has stated: "Mathematics is beauty in its purest form". We couldn't agree more.
If you are in Europe you can see this piece performed France in June 2013.