Arie Altena

A Prelude to Dark Matter

A Short Overview of some of the Ideas that Inspired the 2012 Kontraste Festival

Arie Altena

Introduction to the 2012 Kontraste Cahier, published by Sonic Acts Press on occasion of the 2012 Kontraste Festival in Krems, Austria | PDF.


Human beings are probably among the most visually spoiled species on Earth. Our eyes have evolved to see colour, and we have acquired hawk-like visual acuity.[1] Yet our eyes only respond to wavelengths ranging from roughly 390 to 750 nanometers. We can only see ‘visible light’. Similarly, our ears are equipped with membranes that enable us to hear sound waves between – in the most extreme cases – 20Hz and 20,000Hz.

We are naturally blind and deaf to a large part of the electromagnetic spectrum. We cannot directly see infrared or ultraviolet light, nor can we hear ultrasonic and infrasonic frequencies. We are used to this. Led by curiosity and the desire to explore the nature of reality we have become aware of the existence of a larger spectrum of radiation and waves. We have invented all kinds of instruments to detect and translate these, and have discovered that the electromagnetic spectrum ranges from gamma rays to radio waves. These instruments have amplified our senses, enabling us to investigate the phenomena and acquire knowledge of a greater part of electromagnetic reality.

The instruments we use to investigate the nature of reality are now immensely advanced. On 4 July 2012, CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, officially announced that they had – most probably – detected the Higgs boson in the Large Hadron Collider (the largest particle accelerator ever built with a circumference of 27 kilometres, located underground near Geneva). The existence of the Higgs boson was predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics, but had never actually been ‘seen’. At the same time the Planck Space Observatory of the European Space Agency orbits the Earth examining the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation at a high resolution, looking back and listening to the birth of the Universe, 13.7 billion years ago.

There have been enormous advances in the area of cosmology. Not so long ago cosmology was mostly a speculative endeavour; now the empirical evidence is accumulating to underpin cosmological theories about the birth and the nature of the universe. It suggests that we are blind to a stunning 96% of all matter and energy. Never mind that we can only see visible light, even with all our advanced instruments, 96% of the Universe is dark.

We know about the composition of the universe through a combination of observation and calculation. Astronomical data of the rotation of galaxies can only be explained by postulating the existence of dark matter, which gravitationally pulls on the galaxies. Dark matter is hidden from our view. It does not interact with the electromagnetic spectrum, it does not reflect light. The astronomer Vera Rubin mentioned the possible existence of ‘dark matter’ when she published her findings on the rotation of galaxies in 1970. (The term ‘dunkle Materie’ was first used in 1933 by the astronomer Fritz Zwicky to explain similar observations, but his suggestion was never taken seriously.) Since then scientists have attempted to theorise what dark matter might consist of, and have tried to detect it in caves and mines hundreds of metres underground, shielded from cosmic radiation. Unfortunately, without much success.

In the late 1990s, the study of the universe’s expansion by analysing the light from type Ia supernovae (a type of exploding star), by teams led by Saul Perlmutter and by Adam Riess, led to another stunning hypothesis. Their data and calculations indicated that the universe was expanding much faster than previously thought. This fact can be explained by assuming the existence of dark energy. Data about the shape of the universe collected by the WMAP-satellite (The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a NASA Explorer mission launched in 2001) gave credence to this hypothesis.

The analysis of all these data leads to a cosmological standard model of the composition of the universe in which only 4% of it consists of normal baryonic matter – the protons, neutron, electrons which make up the elements of the periodic table. The ‘rest’ is dark matter, more or less 23%, and a whopping 73% should be dark energy.

Not that all scientists unanimously agree on this, however. Some defend an alternative explanation: Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND). This theory posits that gravitational force – one of the fundamental laws of nature – functions differently on large scales than on smaller scales. Until now most evidence favours the dark matter and dark energy theory, and the adherents of MOND are a minority in the scientific world.

We live in a weird reality. We do not know what dark matter is, we know nothing of its properties, and it has not been detected in particle accelerators. Dark energy is even stranger; its presence is also predicted in every theory relating to elementary particles and quantum fields, but the calculations involved produce numbers that are way too large. Alternatively, we have to believe that we have completely misunderstood the fundamental laws of nature. We still have to build instruments that can detect and sense dark matter and dark energy. We are only beginning to explore a universe that consists of stuff other than that detected by human senses and scientific instruments.


Dark matter and dark energy, fascinating in themselves, are a powerful cultural imaginary for the arts, comparable to how relativity theory and quantum mechanics and their radical redefinitions of space-time – very broadly speaking – inspired twentieth-century avant-garde artists to new visions and formal innovations.

Artists are on a similar quest to scientists when they explore the unknown aspects of our world. For instance, they build installations or invent their own instruments that enable visitors to experience phenomena beyond the visible and audible spectrums. Metaphorically speaking one could say that their works present shadows – electric shadows – of such phenomena so as to render the unimaginable imaginable. The shadows are perceived by our senses and processed by our brain in unexpected ways. There are artists who work with radio waves, laser light or infrasonics, and manipulate the signals to amplify our senses, investigate the dark, and perhaps provide a glimpse of cosmological unknowns. Or at least we can imagine it so.

I do not want to imply that all the works presented at the 2012 Kontraste Festival are inspired by cosmology or current astrophysical research, nor that all these works are part of the same quest that science is involved in. Not even all the invited artists work with radiation beyond the range of human perception – but some do. Rather, it is the idea of works of art as instruments that might help us sense the full spectrum of reality, and cosmology with its theories of dark matter and dark energy, which gives a context to Kontraste 2012.

Several works make us see things ‘in the brain’ through a poetic manipulation of light. What we see in these works cannot be reduced to a projected image. Matthew Biederman’s Event Horizon achieves this with red, blue and green colour fields, interspersed with black. Matthijs Munnik’s Lightscape explores the borders of our sensory hardware, using flickering coloured light. While the eye tries to make sense of this sensory overload, detailed patterns and colour combinations form in the retina and are fed to the brain. Ivana Franke seats her audience in front of LEDs that flicker at different speeds to induce a quasi-hallucinatory visual experience of flowing images behind closed eyes. Otolab’s performance Bleeding is based on the phenomena of retinal persistence coupled with an overload of stimuli, resulting in a perceptual ambiguity that cannot be reduced to visual signals. In the audiovisual performance COVEX, Yamila Ríos and Joris Strijbos investigate the relations between electroacoustic sound and diffracted light patterns, Strijbos shoots laser beams through transparent objects to create ‘speckle patterns’ and abstract landscapes of evolving shapes.

There is also a shadow history of experimenters from the eighteenth to the twentieth century who were attempting to understand electromagnetic energy and put it to functional use. Their experiments resulted in the technology we use today, and also spawned ideas about, for example, animal magnetism, electrotherapy, earth energy, and neuroscience. Some of these notions were totally crackpot, others evolved into new scientific approaches. Justin Bennett’s new work Spectral Analysis explores this history.

There are also other ways to seduce, bewitch or augment our senses. The idea behind Makino Takashi’s film The Intimate Stars was to visualise the images of light that are left on the retina when we shut our eyes. In Aberration of Light: Dark Chamber Disclosure Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder use film loops, crystals and manual gestures to bend, reflect and refract the light beam from a film projector to create a hypnotic light sculpture. In his site-specific installation fray Raviv Ganchrow meticulously investigates the acoustics of the roadway tunnel in Durnstein, Austria, unveiling a subtlety of spatial sound that usually escapes us. ~~Kulunka~~ by Yolanda Uriz Elizalde evokes visual and tactile ways to perceive vibrations. She uses inaudible frequencies to generate audible overtones, visible wave patterns and vibrations that can be felt. The Synchronatorchestra manipulates analogue audio and video signals to create noise; in fact there is a freedom to play with the signals, tap into unexpected channels, or stumble into the unknown – one just has to remember that 5 to 10% of the snow of an un-tuned television channel is actually cosmic background radiation.

All these works amplify our senses to hint at the reality beyond human senses. They tap into the ‘life’ of electrical signals, and explore the unknown. Let’s say they are a leap into the void – metaphorically searching for the dark matter and dark energy that eludes our eyes and ears.

1. See Simon Ings, The Eye: A Natural History. London: Bloomsbury, 2007.

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