Paul Thomas (Honorary Professor, University of New South Wales Art & Design)

Quantum was a brand-new phenomenon that no one could imagine. Even scientists had heavy debates with each other because it was so innovative. Interestingly, art absorbed this new era in many perspectives. We invite you to where art, quantum, and humanity met in the 20th century. 

‘I seem only to glimpse at the possibilities, then it melts away into the mist until the next journey allows another glimpse.’ 

This essay explores the analogous relationship between classical spin and that of the spin of a quantum bit (qubit). To lay a foundation for art and science too, embrace chaos, revel in uncertainty, and contemplate failure.

In a recent paper on quantum chaos, I observed the following:

Take the metaphor of “spin”, in relation to Qubits for example. Spin in atomic physics does not mean the same thing it commonly means in the world of human proportions. Imagine a ball (electron) that is spinning. But keep in mind that it is not a ball, and it is not spinning. What we have is energy that is a smudge, a smear, a blur in a continuing state of motion (angular momentum).

The powerlessness to describe in language the fundamental properties of an electron and our inability to measure both position and momentum at the same time is predicated on failure. Quantum mechanics, one of the most successful theories of modern science, ironically promotes uncertainty, probability and chance in the classical world.

Quantum mechanics shows us that there is no mutually exclusive relationship between success and failure. We need to acknowledge the absurdity of being where both conditions exist independently of each other. Where failure is preferable to success.

There is a contradiction at play in the very failure of failure to affect our lived experience in a positive way. This failure of failure needs to be seen not in comparison to its supposed nemesis, success. Simply put, failure should be seen as a friend, something that will stay by your side; it’s a constant. The concept of success is an illusion that thrives on assuming failure is at its core. Failure leads to adaptation; adaptation leads to new failures and the ineluctable chaos that is the foundation of curiosity. The process is never one or the other, success or failure, but a constant process of failure and adaptation. Success freezes perpetual motion, kills curiosity, and leads nowhere. Success is terminal. It is the stasis of manufacturing.

Complete failure exists at the very core of contemporary fine art. It is a failure born out of a desire to comprehend the incomprehensible. The failure of each artwork still contains the probability of discovering that glimpse of something, a femtosecond of the sublime, a moment of comprehension, a primordial gift: the joy of life. The artist knows that they cannot capture reality but the beauty in the art comes for the relentless quest to do so.

Contemporary fine art predicated on failure as it attempts to deal with the complexity of reality delves into the absurd world first imagined by the Epicureans (341BCE) and illustrated by Lucretius (94BCE). The understanding of the role of chance in the unpredictable swerve of atoms, referred to by Lucretius as clinamen, was based on deductive reasoning. The concept of the unpredictable swerve was rejected by science in search of certainty, not the ongoing agony of uncertainty.

Uncertainty in the early 20th century led to abstraction in art, the destruction of certainty, and the embrace of change. This was paralleled by the incorporation of the psychological and metaphysical inner world into the narrative of contemporary art. Simultaneously, Heisenberg’s quantum world of uncertainty showed that the human body at a material level coexists with all matter and is equally unmeasurable.

The Surrealists artworks created by Roberto Matta and Wolfgang Paalen exemplify a move towards abstraction in art, a move which Gavin Parkinson suggests is a way of expressing the quantum phenomenon visually.

The context of the new physics is crucial to an understanding of their work and its development, for at a moment of global instability, one which also caused the breakup of the Surrealist group, each aimed to comprehend analogously the profound discontinuity of life itself at its most elemental level, fashioning an imagery that figured the invisible forces motivating all behavior. (Parkinson 2004) 

The invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century offered art the freedom to explore what the appearance of reality might actually be. Lucretius’ clinamen addresses chance. A chance perturbance that allows nature to be born. The chance to create forms that create life. A life that contains patterns to recognise. Artistic freedom leads to patterns of probability and chance encounters with the aesthetics of being. We sense we cannot know, but the search is eternal. This is a reason for being. It does not need truth, only an appearance of truth. The art of seeking is probabilistic, irrational. It does not succumb to the deathly touch of certainty.

To represent an object in the world as an artist is to reveal complexity. The artist needs to maintain a wholeness, not attempt to reduce it to a single, unambiguous signifier but instead reveal an intricacy of context. The failure of measuring the world at the sub-molecular level creates uncertainty at the heart of knowing.

Take the problematic perspectival view of the world which reduces everything to a mathematical point on the horizon. This existence of the abstract point is challenged by the quantum world’s failure to measure. The measurement of the perspectival point by the observer collapses the wave and creates the multiverse, where each mark exists in its own new universe. The perspectival mark collapses all possibilities, creating a reductionist, god-like view of the world for all humanity.

The quantum failure of the perspectival point is challenged, returning it to a wave. The world is collapsed to a point when we observe it. Humanity’s inability to cope with uncertainty never challenges the validity of the mark. The collapse simplifies the world, denying the appearance of thought. When the artist reflects on the mark, the wave is reinstated, its validity returns, the mark as a wave in a sea awash with waves. It is the difference between effect and measurement that must be dealt with.

How does a work of art evade collapsing the world to a single state? It needs to avoid the very act of measurement. In the search for truth, the act of seeing influences what is seen, and vice versa. The gaze stimulates but never collapses what is seen to be a measurable probability of certainty.

In quantum mechanics, art has its perfect partner with which to wallow in failure; it is a flawed system—the system is predicated on failure. The failure becomes the basis on which some of the most successful theories in the world of physics has been developed. Quantum failure is the panacea for contemporary thinking. It enables the absurd and the incongruous to come to the fore. It enables one to steer in the direction of uncertainty, to embrace the context of failure, not as alien anxiety but as a freedom from the pursuit of the illusion of success.

Quantum failure is the beautiful inconsistency of measurement; it problematises truth. It invests in the probability that sways to and from like a funambulist, balancing on a tightrope between worlds.

Consider Hugh Everett’s multiverse. When you make a choice, you create another universe which you are part of. The choice is not based on a single perspectival point of view but an immersion in a holistic reality. One is bracketed, wrapped in your reality, where the bracket contains the reality and you.

This requires an attentive engagement with the circumstances that surround you. At the quantum level it is part of the consciously-induced wave function collapse.

Art is the act of making choices, as this world multiplies through observation the complexity of visualising grows exponentially. When an artist attempts to capture the invisible, they express experientially a vision of a reality, something that surpasses language, a pure sensation for the viewer. A gift, a presence or present before unseen.

Parkinson, G. (2004). "Surrealism and Quantum Mechanics: Dispersal and Fragmentation in Art, Life, and Physics." Science in Context 17(04): 557-577.