Private Project

Thomas Struth at CERN

For more than four decades, Thomas Struth, one of the most celebrated artists of his generation, has explored humanity's relationship to nature and technology through his large-format photographs of city streets, jungles, architecture, families, museums, theme parks, contested lands, dead animals, and sites of scientific and industrial endeavor, interrogating both the philosophical and political implications of technological progress and the formal sculptural qualities of research apparatuses. In March of 2019, at the invitation of particle physicist and filmmaker James Beacham, Struth visited CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider and the discovery of the Higgs boson. "Thomas Struth at CERN" is a ruminative, observational chronicle of Struth and his assistants as they navigate the complex, varied landscapes and gargantuan experiments at CERN, physically embedding Struth, one of the world's foremost perceivers, within the intricate terrain of the world's foremost laboratory for exploring the imperceptible at the edges of human knowledge. Struth encounters progressively complicated and severe locations and is ultimately subsumed by the Earth.

  • James Beacham
  • Project Type:
    Documentary, Experimental, Feature
  • Genres:
    Art, Artists, Photography, Science, Photographers, Physics
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 25 minutes 57 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    July 6, 2020
  • Production Budget:
    500 USD
  • Country of Origin:
  • Country of Filming:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Director Biography - James Beacham

Dr. James Beacham [ ] is a particle physicist at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, where he searches for evidence of dark matter, gravitons, quantum black holes, and dark photons as a member of the ATLAS collaboration, one of the teams that discovered the Higgs boson in 2012. In addition to his research, he is a frequent speaker at popular sci/tech/art events around the world, and regularly appears on radio shows, podcasts, and in documentaries. His talk, “How we explore unanswered questions in physics”, was featured on [ ] and has been viewed more than 1.5 million times. Beacham trained as a filmmaker before becoming a physicist and regularly collaborates with artists.

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Director Statement

Thomas Struth and I met at the end of 2017 and quickly realized we had several shared preoccupations. I hadn't intended to shoot a film when I invited him to visit in March of 2019 and make some pictures here at CERN — home of the Large Hadron Collider, the largest experiment in history, where we briefly recreate the conditions of the universe as they were a fraction of a second after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago, to look for evidence of things like dark matter, Higgs bosons, and quantum black holes, to better understand humanity's place in the cold, vast, cosmos — but I spontaneously started filming on my tablet on the first day, and continued throughout the week, as he navigated the technological landscapes here. I was intrigued by the physical embedding of Thomas, one of the world's foremost perceivers, within and around the apparatuses we employ at CERN to investigate the imperceptible.

Our conversations during his visit were wide-ranging, but continually circled back to humanity’s relationship to technology; the costs — social, political, moral — we pay for scientific and technological advancement; the nature of looking; control versus understanding; the existential threat posed by anthropogenic climate change and the challenges of organizing humans around the world to act collectively; multiverse theory; the global rise of fascism; how humanity’s understanding of the basic constituents and rules of the universe has evolved over the centuries; and this unique moment in particle physics, when we seem to be on the cusp of a scientific revolution but we have little idea where this revolution will come from.

That last one is why it was such a unique time for Thomas to visit CERN. The scope of the broader formal and philosophical issues examined by Thomas in some of his pictures is similar to the magnitude of the questions we’re facing in physics. These were the ideas floating around while I was shooting him shooting, him exploring our exploration, inquiring about our scientific inquiry. In my research, I use machines that create conditions where the distinction between matter and energy — between being and doing, between stuff and the ability to make stuff happen — dissolves. I shot with few intentions, except to explore Thomas exploring, examining, seeking something unstated, and to mirror the experience of looking at his pictures in person, to the extent that sometimes Thomas himself is lost within the image. It was often difficult for me to tell where Thomas and his assistants ended and the experimental apparatuses began.

The week that Thomas visited, CERN was abuzz with celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web, developed in a corridor near my office. Later that week a fascist and white supremacist live-streamed his massacre of 51 people — and injury of 49 others — at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. That same day, we descended 100 meters underground into an earth excavation site.

In the end, for me, “Thomas Struth at CERN” — which contains no talking heads, no interviews — is about inquiry, perception, exploration, and the continued impossibility of defining progress in an unambiguous way.