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Wolfgang – the Willingness to Fail at Something Original

This series is about the weird myth surrounding one of the founders of quantum physics, Wolfgang Pauli.

Supposedly when he would enter a room, experiments would fail, and machines would break down. Some scientists would joke about it, but some were superstitious enough to ban Pauli from entering their lab.

It was a bit non-sensical at first to me that some of the greatest minds of their time could also be superstitious, mystical or religious. So I started using the Pauli Effect as a playful metaphor, a scientific ghost story, to explore the ideas of creativity, chaos, belief, cause & effect, in science and beyond.

I used the CERN archive, as a database of accidents and weird events, but also as the source material for digital manipulations. I wanted to create a series where the spectator would be an active participant in deciding what is true and what is false. What is science-fact and what is science-fiction.

The photos selected are just a small percentage of the 120,000 photos of the archive. I classified the photos relevant to my particular project in three categories:

  1. Pauli’s presence
  2. Strange events and experiments
  3. Accidents

Wolfgang is based on the CERN archive. CERN is the research center in Geneva, where the Large Hadron Collider is located. The particle accelerator that helped discover the Higgs-Boson particle.

It’s the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, and they recently released their photo archive spanning from 1960 to 1985. It’s a beautiful collection of 120,000 images documenting daily life, experiments, congresses, random events, etc at CERN.

It’s while going through the archive that I learned about Wolfgang Pauli. Even though he passed away shortly before the archive starts, his presence is still felt throughout the years (his name on a blackboard, his bust being inaugurated, a street named after him, or his portrait hanging on a wall). I liked this idea that Wolfgang Pauli was still haunting the archive after his death, and started imagining that accidents and strange events could also be seen as Pauli’s presence lingering.

I am obsessed by questions involving human knowledge, and how we deal with complex subjects. How our cognitive biases make us vulnerable to misunderstanding data, and how science breakthroughs come in chaotic ways.

I at first did not understand how scientists could be superstitious, religious or mystical. The scientific method is supposed to be so logical and unemotional. But while working on the project, I thought a lot about creativity in science, and how discovering what has never been discovered before requires a degree of imagination that is maybe more natural to a less rational mind. So even if these scientists would apply rigorous method to their work, I now understand better how a predisposition to thinking out of the box can work. Testing wild ideas, believing them enough to spend years researching, and seeing what works out in the end.

Believing in the Pauli Effect seems crazy, but being open to what crazy possibilities is maybe what helped the amazing breakthroughs in quantum physics.

Be it in politics, history, psychology, physics or mathematics, all of our knowledge comes from our own mind and capabilities. It’s a limited machine looking outward into a vastly more complicated network of information.

And everything that fascinates me comes from observing the space between what we know and what we don’t, and the dissonance that arises when we try to bridge that gap.

The process took a whole year, going through the 120,000 images, and selecting those that made sense in the series. Then manipulating images by removing, adding, combining elements.

All the source material is from the CERN archive, there is no part of the image that comes from other sources. But I added or removed certain elements, combined images, or sometimes added some particle effects.

It was very entertaining, as there are so many amazing images in the archive. It’s like a huge black-box, where every photo is a clue, but still remains mysterious.

As I’m appropriating and manipulating existing images, I am not very interested in the process of taking a picture myself. In this series, the act of looking at an image is more important. How the context creates the meaning, and how the manipulation can make you doubt.

The CERN archivists themselves don’t know what’s on most of the photos. That is why they put it at the disposal of the public. So they don’t know, I don’t know, the viewer doesn’t know. But we still grasp for explanations, captions, data, clues, that could illuminate what is going on. I use the Pauli Effect as the vector to read the photos, but of course, it’s a playfully manipulative technique.

I’m an IT engineer and I studied science. Even though I’m a failed scientist, I’m still fascinated by the scientific method and the wonders of discovery.

I am self-taught in art and photography. I started like most amateur photographers in the digital age. Buying a DSLR and snapping random crappy photos. Then went to an amateur photoclub and continued snapping random crappy photos. Then went to a few workshops, and started thinking about art in a more serious way.

It’s through the years, and with a lot of curiosity, that I came to my own obsessions and realized my interest was in the subject and not in the process. Photography as technique isn’t that important to me, but its use as a tool to share information, memories, propaganda, is quite fascinating.

Today my day looks like this: 8 hours sleeping. 7 hours at the day-job office. 3 hours in public transportation. 1 hour eating. 2 hours going out/having fun/watching TV series/…, and 3 hours working on art (sending emails, preparing exhibitions, researching, working on new projects)

The most difficult part of the whole creation process for me is to find the time for it.

My main influences have been Low-budget/High concept science fiction movies. Political & scientific documentaries. Conceptual art in many forms. Extreme music. Internet information overload.

I look for ideas that surprise me. Ways of visualizing subjects I hadn’t thought of before. A clear sense of narrative. A coherence between technique, tone, subject. Willingness to fail at something original, rather than succeed in something obvious.

Buy David’s book ‘Wolfgang‘ 

David Fathi

After completing a Master's degree in Mathematics & Computer Science, David Fathi starts an artistic research in contemporary medias side-by-side with his career in engineering. This double practice can be perceived in his work as an intense passion for science and the limits of knowledge. Through strange, little-known narratives he shines a lig

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