Quantum Magic with Libby Heaney

Sabine Himmelbach, Director of HEK and curator of the current exhibition «Libby Heaney: Quantum Soup» and artist Libby Heaney give us insights into the slimey, soupy and fluid world of quantum. Together, they unravel Heaney’s unique visual language, explore the intriguing landscape of quantum mechanics, and reflect on Heaney’s remarkable journey from quantum physicist to artist.

Sabine Himmelsbach: You suggested the title «Quantum Soup» for the exhibition, which I find quite captivating. Could you share the significance of this title and how it aligns with your artistic vision? Additionally, what aspects of quantum worlds and realities are crucial for you to convey through your work?

Libby Heaney: «Quantum Soup» embodies the concept of the primordial soup, that ambiguous matter at the universe’s genesis. It’s this initial essence from which everything emerged. You can see this theme in the show, where the slimy aesthetic permeates throughout, reminiscent of the primordial soup. In English, when you describe something as soupy, it means it’s a bit uncertain as well. It’s this blend of intrigue and uncertainty, much like what audiences might feel when encountering quantum concepts for the first time. What is quantum computing? What does it mean? What potentials and pitfalls are there?

Libby Heaney, slimeQrawl, 2023 «Libby Heaney: Quantum Soup», 2024, HEK, photo: Hannah Schneck

slimeQrawl, 2023, Libby Heaney. Image courtesy of the artist.

SH: I find it intriguing, especially in the German version, where it suggests a vague familiarity with the technology but not a complete understanding. It entices one to delve deeper into the universe you’re opening for us in «Quantum Soup». How does it reflect your artistic practice, and what can audiences anticipate when they visit the show?

LH: First of all, I’m really happy to be working with HEK in Basel because, as one of the world leaders in electronic arts, it’s a great pleasure to have a chance to bring together my works from the last two years with new works in new configurations. Audiences can expect very beautiful, sensuous, immersive installations, virtual reality works, and plenty of slime, which serves both as a symbol of intrigue and discomfort or repulsion. They’ll delve into the invisible workings of quantum technology, gaining insights into quantum computing. However, it’s essential to clarify that I’m not aiming to lecture on the science. My work is not just about science; it’s about what it means to be human in a society where we put people before profit in this new technological future.

SH: That’s a profound aspect of the show—how it seamlessly blends education with sensory experience. It’s not solely about absorbing information but also about embodying and feeling it.

LH: Exactly. The works are quite dream-like; they’re quite magical. They invite viewers to engage somatically with their bodies, to feel them viscerally. It’s so important to me to transcend mere intellectual understanding and instead embrace a sense of knowing that is more embedded with our humanity and sensorial presence in a space. It’s a departure from the notion of being just brains with smartphones. Yet, amidst this sensorial journey, there’s still ample room for learning and discovery.

SH: You’ve worked for eight years as a quantum scientist, and now you’re a professional artist. You’ve mentioned frustration with working as a quantum physicist and your desire to express your creativity with quantum. Why should the audience be interested in quantum as a phenomenon, especially in our current times, where there’s so much hype about this new technology?

LH: I think quantum technology and quantum physics hold a multifaceted allure. On one side, the hype, as you say, is around the future. Quantum computers will be able to decrypt all the currently used encryption technologies; they will be able to simulate and optimise really complex systems that digital computers could never understand. However, beyond its utilitarian applications lies the magic of quantum physics itself, and we can use quantum tools to access this magic. That, for me, is what makes quantum technology different from AI, for example, which works in a binary framework.  It’s a realm where magic seemingly intertwines with science. Quantum technology is non-binary, queer, and shapeshifting. All of this can help us reimagine our future, diverging from the profit-driven capitalist trajectory we’re currently on. Here, art plays a crucial role—not as a mere instrument but as a medium for envisioning alternative futures unconstrained by scientific methodologies.

Exhibition view «Libby Heaney: Quantum Soup», 2024, HEK, photo: Franz Wamhof

SH: I’ve been following your artistic practice over the years, and I’ve been so impressed with how you’ve crafted a fascinating and unique artistic language that draws inspiration from quantum concepts like superposition and entanglement. It’s truly uniquely yours. Could you elaborate on how these quantum phenomena manifest in your work?

LH: I’ve been working with IBM’s public quantum computers and have been writing my own code, which has helped me develop my own aesthetic. I’m exploring phenomena like superposition and entanglement, the former being the ability for a particle to be in multiple contradictory states at once and the latter being a non-local, distributed correlation between particles. With quantum technology, I’ve crafted a visual lexicon of layering, blurring, and glitching reminiscent of quantum processes. These phenomena, inherently microscopic, transcend the macroscopic world, infusing my creations with a sense of otherworldly fluidity and dynamism.

SH: We were super happy to also produce some new works for this show. Two of them are glass objects. How do you perceive this correlation between the two, and how does it manifest in your art?

LH: Glass and quantum exhibit intriguing parallels, especially in their temperature-dependent behaviors. While glass transforms from solid to fluid states with temperature changes, quantum particles, when cooled to extreme temperatures, exhibit wave-like properties. Both undergo a metamorphosis, blurring the boundaries between solidity and fluidity. At room temperature, both are solid or appear to be solid. Yet when they get either hot or very cold, they have this fluid-like property. I just think glass is so magical. There’s an alchemy to glass, like there’s an alchemy to quantum physics as well.

Libby Heaney, Supraphrodite (ii) «Libby Heaney: Quantum Soup», 2024, HEK, photo: Franz Wamhof

slimeQrawl, 2023, «Libby Heaney: Quantum Soup», 2024, HEK, photo: Franz Wamhof

SH: Another material integral to your artistic practice is watercolour, known for its fluidity. How does watercolour influence your VR worlds and video installations?

LH: I started working with watercolour at exactly the same time as I started working with quantum computing in 2019, and the two have gone hand in hand for me. When I paint with watercolour, I like to work on quite a wet surface. When you put colour down onto the wet surface, it starts to spread out like a wave, so it becomes a bit like a quantum particle, molten glass, or slime. Two colours next to each other start to merge, entangle, and interfere with one another. All of these materials are metaphors for the quantum world, which is inaccessible to us; they highlight this fluidity that I’m grappling with throughout this entire show, and even the title quantum soup suggests this fluidity as well. A lot of the textures in the 3D world were painted by hand, scanned, and then put into the work. You’ll see two watercolor paintings in the show, which were part of a process for my VR work, Heartbreak and Magic. Also, even in the VR work, there’s scans of handmade watercolour paintings that have been put in. The butterfly that you’re able to follow is a hand painting by me. The process for a lot of my work comes from watercolour, so now I’m bringing it more into the exhibition space as well.

Exhibition view «Libby Heaney: Quantum Soup», 2024, HEK, photo: Hannah Schneck

Heartbreak and Magic, 2024, Libby Heaney. Image courtesy of the artist.

SH: It’s remarkable how you’ve seamlessly integrated various mediums and approaches to create a cohesive narrative within the exhibition. As a last question, what is coming up next? What are you interested in?

LH: I have several projects in the pipeline, including further explorations with glasswork, focusing on glass snake body parts and flaccid glass tentacles. I’m keen on delving deeper into quantum technologies, like something called quantum teleportation, where you can transport particles, say, from Earth to space. I need to find a collaboration with some scientists for that. But I’m just really fascinated by the quantum phenomena, like entanglement and teleportation, where there’s no macroscopic analogue.

SH: Thank you so much, Libby, for creating this amazing show for us. I’m really happy with how it came together!

LH: Thank you for your insightful questions and for the opportunity to share my vision. I’m thrilled to have you join us on this journey.


«Libby Heaney: Quantum Soup» is on view until May 26th at HEK. More information about the exhibition can be found here.