Libby Heaney bridges the gap between Science and Art. A former Quantum Scientist she is now a full-time artist

We talk to Libby Heaney a PhD educated Quantum scientist who has successfully transitioned into the Artworld. We talk about her work, the quantum related projects she works on as an artist and even which interpretation of Quantum Mechanics she prefers.

Libby Heaney graduated with a doctorate from the University of Leeds and has published more than twenty articles on Quantum Physics.

Now a  time artist, Libby Heaney was a Quantum Researcher before making the transition to Art Full-time.
Now a time artist, Libby Heaney was a Quantum Researcher before making the transition to Art Full-time.

QZ: You did a PhD in Quantum Physics and then became an artist. Was it the science that led you to the more artistic side or was there a latent artist in you that wanted to use the subject of science or was it something else?

As an A Level student, my passion was art, but I was also good at maths/physics. Given that I’m from a working class background, my family and teachers persuaded me to study physics rather than art at university as they said I’d never make money from art (I do make money now so it goes to show they were wrong in the end). Throughout my time as a physicist I was always making art (mostly drawing and painting) and saving money to go back to university to study art.

Also as a researcher in quantum technology, I was concerned about the lack of critical discourses in the area in general. Literally no one developing these technologies would think about their societal, political etc impacts on the world and us. Ethics should be at the heart of any new developments in technology and not something tacked on at the end by others. For me art is therefore a space where I can think more widely about these concerns and playfully propose alternatives.

QZ: Going back in time, what got you inspired by Quantum physics? That eventually led to you completing a PhD in Quantum Physics at the University of Leeds.

I was drawn to quantum physics when I went to study for my Masters project on the Erasmus exchange at the uni in Freiburg Germany. I remember speaking to a professor about decoherence theory, which describes the transition of the quantum world to the classical world we experience. I loved the idea of there existing an underlying reality that was entirely different to our everyday experience. I always wondered if there could ever be a way to experience the quantum world macroscopically…

QZ: You studied physics at a high level for how many years? 7/8 year total? and then moving into art, certainly not for the faint hearted as economists would talk of “sunk cost”. This would seem on the outside a risky challenge making that transition to the art world. Did you reach a final moment or clarity where you knew what was next or was it a more gradual lead into Libby the artist instead of Libby the scientist?

Yes I researched quantum mechanics & computation and quantum biology & some foundations of quantum mechanics for around 8 years. There was never a doubt in my mind that I would transition to art at some point. It was just a matter of raising enough funds to support me through an art MA. I transitioned when I hit 30 as that seemed a good age and I’d saved enough cash by then.

Building Quantum Circuits using Qiskit

QZ: But of course you could likely never have the depth of knowledge in the sciences if you started in art I suspect. If you could run time backwards what would you do differently, if anything?

No, I wouldn’t change anything at all now. Although when I was working as a scientist I would often sneak home from the labs early to make artwork. Back then I would have switched disciplines earlier if I had had the resources. But now I think the breadth of my research (I published around 20 papers) really informs my thinking & process in my art practice generally.  I think if I had started as an artist and then engaged with quantum physics, it would have been very different – as for me to really have an intuition about the quantum world, I have had to spend a long time with the maths.

The depth of knowledge and that intuition for quantum science is undoubtedly an asset. Particularly as there are material realist philosophies by for instance Karen Barad that are informed by a deep understanding of quantum theory, that I can really draw on in my art practice. The way I work with tools in my practice, such as VR, machine learning and more recently IBM’s quantum computers, are all informed by concepts from quantum science as quantum science offers us alternative ways of viewing and being in the world. Quantum theory values the plural, the entangled and the subjective which all resonate with contemporary art.

QZ: The Quantum realm is tough to understand, how can art and your work help open the door to better understanding of the quantum world?

My artwork isn’t about communicating quantum science as such, it’s more subtle than that. It’s a post-disciplinary art practice that includes moving image works, performances and participatory & interactive experiences that span quantum computing, virtual reality, AI and installation.

 Whichever tool I work with, I usually seek to subvert the capitalist appropriation of technology. How humans use technology depends on the system we are living within, which is currently a neoliberal system, in the west. Neoliberalism’s use of tech leads to endless categorizations and control of humans and non-humans alike, in pursuit of neverending profits. This can often cause alienation, prejudice and division as we are seeing online at the moment around fake news, elections etc. In my practice I point this out and then use tools like machine learning and quantum computing against their ‘proper’ use, to undo biases and to forge new expressions of collective identity and belonging with each other and the world. 

I want to question orthodoxies—from received ideas about the body, gender & genius, to pop culture & class, alienation & solidarity, contemporary current political systems & rhetoric, nations & nationalism, science & art, and desire in the digital age—and explore alternatives.

My projects speak to the entanglement of personal & machine agency where the power of the participatory & the collective presents a possible alternative to the hostility of state surveillance, corporate data mining, & the quantum arms race.

I ask the question: what would it look like if art were able to interrupt the pace of technology to pose questions about its ethics? and how can humans and non-humans join together to co-author positive futures? These are really important questions that people should be asking as quantum technology emerges.

This all sounds quite serious, but I often use humour, the absurd and surrealism/dada in my pieces.

Lady Chatterley’s Tinderbot insallation

QZ: I’m going to have to ask! What is your interpretation of QM? And why? Do you touch on these topic in your work? OK, I admit I’m angling to whether you are a “Everttian” or “Many Worlder”….

In science I was a Copenhagenist I literally had to “shut up and calculate” as many junior researchers do in order to publish enough to get your next position. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe there is an interpretation that is still to come, where with new quantum computers they discover longer range entanglements that are usually unobservable with classical measuring apparatus. So I’m saying collapse doesn’t happen as such rather the correlations just average out/become washed out as the complexity of systems increases. The preferred basis is the one we observe because it couldn’t be any other way. Maybe there is an interpretation like this already, but I don’t follow the science that intensely.

QZ: Quantum Computing could be the new technological revolution. I know you have been working on artworks that are actually utilising quantum computing algorithms to build the actual artwork. Tell us more and where we can find the work?

Sure!! Maybe take a look at this artwork I made during lockdown for LUX and Hervisions. LUX and Hervisions programme OUT OF TOUCH sought to understand new vocabularies of touch when all we have is the digital space. Considering how isolation has accelerated our digital vocabulary, what a meaningful language of touch might be beyond the physical.
I really like this piece as it uses Instagram Stories as the medium, like a digital version of a flickpad animation. Here’s the blurb for it: touch is response-ability, tuuch os rispunsabilitreaeaeaea is a site-specific interactive animation, where the participants’ touch controls the movement of the frames. Using Instagram stories as a medium, the work existed as two durational performances that invited viewers to activate the animation through the action of touch. Each performance lasted for 24 hours on LUX Instagram.

The first and last stills in each performance were created by Heaney based on extensive research into representations of the body in computer vision and artificial intelligence and parallels in art history, highlighting the biases in which bodies are seen and neglected in both. The subsequent frames in the animation were generated by passing the initial frame through a quantum computer, which through entangled pixels, the quantum computer fragments and inverts the image.

In every frame the body from the initial image always exists but the quantum computer enables us to see it from alternative, multiple perspectives – boundary-less and form-less. The stills are watched with a computer vision algorithm – Open-Pose – which loses track of the body as it is released from its encoded shackles.
QZ: You worked with IBM on one project, can you give the readers an overview of the piece?

I’m always working with IBM’s devices but haven’t actually worked with IBM officially. I’m probably too critical of the technology for that!! I studied for my PhD with James Wootton who now works for IM and he sometimes offers me advice, so perhaps that is what you’re referring too.

QZ: What was the greatest challenge for you in going from science to the art world?

The different languages. Artists speak in terms of ideas, generalities and from a subjective position. Scientists do the opposite.

QZ: What is next for you at the intersection of Art and Quantum?

I’m working on a solo exhibition that will be in Berlin next year with gallery Light Art Space. I can’t say too much right now, but it will include a physical installation and an interactive 360 projection.

QZ: You have exhibited in many world famous galleries, such as the Tate and V&A, if readers during lock down cannot easily get to these galleries to see your work, is there a place where can we point them?

There’s lots of art online now. Art Monthly compile a very good calendar of digital art.

QZ: You swapped the science bench for the metaphorical easel and now teach at the RCA (Royal College of Art), where you are member of the Systems Research Group. Can you explain what that means and what you work on?

I left the RCA in January to focus fully on my practice as it’s really difficult to do both in the UK at the moment, sadly.  I set up and led the Systems Research Group in 2016 to think about projects at the intersection of quantum science and art with students in the school of communication. I ran two projects, one thinking of the Bloch Sphere model of a qubit from quantum science as a tool for moving away from binaries. The other was a collaboration between the Quantum Photonics Group at the University of Bristol and the V&A to explore early quantum artwork with their photonic chips (4 qubits). There’s more info about that project here in a blog post I wrote.

I stopped running the Systems Research Group when the RCA changed to a more rigid credit framework as these long multi-term projects didn’t fit into the framework.

QZ: What did you work on in the Quantum Space? What did you do for the doctorate? Were there some useful skills you learnt in that process that you applied to your current role?

For my doctorate, I worked on a type of quantum entanglement called mode entanglement in ultra-cold atomic gases called Bose Einstein condensates.

QZ: When do you think we’ll have something useful we can compute with Quantum Computers? Right now, we have seen quantum supremacy but the computation was not very useful.

I think people should stop talking about quantum supremacy as the word supremacy has colonial connotations. I noticed researchers at IBM are now using the expression quantum advantage which is a better description. Also it’s important to ask who quantum computers will be useful for when they are fully developed. Perhaps they will be useful one for large tech companies like Google, IBM and governments, but individuals will not interact with them in general. They may however experience quantum computing’s positive/negative effects as they are used to accelerate existing machine learning capabilities of data collection and categorization.

QZ: What technologies do you think offer the greatest promise in terms of building practical quantum computers?

Well it has to be superconducting qubits considering Google’s and IBMs advances.

QZ: How is the Art World? Is it difficult for someone who has not gone through, perhaps the traditional route?

Because I went to art school, I have kind of gone via a traditional route but I was slightly older than most students and with a background in science. The Art World is very different to the Physics World, in the art world there are critical discussions around what we are doing. In physics and tech researchers almost blindly put their faith in ‘progress’ without questioning the wider repercussions. I know I did this as a scientist for the large part. In art there tends to be many more womxn, for instance during my post-doc in Oxford (3 years) I was the only female in the theoretical quantum info/cold atoms groups. In physics this often led to exaggerated behaviour particularly as the number of men in group discussions increased. While the artworld is not perfect, I think the physics world could definitely learn from its discussions around inclusivity, the notion of equal voices and criticality.

A very big thank you to Libby for agreeing to the interview!

Libby Heaney exploring Art and Entanglement