Curated by Gala and Zack Bent- NEPO House: Little Treats - Jan. 2012
Benders - an essay by Gala Bent
"Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world's true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable."
-- Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
Aang: "I'm... AA- AA- AA- AAAHHH-CHOO!!!!!" (Aang flies upwards and slides down the iceberg on landing) I'm Aang.
Sokka (shocked): "You just sneezed, and flew ten feet in the air..."
Aang: "Really? It felt higher than that."
Katara: "You're an Airbender!"
-- From Avatar: The Last Airbender (Book One: Water)
I will not claim to have wrapped my mind around the thought model of Schrödinger's cat, but I do remember sitting in a Greek breakfast diner in Buffalo, New York--all white and blue and chrome, greasy hash browns with crumbled feta, fresh-squeezed orange juice--and having a friend explain it to me for the first time.* Suffice it to say only that it blew my Newtonian-physics-programmed mind, and introduced to me the concept of parallel universes, and to some of the contradictions quantum physicists face. I left the diner under the spell of new knowledge, and walked for days with every action and choice seeming to leave behind it an onionskin peel of varying outcomes, branching into infinite origami spirals. The exquisite pleasure I get from having the rug pulled out from under my concept of reality is alarming. It must be, in some sense, a relief, a revelation that helps explain the madness of the humdrum--the hope that whatever we have nailed down as proper mundanity is underscored and penetrated by another world of possibilities.
Erwin Schrödinger himself declared, "There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks," cautioning against "so naively accepting as valid a 'blurred model' for representing reality." Well, then. It is clear that I am not a hard scientist. Science-wise, I cannot tell the difference between a blurry photo and a photo of fog, and it is probably telling that I am as romanced by the word picture as by the quantum predicament. I am making drawings of a dead cat in a box, and the hairs of that cat are reconvening on the outside of the box as a ghost cat, more perfectly formed, as if the wind has become cat-shaped, sighing out an endless sigh of bereavement. Those hairs are peeling off in a radial curl--each one--and extending in innumerable waves toward the skin of a black hole, which records them and plays them back. An astronaut hears a distinct purr in his headset. What do I know? Only that I am fascinated from my armchair by the arguments about the structure behind all that we know. It grows ever more mysterious, and our perceptions bend in order to make sense of new information.
A while ago, Zack and I were catching Nova's "The Fabric of the Cosmos" on PBS (ol' Schrödinger's cat plays a part), while our kids were obsessed with "Avatar: The Last Airbender," an animated series within which some characters have an ability to control certain elements (fire, water, earth, air), somehow able to work outside of the usual limits of physics. Both shows popularize the Big Ideas with which physicists grapple--Nova by leading adults through step-by-step illustrations, and Avatar by creating a compelling mythology that appeals as much to our imaginations as our pragmatic intellects. And that brings us to this exhibition. We gathered these pieces together for a variety of reasons that all hinge on the perception of space-time, and our tragicomic relationship to the physical matter of the universe. Some pieces are mathematical, while other pieces take a mythological turn. Some giggle at the edge of the abyss, and others glance sidelong at it. Some are busy calculating its redundancies and others are celebrating its flourishes.
*From what I understand, it's an illustration designed to explain the problematic implications that new discoveries in quantum physics were presenting--that of sub-atomic particles behaving contrary to "classical" physics. They behave at one moment like particles, and another like waves, changing qualities according to their measurement. Or, in a sense, they seem to respond to the observation itself. This makes it seem as if a physical system might exist in all its theoretically possible states simultaneously. Schrödinger was unsatisfied by the suggestion, and set up an illustration to show its absurdity: "One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer which shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.