We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.


Cover: Leaning Out of Windows: An Art and Physics Collaboration

Leaning Out of Windows: An Art and Physics Collaboration

By Randy Lee Cutler and Ingrid Koenig, editors.

Review By Robert Brain

April 9, 2024

This book documents components of a six-year SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) funded collaborative research project undertaken by physicists and artists, the former from TRIUMF, Canada’s particle accelerator centre located at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the latter from Emily Carr University.  The title, “Leaning Out of Windows,” which roughly translates an old German term for interdisciplinarity, “aus dem Fenster lehnen,” signals the creative process in “hybrid research” sought by the collaborators. The aim was not to make artists into scientists, nor vice-versa, but to “lean out of windows into each other’s worlds of practice” in the quest for “new and emergent understanding”.   Six years of collaboration, or more precisely, of experimentation with forms and processes of collaboration, are documented here, showing how artists and scientists learned each other’s languages and the constructs through which each go about their own particular ways of world-making.  The result is a magnificently illustrated feast of artworks, writings, and artifacts brought together in a hybrid book genre that is part exhibition catalogue, part assemblage of texts in critical theory or philosophy, and part accessibly written experimental scientific paper.   Together engaging specific thematic ideas such as anti-matter, emergence, and in/visible forces, the art/science collaborators pursued unique protocols of collaboration, finding that what emerged–artworks in a variety of media, texts and inquiries into the analogies, metaphors, and theories—varied greatly with each theme of engagement.  Both scientists and artists operate in their own sophisticated visual cultures, but they seldom confront one another so directly as in this project: many of the artworks, installations, and artifacts that resulted from this collision have stunning depth and fascination.

Throughout Leaning Out of Windows, artists and scientists reaffirm the importance of place in their work.  For many Canadians, TRIUMF of course represents a crown jewel of national science, while staking out Canada’s position in international networks of cosmopolitan research. But for others, the locality of the TRIUMF site itself becomes an object of inquiry—and ambivalence. Artist Sadira Rodrigues, in her installation and accompanying text, “A Boring Berm of Dirt,” explores a raised barrier of soil that sits between several laboratories on the TRIUMF campus, which functions both as a nondescript bit of landscaping and a critical barricade for mitigating wayward radiation that escapes the adjacent cyclotron. Yet the berm features several massive Western White Pines, an arboreal species that lives up to 1,000 years. These wayward trees bear witness over a very long-time, but still considerably less than the half-life of the wayward radiation.  Against these time-scales of nature, Rodriques poses a critical human time-scale, noting that for the Musqueam people, on whose lands TRIUMF sits, as well as for other indigenous peoples of western North America, pines have served as a vital resource for food, medicine, basketry, and ceremony.  Relatedly, Leaning Out of Windows features many probing inquiries into the respective cosmologies of modern physics and of different indigenous peoples of North America, finding points of conjunction and disjunction.  Mimi Gellman ties the work of TRIUMF to the physicist David Peat’s 2005 Blackfoot Physics: A Journey into the Native American Worldview, which ponders to what extent physicists’ concepts like space, time, causality, force, and matter function like Indigenous symbols that unify, and correlate whole groups of experiences and practices.  Here and throughout this remarkable volume, the Leaning Out of Windows art/science collaborators undertake crucial cultural work in which we all have a significant stake. Most importantly, they demonstrate the qualities that this work requires: respect, wonder, awe, play, and humility.

Publication Information

Randy Lee Cutler and Ingrid Koenig, eds., Leaning Out of Windows: An Art and Physics Collaboration. Vancouver: Occasional Press, 2023; Vancouver: Figure 1 Publishing, 2023. 216pp. $45.00 paper.