Q&A with Marshmallow Laser Feast, creators of Distortions in Spacetime

For the 2018 Manchester Science Festival, audio visual pioneers Marshmallow Laser Feast will be creating a giant interactive black hole experience in the historic 1830 Warehouse at the Science and Industry Museum, titled Distortions in Spacetime. We caught up with Barney Steel, from the collective, to find out more.

You have previously done work focusing on animals and rising oceans – what made you choose to look at black holes?

The forefront of science is constantly unearthing the most mind-boggling stories that tickle that sense of wonder about existence. These stories often arise from new technologies that allow us to peer deeper into the world beyond our senses. We can come closer to understanding dragonfly vision by looking through the lens of an infrared camera. We can look back in time 13.2 billion years through the lens of the Hubble telescope or most recently, using the wavelength of light as a measuring stick we can detect gravitational waves rippling through the fabric of spacetime. We normally digest these stories through books, images, films and ultimately piece together an understanding in our imaginations. This project is really all about general relativity, can we create experiences that bring people closer to understanding the forces at play in the cosmos, and there is no place more extreme than a black hole!

Tell us about working with Mat Allen, the astrophysicist and winner of this year’s Josh Award – what did he bring to the process?

Matt has a PhD and we have New Scientist magazine. We normally work with scientists to fact check our scripts and make sure that our thinking is on the buzzer. There are no real shortcuts though, in order to visualise this project, we spent months researching black holes and the phenomena in and around them.

No one has actually been inside a black hole so how did you start to research for this piece?

Interstellar, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine and other great films have visualised time dilation, worm holes, and other spacetime distortions which have no doubt tickled our imaginations. The singularity is a mind melter, a place in the universe where mass is infinite, space is compressed into no space, the pulling force of gravity is stronger than the speed of light, and time is stretched to a stop. Bonkers! One amazing fact that crystallised while making this project is that the big bang only really made the lightest elements; hydrogen and helium. All the other elements, the ingredients for life, were cooked in the thermonuclear hearts of supernovi, the same stars that are responsible for the creation of black holes. There is a beauty in the contrast of life and death, both connected and inseparable, one doesn’t exist without the other and there it is, these black shadows where reality as we know it breaks down, whirlpools of energy left over from the creation process of life in the universe. I realise I went off on a tangent… To answer the questions we use the internet, books and science advisors.

Do you think this experience will change people’s perceptions of their place in the universe?

I think it’s possible to shake the snow globe of human self-importance and resettle in a more humble position. I feel like these experiences celebrate existence and our ability to understand the world around us, whilst positioning us as nothing special, a blip in the vastness of time and space.

How do you create the experience?

We baste ourselves in science juice, this process of absorption often lasts for years in the lead up to the actual project and spawns multiple projects simultaneously. Then we build proposals around our favourite ideas and go looking for funding. As a company we are interested in how new technologies can immerse audiences, ticking the senses and new ways. For this project audiences can interact with a spacetime version of themselves, like a window to an experience they could never really have. We combined this interactive video wall with a 360 degree mirrored infinity setup so people lose themselves in the sensation of drifting through space.

Do you think that more artists should work with scientists?

I think artist should do whatever tickles their fancy, for us it just so happens that our passion for science drives the projects we create.

What do you think is the most amazing scientific event, discovery or advancement of recent years?

The discovery of gravitational waves is a mind bender from so many perspectives! Einstein predicted their existence but it took 100 years to build an instrument sensitive enough to measure them. That instrument ‘The Ligo’ uses the wavelength of light as a measuring stick. It’s like we gained a new sense, for the first time we can read ripples in the fabric of space time and this could allow us to peer back to the earliest moment of the big bang.

If you could meet any scientist, living or dead, who would it be?

Playing the bongos with Richard Feynman would be high on the list but of recent years its Neil deGrasse Tyson. He stepped into the shoes of Carl Sagan with a wheelbarrow of humour and fresh metaphors that really communicate the awe and wonder of the cosmos to the mainstream. I listened to his audio book lecture series ‘My Favourite Universe’ many times during the making of this project and I highly recommend it!