Libby Heaney’s quantum-powered take on a Hieronymus Bosch masterpiece

Plenty of artists explore science – its methods and mysteries, precision, occasional poetry, darkest prognoses. Few, if any, are as qualified for that entanglement as Libby Heaney. The author of papers with titles such as ‘Spatial entanglement from off-diagonal long-range order in a Bose-Einstein condensate’, Heaney has a degree in physics, a PhD in Quantum Information Science, and held post-doc positions at the University of Oxford and the National University of Singapore.

Heaney, though, began to question how little the power, potential and application of quantum mechanics, particularly in quantum computing, was being examined in a wider context – social, political or ethical. Looking for new ways to both leverage and question quantum computing’s super-charge, she completed an MA in Art and Science at Central Saint Martins. Today, her work interrogates the intersections of quantum mechanics and physics, at once mind-bending and multipurpose; technology, especially AI; and representation, identity and bias, cultural and coded.

Heaney’s Elvis, 2019, is a twin-screen AI-driven deepfake that puts her head where the King’s should be and vice versa, while Lady Chatterley’s Tinderbot, 2016-17, sees an AI-version of DH Lawrence’s lusty aristocrat navigate digital dating. Her latest and most ambitious work to date is Ent-, which opened at the Schering Stiftung in Berlin in February, before moving on to the Arebyte gallery in London in May. Commissioned by Light Art Space, a German foundation set on exploring the relationship between art, science and technology, Ent- is an immersive installation that employs quantum computing, AI and
gaming technology to reimagine the phantasmagoric central panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Heaney’s 360-degree projections are designed, in part, to showcase the creative potential of quantum computing while also warning of its seductive appeal, its power to do bad or simply speed up search suggestions. Yet Heaney’s interest in quantum computing isn’t about speed, it’s in its potential to generate the weird, to break free from the binary and conjure up new forms, establish new connections, imagine the unimagined.

Few artists open a portal into the weird like Bosch. The Garden of Earthly Delights’ central image is famously full of naked frolicking, sensuous contortions, giant birds and fruits, unicorns and anal flower arrangements. It’s a psychedelic garden party of your dreams/nightmares and art critics have long argued over whether the panel represents a tempting prelapsarian Eden or the lapse in full swing. It’s heady material.

‘The challenge was: “how can I create an experience that is weird enough to show the potential of quantum, but not so weird that the audience feel sick or like they have been attacked?”’ Heaney says. Essentially, Heaney started with her own watercolours of Bosch’s strange landscape, architecture and animals, and then scanned and regenerated them with quantum computing-based AI. ‘You get a kind of scattering and the images then reform. It sloshes the image around, like water sloshing around a tank,’ Heaney says. The viewer finds themselves in a Boschian universe that dissolves and takes new shape around them.

For Heaney, Bosch’s imagery also addresses the idea of technology as a new faith system, its own beguiling, terrifying garden of delights. ‘People defer to these technologies as if they hold the answer,’ she says. ‘I wanted to position quantum computing and quantum machine learning as a new religion.’ But just as there is no fixed interpretation of Bosch’s image – it might be joyful play or nihilistic soul-destroying decadence, heaven on Earth or a good way to hell – Heaney wants to suggest different possible futures for quantum computing, one liberating and mind-opening, plural and diverse, and another of digital surveillance, of AI-determined loan applications and prison sentences, of maddening distraction and an attention economy in overdrive.

Quantum mechanics is itself a way of understanding the universe, of course, a conviction that complex mathematics describes physical reality or new models of the universe that are as fantastic as Bosch’s imaginings. Before making the shift into art, Heaney’s speciality was ‘entanglement’ – one of the two confounding premises of quantum physics. Put properly, entanglement is when two or more ‘delocalised’ particles – and they can be very far apart indeed – are ‘connected’. Einstein rather poetically called it ‘spooky action at a distance’.

Quantum mechanics’ other brain-buster is ‘superposition’ which, as Heaney puts it, is the ability of an electron to be in multiple states at the same time. In principle, it is nothing radical: ripples in a pond can come together in superpositions, guitar strings vibrate and create interwoven wave forms and assume superpositions. But for an electron, an elemental particle, to do that opens cans of cosmic worms. It is also, though, the key to quantum computing.

In traditional ‘classical’ computing, a ‘bit’ is either 1 or 0. Quantum computing uses quantum bits (also known as qubits), which can be different combinations of 0 or 1 at the same time, which means they can attack problems in parallel rather than sequentially. This supercharged performance has huge implications in areas such as AI.

Heaney has cleverly ‘gamed’ Ent- with AI, making it interactive. She is determined that the installation is immersive, fully felt and experienced, rather than Instagram fuel, and has put in smart measures to stifle smartphone filming. Ent- can detect when it is being filmed and ‘collapse’ the projection. This is also an allusion to one of the most puzzling aspects of quantum mechanics: electrons behave like waves, assuming a quantum superposition, until you try to measure that wave and it ‘collapses’. The electron then behaves like a less interesting fixed-state particle (the basis of the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment).

Ent- then gets at the way quantum mechanics unfixes us from assumed realities, suggests strange relationships and qualities, at a subatomic level and beyond, but also how much remains mysterious for now. Quantum computers are emergent and expensive technology, largely in the hands of tech giants such as Google and IBM. But there are ways to simulate what quantum computers can do, and play with possibilities. And Heaney is encouraging quantum creative play that gets at these strange but fundamental truths. ‘There are connections between facets of reality that we could never even have dreamt of,’ says Heaney. ‘I’m sure they will shift how people see and understand the world and our place in it.’