Tilen Sepič and Luka Frelih at PIFcamp 2020: “Less googling and more talking”

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At this year’s PIFcamp, Ljubljana-based artist Tilen Sepič is working side-by-side with artist Luka Frelih, also a programmer and head of Ljudmila, Art and Science Laboratory. Makery caught the duo under the tent as they developed “Cosmic Rain”, Sepič’s new light and audio installation.

Once again (for the 6th time already!) PIFcamp gathered makers, hackers, tech freaks, and nature-lovers in a semi-remote location of the Upper Soča Valley. This year, the Covid-safe edition with about 35 participants remained in a pocket format on site, but was big online, with several live-streamed presentations and workshops. Hiking, however, remains in the domain of real presence. The popular hacker and maker summer camp also took place offline!

The kick-off to this edition, according the camp’s main organizer Tina Dolinšek from Projekt Atol Institute, resembled a family gathering. The old faces of PIFcamp mixed with the few new ones. The pristine Soča Valley welcomed participants from neighboring countries (Austria, Czech Republic, Germany) as well as global followers online.

Cosmic Rain, produced by Ljudmila, with support from konS – Platform for Contemporary Investigative Art, is Tilen Sepič’s latest project that focuses on invisible yet omnipresent particles: muons.

Marko Peljhan’s Makrolab tent at PIFcamp. © Matjaž Rušt

Makery: How did you first become interested in cosmic rays?

Tilen Sepič: I was inspired by the fact that muons can break through every material. By observing this occurrence, one starts to question the division between hard and other matter. According to some interpretations, muons might also affect one’s well-being, and their number is increasing lately. But this is not yet a proven fact. The interest also came from the occurrences that are usually invisible to people. With this installation, we are able to visualize (or materialize) the invisible physical occurrence that is constantly surrounding us, with the help of some other media that we can perceive with our senses. Secondly, I was interested in nature’s rhythm, in nature’s random generator. The installation does not originate the way a music conductor would approach the matter, but here I lay my trust in the third element, the natural element. The installation will have a web-like metal structure that connects the detectors. With its tensioned strings, it will enable electroacoustic presentation. It will premiere this autumn, with the first presentation already this August at Is it working? festival in Ljubljana.

You are both long-time collaborators, working together on many occasions. How did this project start?

Luka Frelih: Tilen came with this idea. He already found this muon detector. At last year’s PIFcamp we did the first proof-of-concept. We assembled the first detector and we’re happy that it worked! (laughs)

Tilen Sepič: Luka showed interest in this project and has an academic background in physics.

Luka Frelih: Later, I modified the source code, then we used a big vibration engine that we buried in the soil. The muon particles were triggering ground vibrations. This year, we are making even more muon detectors that we built and soldered with Staš Vrenko.

Muon detectors built at PIFcamp. © Katja Goljat
Cosmic Rain, a sketch of the installation. © Tilen Sepič

In your work, you use open-source and free technology, such as MIT’s muon detector. How does it fit in to Cosmic Rain?

Tilen Sepič: This tool enabled the accessibility of this technology—the sensors could be made with low costs. Tools are modular and data is accessible, so we can gather information about the density and strength of the muons. Other approaches to muon detection are more expensive and are more difficult to handle, so it’s harder to integrate them. In fact, this equipment does not exist as proprietary, nor is it available on the market for the general public.

Luka Frelih: Indeed. Muon detectors are mostly developed by physicists for their projects. This is also the case here. From the very beginning, the MIT project gathered physicists from the U.S. and Poland, and they shared it on GitHub. This makes it accessible to others as well, so we can get an insight into muon showers that fall on us. On average, one muon per square centimeter per minute reaches the ground. This year we also visited Ljubljana’s Jožef Stefan Institute and its physics department, where they worked with visualizations of muons, based on the spark chamber principle and the aforementioned muon detector. This will help us with the detection of muons and the visualization, as Tilen mentioned.

“What are Cosmic Rays? Muon Detector by MIT’s Cosmic Watch:

Tilen, most of your previous work involved light. Is this the first time you are working with invisible matter?

Tilen Sepič: The invisible matter functions here as an input. As in some of my previous projects, the installation will also include light and sound. However, previously my work was triggered through the generative approach and not so much via third-parties.

What are you working on this year at PIFcamp?

Luka Frelih: At this year’s PIFcamp I programmed new code for the installation, which triggers LED lights and a solenoid in unison. Tilen came up with the design for this, how it would look like in real life.

Tilen Sepič: Yes. Firstly, after many experiments, I envisioned the installation as a light installation only. But after applying a more kinetic approach, I found it to be more persuasive. I realized it was very important to use a more physical approach in visualizing invisible occurrences. This way the sound becomes generated and is not pre-recorded. All this adds more substance to the installation.

What kind of environment does PIFcamp provide for your research?

Tilen Sepič: PIFcamp is inspiring because here there are clear skies and there’s less pollution in the air (laughs). It’s great also because I can work with Luka on a daily basis. We have less distractions and more nature here than in daily life, so it is less stressful to work.

Luka Frelih: We are not setting meetings here, as is usually the case in productions. Here, we have more time, more tools and an encouraging environment that allows you to experiment.

Tilen Sepič: There are many experts here at one location, from many disciplines. There’s less obstacles.

Luka Frelih: There’s less googling and more talking to people here! (laughs)

Tilen Sepič: At PIFcamp one doesn’t find more tools, but there’s more intellectual mass at one place. We would definitely like to come back next year.

PIFcamp is organized by Projekt Atol and Ljudmila, in cooperation with Kersnikova Institute. PIFcamp is part of the Feral Labs Network, co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union.