Collide@CERN: interview with Cassandre Poirier-Simon


What has the largest laboratory of particle physics of the world to do with electronic literature? Quite a lot actually.




The “home” of the web


As is known, it was during the 1980s when the young Londoner Timothy “Tim” John Berners-Lee was looking for a way to organize the huge amount of information produced by the very CERN (European Organisation For Nuclear Research) he started to dedicate himself to program Enquire that would have later on allowed the hypertextual management of contents, fulfilling the intuitions of Vannevar Bush in 1945 (MEMEX) and of Theodor “Ted” Nelson in 1962 (Xanadu).


Furthermore, nine years later, it was still in the hallways of the CERN the Berners-Lee met the Belgian Robert Cailliau with whom he succeeded in perfecting Enquire, by creating the program which will pass to history with the name of World Wide Web, with its “common language” for the interchange of hypertexts between different computers (HTTP) and its markup language for hypertexts (HTML).




Particle physics and the arts are inextricably linked: both are ways to explore our existence, what it is to be human and our place in the universe. The two fields are natural creative partners for innovation, research and development.


That’s what the website of Arts@CERN reads, the multidisciplinary artistic program of the laboratory – run by Mónica Bello since 2015 – which aims to promote the collaboration between artists and scientists under the motto “Great Arts for Great Science“.


Established in 2011, the program is composed of various projects, among which Accelerate – a monthly research award given each year to two artists from different countries and different branches, who have never worked in scientific laboratories – and Collide.




Collide@CERN is the flagship programme of the artistic program of the Genevan laboratory. The prestigious award consists of a fully paid artistic residence lasting three months:


By bringing world-class artists and scientists together in a free exchange of ideas, the COLLIDE award explores elements even more elusive than the Higgs boson: human ingenuity, creativity and imagination. The programme gives artists the time and space to reflect, research and renew their artistic practice and career by encountering the multi-dimensional world of particle physics in carefully curated encounters.


Collide@CERN is articulated in three forms: International Award – a collaboration between CERN and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology); Pro Helvetia Award – reserved for artists from Switzerland – and Geneva Award – opens to digital writers who were born, live or work in the Geneva region, in order to celebrate the important role that this place has had and still has in the arts and science. 



Collide@CERN: the winner of the Digital Writing section


On February 2016 the CERN announced that the winner of the Collide@CERN Geneva Award, in the sector of Digital Writing is French artist Cassandre Poirier-Simon. An independent designer active in Geneva and Paris, Cassandre is specialized in the “building of narrative systems, usually digital, to create curious, innovative and intriguing experiences”.


The artist has kindly accepted to answer our questions: here we report the interview in which she tells us about her artistic iter and about her work at the CERN. Enjoy the read and let us know what you think! #RefreshLiterature!


Collide@CERN: interview with Cassandre Poirier-Simon 



GG: How did you get involved with electronic literature?


CPS: I think that for me, it’s a formal research, a poetical opportunity. I don’t exactly know why, but I began by wanting to invent new reading systems. I’ve always been interested in the ways stories are told. Puppets, comics, theater, games, audio stories, cinema… those are the different artistic forms I was nourished by, each one with different writing/reading systems. Digital creations associate those arts to form other narrative systems. Furthermore, we can see in the arts more and more hybridization and play between all of them. Thus I don’t forget the tangible displays that use also the digital as one of their components.



A digital work that reflects on hypertextual narrative itself, “Compagnon de route” (2013).


GG: How did the competition announcement to participate in the Collide Geneva programme proceed?


CPS: I’m afraid I don’t remember now the exact requirements, except for having to be in the field of ‘digital writing’. We were asked to send a motivational video and a document with the project proposal and a portfolio before the deadline in January.


GG: In your blog Les Chemins you announce that during the three months of your residency at CERN you will work on the creation of an experimental e-book. Could you tell us more about it? How will your work at CERN proceed?


I want to leave the referential system of what we know, that is to say, the paper and draw inspiration from modes of representations of the world suggested by physicists



CPS: Yes, my objective is to make an experimental digital book (more likely an app than an e-book). I’ve said ‘experimental’ because I’m not looking for a digital book’s standard form. I want to find poetry in the digital book’s form that is its ergonomic features, navigation and interaction. Those elements, as closely related that I see them as one, can be a poetic element at the level of the text itself, the dialogue text-image, etc. It is an entire reading experience. So, how to represent a fictional text in the digital space?


To do this, I want to leave the referential system of what we know, that is to say, the paper (books, cut-outs, foldings, pop-ups, etc.) and draw inspiration from modes of representations of the world suggested by physicists. Therefore, I wish to set in place a kind of correspondence between the book’s system and its his content. For example, how to do an ever-expanding book?


At the CERN, I will do some visits in the different research sections, meet several people, try to understand the concepts with what they work with, represent them through the navigation system in the book, and confront those architecture ideas with them.



An example for an experimental digital book, “Graceland” (2013).


GG: How do you view this opportunity given by such an important institution like CERN?


CPS: I am delighted to hold this residency at CERN because it allows me to spend three full months working on a research project, to make enriching encounters with CERN people, all this in an environment that I would have never discovered in any another way. I am also interested in the CERN as a space in itself and I think I will draw inspiration for the book from the places that I will visit there. I will never be able to finish the book in three months, but I will continue later on, because my goal is to have a digital book finalised, an app that can be published in digital stores.


The web is more flexible, technically more advanced than the ePub, especially with regard to interoperability


GG: How is the editorial world changing, in your opinion, with the expansion of electronic publishing?


CPS: There are different editorial worlds depending on the country. In France, for example, it’s not the same actors that play a role in digital publishing and paper publishing. Some paper editors have timidly tried to do partnerships with digital firms, but for the moment it’s a niche. The public knows better the e-books, which usually means the homothetic version of paper books, than what’s happening in native digital writing. Furthermore, only digital teams, which are accustomed to work in a collaborative way and with several medias, are able to propose digital content. There are also a few initiatives from the authors themselves, but not so many from classical publishing houses. In France some digital publishing houses were founded around 2012 and enthusiastically embraced the principles of this new creation field, but for the time being the public has not followed. It’s a really rich field and full of promises, but there are so many technical constrains and a big need to re-think the book’s business model that many people are dissuaded to start down this path.


I see opportunities in the web. The web is more flexible, technically more advanced than the ePub, especially with regard to interoperability. There is also more and more software online, and authors can work easily with it.


GG: How would you explain the works of electronic literature and the phenomena of multi-literacy to those who don’t know this literature genre yet?


CPS: I have to do it all the time, and it’s always complicated! My grandparents ask me every time ‘please Cassandre, explain us in one sentence what you’re doing, so we can tell our friends’. I talk about writing for the digital format, taking into account the medium’s possibility and the inherent vocabulary. It’s thinking of the content, the container and the reader all at once. A kind of puzzle. Everything is possible, but as an author you have to make efficient choices because it can easily become a pointless innovation. There are some standards that a trained reader can understand in order to read the book. Take the example of comics: people who are not accustomed to reading them wonder whether they have to begin by reading the texts or the pictures. After a little experience, you can read them as a whole and don’t think about the ‘how to read it’ anymore.



The structure of one of Cassandre’s digital book.


GG: In your blog you summarize some reflections on style, gaming and interaction. Which aspect of the electronic literature are you more interested in?


CPS: In the electronic literature as in comics, movies and literature in general, I’m interested in the staging. I’m interested in works that I feel are challenging the boundaries of the media language that carry them. It can be done in order to make another meaning above the story, to play with the spectator/reader, to make him having fun or be surprised, etc. I’m also looking for an intelligent setting in digital books, but there are really few works that I feel have succeeded at all levels.



“In the electronic literature I’m interested in the staging.”


GG: In your activity as freelance, as you can read on the website of CERN, you often happen to assist authors who are used to the printed book and want to change to the digital format. Could you tell us the main obstacles that these authors find during this process and what they think about the final result?


CPS: I haven’t often worked with authors because I write most of my stories. I’ve even been an author for a developer who wanted to display a concrete application of the programming language he was developing. The authors who approach me are usually already open to engage with the digital language. I’ve made consulting for a publishing house that wanted to adapt a part of its books in digital. I’ve also been working with Marc Galvin, a scientific journalist, to write the digital book series “La terre de Luna” (Luna’s Earth).



“A digital book is not a mere transposition of a printed book.” “Luna’s Earth” (2012).


However, there is a pedagogical work: I explain them what is possible, what may be not understandable by the reader, what different writing logics they can use and so on. For instance, Marc Galvin had already written the first two books of the series before I began working on the digital version. Hence, I based myself on the logic of those existing books to conceive the architecture of the digital version. For the next volumes, I asked him to follow some writing logics that are based on the app that I’ve created in the meantime.


I can also ask the authors a particular output. For example, for the OLIE project (once “The pillow book), I ask them to think of an audio file for person about to fall asleep. The author will then write and register himself, or do a collaboration with a musician/comedian. He masters all the production chain, which is not the case, for the moment, with a digital artwork.



“I see the future of digital literature out of the actual screens”, “OLIE / The pillow book” (2012).


I also see the future of digital literature out of the actual screens


GG: What projects would you like to make in the future and what are your hopes for the future of electronic literature?


CPS: I hope that the future of digital literature will get rid of the locks imposed by big enterprises. For instance, Apple works only with Apple devices and Apple apps. It’s a self-contained world and this is the same for all other big players. There is little interoperability and therefore freedom to switch from one platform to the other.


I also hope that we’ll be able to find a business model to remunerate the authors and reach the public. I have the impression that more and more software will be released to allow authors, or teams of authors, to make digital books through a simple production line.


I also see the future of digital literature out of the actual screens. With the Internet of Things, this is entirely possible. Among the projects I’m developing, there is, for example, OLIE, a mobile accessory for pillow, in fabrics, that tells audio stories and adapts to a person’s sleep. We go out of the screen!


I would like to construct my own tablet, conceive a less cold/dry design, adapt it to my ways of reading, or propose exhibitions in which each digital book is mounted on a personalized tablet rather than a succession of locked tablets.


GG: What are in your opinion the initiatives to be taken by the institutions in order to solve the problem of the “digital divide” and thus spread knowledge about the critical and creative use of the new technologies?


CPS: There are several institutions, in France, for instance, that are specialized, or have a department specialized in the familiarization of new technologies (community centers, libraries, etc.), and organize in workshops for children and teenagers.


But yes, it’s really really slow, because it’s been 15 years that the information and communication technologies are widespread here. We can also speak about the geographical digital divide, but I don’t know if this kind of technology we have is so necessary, and I prefer technologies people can build themselves, but this is probably another debate.


I think that schools and libraries are the first institutions that should be equipped with those technologies and teach children how they work (which means how to use them, but also how to make use of them). For example, I don’t understand why my sister, who is 13, still has to carry all days a big backpack with two to five books, some in a pitiable state, when other digital solutions exist.


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