Arts grads seek out an ‘accelerated’ summer

Alex Coyle and Shannon Lowe will document Tevatron particle accelerator anniversary in multimedia project, with grant funding from VCUArts.

Alex Coyle and Shannon Lowe.
<br>Photo by Pat Kane, University Public Affairs
Alex Coyle and Shannon Lowe.
Photo by Pat Kane, University Public Affairs

Two recent Department of Photography and Film graduates in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts will capture the past and future of a groundbreaking government particle physics research laboratory in an upcoming documentary project.

Alex Coyle, a photography and creative advertising double major, and Shannon Lowe, a photo major and art history minor, learned about the mothballed Tevatron particle accelerator at Fermilab, the Illinois-based particle physics laboratory, from friend Grace Cummings. Founded in 1967 as the National Accelerator Laboratory, the 6,800-acre Fermilab site employs 1,750 scientists, engineers and staff.

Tevatron, the fourth-longest and second most-powerful particle accelerator in the world, was shut down in 2011. Cummings, a 2016 VCU graduate in physics, previously interned at Fermilab, processing data from global experiments.

“From an artistic side, I’ve always had an interest in science and how to communicate that to a lay audience,” Lowe said. “We locked ourselves in a room in the library and decided we would figure out some kind of project to do.”

Coyle said the timing coincides with events marking the 50th anniversary of Fermilab.

“That’s really crazy that there’s this miles-long tunnel underground. We were interested in tapping into that feeling in an art project,” she said. “We’re planning on approaching it to reflect on the past, what could have been, but also celebrate where they are going moving forward. Obviously, this abandoned particle accelerator is a big part.”

The team travels to Batavia, Illinois, next week for the project. It is a unique storytelling opportunity at the intersection of arts and science.

“From the scientific standpoint everything is so focused on data and information. Since audiences can’t grasp onto that, things generally get translated through visuals and those visuals are usually made by scientists so they are usually very cold and institutional,” Lowe said.

Lowe and Coyle have received grant funding for the project from VCUarts’ Undergraduate Student Research Grants Program, which aims to encourage “curiosity, creativity, risk-taking and scholarly investigation into an interdisciplinary project.”

The proposal was rejected in their first attempt. They credit Jon-Phillip Sheridan, assistant professor of photography and film, and members of the grant committee with helping them refine the idea.

“Struggling to find, in the proposal, a balance between the art and the science was very interesting,” Lowe said. “They are two complicated areas and bridging them is beyond intimidating.”

Coyle agreed.

“It’s been really challenging blending art and science so it’s interesting to both parties but also understandable,” she said.

They hope to create a large-scale exhibit replicating the unique space of the particle accelerator, but are open to what happens at the site.

We can’t know everything going in — the same as an experiment, you don’t know the outcome.

“We can’t know everything going in — the same as an experiment, you don’t know the outcome,” Coyle said. “Our project, it’s got to evolve, too.”

They credit VCUarts with preparing students to pursue funding opportunities.

“Our entire department, they push, almost as soon as you get in, research projects and grants,” Lowe said. “It was just intertwined with our education the entire time, that if you’re going to be an artist you have to look for these grants and know how to handle them.

“I don’t think, going into the art program, I would have imagined how crucial research is to your art practice,” Coyle said. “Which is great, being able to articulate and stand up for your concept.”

Other 2016-17 Grant Awardees

Fundamental Solitude


Capturing the Quadruped in Motion Capture Systems

Forgotten News, Forgotten Names

Vmodern Furniture Design

The Fire Fawn

Edmund the Snail – Stop Motion Animated Short Film


A Sustainable Digital Art Show

The Unghosting of Black America: An Exploration of the Black Experience and Racial Relations through Visual Poetic Drama

Shifting Focus on Identity, Community & Inclusivity “By what means do you understand yourself in the world?”

For more information on current and prior awardees, click here.

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