— Cultural Sources of Newness

What’s in a name? The god particle and intermediaries of artistic interventions

Names matter. The media were abuzz last week with talk of the “God particle.” What is this thing? A closer look reveals that physicists refer to it as the Higgs boson  and they are looking for it because   “There is a nearly complete theory for how the Universe works – all of the particles that make up atoms and molecules and all the matter we see, along with more exotic particles. This is called the Standard Model. However, there is a glaring hole in the theory: it does not explain how it is that all those particles have mass. The Higgs mechanism was proposed in 1964 by six physicists, including the Edinburgh-based theoretician Peter Higgs, as an explanation to fill this hole.” (BBC News Q&A: The Higgs boson, Dec 13,2011)

My physicist friend explained how the Higgs boson came by its much more intriguing name, the god particle. The search for the tiny particle has been underway for over 40 years.  When (in 1993) the Nobel laureate Leon M. Lederman vented what he and his colleagues felt about the search for the elusive “god-damned particle,” the editor cleaned up the language for publication.

I doubt that there would have been such a widespread buzz of interest around the world last week when CERN announced new research results if the scientists had insisted that the media and the lay public refer to their work as the quest for the Higgs boson. The name “god particle” has fascinating associations that have little to do with the actual “god-damned particle” they are looking for.  So the scientific aptness of the  name is questionable to say the least, but its media power is evidently enormous.

The question of names has been occupying my colleagues in the European project Creative Clash recently. They have been searching for a more interesting label than “intermediaries” to communicate the multiplicity of functions that they fulfill in enabling organizations to engage in learning from and with artists in artistic interventions.  Last week at our meeting in Copenhagen, hosted by Artlab, two hours of brainstorming generated many possibilities, although “god-damned” was not among them. Intense discussions then whittled the list down.

The new name should reflect that they play an active role (intermediary sounds too passive to them, so does “bridge”, one of the alternatives that appeared on the list). But the name should not upstage the artists who are actually doing the intervention in the organization (thereby eliminating ideas like “réalisateur d’imagination”). Nor should it be too narrow (e.g., “facilitators” is only one of the roles they play in the process). Intermediaries are not always organizations, so the new name should reflect that as well. Furthermore, the name has to be easy to translate because the phenomenon is international and Creative Clash project team is about to launch a mapping exercise to document the emergence of intermediaries of artistic interventions in Europe and beyond  (that requirement killed the option “enablers”). Last but not least, the name should avoid problematic connotations from other fields (so “broker” was removed from the list).

Adjectives were considered along with nouns. “Creative” was an obvious but unacceptable word because artists do not always associate their work with it. “Provocative”, “disruptive”, “innovative”, “authentic”, “empathetic”, “honest”, “integrative”, “entrepreneurial”, “visionary” “European”, “international”, “responsible” and many more adjectives were all discarded for various reasons.

At the end of the day a term borrowed from the world of the arts, “producer,” was emailed out to the project team members who were not with us in Copenhagen, so that they could give it some thought too. A first informal check with a stakeholder got a very positive response at a chance encounter in the airport, because one of the team members ran into a person  from the representation of Basque government in Brussels, and she used the opportunity to test the “producer” name. It is still under consideration, so watch this space!

You can also follow Creative Clash on facebook.

For an overview of the current state of knowledge about the multiple intermediary functions needed to enable organizations to engage in artistic interventions, and the diverse forms they take, see the report published by the WZB and TILLT Europe (Berthoin Antal, 2011).