The prospect of travel into (but definitely not out of) black holes may be uncommon subject matter for artist commissions, but it makes sense in the world of Janna Levin. The author of a new book that counts as her second focused on black holes, Levin is also a professor of physics and astronomy at Columbia University as well as the founding director of the science studios at Pioneer Works, an interdisciplinary arts space in Brooklyn. It was there that she first worked closely with Lia Halloran, an artist whose painterly visions add levity and weight to a beguiling little volume titled Black Hole Survival Guide.
The book takes the form of essayistic musings made in collaboration between a scientist with artistic inclinations and an artist for whom science is neither daunting nor dull. Levin writes authoritatively and evocatively with a warm, poetic voice in what she herself described as “a super-lean, freaky, kind of trippy book about the absolute essentials of black holes.” And the 23 paintings that Halloran made to be interspersed among its pages add to the imagination-stirring allure.
The two first met at a party in California for Stephen Hawking. Levin had written about the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Kip Thorne in her 2016 book Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, and the Los Angeles–based Halloran—an associate professor of art at Chapman University whose work is represented by Luis De Jesus Los Angeles—had been working with Thorne on a decade-in-the-making mix of writing and art about what she called “the warped side of the universe” (to be published next year by W. W. Norton & Company).
After hitting it off and maintaining a relationship for years—including during a 2016 artist residency for Halloran at Pioneer Works—they met again in New York and the idea for the book collaboration was born. “I knew it needed something,” Levin said of her manuscript at the time, “and it just kicked me in the face. I loved the concept of Lia as one of the astronauts exploring a black hole, and this is her notebook. It has this loose quality of messages from exploration.”
To make her paintings, Halloran took inspiration from the process of cliché verre, a technique popular among French artists in the 19th century for making prints by painting on glass and using that painting as a tool in a photographic darkroom. “Basically, I make a painting and then use it as if it’s a photographic negative to make a positive,” Halloran said of designs she first paints on translucent drafting film more commonly used by architects to make layover drawings. “The painting is pressed on top of black-and-white photo paper, and it prints in positive. So anything that I paint as dark becomes white, and anything that’s left as negative space becomes black. The whole book was painted in reverse, and it’s a painting and a photo—but there’s no camera. I like that the it would go through a kind of transformation, and the images have this nostalgia for old field-guide notes but also newness by presenting them in inverse.”
The ethereal-looking results suit subject matter that Levin writes about with a sense of mystery and matter-of-factness. “Your ruination inside a black hole the mass of the Sun typically takes less than microseconds,” she writes while imagining what would happen should wayward travels take you too near (and making wry use of “typically”).
Further on, Levin puts a finer point on it: “In a microsecond, less time than it would take to blink your eye, you are simultaneously flayed, shredded, and pulverized to death. Your organic matter is pummeled, tattered, and inevitably shattered into elementary constituents. Ultimately, your fundamental bits spray toward the cut in spacetime and cease to be.”
There are lighter parts too, and the surreality at play in the mix of the writing and the art gives Black Hole Survival Guide an idiosyncratic spirit suggestive of Pioneer Works, where Levin and Halloran first worked together in an environment that (as a mission statement describes) “encourages radical thinking across disciplines by providing practitioners a space to work, tools to create, and a platform to exchange ideas that are free and open to all.”
As fondly remembered in a recent video interview conducted while both were far apart in their distant cities, Levin and Halloran struck up a creative balance between them. “Lia’s experience in the residency was physically in the science studios, so she’d be working while I was working on science,” Levin recalled. “The actual decision to do a specific project only happened when it was right, but it was marinating for all that time.”
Halloran said she took away much to ponder during her stint there. “Pioneer Works is such a vibrant place, and it’s not so linear,” the artist said. “I’ve done residencies where there was a specific thing that you were going to accomplish. Pioneer Works is not really like that—it operates more like a think tank. You just go, soak things up, and take away a lot that grows and blossoms afterwards. And, of course, it’s very interdisciplinary. What is it like [to think of painting] while Janna is lying on the couch and jumping up and writing all over her chalkboard, doing equations? There’s always a dialogue when you’re next to one another, just being around.”