THE QUINTESSENCE

PAMELA BREDA

Plate B20678, Small Magellanic Cloud. Photograph taken on Oct 28 1897 in Arequipa, Peru. Credits: Harvard College Observatory, Photographic Glass Plate Collection.

Locations

Harvard University / Smithsonian Institution (USA), Paris Observatorie (F – in progress), Pic du Midi (F), Galileo  Telescope (La Palma, E), Boulby Underground Laboratories (UK), Effelsberg 100-m Radio Telescope (D – in progress); Pratt Institute (USA), La Box Residency (F), Boghossian Foundation – Villa Empain (BE), Kingston University (UK).

Duration for proposed project

Late 2019 – early 2020, with the possibility of producing multiple exhibitions, screenings, talks and lectures both throughout and beyond this timeframe.

Mapping of Mars Surface. Image taken by Viking 1 Orbiter. Credits: NASA/JPL/USGS

Project Overview

My work utilizes moving images, photographs and installations and explores visual imaginaries and archives, stressing the links between pictures, their narrative potential and their contexts of production and reception. Following these interests, The Quintessence will investigate the visual imaginary of astrophysics and space exploration and accompanying narratives through the production of an experimental documentary film, a series of photographs and an artist’s book.

 

Looking at the skies is a tradition that goes back to millennia, stressing the human desire to explore the space surrounding our planet. The representation of the universe has always shaped our cultural, social and even political history. Nowadays, visual observations of the sky have become the key referents for the formulation of theories about the physical, material dynamics of outer space. But what do they tell us about our human desire to discover the mysteries of the universe? Can artistic practice share light on the aesthetic and conceptual features embedded in contemporary images of outer space?

This research will look “behind the scenes” of present-day astrophysics to discover how images of space are actually produced and how scientists are interpreting data embedded in these images in order to generate narratives about the universe.

The project will try to answer questions such as: How do contemporary images from space tell a story? What is the role of visual data in the formulation of scientific theories about outer space? What is the role played by human nature and cultural background in the formulation of these theories? How much is our knowledge of space shaped by technological apparatus?

The research will be conducted through a highly interdisciplinary methodology. I will take inspiration from Sarah Pink’s “Doing Sensory Ethnography”, since I will develop practice-based artistic research that combines visual-audio methods of documentation with an active collaboration with scientists and engineers. Additionally, the project situates itself along the line of “A Manifesto for Performative Research” by Bradley C. Haseman. This manifesto suggests that the distinctive research strategies, interpretative methods and outcomes arising out of the creative arts point towards a new research paradigm.  In applying a performative research approach, I seek to create a literal and metaphorical reference to the scientific topic I am exploring. Just as scientists are trying to make new discoveries about the universe, I’m trying to discover something new about the world of astrophysics and space exploration through my artistic practice.

During the project’s initial phase (2018-2019) I visited several scientific research centers, among the others: Jodrell Bank Observatory, (UK), Edinburgh Royal Observatory (UK), Turin Observatory (IT), the European Union JRC Facilities (IT), Paris Observatoire (F), Wien Observatory (AU), as well as Astronomy Faculties in a number of universities including Oxford, UCL, Imperial College, Columbia and Harvard University.

During the project’s second phase, I plan to bring the research further and to visit four research centers located in Europe and the USA, in particular Harvard/Smithsonian Observatory (USA) which hosts the largest collection of astrophotographic plates in the world, Boulby Underground Laboratory (UK), site of advanced experiments on dark matter and recreations of Mars environments, the Pic du Midi Observatory (F), and Galileo Telescope (La Palma, E), respectively the highest-located observatory in Europe and the one hosting the biggest observational dome on the continent.

These are spaces usually not accessible to the general public and in the vast majority of cases never documented on video. My camera’s lenses will present them for the first time to the viewers. In each of these centers I will produce a detailed video and photographic documentation of the laboratory life and of tools and machines used to observe the universe. Videos and photographs will generate a physical, tangible relationship with these spaces.

Prior to my visit I will identify selected astrophysicists and cosmologists in order to explore together how cultural background, individual knowledge, biases and errors might come into play in the interpretation of data gathered from space.

The film (provisional duration 50-60 minutes) will situate itself in the tradition of the sensory ethnographic film of authors such as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Trinh T Minh Ha. I will also take inspiration from experimental video artists Fiona Crisp, Semiconductor, Rosa Barba and Emie Siegel. The photographs—inspired by the documentary practice of authors Wolfgang Tillmans and Alec Soth—will accompany the film as a documentation of the life inside the scientific labs.

The artist’s book will spread the research’s findings and will also stand as a catalogue accompanying both the film and the photographic series.

The project aims to move beyond the traditional understanding of scientific knowledge about space as an established, fixed domain of well-defined statements. On the contrary, my artistic practice will explore how the visual imaginary of astrophysics and space exploration can be approached as a fascinating, constantly evolving storytelling.

The film, photographs and artist’s book will stress how contemporary scientific research about the universe is a highly complex process that involves a number of interconnected factors. Finally, they will bring forward my proposition that images of space can be approached as narratives speaking about our role of observers into the gigantic distances of interstellar space.

Paris Observatory, Meudon, Detail of telescope. Credits: Pamela Breda 2019

Research: theoretical frames of reference

The research will be framed in relation to a series of theoretical references exploring from different points of view the visual imaginary of the universe and the ethical and philosophical implications of the act of looking at the sky.

I will consider a series of visual cultural studies, in particular Elizabeth Kessler’s Hubble telescope images and the astronomical sublime, for her analysis of the contemporary aesthetics of outer space’s photographs; Karen Barad’s “Meeting the Universe Halfway” and Joanna Zylinska’s “Nonhuman Photography”, for their exploration of the aesthetics and content-related features embedded within contemporary scientific images.

For the development of the dialogues with scientists I will consider Isobel Anderson ‘s essay “Voice, Narrative, Place: Listening to Stories” focusing on how the double combination of sound and oral storytelling establishes a deep connection between the invisibility of the topic spoken about with the imaginative capabilities of the mind.

Other textual references include Sibylle Anderl’s “Astronomy and Astrophysics in the Philosophy of Science”, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s “Objectivity” and Paul Feyerabend’s “Against Method”. These texts explore from different perspectives how human nature and cultural background can influence scientific research, taking into consideration topics such as falsifiability, accuracy, error and bias. I will also consider Hans-Jorg Rheinberger’s “Toward a History of Epistemic Things” for his exploration of the experimental research practices of the natural sciences.

Paris Observatory, Meudon, Detail of electric cables. Credits: Pamela Breda 2019

Original contribution to knowledge

This research seeks to increase understanding of how artworks can illuminate and give insights to the multifaceted world of astrophysics and space exploration.

Through the combination of a visual ethnographic approach and artistic practice-as-research methodology, the different artworks will suggest how the act of looking at the sky is always strongly mediated by a number of factors involving human agency, technical apparatus and cultural frames of reference.

They will propose that as humans we are driven by the desire to discover the mysteries of the universe extending beyond Earth, and in so doing we are also shaping the image of that universe.

SELECTED REFERENCES

Trish Adams, “Exploring Mixed Realities and Scientific Visualisations” in Art/Science Collaborations in The Scientific Imaginary in Visual Culture, edited by Anneke Smelik, V & R unipress, Goettingen, Germany, 2010, pp. 161-178.

Sibylle Anderl, “Astronomy and Astrophysics in the Philosophy of Science”, in Univ. Grenoble Alpes, IPAG, F-38000 Grenoble, France.

Isobel Anderson, “Voice, Narrative, Place: Listening to Stories,” Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 2, nr. 1 (May 2012), retrieved at http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol02/nr01/a10

Karen Michelle Barad, Meeting the universe halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning, Durham, Duke University Press, 2007.

Lorraine Daston, Elizabeth Lunbeck, Histories of scientific observation, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, London, Verso, 2010.

Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces”, in The Visual Culture Reader by Nicholas Mirzoeff, London, New York, Routledge, 2002, pp. 229-236.

Peter Godfrey-Smith, Progress and Procedures in Scientific Epistemology Philosophy Department Harvard University Cambridge MA. April 2007, The 2007 Reichenbach Lecture at UCLA. Retrieved at http://petergodfreysmith.com/ReichenbachLecture-PGS07-WebKm.pdf.

Bradley C. Haseman, “A manifesto for performative research” in Media International Australia Incorporating Culture and Policy: quarterly journal of media research and resources, 2006, pp. 98-106.

Werner Heisenberg, Physics and philosophy: the revolution in modern science, New York, HarperPerennial, 2007.

Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society, Milton Keynes, Open University Press, 1987.

Mario Livio, Brilliant blunders: from Darwin to Einstein: colossal mistakes by great scientists that changed our understanding of life and the universe, New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014.

Matthew D. Lund, Observation, discovery, and scientific change, Amherst, New York, Humanity Books, 2010.

Sarah Pink, Doing visual ethnography: images, media, and representation in research, London, Sage, 2007

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Toward a history of epistemic things: synthesizing proteins in the test tube, Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press, 1997.

Anneke Smelik, The scientific imaginary in visual culture, Goettingen, V & R Unipress, 2010, pp. 163-178.

Joanna Zylinska, Nonhuman photography, Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, 2017.