A group photography exhibition at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. Exhibiting artists: Mandy Barker, Tessa Bunney, Liza Dracup, Sophie Ingleby, Helen McGhie, Maria McKinney, Robert Zhao Renhui and Penelope Umbrico.
From 15th November 2019 – 5th January 2020, my photography was exhibited as part of the exhibition ‘Observe, Experiment, Archive’ at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, programmed and curated by the North East Photography Network (NEPN) which explored:
“[…] the parallels between photography and scientific methods such as observation, experimentation and archiving [and] how contemporary photographic artists can respond to both scientific innovation and historical collections, their work transforming our world through light and lens” (Sunderland Culture, 2019)
This was an opportunity to develop and produce work for the context of a public museum, where an appropriate engagement for the audience (families, schools, individuals not specialised in astronomy) was crucial.
Using Kielder Observatory (located in Europe’s largest International Dark Sky Park) as the context for creating photography, my practice-led PhD is centred around the cultural connectedness of astronomy and photography with an emphasis on the personal experiences had by the night-sky observer in northern England – the research is underpinned by the work instigated in Donna Haraway’s theory of Situated Knowledges which challenged the epistemological viewpoints in contemporary technoscience practice. Since reflecting on my theoretical and methodological position during my recent Annual Monitoring Review, my project design has become much clearer than it was when I embarked on the research in 2017.
Many cultural images of dark skies are records of observations had captured and shared through photography (of course, images can be digital fabrications built by algorithms and AI, but this is not the focus of my PhD) – there is often little or no trace of the observer in astrophotography, no evidence of a transformative experience had, the physicality of the local temperature/altitude or the journey/astronomical pilgrimage made prior to arrival. The aesthetic conventions of dark sky imaging involve applying ‘false colour’ and high saturation to dense stars, to render non-visible light visible (Ventura, 2013). Government-funded organisations (each with its own agenda on national security) such as NASA and the ESA (as well as astronomers at the Hubble Heritage Project) have set the visual standards for how the public recognises outer space, by creating ‘copyright free’ images available for download on official sites (perhaps set up to create a rationale for the allocation of public taxes?); with access to such data-rich resources, amateur astrophotographers have ongoing stylistic inspiration for the design of their own images and continue to uphold the aesthetic style set. As the case with all genres of photography, these images are anthropocentric representations of the real, mediated through the mechanics of photography (with long exposures making invisible rays of light visible to the human eye) and do not represent an entirely accurate visualisation of moments witnessed. To consider this, I wonder if it is possible to visualise a closer experience of dark sky observation in northeast England? And can the creation and dissemination of the photographic art that I make enhance the cultural offer of Kielder Observatory, as a remotely located public-outreach astronomical facility in Northumberland?
In Observe, Experiment, Archive, my large-scale photograph ‘Dark Adaptation’ (2019) presented the audience with a red, rocky landscape – a nocturnal car park captured under the glow of artificial red light. To the photographer working with analogue processes or to those familiar with televised crime scene dramas, this hue might be reminiscent of the ruby glow of the black and white darkroom, the stable conditions required for one to develop images under light-sensitive conditions. To an astronomer, red light maintains the nocturnal conditions for sensitised visibility to the stars, for viewing a glimpse of white light (from the glow of a smartphone or beam emitting from car headlights) immediately blinds night vision, the ability to see the dullest ancient starlight for around 30 minutes.
By photographically capturing the dark environment with a wash of scarlet-lit ground in ‘Skyspace car park’ (where guests eagerly await the night’s activities at Kielder Observatory) and then printing it as an almost life-size scene for exhibition, the landscape has been transported from a topological reality to a theatrical representation. Through the exhibition, the visitor’s gaze becomes confronted a night-time Martian landscape, after the fact of when it was captured, a life-size record of a place conquered by the camera, not unlike the pictorial records captured by the human-operated rover cameras that meticulously roam the red planet. Printed for Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens (a cultural site built to inspire the regional audiences who visit), Dark Adaptation becomes a Martian museum diorama, similar to ‘Mission to Mars’ at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, which contains a 1:2 scale model of the Viking Lander, a machine that studied the planet’s surface from 1976. Through the installation of artificial light and props, the blank canvas of a theatre stage becomes an elaborate ‘elsewhere’ and the application of artificial lighting on to the surface of a car park in Dark Adaptation performs a similar function. The relationship between a vehicle and its driver has been reflected on by sociologist John Urry:
“Dwelling at speed, car-drivers lose the ability to perceive local detail, to talk to strangers, to learn of local ways of life, to stop and sense each different place. […] The environment beyond that windscreen is an alien other” (Urry, 2006, p. 23)
Kielder Observatory is located in a remote part of Northumberland, only accessed by vehicle; for new visitors unfamiliar with Kielder Forest, driving along the winding, dark roads towards the observatory may be a nerve-racking experience, made worse by the security of mobile phone signal that weakens to non-existence. Whilst a vehicle provides security for passengers for the duration of a trip, on arrival, they step outside of a familiar automotive interior and conquer a new frontier: Urry’s ‘alien other’.
I am reminded of Luci Eldrige’s PhD Mars, Invisible Vision and the Virtual Landscape: Immersive Encounters with Contemporary Rover Images, exploring viewing apparatuses and the transformative possibility of the ‘glitch’ as a way to cut through the imaging spectacle, using the Mars Yard (European Space Agency’s Martian research terrain) as one example; filled with sandy ground and pasted with the theatrical backdrop of rover imagery, the glitch arises when the illusion of this otherworldly land is momentarily broken through a recognition of the manmade flaws in its construction. Dark Adaptation does not fill the entire room, there is no rocky ground for visitors to immersively step upon and the edge of the image is clearly hung upon a grey museum wall – the work presents itself as an educational spectacle to inspire and imbue curiosity for the audience, contained within itself, the image illustrates an anthropocentric accomplishment of another world that humans may one day inhabit.
Eldridge, L. (2017) ‘Mars, Invisible Vision and the Virtual Landscape: Immersive Encounters with Contemporary Rover Images’, PhD Thesis, Royal College of Art.
Haraway, D. (1988) ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, Feminist Studies, 14(3), p. 575.
Hello Universe (2019-20) [Exhibition]. National Science and Media Museum, Bradford. 19 July 2019 – 22 January 2020.
Observe Experiment Archive (2019-20) [Exhibition]. Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, Sunderland. 15 November 2019 – 5 January 2020.
Shoot: 17th May 2019
Drone camera operator: Jake Carley
Remoteness is crucial to the fields of science and technology – in astronomical research and tourism, isolated locations are inhabited by physicists, enthusiasts and curious visitors, such as the Paranal Observatory (housing the ‘Very Large Telescope’ and the forthcoming ‘Extremely Large Telescope’) located in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, or the Mauna Kea Observatories (a number of astronomical research facilities known as the ‘Astronomy Precinct’) located at the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano at the highest point in Hawaii. Kielder Observatory is no different, located on the top of Black Fell, where it overlooks Kielder Water and the ramblers, picnic-goers and cyclists who fleetingly inhabit the local pathways.
When given an opportunity to shoot drone footage (facilitated by Jake Carley, one of the University of Sunderland’s undergraduate students), I plucked up the courage to seek permission from the local RAF base and couldn’t wait to experience Kielder Observatory, forest and water from above. Imagining this experiment, I could see myself writing a contextual critique about the connection between machines, surveillance, satellite technology and humans on Earth, about watching us being watched and the problematic reality of this; however, the experience of a days shooting and now looking at the footage retrospectively, I realise just how enormous and remote Kielder really is, and how a drone looking down at such a location can reveal the environmental conditions required for a protected dark sky park to operate.
I wonder if other than the imaginative space of cosmic darkness, is there a draw to visit Kielder either temporarily, or regularly over a period of time? On visiting, the problems connecting to mobile internet begin somewhere along the B6357 road, I realise when my Spotify account freezes and the music stops. Momentarily, my heart sinks when driving along the windy road along the Scottish border, I find myself fearing the sudden breakdown of my car… did I bring enough water, a torch… is there a blanket in the boot? On reaching Kielder, I’ve found that my phone drops in and out of signal near the observatory, there’s usually nothing in the Skyspace carpark, but beeps reappear once I reach the top of Black Fell. There’s something fascinating about the relationship between the disconnection and reconnection, but it’s bigger than the paranoia of a lack of phone signal, it’s about disconnecting from the chaos of every day and reconnecting with nature, and the wild darkness that surrounds it.
Or is this experiment about subversive vantage points? About us looking up at the sky at Kielder, to check the quality of dark skies, and the sky looking back down at us, revealing our isolated position as passive spectators?
“Bathed in the silent darkness of night, half-light of red liquid, we see differently here–half blinded, there is clarity within the inverted, hovering projection, within the floating shivering movement of image appearing upon its material support.” (2011, p. 82)
“How do contemporary imaging devices and the forms in which images are displayed affect our perception of Mars? How are scientists and engineers visually exploring, experiencing and navigating this uninhabitable terrain? Can we better understand this virtual landscape through immersive imaging techniques, or are these simply illusions? At what point does the glitch invade these immersive spaces, throwing us back into the realm of the image? And finally, can the glitch be seen as a method towards another kind of visibility, enabling us to ‘see’ and encounter Mars in productive ways? Through the analysis of contemporary representations of the Martian terrain, Mars, Invisible Vision and the Virtual Landscape: Immersive Encounters with Contemporary Rover Images offers a new contribution to studies of the digital and virtual image. Specifically addressing immersive image forms used in Mars exploration the research is structured around four main case studies: life-size illusions such as panoramas; 3D imaging; false colour imaging; and the concept of a ‘Mars Yard’. The thesis offers a new understanding of human interaction with a landscape only visible through a screen, and how contemporary scientific imaging devices aim to collapse the frame and increase a sense of immersion in the image. Arguing that these representations produce inherently virtual experiences, their transportive power is questioned, highlighting the image as reconstructed – through the presence of a glitch, illusion is broken, revealing the image-as-image. This thesis takes an interdisciplinary approach in which scientific images are analysed through the prism of photography’s relationship to reality, theories of vision and perception, representations of landscape, and digital and virtual image theory. At the heart of this thesis is the act of looking; critical and speculative writing is used to convey immersive encounters with images at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (USA); University College London’s Regional Planetary Imaging Facility; Airbus Defence and Space (UK); the photographic archive at the V&A; and the Panorama Mesdag (Netherlands). The research re-examines scientific forms of images against examples from the history of visual culture (be it art or popular culture) to draw parallels between different ways of seeing, representing and discovering the unknown. The eyes of the Mars rovers provide viewpoints through which we regard an alien terrain: windows upon unknown worlds. Rover images bridge a gap between what is known and unknown, between what is visible and invisible. The rover is our surrogate, an extension of our vision that portrays an intuitively comprehensible landscape. Yet this landscape remains totally out of reach, millions of miles away. This distance is an impenetrable boundary – both physically and metaphorically – that new technologies are trying to break. Mars, Invisible Vision and the Virtual Landscape offers a two-way impact, constituting a new approach to the relationship between real and imagined images in order to demonstrate that the real Mars, however it is represented and perceived, remains distant and detached.” (2017)
Eldridge, L. (2017) Mars, Invisible Vision and the Virtual Landscape: Immersive Encounters with Contemporary Rover Images. PhD thesis. Royal College of Art. Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/82969436.pdf (Accessed: 4 September 2018).
The book discusses how photography has recorded our expeditions of space. From Daguerreotypes to digitally mediated images, photography has mapped geographic and geological features as scientific data. Frank Borman (commander of Apollo 8, first manned flight to the moon) writes the preface, commenting on the highly technological advancements made to American industry due to the space programme. He speaks of the only thing holding back further work is the financial expense.
“The exploration of space and major technological advances have made us all explorers of the cosmos. We have witnessed the marvels of other worlds – craters on the Moon, huge canyons on Mars, active volcanoes on Io, and the enigmatic rings of Saturn.” (1981, p. 9)
Images are representations, and photographic technology mediates our vision, the author refers to a Soviet spacecraft that photographed the surface of Venus where the atmosphere is one hundredth the density of Earth’s atmosphere, floodlights might be required to view through the thickness. Experience/oral histories enhance our understanding of these images, i.e. the moon has no atmosphere, nothing to diffuse sunlight into twilight. David Scott (commander on Apollo 15) describes the sensations of travelling around the moon, where bright sunlight suddenly drops into darkness. As viewers on earth, we require this storytelling to imagine such a sensation. Images of the moon are described as disappointing by Astronaut David Scott, who compares the photographic representation to the memory of viewing the extraordinary landscapes.
“But imagine stepping out onto a surface where landforms and scales cover the lunar landscpe – one sees an interesting crater in the distance – but how far away is it? There are no trees, shrubs, telephone poles, or houses, to provide perspective.” – (1981, p. 10)
The book talks about the colour of the sky, how the sky is blue on Earth (due to the atmosphere) and it appears black in space. It’s difficult to decipher colour of the sky on other planets, but attempts were made with the Viking landers when photographing Mars – colour charts were on the side of the spacecraft, to make comparisons of the surface and the sky (which appears pinkish due to particles of red dust in the atmosphere). Published in the early 1980’s, the text refers to recent ‘technological advancements’ of recording non-visible light, something that has enormously advanced since.
The catalogue includes image plates dating from the 70s and early 80s, images are mostly from NASA. The catalogue feels like an early attempt where ‘data’ photographs are used to capture the public imagination.
Grey Art Gallery. (1081) The photography of space exploration. New York: New York University.