Discover Another Dimension – an immersive virtual art exhibition by Helen McGhie, our photographic artist-researcher in residence. This is a virtual tour of Kielder Observatory that invites you to creatively contemplate the cosmos through photography, film and sound. The exhibition explores human encounters with dark skies in Northern England and shares personal memories of observations, celestial dreams, and the inspiration felt by astronomers to gaze up at the universe.
Another Dimension is part of Helen’s arts-based research project ‘Stargazing at the Invisible: Photography and the Power of Obscured Light.’ She is a PhD student at the University of Sunderland and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Northern Bridge Consortium). Her project seeks to discover new lens-based encounters with dark skies in Northern England, in partnership with Kielder Observatory.
I am presenting my research to date as part of the European Geosciences Union ‘General Assembly’, during the vPICO sessions on 28th April 2021. Part of session EOS7.4 | Exploring the Art-Science Interface | 09:00–12:30.
As a practice-based research in the arts, it was inevitable that a project exploring ‘creative reflective practice’ as a key methodology, would shift emphasis throughout the research period. The role of encounter has become more productive to consider as I’ve gone through the research process.
There have been several generative encounters between me, Kielder Observatory and public audiences. These have included exchanges of art-science expertise, discussions on cultural perspectives of astronomy, and moments of reflection on artistic or organisational practice—whilst only a snapshot of activity, each exchange has potential for generating mutual benefit.
Engaging in encounter offers significant opportunities to develop new photographic provocations on dark skies for each partner. Through an imaginative voyage from Earth to outer space, enabled by artistic methods of production and creative reflective practice (in alignment with the objectives of KOAS), the work is attempting to create unconventional, artistic perspectives on astronomy. In Photography and Collaboration: From Conceptual Art to Crowdsourcing (2017), Daniel Palmer suggests that:
“Photographers are often most active whilst travelling in foreign places, which serves to reinforce the popular perception of photography as a existential act of wrangling with an alien world.” (Palmer, 2017, p. 2)
This is certainly true of my experience photographing at Kielder, where I have shot more film and digital files than I have during any previous project. Encountering the environment through the viewfinder (often alone, with no one else there), I have negotiated the place around me – the forest and the dark skies above. Using art to make sense of the sciences is nothing new – there are regular artist residencies at ESA and art-sci practice is a recurring interest for many creatives. The difference in my encounter is its focus on a local site of terrestrial Astro-tourism at Kielder, in all its transgressive off-grid-ness and welcoming cosmic community.
Alien worlds are curious and otherworldly. But sometimes (as living through the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us) the local can be just as extraordinary. Just as much as Kielder is a new, unexplored place to encounter for me, my curiosity and process as a artist is likely a strange thing to those outside of the creative sector. To move forward within our own fields of expertise, it is important to transcend the disciplinary confines of our familiar territory, to generate new expertise and knowledge perspectives.
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?