‘Observe, Experiment, Archive’ #1 (Dark Adaptation)

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 photographic research 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.

DarkAdaptation_small
Dark Adaptation, Helen McGhie (2019)

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 social and personal experiences had by the night-sky observer – the research is underpinned by Donna Haraway’s theory of Situated Knowledges. 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, physicality of the local temperature/altitude or the journey/astronomical pilgrimage made prior to arrival. The aesthetic conventions of dark sky imaging involve dense stars, high contrast/saturation and an application of ‘false colour’ 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 inspiration for the design of their own images, thus continue to uphold the visual style set by others. As the case with all genres of photography, these images are mediated through the mechanics of photography (with long exposures making visible the invisible 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 – from a photographic perspective, this hue may be recognised from the glow of the black and white darkroom, however, the red light here refers to the nocturnal conditions that astronomers work under in order to retain their night vision. Viewing a glimpse of white light (the glow of phones or car headlights) ruins night vision and the ability to see the darkest glows in the night’s sky for around 30 minutes. By capturing the red ground in the ‘Skyspace carpark’ near Kielder Observatory and blowing it up to a large size for OEA, the exhibition visitor is confronted with a Martian landscape at night, reminiscent of the cultural images of the red planet in Science Fiction and museum dioramas such as Mission to Mars at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford.

Mars, Bradford Museum Dec19
Mission to Mars from Hello Universe, National Science and Media Museum, 19 July 2019 – 22 January 2020. Image: the author.

I am reminded of Luci Eldrige’s work on Martian landscapes, where she explores viewing apparatus’ and the ‘glitch’ when experiencing Mars as a simulation on Earth, but in the context of my cultural partnership with Kielder Observatory. Like the museum diorama – a stage-set created to imbue curiosity of a moment passed or not yet experienced – Dark Adaptation adopts the same process for viewing audiences in Sunderland, many of whom may have never previously visited Kielder Observatory.

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, mostly 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, particularly when mobile phone signal is extremely patchy in the local area. A vehicle provides security for its passengers for the duration of a trip, but on arrival, passengers step outside of this familiar interior onto a new frontier: Urry’s ‘alien other’. However recognisable the surface of a car park may be, it is a new land stepped upon by each new visitor. The impact of red lighting on the landscape in Dark Adaptation represents this moment as an uncanny and almost extraterrestrial experience.

 

References:

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.

Sunderland Culture. (2019) Observe, Experiment, Archive. Available at: https://sunderlandculture.org.uk/events/observe-experiment-archive/ (Accessed: 10 February 2020).

 

Urry, J. (2006) ‘Inhabiting the Car’, The Sociological Review, 54(1_suppl), pp. 17–31.


Ventura, A. (2013) ‘Pretty Pictures: The Use of False Color in Image of Deep Space’,
Invisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Studies, (19).

 

Drone – The Sky Looks Back

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.

Paranal_top
Paranal Observatory, Atacama Desert (northern Chile). Below is an extract from the drone footage shot at Kielder Observatory in May 2019.

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?

 

 

 

Esther Teichmann and darkness

“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)

Reference:

Teichmann, E. (2011) Falling Into Photography: On Loss, Desire and the Photographic,PhD Thesis, Royal College of Art. Available at: http://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/1173/1/Esther_Teichmann_PHD_RCA.pdf(Accessed: 10 September 2018).

The Photography of Space Exploration, (exhibition catalogue, 1981)

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)

Colour chart on Viking Lander

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.

References:
Grey Art Gallery. (1081) The photography of space exploration. New York: New York University.