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 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?




Space Blankets and False Colour

“To acknowledge the human-made aspects of the deep space picture, the inevitable acts of individual conjecture and mediation involved in its creation, is thus to acknowledge the limits of human knowledge and perception.” (2013)

Photographic representations of starry skies evoke the imagination, but I wonder if there are alternate creative methods involving experiences of dark, immersive spaces where an audience might experience astronomy differently? Above are initial studio tests: I experimented with space blankets, the female form, flash lighting and colour gels. The saturated colour relates to the ‘false colour’ used in many Astrophotography images, the ‘space blanket’ his a lightweight material that coats exterior surfaces of spacecraft.

Ventura, A. (2013) ‘Pretty Pictures: The Use of False Color in Images of Deep Space’, InVisible Culture 19 (Fall).