EGU General Assembly 2021

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.

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.

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