Leaving the cinema after viewing Christopher Nolan’s latest offering, ‘Interstellar’, I found myself rendered uncharacteristically speechless by the spectacle I had witnessed. Regardless of the many opinions the film has evoked, most agree that it successfully engenders a sense of wonder and, at least in my case, ignites a desire to know more. More of what we are such an insignificant part of; the universe and all its mysteries, many that we have not yet even begun to consider. The difficulty arises as attempts to ‘wrap ones head around’ many of the theories surrounding the complexity of the universe, often leads to confusion and therefore, frustration. Whilst visiting NASA I saw a film, which presented Hubble Space Telescope’s (HST) images, intended to offer a glimpse into what travelling through the universe would physically look like. I was mesmerised; sitting there in complete and utter awe, desperate for the opportunity to actually experience these wonders with my own eyes and to understand what I had previously ignored due to its complexity. Thus began the investigation which inspired and informed my artistic practice; the question, “I wonder if space really looks like that?’ was simple; the answer; “No, it does not”, was more complex.
We have come to define the contemporary astronomical image with highly saturated, bright colours, established by the HST, as reality, but this perception of the cosmos is flawed. Though driven by science and technology, the finished images are hugely influenced by aesthetics. The Hubble images depend heavily upon intervention and bias to produce a stylistic image; these images therefore provide a bridge to connect the relations between art and science. If you were to go into space, what you would mostly see is nothing; our perception is limited to what we call the ‘visible spectrum’, and much of the cosmos extends outside this. In order to see what else is out there, to gain an understanding, we must rely on multiwavelength observation; recording radiation from a broad spectrum of wavelengths. This understanding allows innumerable potential images of the cosmos, as in order to translate the invisible elements to the visible spectrum, our interference results in false colourisation; and whilst these colours function as scientific encryption, colours have also been selected artistically. This generates a falsified image of reality, which aligns aesthetics with scientific data to reach out to the wider public.
Only in the recent past has the cosmos specifically been aligned with art; Kessler specifically discusses this in relation to the HST. Space imagery, delivered by the HST, permits a cosmological adventure, a frontier into the unknown that humans could never otherwise experience, hence our reliance and the importance placed upon images; they provide a window into the universe. It is often argued that we need visionaries able to combine scientific knowledge and understanding, with artistic intuition in order for space to be more widely accessible; this perfectly encapsulates the Hubble image. However, for most of us, particularly those involved in the arts, our perception of science is that it’s ‘too difficult’, something reserved for scientists to explore; why is this? Artists have always explored and actively represented the natural world; historically, art and science were not separate, however, the Renaissance gave birth to specialism, and in doing so, art and science’s distinctions. Today that divergence is still being felt, but the opportunities to unite are opening up. CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) evidences that scientists are willing to collaborate with artists; however artists’ reaction has been described as slow due to science’s ‘arduous’ connotations.
Why should we let it daunt us? Space is so incredibly relevant that it would be imprudent for the arts to disregard it. Erickson states ‘scientists and artists are the best examples we have of human-beings actively seeking and aiming to articulate the intangible’, a notion I would concur with. Nolan and Kip Thorne, the astrophysicist who co-wrote ‘Interstellar’, wanted to create a realistic black hole to include in the film, but where does one even begin when no one knows what one really looks like? Amazingly, rendering one for the film using simulations and calculations, they actually made the scientific discovery. Nolan got a beautiful piece of artistry, whilst Thorne produced new, accurate science according to the laws of mathematics and physics.
There is something about space that captures our imagination; it is the perfect canvas for thought, and for artists to explore. We may not understand much of it, but this should not deter us from venturing down that route in order to learn, and bring our own perspective. I implore you not to be daunted, do not turn away from the unknown; be inspired and let your imagination run. Embrace the exciting new learning experiences and concepts science offers, or face being left behind.
- Kessler, E., 2012. Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press
- Wilson, S., 2002. Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press
- Wilson, S., 2012. Art + Science Now: How Scientific Research and Technological Innovation Are Becoming Key to 21st Century Aesthetics. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
- Erickson, M., 2012. The Beautiful Universe: A Convergence of Art and Science. http://bigthink.com/think-tank/the-convergence-of-science-and-art
- Rogers, A., 2014. Wrinkles in Spacetime: The Warped Astrophysics of Interstellar. http://www.wired.com/2014/10/astrophysics-interstellar-black-hole/