beam me up
guided tours

16.06.2009 12:59
Representing / Reenacting / Simulating Outer Space
Newly commissioned artworks, essays, animations and poems which speak to our struggle to comprehend, represent and imagine space.

Image credit: Joe Winter, image from the project Xerox Astronomy and the Nebulous Object-Image Archive, 2008.
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In 2004 I participated in a summit on the topic of re-enactment at the Banff New Media Institute subtitled Modeling the Unseen. Over three days scientists and artists together discussed the pitfalls of using techniques of computer simulation to understand both the lived world and theoretical worlds, from the divergent accounts of the first ascent of Mount Everest to an imagined collision between two galaxies. It was repeatedly mentioned that simulation – the computer modelling of phenomena, whether from data gathered through observed or parameters hypothesised – requires that researchers build mental and then virtual models and furthermore, that the methods and tools used in the myriad processes of building have their own significance. For instance, building a representation of the solar system with painted potatoes strung on wires is very different from building a representation of the solar system with pictures printed out from the web. If you are to simulate your original “object” order to better study it – be it a solar system, a set of data collected about the food web present on a coral reef, or an historical battle from descriptions collected by historians – then you have to, by necessity, become engaged in a process of translation, from data to picture, object to screen. But through the process of simulation, a new object is created, digital or not – the simulation itself. And yet that new object is but a representation of the original, an  original which can’t be known. So can simulations or  models stand in or substitute for reality? And as the summit organiser, Sara Diamond, asked at the time, if simulation provides a means to discovery, does it change the very substance of what is discovered?

For artists, this is the stuff of life. Concerned with representation, of the imagined, of lived experience, of the world, this is exactly the field they truck in. The main character in Charlie Kaufman's film Synecdoche New York, Caden Cotard, spends his every day trying to recreate, in real time and space, at actual scale, the minutae of everyday existence – the passing conversations and the traumatic encounters between people. The protagonist in Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder also tries to re-enact scenes from his life before his traumatic head injury, rebuilding his entire apartment block just to relive an encounter in a stairwell with a neighbour taking out her garbage. Artists, novelists, dramaturges and filmmakers recognise that in their activity of constant simulation, there is a certain amount of loss or failure which is unavoidable, which is built in to their endeavour, and they can live with that, even exploit it to position their own view. For scientists, who seek to uncover the truth in the world, this potential failure to represent can be more nagging.

And so in this series of commissions for the Beam Me Up project I start, from the bottom up, with an essay by astrophysicist Guillaume Belanger, who as a scientist observing something we can only know in theory – the black hole at the centre of our universe – takes it in stride that very little can actually be known, no matter how certain the data or how clear the observations. His essay points out that descriptions of gravity, of physics, of space, and of our world, are just descriptions, and are inevitably bound to change and adapt with time, be refined and sharpened or made more muddled. His premise is that concepts, perceptions and beliefs cannot bring us closer to understanding our world and ourselves because they are based on thoughts, ideas and feelings about our world, and not on actual experience of world as it actually presents itself in this and every moment.

I am fascinated by the failure to represent and yet by our continual, repetitive attempts to do so, through words, pictures and actions. I understand that simulations demand of their students a belief, a kind of faith, that something is there to be learned if you can perform the mental translation of object into its model, understand it at its new scale, its new speed, in its new medium. And so to this end I am thrilled to include in these commissions a new piece by artist Jamie O’Shea. Jamie has confused time and space by creating a physical simulation – an object – from a stream of digital data, from remote observation on his part, and then turned the whole thing – his new physical object – into a stream of data for us to watch both in real time and in time-lapse, a sped-up simulation of a phenomena built from observance of a remote object which we have to believe is truly there because we have no first-hand experiential proof of it. If this all sounds a little woolly, it is because it is. On Mars there is a robot, and that robot, made by humans, is searching for the possibility of life on Mars. Last year, the robot found ice. Its observation of the ice, some might argue, caused the ice to melt (or evaporate) and the trace of it was left only to its digital transmission. The robot lander itself then became encased in ice, as Martian winter set in. Jamie has followed the electronic missives of these landers for many moons now, and has felt that their modes of communication with Earthlings to be almost supernatural, almost religious. To that end he has created shrines to the phenomena observed. It is Jamie’s own recreation or representation of NASA’s lander – in his case a toaster – which you can watch via web-cam, something not entirely possible with the actual robot, which you have to believe is on Mars. And, as with the most technically proficient simulations, you can watch this toaster in its freezer ice over and melt at two speeds – one the live image as relayed with the same time-delay as images from Mars, approximately twelve minutes, and the other in a sped-up time-lapse, watching a week pass in about two minutes.

This same failure to represent another space, another plane of existence, and how to represent the passing of time, is present in the work of Joe Winter, another of the commissioned artists. Joe has been questioning what constitutes information through an investigation of how we assign value to data – why are some signals music and other signals noise? In 2008, as part of an exhibition I curated, Joe created an observatory for an imagined scientist. Modelled after the ubiquitous and bland office cubicle, the observatory had at its centre not a new state-of-the-art telescope, but another ‘viewing’ machine, and one which, like the sun within our solar system, emits light – a photocopier. Joe’s project, Xerox Astronomy and the Nebulous Object-Image Archive, asked viewers to take on the role of the imagined scientist and look at the printouts from the photocopier to determine their value as information, as representation. The “nebulous object” images were automated copies of the dust on the glass bed of the copier, and reflections of angle-poise office-like lamps slowing orbiting over the copier. Seen on their own, away from the context of the office-cubicle observatory, they could easily be understood as star charts, grainy transmissions from an orbiting viewing device, downloaded and printed out. Joe’s interest in technologies of viewing has moved to other more recent technologies, in this case, a flat bed scanner, and for this new online commission – Progressive Scan Studies – he has created film-strip animations made from scanning played-back video and stitching the single scanned frames together again. Here both the time of viewing and the time of transmission take precedence, with you, the viewer, able to control the speed at which the simulated spaces flick past.

Poet and artist Alec Finlay, author of a 100 year star-diary has kindly granted permission to publish here a visual poem composed after a conversation with his friend, the artist and curator Honor Harger, who listens to the stars, undertaking another kind of translation of abstract information to graspable meaning. A provocative question is posed, which asks the viewer to imagine themselves in an impossible space and time, indeed before space and time as we know it existed, the moment of the Big Bang. As with Guillaume’s essay which questions our sense-based experience of the world, Alec’s poem, simply by asking the question, reminds us again of the impossibility of conceiving and trying to represent something as vast and as old as the universe, when all we have available to us are our eyes and ears, our touch, taste and smell.

Yet here to rescue us from our sense of defeat at this ‘failure to represent’, and the trials of translation from object to model, known to simulated, is Jayanne English, a most optimistic astronomer, whose contribution, which will develop fully over the summer, rounds out this first set of commissions for Beam Me Up. Aside from, but related to, her academic work, Jayanne teaches ordinary people, artists and scientists alike, how to make digital images from data garnered from observing outer space. The “public outreach” images she makes are significant in that they are how we think outerspace looks, when we have no notion of what is visible, what is invisible but proven to exist (such as the hydrogen gas in her animation here), and what is hypothesised to exist – all the while not bothering to worry about the fact that none of us have really ever seen or been in ‘outerspace’ to begin with. Sitting in front of a computer monitor, Jayanne works together with her astronomer colleagues to decide on the final form of images from the data gathered by astronomers the world over, including, for instance, those transmitted back to Earth by the Hubble Space Telescope. Her essay launched in September will discuss the screen as the interface between the known and the imagined.

Taken together, these new texts and art works, movies and studies, invite us to contemplate the delight in our continually failed attempts to represent both our own lived experiences on Earth and our lack of lived experience of outer space. These works which you can watch here on your screen, seek to reconcile on our behalf, the impossibilities inherent in attempts to represent our understanding of outer space. Engaged in a process of translation, from data to picture, object to screen, they are new objects – simulations, recreations, re-enactments – but also new translations. And in that, while they may be seeking to show us or help us to understand what can’t be known, they are very real indeed.

04.06.2009 14:08
Cosmic sites: Remote space and personal perception meet at the monitor
Dr. Jayanne English of the University of Winnipeg's Department of Physics and Astronomy has submitted a new animation showing the cold hydrogen gas, which is invisible to human eyes, in our Milky Way Galaxy. Dr. English makes images from complex data sets aquired via telescopic observations of outer space, determining the colour and form of them as she sits in front of her computer screen.

04.06.2009 13:31
This previously unpublished poem, originally composed in 2008, posits a question regarding the origins of the universe; it arose during a conversation between Alec Finlay and the artist Honor Harger. Alec will compose a poem with the answer if anyone can supply it.

10.06.2009 12:49
Progressive Scan Studies
Experiments in traversing space and time in a linear fashion. Joe Winter's animations are both films and drawings of spaces which seem familiar from lived experience, but have been flattened into traces of digital data.

10.06.2009 12:42
Shrine to the Martyred Phoenix Lander
Watch the time-lapse video of Jamie O'Shea's small shrine to NASA's Phoenix Lander, destroyed by ice on Mars. This project ran live from June 2009 to June 2010 and is now in an archived state.

10.06.2009 12:46
Space, Experience and Perception
Dr. Guillaume Belanger of the Gamma-ray mission Integral of the European Space Agency (the Science Operations Department, within the European Space Astronomy Centre in Madrid) has written a new essay that raises questions regarding our perception of this world, of what we know, and ultimately of ourselves. He draws his inspiration for the context in which he sets these simple but fundamental questions from our home Galaxy: its stars, its structure, and its nucleus, the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*.
Comments on this guided tour

17.06.2009 12:21
Comment by Guillaume Belanger
I do not believe that any description can succeed or fail to represent our own lived experiences of outer space or of the everyday: descriptions are just descriptions and must be known as such. In solving a simple problem of determining the volume of water displaced by a horse in a pool, nothing prevents us from using a simplified description of the horse as a cylinder. In estimating the effects of the solar wind on the earth's atmosphere, nothing prevents us from using a simplified description of the Earth as being spherical even though there are seas and mountains. We imagine elementary particles as tiny little spheres, but we have no idea what it an elementary particle. We categorise charges as positive, negative and neutral, but these are conventions. We calculate the Compton effect of a photon---a particle of light---scattering off an electron as if they were billiard balls, and yet we solve field equations to calculate the energy levels of the electrons orbiting around hydrogen. We find this normal, but in a way, it is really crazy! These descriptions do not fail or succeed in representing the horse or the Earth, elementary particles, electrons and photons, because these or whatever it may be, are beyond description: any and every description cannot represent whatever is it describing; descriptions can be useful or not depending on the application. These are subtle points, but I believe that it is possible to express them either in simple or more complex terms, depending on the needs and the audience.