I’ve just started a project with Lancaster University’s Astrophysics department to create artwork along the main walkway of the university campus, the Spine. The 1-km long Spine, originally designed to provide a path through the campus that follows the natural gradient of the land, has recently been remodelled to include greenery, open spaces and social areas. This commission is about celebrating that area by using it as a site for artwork and using artists’ perspectives to find new ways to share the university’s research.
I’m going to create a series of installations on windows along the length of the spine: big, bright translucent vinyl pieces that help lead people along their journey through the campus. The work will launch at the National Astronomy Meeting 2019 in July, a week-long conference for astronomy professionals, with a scientific programme and outreach/cultural events. I’m hoping that the delegates will be able to take part in the creation of some of the work over the course of the conference, and I’ll be on site installing all week. Also creating work for the event is Nicola Rae, who produces beautiful sonic visualisations.
I’ve spent the first few weeks immersed in research. I’ve been reading about… black holes, cosmic distance, galaxy formation, supernovae, dark matter and dark energy, and a lot of other stuff. I find it hard to stay focused when I’m reading about such huge distances, unimaginable lengths of time and questions that I will never know the answer to. I get overwhelmed, and switch off, telling myself there’s no point in reading more if I’m not going to find out ‘what happens’ (I hate watching films/reading books that don’t give me a nicely tied-up ending). But I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did. I started to understand how, although the big questions might not get answered yet, lots of small questions are being answered all the time, and when you put these small answers together they tell you some big things. These small answers only exist because of the thousands of years’ worth of questions that have been already asked, and answered. Knowledge builds on knowledge.
The research period is short, so I needed to learn a lot quickly, and I made the most of audiobooks (learning in the bath) and videos, as well as reading books, articles and academic papers. I read through some educational modules and completed (correctly, yes!) the mathematical equations at the end. I got pointed in the right direction by the Observational Astrophysics group’s weekly coffee, where everyone told me about their own individual research areas. It was one of those moments, which sometimes happen on art projects, where I felt like I’d been parachuted into someone else’s life, and I loved every minute.
The more I read, the more I understood, and the more possibilities appeared for what this project could look like. But I kept coming back to the same point: scientists use what they know to tell them what they don’t know. This is probably not such a revelation to some people, but for me it really helped to fill in the gaps and make things more manageable.
I was also struck by the way that working on such big questions necessitates a collaboration. Telescopes aren’t always powerful enough to tell us what we’re looking for but when lots of telescopes look at the same thing, all this information can be combined. This means people, institutions and countries working together, and knowledge being passed down from generations before. I hope I can get some of that across in my work – the idea of us being greater than the sum of our parts, and achieving more when we work together.
There are different ways of measuring distance in the universe depending on how far away the thing you want to measure is, and put together these methods make the cosmic distance ladder. As I understand it, each rung of this ladder uses the knowledge from the rung below, and all the methods of measurement use existing knowledge and known constants to establish distance. It’s about learning from the relationships between things, their similarities and their differences – they all tell us something.
So… I have an idea for work that is based on three elements: two constants and one unknown. The placement of the first two elements will determine the placement and appearance of the third element, meaning that I’ll get that rush of excitement as I install each piece and discover what each one will look like. I’m busy trying this out and creating test pieces at the moment, so I’ll leave it at that for now, but I’ll be writing more as the project progresses and sharing photos along the way.