Sunday, November 29, 2009

Art and Astronomy

An article I read about private funding for telescopes reminded me why I use space photography in my paintings. Both these disciplines have appealed to me for most of my life. They have similar positions of purity, or of transcendence, of a near-complete irrelevance to the mundane, the practical, and the necessary. In a way, they are the least humane human pursuits, which all the contradiction that entails. They therefore use similar justifications for their expenses, relying primarily on an appeal to aethetics, curiosity, and values about the search for truth.

There are, of course, both exceptions and loopholes. The best art engages directly with political, social, and economic interests, and part of the liberal and radical tendency of art is based on a goal of greater leisure and freedom to make useless objects. Astronomical research can be the source of better understanding of consistent and inconsistent physical laws, which has led to technological innovation. Most of the research that serves purely to disabuse society of superstition has been done. Monitoring for potentially disastrous comets or meteors is a not-insignificant part of astronomy, as is study of other planets to better understand where we're living.

But it's not those parts that interest me. It's the selling of what is superfluous even to a society based on the escalating transformation of wants into needs. Super-saturated, highly-manipulated photographs of interstellar gases are in one way a byproduct of billions invested in telescopes for better pure research, but in another way, they sell the research. By using them in paintings and digital sketches, I insert the efforts and investment of an entire industrial network, of what some might consider the loftiest achievements of "civilization". There's a sense of wonder there, and a sense of absurd amusement at the forgetting of wonder.

The sensation of a density of information, essentially indecipherable, behind an expensive image, is also why I consider all my work to be about knowledge, communication, and cybernetics. The final step, the work I do in nearly the least technologically entrenched medium that allows full color, involves the re-creation of signal from the noise remaining from an entirely different signal. Interstellar and intergalactic images are extremely lossy - as with any scientific measurement, entropy rules, and we only see a small part of the vast system we want to describe. Light from so far away is also light from far in the past - cosmology makes us recognize time's dimensionality. It's like archaeology in that much of the causality is lost. We're also looking at essentially a snapshot, since very little changes at that scale at biological speed. We haven't been observing long, nor may we be able to much longer, since it's possible astrophysical research itself was a cold war symptom. We can only observe from one angle, enforcing the primacy of two-dimensionality that I embrace with the abolition of ground. I replace space with space. Time becomes the uncertain palimpsest of historical process, the abstract unidentifiability of the original image. It's a discussion of re-interpretation, the use of one useless thing by another useless thing, and a celebration of affording any of it.

No comments: