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Catching the Light: Semiconductor remap the sky (as telescopes see it)

Scientists estimate that modern telescopes can look as far as 46 to 47 billion light-years into space. But the images they return aren’t the ones that make the headlines. The ‘observable universe’ is a mediated one: the spectacular views we typically associate with deep space—orange gas giants, sprawling nebulae, crisp star clusters—are heavily edited, colored and stitched together from crude telescope data rarely seen outside the vaults of research institutions. In their latest work, Brighton-based artist researcher duo Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman & Joe Gerhardt) pulls back the shiny veneer of cosmology by animating the source material: Catching the Light (2014) collages thousands of raw telescope images into a sculptural projection that ponders scientific inquiry, technology and representation.

Currently installed at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore as part of the Da Vinci: Shaping the Future exhibition, Catching the Light spills across a six meter wide Alucore array of screens. In a 14:16 minute loop, familiar phenomena—gas giants, sprawling nebulae, star clusters—appear and disappear. But the images are black and white, grainy, otherworldly, if not eerie. These captivating time-lapse sequences were assembled from visual data obtained from the Mikulski Archive of Space Telescopes (MAST). Neither uniform nor intended to be used for animation, Semiconductor worked with programmer Julian Weaver of Finetuned Ltd to process, sort, and align the images. Weaver deployed various pieces of NASA software (i.e. a custom version of Montage, an “Astronomical Image Mosaic Engine”) and batch converters to position images in space and time and prepare the material for After Effects (see two work-in-progress images below and learn more about the process here).

Though accurately mapped individually, Catching the Light’s timeline of cosmic events does not resemble actual spatial relationships. Instead, Semiconductor took artistic liberties to create new patterns and new points of reference as they “remapped the sky.” By embracing the artifacts of image capturing technology—noise, anomalies, errors—the artists emphasize the source data’s distinct aesthetics and remind us that our view of the natural world is largely framed by the tools and processes of science.

The clustered canvas, matte black shapes made from an aluminium composite, was shaped by scientific tools and processes as well: “As space observatories photograph chosen parts of the sky, the trail of images produce assorted shaped arrays, which are then used as points of reference in the data archives. We have combined three of these arrays in their native format to make the screen composition. Used in this way they become portholes or windows into the universe, they also suggest that what we are seeing is only a part of a much larger picture.” As we journey from sensation to sensation, the clicks, pops, and hums of a soothing four channel soundscape carry us forward, its topography guided by the luminescence of the images. “The visual events carve a sonic space out of a field of noise, producing a singing universe of harmonic tones, reminiscent of radio telescope data translated into audible frequencies.”

Catching the Light is only the latest of Semiconductor’s audiovisual celestial explorations. During a 2005-6 residency at the NASA Space Sciences Laboratory (UC Berkeley, California, USA), the duo used raw image data of the Sun for their film, installation, and performance piece Brilliant Noise (2006). A few years later, Black Rain (2009) amplified the flaws in visual data collected by twin satellite STEREO as it tracked interplanetary space for solar wind. Heliocentric (2010) traced the Earth’s orbit by following the Sun’s trajectory across the sky with a camera and 20Hz (2011) translated a geomagnetic storm (caused by solar wind shock waves) into animation. Similar to Catching the Light, image luminescence was used to guide sound behaviors in most of these works.

Catching the Light was commissioned by ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore for the Da Vinci: Shaping the Future exhibition, 2014-15.

Catching the Light project page | Semiconductor | See also: Cosmos (2014)

Learn more about Semiconductor (and seven other artists) in HOLO 1, CAN’s print magazine about ‘emerging trajectories in art, science, and technology.’ HOLO 1—226 pages, one extra booklet, a fold-out timeline—is available in our shop