.::..Nicholas Sagan..::. …:.::..artworks and experiments…::.:…nicholassagan@gmail.com

Paper for Panel Presentation: Dimensions of the Unattainable

Observational practices in astronomy and cosmology, and by extension the practices in my line of artistic inquiry, reveal a sort of disparity between what is real and what is experiential. This is to say that what is observable and complex phenomena in the universe at large operates at a scale very different to that which we experience in everyday life. To begin this relationship we must define what it is to be attained with regards to subject matter in my work. In the sense of cosmology, what cannot be attained is the experience of certain scales of the cosmos. It is particularly difficult to resolve structures beyond the human scale, and we can only begin to perceive some of those structures from distances of millions of light years away and through highly specialized instrumentation. Because such distances are necessary for even an experience mediated by scientific instrumentation, we can define these celestial phenomenon and structures as experientially unattainable.

Since some of the same principles in cosmology and astronomy are present in my work, it follows that those different forms of the unattainable are present as well. The first of which can be defined as those experiences that are naturally attainable, meaning those the require mediation for experience. Since much of the cosmos is at a distance and scale that we cannot directly experience, with the exceptions of stars in the night sky, the sun and the moon, we must rely on forms of artistic and scientific production to scale those celestial objects and phenomenon down to a human level. In this essay, I hope to show that the results and ideas in the relevant sciences that align with elements of my body of work are prime examples of how mediation provides a means of experiencing the unattainable.

In the spring of 2009 I worked on an installation project that explored the scale of the relationship between deep space observation and the human scale. It was titled Before We Were and used samples from a library of audio taken from radio astronomy. The samples originated millions of years ago and it takes that long for information to reach us from such vast distances. They were then put into a computer program that directed the sounds two dimensionally through the installation space. In addition, a video element loosely correlated to the samples was projected on a large screen on one side of the installation space. Viewers were invited to sit on a couch facing the projection in the center to experience the piece as a whole.

Many of the sonic elements of this installation were direct sound recordings of pulsars, cosmic background radiation and samples taken from helioseismic studies. Since there is no sound in space, scientists must continue to rely on highly specialized instrumentation to interpret these deep space signals. Sound in space is an impossible event and is thus an unattainable experience. Studies in helioseismology have revealed that the sun actual “sings” in mildly harmonic tones as plasma from the interior is released on the surface. Additionally, all the bursting of the plasma bubbles creates a pulse that occurs once every five years. In order to convert something of this scale into an audible frequency, it must be sped up 40,000 times. The use of this and the other audio samples in these installation works creates a tertiary experience of something that is otherwise unattainable.

During the production process I filmed streetlights from extreme distances using the maximum digital zoom capabilities of the video camera I was using. Since the resolution was not at a high level the recorded forms became abstracted. The video editing phase allowed me more room to abstract the images into something that resembled very closely images taken of deep space objects. One major difference between that observatory telescope imaging and mine was that since the scale of my video operated at a human level, it allowed for more apparent time and motion manipulation.

Because the scale of the imagery used in this piece was at a terrestrial level, it could be experienced at both the “real” level (i.e., walking under the street lights and night) and at the aesthetically interpreted level, which is not predetermined by any set scale. But the video elements, through methods of abstraction, maintained a sense of scale associated with observational astronomy. While the content of a given piece does not have to operate at the human scale, the experience of the work must. In this way Before We Were acts as a lens or converter for something conceptual larger than what can be experienced naturally.  Aesthetic interpretation of a set of ides provides a certain amount of access to something that can be considered naturally unattainable.

The direct experience of celestial objects at their native scale is unattainable due to a number of reasons. Technologically, the human race has not evolved to a point where we can easily directly experience a celestial body other than the moon. But of course, the moon is old news. It is attainable and has been since the late 1960’s. While the majority of experience of the moon during that era came from cultural osmosis, there were still artists who depicted a level of national pride in the form of paintings, which were displayed at the National Gallery of Art. Lets not forget that we also experience the moon directly almost every night and day. We see it in the sky above us and feel it’s gravitational effects in the forms of tidal movements.

Moving beyond the Earth-Moon system seems to be a larger challenge. Artist and Experimental Geographer Trevor Paglen argues that space exploration is a pipe dream never to be realized. As he has remarked in several lectures and interviews, the Earth does not have enough resources to devote what is necessary for colonization of Solar System, much less another Moon-targeted space launch. While I am not sure I totally agree with this line of thought, he does offer some very reasonable counter-points to space exploration.

Since we do not have ready opportunities for space travel we must rely on the forms of our collective imagination. Space travel has been a component of science fiction since it’s inception and has provided a means of exploring another form of the unattainable, that which we imagine the universe beyond to be. While we can look to scientific data and studies to give us glimpses, there is still a very active role for the imagination to play. This is where the genre of science fiction and the world of art come into play. These are fields where space exploration can happen, at the very least at the conceptual level. But it can also lead to experiences that are the results of imagining in both realms.

Another work that I want to discuss in terms of the unattainable is an installation that was mounted in the fall of 2009 called Waking the Invisible. This piece built upon some of the concepts explored in the piece previously discussed but used a different set of sources. In 2007 scientists working with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey developed a map of distributed dark matter in a section of the night sky roughly nine times the size of a full moon. Dark matter is thought to be the things that accounts for all the “missing” mass in the universe and is what gravitational binds matter, such as galaxies and star clusters. The map was three-dimensional and just happened to be a similar form to that of the room I was to mount the installation in; both the ‘container’ for the model and the room had similar dimensional ratios.

In Waking the Invisible I used that map of dark matter as a guide for placement of fiber optics that resulted in roughly three thousand points of light filling the space in a globular fashion. The space was also black-boxed, meaning that there were no reflective surfaces and the only sources of light were the end points of the fiber optics. As viewers entered the space they were presented with a three-dimensional representation of the night sky. Some people found pockets or voids where they could experience the space from an observational perspective while others chose to interact with the fibers. By using the map of dark matter as a formal and conceptual guide, this piece created a way of experiencing something that is considered unattainable without necessarily becoming imaginary.

Prior to 2007 dark matter could only be experienced on a theoretical level so the introduction of the map allowed for a level of visual experience, thus extending the attainable a little bit further. Even at this recently developed level, it is still an unnatural, or mediated, form of experience and that a true experience of dark matter on that scale remains in the realm of the unattainable. Again, this is where the role of art becomes more active in this context. Waking the Invisible recreated the night sky and some of the effects of dark matter in a scale that was more relational to human interaction. It was an experiment that explored ways in which we can attain the unattainable.

While these examples from my body of work are early explorations into the strong relationship that art and astronomy can have, they do hit on one of the central driving forces for both disciplines. There exists a method of practice in both that relies almost necessarily on inspiration and imagination. First and foremost, these components of humanity are necessary for the process involved in investigating those ideas that exist at a much larger scale. Secondly, they are necessary in created an experience, whether mediated by scientific instruments or “aestheticized” that attempts to understand the unattainable. None of this is to say that these celestial phenomena are beyond the possibility of experience, but that we cannot come to a level of experience that is in a human scale by natural means. But this does not mean that art and science shouldn’t try.


Coles, P. (2001). Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Home Page. (2010). Retrieved March 27, 2010 from Sloan Digital Sky Survey: http://www.sdss.org.

Jermyn, A. (2010). Space Travel Unattainable for Now. Retrieved March 28, 2010 from MassLive.com: http://www.masslive.com/holyokeplus/republican/index.ssf?/base/ news-5/1266308421238050.xml&coll=1.

Kaku, M. (2009). Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel. Harpswell, ME: Anchor.

Sloan Digital Sky Survey. (2010). Retrieved March 27, 2010 from Wikipedia, Sloan Digital Sky Survey: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/sloan_digital_sky_survey.

Trevor Paglen: The Other Night Sky (2007). Berkeley, CA: UC Berkeley Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *