When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, 1867
Statement by guest curator Liz Sheehan:
At the heart of Walt Whitman’s poem is the search for balance: an astronomy student struggles to maintain a sense of wonder about his subject as it is reduced to numbers. Growing impatient with the brilliant but droning lecture, he leaves the classroom to see the stars with his own eyes.
Like Whitman’s young scholar, the artists in this exhibition balance fact with poetry and mystery as they pursue interests more commonly associated with science. What is made and shown here is neither art nor science, but meaning – a different way of navigating the planet. These hybrid practices offer new methods for presenting and interpreting data, make visible the systems of our environment, and reveal factors that mediate our experience of the natural world. Common to all their endeavors is an investigation into how we look and observe. What tools help us to see and simultaneously, what do they prevent us from seeing? What are the limitations and the barriers to comprehension? And above all, when we reach a place of understanding, does the mystery fade?
Bartow+Metzgar’s “non-human drawings” reveal the forces and organisms that comprise our shared environment. Using low-tech tools such as drawing platforms attached to tree limbs and sheets of vellum buried in the earth, Bartow+Metzgar remove the mediating hand of the artist from the process. The resulting marks are both a record and an expression of a specific set of environmental conditions across time, a new form of scientific illustration and a conceptual investigation of our ecosystem.
Digital media artist Jane D. Marsching explores our past, present and future human impact on the environment through interdisciplinary and collaborative practices including video installations, virtual landscapes, dynamic websites, and data visualizations. For her 2011 project Ice Out, Marsching mapped 150 years of wind data from Walden Pond in Concord, MA in a series of mixed media prints, and then translated that data into dance steps through a custom software program called Wind Notation Code. Mythologized as the site of Henry David Thoreau’s Transcendental experiment in self-sustained living, Walden exists as both a place and a narrative at the intersection of historical, scientific, and cultural production. As the artist explains, “Working with data from scientists, meteorological observatories, home weather stations, almanacs, scholars and many other sources creates a pool of information that can be translated into stories of the site that are more complex and richer than any single discipline can tell.”
Former astronomy student Nathalie Miebach intentionally challenges expectations of the visual vocabulary of art and science with woven sculptures that interpret scientific data into three dimensions. Rather than proofs, figures, charts and diagrams, Miebach uses reeds and colorful beads to represent the complex system of biological, chemical, and physical interactions that make up weather. Her ongoing series Changing Waters, on view at SPACE, is comprised of meteorological and oceanic data from the Gulf of Maine. Watch Nathalie's Ted Talk here.
Deb Todd Wheeler uses materials from the environment to explore the consequences of our desire to to be productive, to be industrious, to push technology forward. Her work often uses the vernacular of scientific instrumentation to create personal and intimate viewing experiences, creating conditions where we might seek to understand worlds right in front of us that we don't quite see. Cypress and Star, 2012 is a 50” circular panorama comprised of translucent cyanotype images of polyethylene plastic. As ambient light shifts across the piece, it appears as an ocean filled with floating marine life – as plastic in fact threatens to become a new marine “species.”
The League of Imaginary Science describes their work as “a series of dream experiments” in which they “conflate imagined and real space, invent characters and concoct science.” The collective believes that “A team of uncertain experts doing what they don’t know best can achieve an unexpected ending that serves as a launching point for both collaborators and a project.” Inspired by Whitman’s poem and the exercise of finding beauty in data, the League built a pseudo-interactive sculpture and related documentary that encourages viewers to help keep the universe working.