Photographs and Holograms from the Haystack Radio Observatory

Debra Balken
Today the function of the artist is to bring imagination to science and science to imagination, where they meet, in the myth.
Cyril Connolly, "The Unquiet Grave"
Unlike the utopian ethos of many modernist artists who have turned to technology as both a subject and device, Susan Gamble and Michael Wenyon have always remained disaffected of the giddy overtones of these idealistic gestures. While the work of the Russian Constructivists, and later figures such as Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, might have spawned (perhaps unwittingly) a widespread, yet frequently esoteric, implementation of science-based materials in the arts, Wenyon & Gamble have consciously dissociated themselves from these visionary pursuits. Rather than being seduced by technology's gambit––its magical and spectacular products––this collaborative artistic team has been drawn to the history of science, specifically, since 1986, to the study of astronomy and its practitioners, findings, innovations and instruments. From this distanced stance, they have come up with a more analytic, conceptual take on the imagery of science, one which reveals both its elegance and connections with art.
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In fact, when Wenyon & Gamble became artists in residence at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Sussex in 1987, they had already made a decision to avoid any of the obvious or flashy representations of contemporary science, believing the history of the field could be mined more effectively for visual content. As both artists have said, "instead of being 'inspired'`by the latest imagery of 'big science', we would go back to the days when individuals struggled with hand-made equipment, half hoping to discover a way to make gold.1
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…. In the large-scale installations that grew out of Wenyon & Gamble's residency at the [Greenwich] Observatory, … untapped aesthetic linkages became the subjects of their work. In Newton's Rings, 1987, for example, a tri-part colour image of the light formations that Newton observed through his optical experiments are mounted on an easel (a metaphor or reference to the craft of art) against a backdrop of black and white photographic projections of sections of the stacks of books in the Observatory's library. But rather than duplicate through drawing or in paint the patterns that Newton artfully depicted in his Opticks, they are re-presented in Wenyon & Gamble's work through a hologram, a mid-twentieth century technological device that also grew out of the study of light. …

While both artists also pursued a residency at The Royal Observatory in Edinburgh in 1994 … they came to feel a need to move away from what they have described as "historical science to contemporary science."3 The shift was part of a growing recognition of the consumerist dimension of science, its zeal and constant necessity to outpace the ongoing obsolescence of equipment and instruments. As they felt that, "going backwards in time to find 'sources' for our images seemed like a way to subvert or at least frustrate the utopian art-science construction4, this focus became delimiting, or at least, in need of revision or redirection as their understanding of the culture of science extended to its voracious requirement for new technology.

The Haystack Radome, Mapped with Its Own Telescope, 2000 … is a single, splayed, longitudinal view of the surface of the dome, which when flattened in this digital format becomes a mosaic of geometric patterns. Similarly, The Dish Lensed, Haystack Observatory, 2000, reveals the enormous dish of the telescope skewed against the backdrop of the tiles of the dome to be a luminous, floating, ambiguous object rather than as a contraption or mere technological device. These images are replete with the grandeur of science but they are also, ironically, transformative, recasting clinical spaces and machines into imaginary, and sometimes ethereal, environments.
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In the archives of the Observatory Library, Wenyon & Gamble came across various photographs of the moon and planets made by astronomers at the Haystack in 1968 who worked on the Apollo space mission. Like their discovery of the unattributed art in Newton's drawings for his Opticks, they realized, as they put it, that these 'hand-made photographic mosaics of the moon grew out of a struggle to see both high-resolution and the bigger picture which brings scientists close to the process by which an artist traditionally works.5 The multiple and distorted viewpoints that structure The Dish Lensed, Haystack Observatory, as well as compositions such as Beneath the Radio Telescope, Haystack Observatory, 2000 and View from Inside the Incoherent Scatter Radar, Millstone Hill, 2000 build on the same kinds of scientific observations that determined the astronomer's photographs of the moon. What with the enormity and curvilinear shape of both the radome and lunar landscape, it is impossible to grasp their entirety in a single take. Hence, the flattened or fractured views in both sets of photographs.
Wenyon & Gamble have noted that a primary architecture underlies and unifies both the mapping of the moon and their own photographic reconstructions of the radome. They have found that "from...examination of these astronomical mosaics and the mathematical relationships we construct our own projections and reflect upon the architectonic nature of seeing."6 A certain geometry or symmetry, then, emerges from both photographic investigations, the difference resting on the issue of use––the Apollo shots of the moon have been designated as scientific documents; Wenyon & Gamble's images are defined as art. But unlike astronomy, these artists have also played with this basic geometry, working it to elaborate and metaphoric ends. In Rotational Mosaic, Haystack Dome, 2000, for example, an exterior view of the radome is engulfed by images of clouds configured as a concentric pattern. While the shape of this 'mosaic' of photographs echos that of the dome, it also alludes to the quest of astronomy and its study of celestial bodies.

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In other works such as The Dark Side of the Dome, 2000, and Dome Explored in Lunar Form, 2000, the references to the photographs from the Apollo space mission, as well as the internal history of research at the Haystack Observatory, are mined with clever visual ends. The various lunar stages become an artistic means to compose single photographs of the radome into either crescent or partial shapes. These fragmentary images with their alternatively stark and warm colours endow the radome with a certain mystery that its technological efficiency otherwise dispels.

… While works such as Rotational Mosaic, Haystack Dome and Dome Explored in Lunar Form might allude to the metaphorical dimensions of science, these artists's images of the machines or technological apparatuses at the Haystack Observatory reveal the practice of astronomy to be a highly methodical pursuit. The banks of computers and recording devices that are featured in The Correlator, Haystack Observatory, 2000 and The Control Room, Haystack Observatory, 2000, while rendered with the same broken or multitudinous perspective system that structures The Dish Lensed, Haystack Observatory, are dead-pan representations that demystify the industry of science and its fetishistic dependence upon equipment.

  1. Michael Wenyon, electronic mail letter to the author, August 11, 1999.
  2. Susan Gamble and Michael Wenyon, In the Optical Realm: Wenyon & Gamble, Holographic Installations, 1988-91, ex. cat., Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 1991
  3. Wenyon, electronic mail to the author, August 11, 1999.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Susan Gamble and Michael Wenyon, "Observing–How we are all scientized now," proposal for forthcoming paper at the College Art Association annual meeting, February 2000.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Gamble, electronic mail to the author, August 13, 1999.
Excerpt [1220 words from 2,332 words] of the essay by Debra Bricker Balken in Observing the Observers… , the catalog to the exhibition by Wenyon & Gamble at the MIT Museum Compton Gallery, February 18 – May 6, 2000. ©2000 Debra Bricker Balken, all rights reserved.

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