/ the project

The artistic research aims to explore the visual imaginary of outer space and the construction of contemporary astrophysical knowledge from sky observation, in order to answer the main research question: How do images of space tell a story? The research’s outcomes are artworks in multimedia forms, namely experimental films, photographs, site-specific installations, audio recordings and an artist’s book. Through crossovers and original methodologies of enquiry, visual representations of the universe are approached as complex narratives constructed through the combined agency of technological apparatus and human intervention. Moving forward from the traditional representation of the scientific world as a fixed domain of knowledge, this artistic-based research presents the domain of astrophysics as an evolving system, which evades the fixity of truth-encompassing statements.

Archival research on visual representations of outer space provides a contextual frame of reference, complemented by a series of theoretical discussions pinpointing the research. Audio-visual documentation generates a sensorial representation of highly secluded scientific laboratories usually not accessible to the general public, thus providing a first-hand impression that would not otherwise be accessible. A series of audio interviews conducted with scientists provides an intimate portrait of astrophysicists’ unique background knowledge, ideas and creative intuitions, moving beyond the traditional academic representation of scientists as individuals possessing an unquestionable knowledge of the universe. Focusing around key topics such as the nature of scientific progress and our role as humans investigating outer space, the interviews provide a unique commentary on the act of looking at the stars.

The research tests how and to what effect artistic practice can generate new and original insights on the modalities through which astrophysics represents and narrates itself. The related artworks act as a series of experiments looking at subjects (outer space visual representations, research labs), agents (scientists, technological apparatus) and contexts (theoretical frameworks of reference) and demonstrate the tension between the visible and the invisible shaping the present development of cognitive-visual knowledge about outer space.

The research title The Quintessence: an artistic exploration of the visual imaginary of outer space was chosen for its ability to evoke multiple and interrelated meanings. According to the Oxford dictionary, the “quintessence” can be defined as

1: the most important part (of something)
2: the perfect example (of something)

The first definition makes reference to the role of the universe as the wider frame of reference which contextualizes the existence of the Earth, the planet on which we live along with many other species.

The second definition relates to the multiple artworks produced throughout the research, conceived as pratice-based visual and auditory analyses of the contemporary visual imaginary of outer space. In this sense, they act as exemplary statements on how to develop new ways to approach images of the universe, and the narratives they embed.

Additionally, the title generates a poetic reflection on the classical meaning of the word “quintessence”. In ancient and medieval astronomy, it was believed the universe was formed by four elements: air, water, fire and earth. A fifth, ethereal and invisible element, kept everything together, filling the region of space above the Earth. It was called the quintessence (in latin quinta essentia, or fifth element). For many centuries, this concept was evoked to explain natural phenomena such as the propagation of light and gravity.

Since modern scientific experiments found no evidence for the presence of such a medium, this idea was progressively abandoned at the end of the 19th century. However, the contemporary speculations on dark matter postulate the presence of a powerful yet invisible force keeping the universe together. The title thus acts as a poetic statement of intent. It highlights the research’s goal to analyse the key elements giving shape to visual representations of outer space and at the same time it makes reference to a powerful yet invisible force prompting humanity to explore the mysteries of the universe.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” Oscar Wilde famously stated.* The gutter is, of course, a metaphor for our daily struggles and the obstacles we find on our path. Looking into the distance of space becomes an action that can uplift our souls and make us feel part of something greater.

Astrophysics is the observational science par excellence. Since scientists cannot physically touch stars and galaxies, observation and visualization are essential features for the development of human knowledge about the universe. But how is it possible to know what is happening in the most distant regions of outer space?

Throughout history, looking at the sky has meant, first and foremost, speculating about its nature, wondering about its origins and its future evolution. As a consequence, visual representations of the universe have always mirrored specific cultural, social and even political contexts.

Ancient cultures studied the heavens as a way to better understand earthly events. They transformed the random pattern of stars into shapes of humans, animals and gods. They used constellations to walk across lands and navigate through seas. In the Middle Ages, the sky was conceived as a series of transparent spheres rotating around the Earth, believed to be at the center of the universe. During the Renaissance, Galileo’s and Newton’s scientific revolutions provided a new understanding of the physical laws of the universe and opened the way to contemporary quantum theories and riddles about dark energy.

Nowadays visual representations of the sky have become the key referents for the formulation of hypotheses about the physical, material dynamics of outer space. We are all familiar with the Hubble telescope’s shiny and colourful images of stars and galaxies. They are the perfect example of highly advanced observational tools employed by contemporary astrophysicists to look at the most distant regions of the visible universe. But how exactly are these images created? And what do they tell about our own specific way to observe the universe? This practice-based research tries to answer these questions.

* Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892),
in Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, London, Penguin, 2000, p. 47.