Thursday, April 25, 2019

A Place That Exists Only In Moonlight: a Q&A with Katie Paterson

I have a Q&A with Katie Paterson in the 25 April issue of Nature. There was a lot in Katie’s comments that I didn’t have room for there, so here is the extended interview. The exhibition is wonderful, though sadly it only runs for a couple more weeks. This is science-inspired art at its finest.


Scottish artist Katie Paterson is one of the most scientifically engaged of contemporary artists. Her work has been described as “combining a Romantic sensibility with a research-based approach, conceptual rigour and coolly minimalist presentation.” It makes use of meteorites, astronomical observations, fossils and experiments in sound and light to foster a human engagement with scales in time and space that far exceed our everyday experience.

Many of her works have astronomical themes. All the Dead Stars depicts, on a sheet of black etched steel, the location of around 27,000 stars that are no longer visible. For the Dying Star Letters (2011-) she wrote letters of condolence for every star newly recorded has having “died” – a task that got ever more challenging with advances in observing technologies. And History of Darkness (2010-) is an ongoing archive of slides of totally dark areas of the universe at different epochs and locations.

For Future Library (2014-2114), 100 writers including Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell will write stories (one is commissioned each year since 2014) that will be kept in sealed storage until 2114, when they will be printed on paper made from 1,000 trees being planted in a forest in Norway. Paterson has said of the project that “it questions the present tendency to think in short bursts of time, making decisions only for us living now.”

Some of your works speak to concerns about degradation of the environment and the onset of the Anthropocene – Future Library, for example, and the Vatnajökull project (2007-8) that relays the live sound of meltwater flowing within an Icelandic glacier to listeners who dial in on mobile phones. Do you think that what can seem like an overwhelming problem of environmental change on scales that are hard to contemplate can be made tangible and intelligible through art?

Future Library has a circular ecology built into it: words become enmeshed in growing trees, which, fed by water and light, a century later will become books. It’s a gathering, and the trees spell out time. The artwork is made with simple materials, people, nature and words, and its connected to feelings and senses. The phone call I set up to the glacier was an intimate one-to-one experience; listening to a graveyard of ice. The crisis of global warming does not feel intimate when it’s screeching at us through screens and graphs – yet of course it is. Our planet is disappearing. Humans understand suffering, the cycle of birth and dying. We need a contemporary approach to what Stephen Hawking called ‘Cathedral thinking’: far-reaching vision that is humanly relatable.

David Mitchell sees an optimistic message in Future Library (as well as an exercise in trust): it is, he says, “a vote of confidence in the future. Its fruition is predicated upon the ongoing existence of Northern Europe, of libraries, of Norwegian spruces, of books and of readers.” How confident are you that the books will be made?

We have put many methods in place to ensure that the books will be made. Each tree is marked on a computerized system, and the foresters take great care. We are investigating the likely methods of making ink in 100 years’ time. The city of Oslo has taken this artwork to their heart, and even the king and queen of Norway are involved. We have a Trust whose mandate is to “compassionately sustain the artwork for its 100 year duration.” Yes, Future Library is an exercise in trust. This year’s author Han Kang described the project as having an undercurrent of love flowing through it. It concerns me, and certainly says something about our moment in time, that we even question whether it will be possible to make books in just 100 years. We have clearly reached a crisis.

You have said “Time runs through everything I make.” Your work deals with the scales of distance and time that astronomers and geologists have to consider routinely, but which far exceed human intuition. How can we cope with that?

I find professions that routinely deal with long timescales fascinating. For the foresters in Future Library, 100 years is normal. Geologists work across time periods where major extinctions become plots on a map. Astronomers work with spans of time that go beyond everything that has ever lived. However, this routineness may blur the immensity of the concepts at hand. All the same, we can unearth materials fallen from space and comprehend that they go back far beyond humanity’s time on earth. Our technologies are advanced enough to look to a time beyond the Earth’s existence, approaching the Big Bang. Humans have devised and created these images, yet they exceed our capacity to understand them.
For me the route to a different kind of understanding of time is through the imagination. That’s the space that provides the most freedom and openness. My art attempts to deal directly with concepts that I can’t get to otherwise. Perhaps mathematical languages enable something similar. My journey in astronomy has been a search for connection: understanding that we are not separate from the universe, but are intrinsically linked.

Your work Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008) does exactly what it says on the tin. The bulb was created in collaboration with engineers at OSRAM. Can you explain how it was made?

I approached Dieter Lang, innovation manager and lighting engineer at OSRAM, and asked him to adapt the methods they use to make ‘daylight bulbs’ to recreate moonlight. I wanted to create a whole lifetime of moonlight – a bulb that lasts the length of an average human life. Dieter took light measurements under a full moon in the countryside outside Munich. I’d always imagined the futility of trying to recreate something as ineffable as moonlight, yet I was happy with the result – the light bulbs burn very brightly, a yellowy-blue tinged light, which changes according to your distance to it, just like the moon.

Do you see projects like the “dead stars” works or History of Darkness as attempts to connect us to the vastness of deep space and time? Or might they in fact suggest the futility of trying to keep track of all that has happened in the observable cosmos?

It oscillates somewhere in between. History of Darkness has futility written into it, capturing infinite darkness from across space and time. Each slide could contain millions of worlds, and learning that these images refer to places beyond human life and even the Earth may expand our relationship to these phenomena, and enhance the sense of our fallibility. All the Dead Stars was made in 2009. I’d like to update it in years to come – it might become an expanse of white dots, as telescopes become even more powerful and abundant.
I’m always drawn to the idea of the universe as deep wilderness. No matter how extensive our research and advanced technologies become, we can never ever truly access the great beyond. I read that our ‘cosmic horizon’ is around 42 billion light years away. What lies beyond, whether finite or infinite, will forever remain outside our understanding. Creating artwork is as much my own way of grappling with the “divine incommensurability” of our position in the universe, as much as an attempt to communicate it with others.

In Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) (2007), you encoded Beethoven’s sonata in Morse code, broadcast it to the surface of the moon in radio waves, and reconstructed the partial score from the reflections. That evidently required some powerful technology. And in 2014 an ESA mission to the Space Shuttle enabled your project of returning a fragment of meteorite to earth orbit. How do these collaborations with scientific institutions come about?

Earth-Moon-Earth was created with “moon bouncer” radio enthusiasts: underground groups of people sending messages to each other via the moon. I simply wrote them letters. While studying at the Slade [art school in London] I wandered into the Rock & Ice Physics Laboratory next door [in University College London]. They allowed me to play my glacial ice records in their walk-in freezers. That was when I found out quite how easy it was to approach others in different fields. With the moonlight bulb I simply called round a number of lighting companies till I came across the right person. The map of the dead stars involved hundreds of researchers. Some scientists are far more involved than others, from sharing data (NASA gave me the recipe for the scent of Saturn’s moon) to developing the artworks very closely with myself and my studio. [Astronomers] Richard Ellis and Steve Fossey have played an enormous role. I tend to approach people who are experts in niche fields, such as type 2a supernova, and I ask to draw on their specialization. It’s their passion, so they are generally receptive. This can be a chance to share their knowledge in a way that they haven’t been asked to before, that will become manifest in an artwork engaging with totally different audiences. Of course there can be bafflement, but so far it’s been overwhelmingly positive.
Recently, for the first time researchers from came to me. I received a message from a group of scientists working on a mission proposal to NASA, inviting me to join their team as a ‘space-artist/co-investigator’ inquiring into cosmic dust. I’m extremely happy about this, not only for the creative potential but because the scientists have shown genuine concern that an artist might have something of value to contribute to their research. The group understands that art can be a way to share their knowledge through a different, more experiential, channel.

Your concepts clearly draw on – and indeed derive from – new scientific discoveries and techniques. For example, The Cosmic Spectrum (2019) is a large rotating colour wheel on which segments show the “average colour” of the Universe (as perceived by the human eye) from the Big Bang until the present, partly using data from the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey. How do you stay abreast of the latest scientific developments, and what do you tend to look for in them?

I discovered [astronomer] Ivan Baldry’s work on the cosmic spectrum several years ago. Many of my ideas sit on the back burner for years and manifest themselves at later stages. I don’t feel on top of scientific developments, but sometimes just one experience has enough potency to carry projects through years later.
I’m drawn to current investigations into the sunsets on Mars caught by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover – but equally by botanical records from bygone eras, or the ray of light in a Florentine cathedral that marks the solstice built centuries ago. Sometimes just looking at titles on the shelves of science libraries can be enough to evoke compelling images. My inspirations have been wide and varied: from looking through telescopes to extremely distant galaxies, to tending a moss garden in a Zen monastery (a universe in itself). I’ve always drawn inspiration from artists, writers, musicians and thinkers whose work has a cosmic dimension: for example, raku ceramicists molding ‘the cosmos in a tea bowl’.

Some of your works exist only as the ongoing collection of ideas in the book A Place That Exists Only in Moonlight (2019). Occasionally they find a striking resonance with concepts that, for a cosmologist or physicist say, might almost seem like a thought experiment or research proposal: “A reset button for the universe pressed only once”, say, or “The speed of light slowed to absolute stillness”. Do you ever find that the scientists you collaborate with or encounter are inspired by your ideas into asking new questions or conducting new investigations themselves?

A Place that Exists Only in Moonlight arose out of a period of heavy production. I wanted to find a ‘lighter’ approach, which is the creative core of everything for me; just the ideas themselves. The book contains artworks to exist in the mind, many of which refer to suns, stars, moons, planets, earthly and cosmic matter. The cover is printed with cosmic dust: a mixture of moondust, dust from Mars, shooting stars, ancient meteorites and asteroids. I wanted the reader to be able to hold and touch the material the words describe, while taking them in. The Ideas are like thought experiments, Zen koans, Gedankenexperiment. In a way that’s true of all my artworks. What time is it on Venus? What texts will be read by unborn people? Is it possible to plant a forest using saplings from the oldest tree on earth, can we make ink to be read only under moonlight? I’m always curious. I will post copies of the book to everyone I have worked with, and I would be very happy indeed if they chose to conduct new investigations themselves.

A Place That Exists Only in Moonlight, an exhibition that pairs Paterson’s works with studies of light, sky and landscapes by J. M. W. Turner, is at the Turner Gallery in Margate, UK, until 6 May.


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