Cosmoscope Q&ABack to all
January 17th, 2018
Cosmoscope, a piece commissioned for Lumiere Durham 2017 is making its way to London for the second edition of the Lumiere London festival.
We spoke to the creators of the installation to find out more about its creation and what inspires the trio to create works of this kind.
Cosmoscope is by Simeon Nelson with Rob Goodman and Nick Rothwell. Supported by Wellcome.
How long have you had this interest in the workings of the universe and what first inspired you?
Simeon, the lead artist, has been fascinated by natural systems and celestial mechanics since childhood: what is a river? How do the folding rock strata define the landscape? How is it that the earth does not rest on something? How does the earth and the other planets orbit the sun? What forces keep this great system in balance? How did it all begin? Where are we in the universe? These and other basic questions of location like the childish address sequence that he used to address his envelopes with of house number, street, suburb, city, country, planet, star system, galaxy etc etc. Our circles of concern widen and deepen as we grow into adulthood, as does our conception of the cosmos.
Rob, the composer for Cosmoscope, has been a keen amateur astronomer for as long as he can remember. The excitement of seeing a new cosmological object through a telescope is something he still loves. The relationship between music and the cosmos dates back to antiquity, something he would like to see returned to in todays mainstream education system. Cosmoscope is about much more than what we can physically see. We wanted Cosmoscope to go far beyond the ‘Music of the Spheres’ idea of sonification. Rather, music was based on the scientific work as a whole, plus the geometry of the sculpture.
Nick, the visual artist and coder, is just about old enough to remember the Apollo moon shots, and was a pure mathematician in an earlier life, and so has always been fascinated by anything combining mathematics and scientific practice. Cosmoscope draws on classical geometric theories of the universe as well as up-to-date scientific research of large-scale and small-scale phenomena, making it fertile ground for experimenting with software systems that generate and animate geometric forms.
How and when was the idea for Cosmoscope born?
We’ve been developing Cosmoscope for around three years. This has consisted of group and individual meetings with the scientists plus group sessions and symposiums.
The basic ideas behind Cosmoscope have been playing out in Simeon’s work for decades, it is a culmination of many strands, notions of order and disorder; the notion of embeddedness, that you can’t pick anything out without dragging everything else in the universe with it; the counterfactual potentiality – our intertwined culture and technology, situated by our biology and ecological/ context would be markedly different given different biology and context.
Issues related to time, periodicity of orbits on the micro and macro scale, irregularities (quantum and cosmic errors), frustrated spin systems, pendulums, celestial spheres, and astronomical clocks and rings all became part of the development. The sequence for Cosmoscope (Quantum, Human, Cosmic…) unfolds as a giant cosmic clock – inspired by the historical science of Galileo and others. It is a study in rhythm and pulse on the micro and macro scale. One of the unexpected challenges in creating the sequence to this work was relating the adjectives – small (quantum scale), human and cosmic – to sound and light. Most of us can perceive size on the human scale, and possibly astronomical, but quantum is much more difficult to understand, even though we are quantum beings.
As a collaborative team with extensive technical knowledge, we started developing digital systems that would allow us to create the sound and light for the sculpture. The sound and light systems were designed to be fully integrated into the sculpture, taking into account the evolution of the design of the Holohedron.
In the past, our collaborative works have projected sound and light onto pre-existing buildings. Cosmoscope is a geometric sculpture – the Holohedron –that ‘contains’ the sound and light. The Holohedron has been developed from a series of intricate working models to a large-scale sculpture. It is engineered as a series of interlocking three-dimensional tiles that are relatively easy to assemble and are structurally sound while maintaining if not enhancing the poetry and the nuance of the form. It was quite close to the conclusion of the project that all these elements started to come together and make sense.
Previous works such as Plenum generated animations using the concept of scalar fields: the entire facade was modeled as a combination of continuous mathematical functions, so that the moving light points making up the space would vary in intensity according to their position. We saw Cosmoscope as taking that idea and projecting it into higher dimensions: the three dimensions of space, the dimension of time, multiple “phases” (different animation functions), and so on. The mathematics became much more complex, since we had to map two-dimensional phenomena onto multiple planar surfaces (the tetrahedral faces of the holohedron form), and somewhere along the line we decided to upgrade from black-and-white to colour, but in many ways Cosmoscope is a multidimensional expansion of ideas we’ve already explored in two dimensions in earlier works.
What’s the key learning you think people can take from Cosmoscope?
We hope that people may feel a slight shift of identity, an altered or expanded sense of kinship and belonging, of being participants in a cosmic order that connects the immediate to a greater whole opening a space for contemplation and speculation that is both personal and astronomical, revitalizing the near-at-hand yet flinging us into the farthest reaches of our imaginative capacity.
It became clear to us that we have a better understanding of objects that can be found billions of light years away than those that exist on the quantum scale. What have the study of the universe, blood flowing through the human body and the order and disorder of atoms and molecules in the cosmos got in common?
But as well as the physics, biology and chemistry behind the underlying ideas of Cosmoscope, we were very keen for our audience to think about their personal place within the cosmos – what does it mean? Why are we here? What role do we play within it and how might that change in the future? Cosmoscope takes the fact that the humanity is close to the midpoint of the cosmic scale and tries of apprehend both the unity and diversity of all things. This is the existential dimension to the project – reimagining ourselves embedded in a wider system of meaning beyond the human.
As part of the Cosmoscope outreach project, the work featured in the Science Outreach Festival organised by Durham University. Thousands of children and their families ‘created their own universes ‘ and engaged with the central concepts of Cosmoscope, helping them understand their position and role in the universe.
Cosmoscope can be experienced by all – as an audio-visual spectacle, or as an object engaging with our own sense of place within the universe.
Tell us about the artistic process. How do you begin to go about breaking down complex science into an artwork that maintains the scientific principles behind it?
To some extent, the software design and implementation was always about devising or extracting mathematical models from the scientific data, and making those models sufficiently abstract and modular that they could be reassembled in new and surprising ways, bringing out patterns and combinations in the data that might not be predictable or expected. Towards the end of the process we had such a large toolbox of combinatorial functions, all representing geometric patterning concepts, that we were generating visual phenomena faster than we could aesthetically evaluate them: the hardest part become choosing which elements or combinations to leave out.
However, the Cosmoscope team has always attempted to go beyond the data, doing more than creating visual and musical analogies of the scientific data.
If you could go anywhere else in the universe where would that be and why?
Rob says – In 1990, Nasa’s Voyager 1 took an iconic picture of the earth. It was a small dot, our planet, as seen from over 11 billion miles away. Whilst this picture has given many people some idea of the scale of the universe, the image (the document of the event) still doesn’t compare to the excitement of seeing the object with your own eyes. So – we would like to be on board Voyager 1 – as it ventures out into interstellar space, watching our home – an infinitely small dot, become infinitely smaller…
Or, at the opposite end of things…!
Could we experience a quantum frustrated spin system?! We arguably know less about this than the majority of the cosmos!
Nick says – There are projected to be billions of earth-like planets out there. I’d want to see them, and see how close they come to our Earth: what do they look like on the surface, how do they smell or sound, what kinds of life might they support? Out of all those billions, which one comes closest to being like our Earth, and how close is it? Could we mistake it for the real thing? Could we live there?
Simeon says – I would love to follow a methane river on Titan, largest moon of Saturn, down its course carved through the frozen river valley of hydrocarbons and water ice to one of the huge hydrocarbon lakes it empties into, an ethane rain squall breaks from the dark clouds of methane ice and cyanide gas on the orange horizon and on the distant opposite shore of the lake I can just make out the near edge of a hydrocarbon dune field that bears remarkable resemblance to those of the Namibian Desert back home on earth.
Thursday 18th January 5.30pm