The quintessence : an artistic exploration of the visual imaginary of outer space

Breda, Pamela (2021) The quintessence : an artistic exploration of the visual imaginary of outer space. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This PhD by practice 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? I will mainly consider contemporary representations of outer space, i.e. Hubble telescope images produced since the early 1990s. I will analyze photographs of outer space events and objects produced and circulated in the last thirty years and distributed by NASA through public websites and specific publications. Shorter sections of the dissertation will be dedicated to the contextual analysis of archival images of space, in order to show the variations and different approaches produced in the past from the activity of looking at the universe and wondering about its origins. 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 - specifically astrophysicists, cosmologists and engineers - 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.

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