Catching the Light
Semiconductor, 2014

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Catching the Light is a moving image installation, created using visual data, collected by space telescopes.

Semiconductor accessed scientific image archives of deep space, to acquire image data collected by space observatories. The observatories’ imaging instruments capture stars, objects, planets and comets. Ordinarily these images would be used individually to study deep space, but here Semiconductor have searched for sequences of images from which they can produce photographic time lapses, producing moving images of deep space seen here for the first time. This produces clunky low-resolution animations that franticly skit about, reflecting the capturing technology and the movement of the space telescopes. The projected image is made up of hundreds of
hese animated sequences: by collaging them together Semiconductor have disrupted their original spatial relationships to create new patterns and points of reference, remapping the sky. Semiconductor are interested in how technology made to study nature, influences our experiences and understanding of it. Here, by employing the products of science they have created their own interpretation of deep space.

The way space telescopes capture light from the universe to create these images is by using electronic detectors. These detectors produce images of the cosmos not in colour but in shades of black and white. Space telescope data is the most well-known highly doctored science image data in that the finished colour images we often see are combinations of two or more black and white exposures to which colour has been added during image processing, used to highlight interesting features of the celestial object being studied or the visualise what ordinarily could never be seen by the human eye and to create something much more visually compelling than the original captured data. By collecting the data in its rawest form Semiconductor are able to present it as the technology captured it: in its native black and white and through embracing the signatures of the capturing technology they remind us of the presence of man as an observer.

Star Maps is installed across a cluster of square and circular screens, to create a six metre wide projection surface. The shape of the screen reflects the space observatories image capturing process: as they photograph chosen parts of the sky, the trail of photographs produce assorted shaped arrays, which are then used as points of reference in the data archive. Semiconductor have combined three of these arrays in their native format to make the screen formation; M3, NGC6809 and M60. The different shapes within the arrays reflect the instruments used to analyse the area; for example the peculiar ‘stair’ shaped image that is seen is the result of an instrument called the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 or WFPC2. The instrument is made up of four cameras, each camera records a separate image that represents one part of the overall view, but one of its camera records a magnified view of the section it’s observing, which allows us to see finer detail in that section.

During image processing the magnified view is reduced to the proportion of the other three, resulting in one small image and three larger images. The stair-step shape emerges when the four images are stitched together to make the final image. By using the screens in this way they become portholes or windows into the universe, they also suggest that what we are seeing is only a part of a much larger picture.

The sound is four channels which run along the width of the screen. It’s positioning relates to what is happening on the screen. We employed our trademark techniques of using the image to control the sound to have a material approach to the image sound rather than a narrative one. The sounds are reminiscent of what you hear if you translate data collected by radio telescopes into audible frequencies; subtle harmonies and fizzes and pops. We created our own electronic harmonics to produce a singing universe.

Since the earliest known documentation, man has looked towards the sky searching for patterns to create an understanding of what he is seeing. Through plotting these patterns, early mapping techniques evolved, forming the basis of a new field of knowledge which continues today.

Progressively telescope technology has developed to reach deeper and deeper into space revealing more and more information, and so the quest continues to read the patterns and map the sky in ever more detail. This desire, to place ourselves in the universe remains at the forefront of scientific endeavour and drives technological advances.

Semiconductor have previously worked alongside space scientists and witnessed the production and fabrication of space telescopes and satellites up close. The Alulite used to fabricate the screens was chosen by them, as its construction is very typical of the materials used in the production of man-made space objects including the Hubble Space Telescope mirrors. Its appearance when viewed from the side is a metal honeycomb sandwiched between two aluminium sheets, so that you can see the innards or workings of the material: this resonates with how man-made space objects often appear surprisingly DIY on close inspection. The surface of the screen has a wet spray painted 5% matt black surface: this is a technique scientists and engineers use in the production of space telescopes to absorb unwanted light.

Semiconductor acquired the data through the online Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST).

MAST is a NASA funded project to support and provide to the astronomical community a variety of astronomical data archives, with the primary focus on scientifically related data sets in the optical, ultraviolet, and near-infrared parts of the spectrum. MAST is located at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). The space telescope archives used in this work are; SWIFT, Hubble and GALEX.

Semiconductor worked with a programmer to develop software to automate the data acquisition.

This software carried out some processing of the images to save them in a useable format. It took three months to acquire and process the archive material, mainly because the processes of accessing and aligning the images needed to be done predominantly by hand due to the lack of coherent archiving methods used.

  • Date: 2014
  • Type: Installation
  • Copyrights: All rights reserved (c) LIMA
  • Keywords: installation - multi-channel video installation