Thursday, October 19, 2006

Miniature and Gigantic (2) - academic discussion

The Miniature and Gigantic


This paper considers the miniature and gigantic in the context of an exhibition design for the Stardome Observatory, Auckland New Zealand. Carried out by FRISK in collaboration with students from Auckland University of Technology Spatial Arts degree, it is concerned with optical devices used by astronomers to visualise the universe.

Astronomers and astrophysicists use concepts of both the gigantic and the miniature to describe our physical universe. For the designers, this project instigated a challenge to consider how spatial extremes could be visualised through an exhibit, located within a single spatial dimension. Einstein’s theory of relativity, which understands the physics of time, outer space and gravity (the gigantic), and the fields of quantum mechanics, relating to the inner space of atoms (the miniature) , are but two examples pf the sp[atial extremes that required discussion in the exhibit. Intertwined with this challenge came another requirement: to be mindful that any visualisation would be reliant on a politics of representation in relation to how we understand the world, as well as our attempts to describe the universe and place ourselves in relation to that understanding.

For the FRISK team, this project offered a fascinating challenge, with its interfaces of art and science and the requirement for us, as designers, to cover an intense amount of research in an area none of us were previously familiar with. It also demanded an encounter with scales beyond our everyday experience, especially in relation to the design of interior spaces. As we all are involved with teaching, the project was a chance to actively involve our students in design work.

The site for the exhibition was a lobby entrance to the Auckland Stardome Observatory; a dark, internal and marginal space leading to the planetarium proper, where projections of the night sky are viewed, and to the Zeiss dome housing a telescope for directly observing the stars and planets. The existing lobby had severe restrictions in terms of the area allocated to exhibition and in terms of the budget.

The brief was also difficult because the Observatory had nothing to exhibit. Unlike a museum, it had no artefacts, no images, nothing physical for the students to work with. While the observatory was able to source images everything that was to be exhibited had to be produced from scratch, with students using their own areas of research to generate the exhibit. What is more, while some of the concepts we were visualising were very complex, they had to be communicated in such a way that children aged 2-14, or people with no previous background knowledge could understand them.
For the initial presentation to the Observatory, the FRISK team came up with five main concepts to transform this space:

Darkness and Light

It was proposed that visitors would enter the exhibition foyer through a darkened space, a transition zone of blackness and sound. A space evoking “the breathing space of immensity” as it is related to Maori cosmology. In Maori cosmology the visual is not privileged. For this space a sound work would be commissioned in collaboration with Ngati Whatua to permeate the area. From this darkened entry, visitors would then enter a luminous zone where the main exhibits would be dispersed.

Lunar wall

This was a luminous wall with craters embedded into its surface. Each crater contained a peephole through which viewers could peer into worlds within worlds, spaces containing miniature models and dioramas. Some peepholes would have lenses so that a great depth would be created within this tiny space. Very low level peepholes would be geared specifically towards children, combining both scientific fact and fantasy. The lunar wall would create a surface of curiosity. Viewers could peer into its depths and actively discover the exhibits - alone and at their own pace - much like explorers who venture into unchartered territory.

Transmission Towers and Satellite Clusters

Dispersed in clusters through out the entire foyer space, these constructions would function in two ways. Earth based “transmission towers” would be clustered around the ticket and sales counter to display merchandise for sale, while suspended satellites (devices which receive and transmit information across vast distances and in and out of time zones) would be used to broadcast still and moving images and sound via small liquid crystal display screens, speakers and light boxes.

The Trajectory Slope

This would be a curved section floor-to-wall similar to the curve of a satellite dish and fabricated in sheet steel. It would primarily act as an experimental surface where the motion of trajectory and the force of gravity could be physically acted out by children of all ages. At the sides of the trajectory would be incisions containing hand held, game-like exhibits that illustrate the properties and physics of space.

Gravity Sinks

These air filled forms in opalised rubber placed throughout the foyer would provide a place for people to sit and contemplate. The form of the seating encourages the visitor to physically explore the notion that a gravitating body stretches and distorts space much like a lead weight, resting on a rubber membrane.

Development of the Lunar Wall

After the initial proposal to the Observatory the budget for the first stage of the exhibition focused on the development of the lunar wall, with exhibits of optics as ways of seeing. The area for this installation was limited to an area of 3 x 5 meters. The following discussion relates to the development of the wall.

The lunar wall was derived from observing black and white photographs of the moon’s cratered surface. The craters became transposed into perforations on the walls surface. 6mm Perspex panels were heated in an industrial oven. They were warped with randomly placed round river stones to create the craters or pits, scattered like a meteorite field across its surface. The panels were then installed on site, supported on aluminium brackets and backlit by fluorescent tubes. Once installed, peepholes were drilled through the craters’ surface. Lenses were then attached that would reveal to the peeping audience the miniature exhibits housed in boxes behind. Figure 1. Moon Surface, Figure 2: Lunar Wall, Figure 3: Lunar Wall Detail

The students became involved in the second and more difficult stage of the project, helping to design and construct the miniature exhibits to be placed behind the lunar wall. These exhibits revolved around topics to do with optics: How we observe the universe, different types of telescopes, aspects of the electromagnetic spectrum, or the use of different wavelengths of light to make visible things that our eyes cannot register unaided.
In order to radically think about the relative scales involved, we set an initial task to consider how one could model the Powers of Ten, the famous exponential series of scales in Charles and Ray Eames, 1977 film. This film begins with a human scale and travels by powers of ten through the smallest and largest scales known at the time of its production.

To give you a sense of the immense differences in scales involved: The consider figure 4, an image from the Hubble space observatory showing our most distant vision of universe. This image of extremely distant galaxies magnified by 4 billion times, represents an area the size of a pin prick in our night sky when viewed normally. At the opposite end of the scale the image in figure 5 shows a computer simulation of colliding protons travelling at the speed of light. Such extreme scales are the norm for astrophysicists. It is difficult for people outside of these specialist fields, however, to conceive of them in relation to our own bodily experience, or even in relation to a lifetime. Most of us struggle to imagine the scale or distance of a light year, let alone to imagine travelling at the speed of light.

The Powers of Ten exercise lead on to considering how the universe has been visualised historically and within contemporary contexts, especially in relation to Einstein’s theory of relativity and notions of the physics of time, outer space and gravity. The latter are thought about in terms of the gigantic, while quantum mechanics relates to the inner space of atoms and the miniature. Through these considerations we encountered what is commonly described as the disjunction in our understanding between the gigantic in relation to astrophysics (that which lies at or outside the limits of what can be visualised and understood) and the miniature. Questions of miniature also stretch the limits of our understanding in relation to new theories in the field of quantum mechanics: inconsistencies have been observed in the behaviour of subatomic particles, used to describe the very early stages of the universe, when it began as a speck so small it measured 10 -33. Quantum theories taking these inconsistencies into account therefore threaten the determinism of previous models of a certain and precise cosmos. Rather than accurately describing the real, quantum theory relies on the use of thought experiments. This means that with quantum theory we confront the world with the filters of our human thoughts about the world. Thus, we do not measure reality…we measure the relationship between reality and our thoughts.

Students also considered how any visual representation of the universe through the miniature is dependant on a more general politics of representation regarding our understanding of the world, or how we attempt to describe the universe and place ourselves in relation to that understanding. Susan Stewart in ‘On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection’ notes that ‘there are no miniatures in nature: the miniature is a cultural product, the product of an eye performing certain operations, manipulating and attending in certain ways to the physical world’ (Stewart 1984: pp 34). And elsewhere she writes that the miniature,

‘offers a world clearly limited in space but frozen and thereby both particularised and frozen in time – it is particularised in that the miniature concentrates on the single instance and not upon the abstract rule, but generalised in that that instance comes to transcend, to stand for, a spectrum of other instances’ (p 45).

With this statement, Stewart suggests that the miniature with its absolute anteriority and ‘profound interiority’ acts as a metaphor, is able to stand in for ‘all books, all bodies’. In other words, all things

From historical examples of visualisations of the universe, the politics of seeing also became strikingly evident. For instance, the early Greek astronomers tried to explain how the universe worked in a logical, systematic manner. They relied on an idea that the Universe had to be a rational place following universal, natural laws. Such ideas were most commonly represented in the Pythagorean geocentric model involving a central fire with celestial bodies moving around it in circles. In this model, the planets, Sun, Moon and stars moved in perfectly uniform circular orbits, with a stationary earth located at its exact centre.

These ideas of an orderly and precise universe were later consolidated by the Platonic belief in mathematical symmetries which were considered to be part of a language of universal God given design and harmony and a belief in the power of reason. These ideas were further refined in the first century by Ptolemy to include epicycles to account for the retrograde motion of planets. However, the geocentric model remained essentially unchallenged until the sixteenth century when Copernicus adopted a heliocentric (Sun-centred) model. Copernicus believed that God (the sun) should be at the centre of the universe - not Earth, which he considered to be corrupt. Limitations of a sixteenth century view of the world (an inability to observe a paralactic shift), coupled with a hierarchical structure within the Church that was inextricably bound with geocentric cosmology, led to the dismissal of the Copernican model. So it was not until Galileo’s observation in 1609 of four moons orbiting Jupiter, using a telescope that any shift was reconsidered.

Further insights and refinements came in the seventeenth century with Kepler’s discovery that planets orbit at variable speeds in ellipses. But even Kepler still held on to a Neoplatonic resonance between the human mind and the laws of nature, on the basis that God had created humans with the gift of reading the mathematical harmonies of God's mind. Kepler believed that it would only be a matter of time for someone to discover God's plan.
By the end of the seventeenth century it was Isaac Newton’s turn to present a seamless mathematical view of the world in his book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Newton used a few key concepts (mass, momentum, acceleration, and force), the three laws of motion (inertia, the dependence of acceleration on force and mass, and action and reaction), and the mathematical law of the dependence of the force of gravity between all masses on distance. These key concepts allowed him to bring together all knowledge of the motion of objects on earth and of the distant motions of heavenly bodies, thus making the earth part of an understandable universe.

Einstein’s 1905 theory of relativity and the speed of light, inverted all previously held notions of space and time. In his imaginings, he deduced that the speed of light in a vacuum should always be the same, regardless of the motion of the light source relative to the viewer. From this he reasoned that if an object approaches the speed of light, time becomes dilated, the length of the object is contracted, and its mass increases. Such an idea could not apply to a human scale. It could only apply if one observes an event that is moving at the speed of light relative to the observer. That is, the concept is entirely reliant on the gigantic to be imagined, but amazingly the idea was able to be condensed into the miniature in the form of the equation E=MC2.

Since Einstein, other theories have emerged, most importantly in the field of quantum mechanics through the observation of inconsistencies in the behaviour of subatomic particles, threatening the determinism of Einstein’s model of a cosmos that can (at least by physicists) be visualised.

What was intriguing about these theories in quantum mechanics for us as designers, was the idea that what is 'real' is relative to our method of questioning nature and is culturally and historiaclly determined. In quantum mechanics a measure cannot be legitimately being said to have taken place until it is acknowledged by the conscious awareness of a human being. In quantum theory we confront the world with the filters of our human thoughts about the world, and to some extent nature conforms to these thoughts. This means that quantum theorists do not measure reality…they measure the “relationship” between reality and our thoughts. Reality becomes ambiguous at the quantum level, because it cannot be reconciled with our normal view of the objective world. This means that, at least in the quantum realm, we cannot pin down a consistent reality. Quantum theory pictures the particles that make up everything that we touch and feel not as little hard definite independent things, but as a tangle of possibilities entangled with every other tangle of possibilities throughout the universe.

Finally, there were also theories to consider that try to overcome the rift between the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics - commonly known as the” theory of everything” or “string theory”. String theory is an elaborate mathematical theory that talks about the properties of space. For string theorists there are several ways of picturing the world in, an attempt to describe the physical behaviour of the infinitely small. According to these theorists, one way of imagining this, is to imagine that each point in ordinary space becomes like a tightly folded origami which links to six extra dimensions, and which in turn is wrapped up in a scale a billion times smaller than an atomic nucleus.

For people who usually work with two, three and four dimensions and the spatial poetics of interiors and inhabitation, encountering these extreme concepts of space and the structure of space was fascinating. It was with the awareness of the complexity of the issues that we embarked on the difficult task to design and construct miniature models, to show ways of seeing the universe. The primary focus was on optics, and the mechanics relating to visualisation in the electromagnetic spectrum. But in the process, questions also arose as to how space is imagined, visualised, how things that can’t be seen (such as dark matter or black holes) are conceived, and where we position ourselves in relation to that understanding.

To make sure the requirements set by the Observatory brief were covered, the topics for the exhibition were broken down into subject areas, and age groups targeted. These categories roughly determined where the exhibits would be later located in the lunar wall. Each perforation in the wall had an optical lens attached which either magnified or shrunk whatever was behind. The individual exhibits behind the lunar wall were contained within a translucent box and relied mainly on image/text compositions; 3D models and/or digital visualisations to transmit information. With the knowledge that much information was beyond the comprehension of audiences such as pre schoolers, each exhibit also contained miniature aliens hidden within the display.

The privileged position of the visually focused exhibits of the lunar wall was contrasted on the opposite side of the exhibition space with the installation of a heavily folded black felt curtain containing headphones. Here the audio presence of space could be registered, from the popular fiction sounds of sci-fi movies to the sounds of different radio waves as they are cuaght and translated by radio telescopes.

Fleur Palmer, 2005

Thankyou to the other designers in the FRISK team (Kathy Waghorn, Sue Gallagher), Auckland University of Technology – Dr Tina Engels-Schwarzpaul and Spatial Arts students who participated in the project (in particular Fang Ching Lee, Darcy Utting, Rui Kamata, Alice Pollack), Auckland Stardome Observatory (Peter Goodenough, Kate McKinney, Jim and Warren) and audio artist James Pinker

Greene, B. (2004). The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. London: Alfred A. Knopf.
Morris, R. (1999). The Universe, the Eleventh Dimension and Everything. What we know and How We Know It. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.
Stewart, S. (1984). On Longing: Narrative of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP.

No comments: