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Tim Otto Roth on using Hubble data as art

German artist Tim Otto Roth uses green laser light to project Hubble spectra onto a surface. The exhibit is currently on display in Baltimore, Maryland.

Passersby in Baltimore, Maryland’s Inner Harbor can currently view a free outdoor exhibit created with data from the Hubble Space Telescope. First exhibited in Venice, Italy, for Hubble’s 20th birthday, German artist Tim Otto Roth’s From the Distant Past uses green laser light to project Hubble spectrographic data on the corrugated steel facade of the Maryland Science Center. The exhibit will be on display each night through October 18, 2011, when it will move to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Roth met with EarthSky to talk more about spectra and how artists and scientists can help each other.

How did this project come about?

Well, the story starts up in Munich two years ago, when I was invited as a guest artist at the headquarters of the European Southern Observatory in Garching – close to Munich – which runs the European telescopes in Chile. There, I met with Bob Fosbury, who was at that time head of the European Coordinating Facility of the Hubble Space Telescope. We had long conversations especially on the phenomenon of color, and we developed a first idea of a project. Then Bob came back to me in May last year, preparing the Jubilee Conference for 20 years of the Hubble Space Telescope in Venice, asking me if I would have an idea for an outdoor project in Venice parallel to the conference. From my earlier conversations, I did know how essential colors are for astronomers. Here come spectra into play, which are created by decomposing light of a celestial object by the help of a prism or a diffraction grating into its constituent colors.

My idea was just to take these undulating diagrams of light intensities and to project them on the facade of the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti in Venice where the venue was for the conference. Things went very fast. In June we took a flight to preview the site. Then things were on the way and we started up showing it for one month from mid-September until the middle of October. A lot of people from America came over for the conference and there was the idea of why not to bring this project to the New World? And that’s why I’m sitting here now.

German artist Tim Otto Roth's exhibit - From the Distant Past - on display in Venice. Image Credit: Bob Fosbury

How much did you know about Hubble – the way it takes pictures and the way its instruments work – before you got involved in this project?

I’m a little bit familiar about some basic astronomic tools. I did know that Hubble is great to do astronomy in space beyond the atmosphere, and also for doing longtime exposure observations. So this is why Hubble is predestined to look for very distant sources and for traces of the primordial universe. This is what we are showing now in the Inner Harbor – spectra as traces of colors of the very early universe.

That’s where the name From the Distant Past comes from, right?

Exactly. It means very distant objects at a very early stage of the universe.

Is your background primarily in art, or science, or both?

Well, I’ve always had an affinity to the sciences. I also came very late to the arts. It was photography that drove me to apply at an art academy. Before that, I studied one year philosophy and politics – so something very different. It was more this philosophical thinking which also kept me up thinking about one of my driving questions: What makes an image; and what makes an image today with regards to the new imaging technologies? At the academy I got an education which has to do very much with materiality of pictures. I learned various photographic technologies starting with the black-and-white darkroom. I also did research on historical photographic processes of the 19th century, building up our own emulsions. In the mid-1990s also the new CCD-based digital cameras came up, so this was an interesting time.

Thus I do come from a philosophical but also very material background, questioning what makes an image.

And Hubble is a whole other way to look at images.

In a way, yes. Well, what I’m interested in as an artist in Hubble are not pictures of some clouds. I’m really interested in deep views of the most distant objects where you have more of these noisy pixelated pictures. I want to see more not what is visible but what are really the limits of contemporary vision. And that’s what we do in the Inner Harbor. But we are not showing pictures there, we are showing early decomposed starlight.

Let’s talk a little about the spectra. What was your process in making the actual images that you see now?

From the Distant Past opened at the Maryland Science Center Sunday Sept. 25. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, T. Roth, and STScI

Well, first of all a spectrum is a diagram of the color distribution of dispersed light. Normally, if you disperse sunlight, you would get a quite even distribution of colors. But if you you put a slit before your prism and look very carefully at a spectrum, you will see some gaps – some black bars. Josef Fraunhofer discovered in 1814 hundreds of these lines in a solar spectrum. This was quite a cesura [turning point], because before you were thinking the spectrum is continuous. People were still puzzled about Fraunhofer’s discovery for around 50 years, decoding the secret of these lines. Finally the chemist Gustav Kirchoff unveiled the nature of these lines as a kind of fingerprint of elements. What the spectral plot finally does is just to show the intensities of the light at certain wavelengths.

I think the biggest achievement of the Hubble outreach is that they communicated to people that the sky is not black and white. A lot of celestial objects do have color. The problem is if you look with a naked eye at the nocturnal sky, our color sensors are not sensitive enough for this weak celestial light to see color. But if you look through a telescope, then the light is amplified and you start to see that some of the objects have a slight tint.

This is what has puzzled scientists especially since the 18th century. So they started, for instance, to discover that there are stars that change colors.

Finally spectroscopy comes into play. Spectra are a completely new way to access color and make an exact description of a color. I think this is fascinating. From an artist’s point of view, it’s a very conceptual approach, how to formalize color.

You’re visualizing something that isn’t really visual.

This is another issue. Spectra are visible, but they are not visualizations, because in a visualization you always interpret something. But spectra are just a physical effect. A green line never appears in the red part of a spectrum. If an element is excited at the same pressure and temperature, the spectral lines always appear in the same place. The concept of spectra as visual representation hasn’t really been explored that much in image studies. There are only a few publications on that. And there’s almost nothing done upon that in the arts. This is really quite puzzling, because there are a lot of works in the arts dealing with continuous spectra in the sense of rainbows, but not with this noncontinuous spectra which you can see just holding a CD-ROM under a fluorescent lamp.

And artists haven’t really ventured out there yet?

Although color was a big topic of 20th-century art, I’m so astonished that nobody looked at what exactly happens with light passing a prism. Here the arts are 200 years behind, not transcending Goethean thinking. Goethe was a great observer and developed his own color theory. With his system you can mix up colors as well for printing as for color projections. But you can’t explain these lines in the spectra. So I think something needs to be changed here.

There are lots of possibilities for art there.

Yes, for sure. This is why I’m so positive. Art in the 20th century developed a very conceptual way to approach things. Concept art played in a very reduced way with letters, numbers and pictorial representations. But you had also this movement in painting focusing how to affect people just by color. In a way, these two approaches are coming together in spectra.

Tim Otto Roth. Image Credit: Ahmed Nabil/Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Can we talk about the relationship between science and art, and why you’re interested in putting those two together?

The visual arts have always dealt with the question of what makes an image and explored the phenomenon of color. So these two big questions brought me to the sciences. With regards to technological images, I feel I can get more answers to these questions discussing these with scientists. This is why I’m interested in a dialogue with the scientists, and almost all of my projects are projects not on science but collaborations with scientists.

You’re learning more about the technological aspects of the pictures you’re making.

Well, every picture comprises technology: You have a 3D environment which is translated into the 2D picture plane. The art historian Ernst Gombrich said that every picture is a translation, because you need also to reduce the color palette and the scale from black to white. But he didn’t demonstrate that translating reduction with astronomical pictures – he did it with English landscape painting of the 18th century. I think this example shows there are similar questions we have in art and science as well. It’s just that artists and scientists need to sit at the same table and discuss things, and I think the result can be a highly interesting dialogue.

At the exhibit’s opening we talked about outreach and having the art out in public for everyone to see. Is that something you’re interested in? To inspire people to be curious about Hubble?

I’m interested for conceptual reasons, not just to work with any spectra but to work with a special sort of Hubble spectra showing the light information of the most distant celestial objects. It’s this walk on the inherent borderline of visibility which I am interested in. The second thing is also how you mediate this: I think running such a thing on a large public wall is much cooler than having this closed in the white cube – just imagine seeing this green wave confined within the walls of a gallery or museum. The other effect is that you have a much larger public. And you can also play with the public: My project functions for the simple reason that people associate these green wave patterns with wave patterns from their own bodies. Is that a heartbeat? Is that a brainwave? It’s interesting how you can play with these patterns.

And as you’ve seen, we are not telling people immediately what they are seeing. We just have two posters with information in the windowpane. So these are not the classical outreach procedures. We just leave things more open.

Do you have any thoughts on the state of astronomy today?

What happened in the last 20 years in astronomy is just great. There came up so much new astronomic facilities, Hubble, or other space telescopes exploring in the infrared, x-ray wavelength or the cosmic microwave background radiation. There were so many discoveries which really blow you away. It’s an explosion of knowledge not just in quantity but also in quality. Consequently, our conception of the universe changed very much in the last 20 years and this is just fascinating living in this time. What I observe is how things merge and how astronomers are dealing with different things, as optical and x-ray astronomy come together now.

Anything else you wanted to address?

What I’m using here for the project is quite a minimalist approach in the programming. We throw away all this big commercial laser software framework and just use a laser with two mirrors as a kind of oscillograph, showing just the spectra. We have just a data set of a couple of coordinates for the spectral dots. There is a very little table which we translate into some spots on the wall that the laser scans, and that’s it. In the beginning the laser company was a little bit puzzled about what we are doing. There is no real visual interface, but just code. However, this puristic approach is in a way the consequence of the project.

What do you hope people will see when they look at the wall? What do you hope people will think?

What I want to have is that people are affected and attracted by it, raising their interest. I think those are the only expectations I have. The point is to show that astronomy is much more than just showing pretty pictures. I think that’s also the intention of every astronomer, not only to be associated as just producers of pretty pictures. There is just much more beyond.

Laura Dattaro