Returning to the field


Reprinted by kind permission of the artist Sophy Rickett

‘Observation 123’ Reprinted by kind permission of the artist Sophy Rickett

Saturday was sequenced by events governed by glass and optics. The early morning sunshine provided the permission to continue with my experiments with Cyanotypes, a process developed by the astronomer, scientist and early photographer Sir John Herschel in the mid nineteenth century. I then rushed to Oxford to attend a talk by Sophy Rickett on the ‘Objects in the Field’ work hosted at the Museum of the History of Science where the work is currently on display. I returned home where the birthday party for my three-year grandson was in full swing and where I was expected to create photographic records. A short respite before walking to the house of some friends for an evening meal under the stars in their back garden.

Sophy Rickett prefaced her talk with a comment on how obsolescence underpinned the work at one level; how the work that Astronomer Roderick Wilstrop had undertaken at Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University had been superceded with the advent of CCD imaging, how the glass optics that he painstakingly hand ground and employed in the camera he designed and constructed in his back garden, had been overtaken by capabilities outside the imagining of astronomers of a previous generation and how the scale of development in astronomy had grown in an exponential way matching the discoveries in the fields of both view and discipline.

The records that Wilstrop endeavoured to record with his ‘Three Mirror Telescope’ and his choice of recording material, the industry standard Kodak – Technical Pan – obsoletion . The film was very slow, typically ISO 25 though many rated it at ISO 12.5 ensuring that exposures would take a long time, typically 40 mins and requiring the telescope to track the ‘object’ in real time. The telescope, the film used, means of recording and the practice all now obsolete, consigned to a shortening memory. Even the records he made have little if any value to today’s practitioners; in answer to whether the photographs he made would be of any scientific value he says “No, these were taken twenty years ago, and not properly calibrated. A few of the nearer stars move slightly against the background of others, and any planets will have gone around their orbits four of five times. These are a record of the skies as they were twenty years ago.”

'Observation 111' Reprinted by kind permission of the artist Sophy Rickett

‘Observation 111’ Reprinted by kind permission of the artist Sophy Rickett

Obsolete records recorded with an obsolete technology in a methodology as outdated as last year’s digital camera model.

Rickett also interweaves her approach to her work with this now obsolete material, how her practice utilizes aesthetic qualities of the data and is re-presented, with differing contextual references. How the agency of the work is impelled into new and interesting narratives with the artist’s repositioning of the results of the astronomer’s work. The artist recounts how Wilstrop questions this proposition from Rickett, about how he seemed reluctant, but accepting – to a certain extent – of the way by which Rickett, with none of the astronomer’s scientific intellectualism, seeks to find new or alternate meaning with the material.

There have been several individual artworks associated with the residency that Sophy Rickett created; comprising a video, a photographic piece, and a (written) text. About half of the words in the written piece directly concern Rickett’s encounter with Wilstrop, the remainder bookend those words with, the reader is to assume by the use of first person narrative, the artist’s personal reflections on three separate episodes, connected, we assume by the writer and interrupted by the encounter with the astronomer. Fact or fiction? It seems unimportant to me whether it is either of those polar extremities, it is most likely to be a concoction of sorts; but no matter as these whimsies set the contextual tone for the Wilstrop incidental episode.

Spending time again with the written text and reflecting on the talk at the museum I began to wonder at some of the new objects appearing into my field of view. Rickett spoke of the contest of meaning, how her imagination of the photographs/material, which is clearly mediated through her experience as an artist was at cross purposes with Wilstrop’s original intent and that, as she informed me on an email, her decisions were informed by a sense of aesthetics and not for illumination into a distant far-off field of space. This re-purposing of the data was echoed in another comment she made about how the new electronic imagers employed in modern telescopes re-position the data into images. The stream of bits are fed into a receiver (either serially or in parallel (my words)) and are then molded into a rectilinear form from via some algorithm within the electronics of the system and then appended with attributes to allow for interpretation. This interpretation is governed by a practice that is centuries, perhaps millennia old, so that ancient astronomers might be able to recognize the charts from datums they had originally identified and mapped. The means though by which the heavens are mapped has only very recently – relatively speaking – fundamentally changed. Wilstrop was in a line of optical continuum that stretches back across the ages, the change in the means of data collection has now altered seismically, and so Rickett was marking an end of an era but also, and more importantly for me, she regarded the material as a means to communicate something else, some other whose connection with the celestial was perhaps only arbitrary. Her stories were about how she saw things/objects/subjects in her field of view:

“Through the double glass window of the moving train, I am transfixed.

I see the younger boy begin to take the long slow turn to face his friend.

I see just the beginning of what is to pass between them, a fragment of story as it begins to unfold.

And the train speeds up and then I have gone.”

from the text “Objects in the Field” by Sophy Rickett

'Southern flow'

‘Southern flow’

In the text we are informed about the context of this encounter, though not too much, but in this stripped down version I suspect it opens up an even greater sense of suspense between the two subjects and their viewer through the double glass window of the moving train. Why did she inform us of the double glass window, to connect us to Wiltrop’s optical experimentations? Our proxy’s views then become of greater importance, in fact it become the subject and not the two boys because we are shown them through the optics of the traveller; its significance is elevated by that narrative course. Wiltrop has no connection to it, the “Objects in his Field” have entities of personal significance to him and are not affected by those two boys nor of the viewer we experience them by. However we, the viewers to Rickett’s re-work are experiencing the re-purposed narrative by the artist, the exegesis we derive is opened by Rickett, though not closed, by her artistry.


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