How James Webb’s deep field images reminded me that the divide between science and art is artificial

The first task I give photography students is to create a starscape. To do this, I ask them to sweep the floor beneath them, collect the dust and dirt in a paper bag, and then spray it on a sheet of 8×10 inch photo paper. Then, using a photo magnifier, expose the particle-covered paper to light.

After removing dust and dirt, the paper is immersed in a bath of chemical developer.

In less than two minutes, an image of a galaxy-filled universe slowly emerges.

I love when the dark room is filled with the sound of their amazement the moment they realize that the dust beneath their feet has been transformed into a scene of scientific wonder.

I was reminded of this analog exercise when NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope delivered the first deep-field images. The public expression of surprise is not unlike that of my students in the darkroom.

But unlike our makeshift starscapes, the Deep Field images capture an actual cluster of galaxies, “the deepest, sharpest infrared view of the universe to date.”

This imaging precision will help scientists solve mysteries in our solar system and our place in it.

But they will also inspire ongoing experimentation by artists who address the subject of space, the universe, and our fragile place in it.

Creating Space Art

Images of the cosmos provide considerable visual pleasure. I listen to scientists passionately describe the information stored in their saturated colors and amorphous shapes, what are the glows and shadows, and what lies in the deep blacks that are speckled and speckled.

The mysteries of the universe are the stuff of science and imagination.

Throughout history, artists have imagined and created proxy universes: constructions that are lyrical and speculative, alternate worlds that stand for what we imagine, hope, and fear is “out there.”

James Webb Space Telescope image of Stephan’s Quintet. NASA/STScI, CC BY-SA

There are the photo-realistic drawings and paintings of Vija Celmins. Carefully hand drawn or painted night sky with incredible detail and accuracy.

It’s David Stephenson’s time-lapse photographs that read like lyrical celestial drawings that remind us we’re on a planet in motion. Yosuke Takeda’s fuzzy star bursts with color and light. Thomas Ruff’s sensual photographs of the stars made by meticulously cropping the details of existing scientific images he acquired after failing to capture the cosmos with his camera.

It’s also the extraordinary work of Blue Mountains-based duo Haines & Hinterding, where polka dots become stars, black pigment the night sky, bleeding ink a gas formation. They make noisy stones and harness the sun’s rays so that we can hear and smell its energy.

These works of art highlight the creative desire to support science for the purposes of art. The division between science and art is an artificial one.

Pictures of our imaginations

The Webb Telescope demonstrates the ability of science to bring us images that are aesthetically imaginative, expressive, and technically accomplished, but—surprisingly—do not make me feel anything.

Science tells me these shapes are galaxies and stars billions of years away, but it’s not sinking.

In my imagination, I picture Webb’s images as made of fairy lights, colored gel, mirrors, black cloth, filters and Photoshop.

A planetary nebula, seen by the Webb telescope. NASA/STScI, CC BY-SA

Attitudes of art occupy my psyche. When I look at the deep field and the planetary nebula, I am reminded that even these “objective” images taken by the machine are constructed. Rays of light, holes and gases are artistic experiments in photographic abstraction, examining what lies beyond vision.

Image technology always transforms what is “out there”, and how we see it is determined by what is “in here”: our subjectivity; what we bring of ourselves and our lives to the reading of the image.

The telescope is a photographer that crawls through the cosmos, making more of the invisible. Giving artists more references for appropriation, imagination and also criticism.

While scientists see structure and detail, artists see aesthetic and performative opportunities to ask pressing questions about the politics of space and place.

Art in space

Webb’s images present a renewed opportunity to reflect on the work of American artist Trevor Paglen, who sent the world’s first work of art into space.

Paglen’s work examines the political geography that is space and the ways in which governments aided by science use space for mass surveillance and data collection.

The deepest and sharpest infrared image of the early universe ever taken. NASA/STScI, CC BY-SA

He created a 30-meter diamond-shaped balloon called the Orbital Reflector that was supposed to open into a large reflective balloon and be seen from Earth as a bright star. It was rocketed into space on a satellite, but engineers were unable to finish placing the sculpture due to the sudden government shutdown.

Paglen’s artistic work was criticized by scientists.

Unlike astronomers, he was not trying to unlock the mystery of the universe or our place in it. He was asking: is space a place for art? Who owns the space and who is the space for?

Space is readily available to government, military, commercial and scientific interests. For now, Earth remains the land of art.


About the Author: Cherine Fahd is an Associate Professor of Visual Communication in the School of Design at the University of Technology Sydney. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. This article was originally published on Conversation and is being republished under a Creative Commons license.

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