July 12, 2020

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'Seeing' stars

Fiona Annis remixes astronomical data to poetically visualize space and time

Hundreds of light bulbs respond according to a data feed tracking the death throes of massive short-lived stars.

Hundreds of light bulbs respond according to a data feed tracking the death throes of massive short-lived stars.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/2/2015 (1977 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When we look at the stars, what do we really see? In the title of her exhibition at Aceartinc., Montreal-based artist Fiona Annis quotes a persistent myth that harbours a kernel of truth: "The stars are dead but their light lives on."

True, the stars we can see with the naked eye are probably all still chugging along, but when they do blink out it will take years -- if not tens of thousands of years -- for their last gasps to register on Earth. Even light can only move so fast: if only on a human scale, our view of the night sky is still, in a very real sense, a look back in time.

Similarly, our most revealing pictures of the cosmos tell their truths in roundabout ways. Telescopes register wavelengths that the eye can't perceive, while composite, "false-colour" photographs help us discern the character and composition of galaxies and nebulae too vast, too complex and too distant to fathom any other way. Even the "sounds" of crackling solar wind and creaking comets must be adjusted to fit the range of human hearing.

Annis loses herself in these translations, reinterpreting astronomical data to craft alternate means of visualizing the universe. Her work is melancholic and lovely, lyrical and spare, spanning traditional photo processes, installation sculpture and sound. It invites us to contemplate the art, science and metaphors we use to help locate ourselves in "deep" time and space.

Reel-to-reel tape machines are looped continuously.

Reel-to-reel tape machines are looped continuously.

The gallery is exceptionally dark, lit by faltering constellations of bare bulbs that hang from the ceiling in nebulous clusters. Before your eyes adjust, you perceive an ambient soundscape rolling in from all directions. Remixed "sonic interpretation(s) of dying stars" emanate from vintage reel-to-reel players; orbital loops of magnetic tape arc precariously toward the ceiling. The flickering lights are synced to the radiating signatures of a distant supernova, and they illuminate mirror-like black aluminum panels etched with text from Jeanette Winterson's 1997 novel Gut Symmetries -- fragmentary musings on love and astrophysics.

In back, a hand-cranked dynamo lights up a lonely glass plate photograph, an observatory image tracking the 1910 passage of Halley's Comet.

The show's antiquated and faux-vintage esthetics can feel contrived at times, while Annis's multi-layered, behind-the-scenes data manipulations can seem convoluted or frustratingly opaque. There is a consistency and logic to both, however, and the installation is deeply engrossing, if a touch theatrical.

The constant translations between old and new, analogue and digital, light and sound have the effect of collapsing history -- not just the billion-year time-scales of an expanding universe, but the history of our attempts to understand our place in it.

The stars have always been a focus of human striving, guiding our attempts to navigate the oceans, the future and the space itself. I can hardly fault Annis for getting swept up in the beauty, immensity and mystery of it all. It's worth fumbling around in the dark a bit for the chance to follow along.


Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.


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