The Gaia Space Telescope

The Gaia Space Telescope

Summary of the Project
Lens is a series of 6 short VR essay films, each exploring a different idea around “how we see” within astrophysics. The series extends John Berger’s seminal art historical text Ways of Seeing and places it in conversation with historical and contemporary astronomy, as well as the social and artistic implications thereof. In Lens, viewers are invited to regard the universe as a space of infinite mystery; to locate astrophysics as a creative, welcoming, and unfinished conversation; and to examine how our ways of looking at the outer space affect our inner spaces, and vice versa. The series throws open the curtains of science, emphasizing the partiality of all of our perspectives, and accordingly, the importance of seeing as a collaborative act, in astrophysics and beyond.

Visual world and Stylings
Each film includes 3 primary elements, which also shape the visual, spatial, and sonic worlds of the series: 

  1. Contemporary visualizations from the GAIA space telescope

  2. Historical/scientific context and anecdotes

  3. Social and art historical references 

Overall, we move away from the modern style of scientific illustration, which presents hyper-precise images of in fact unknowable information. Rather, we vacillate between true-to-life data visualization and abstract and/or fantastical spatial worlds. Interactivity inside each world is specific to each film’s central idea, and explores emergent questions around ways of seeing within the VR form itself.

Scientific Context
In December 2013, the European Space Agency launched the Gaia space observatory. Gaia’s instruments spent several years scanning the sky, and measuring the exact positions, distances, and motions of stars. In April 2018, Gaia released a catalog of over 1.4 billion stars with their associated motion data, a factor of over 1000 more objects’ data than we have ever had access to, with a precision more than 100 times better. It is, unequivocally, the largest and greatest map humankind has ever made. With the velocities of 1.4 billion objects in our analysis, we can at last tell a more complex story of where stars came from and where they are going, and how we see in the universe at large.

Collaborator Bios
Janani Balasubramanian is a writer, game designer, and immersive theater maker whose work has been presented at more than 160 stages across North America and Europe, including The Public Theater, New York High Line, MOMA, Abrons Arts Center, Andy Warhol Museum, Red Bull Arts, Ace Hotel, Brooklyn Museum, Asian American Writer's Workshop, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Balasubramanian is currently a 2018-2020 Van Lier fellow at the Public Theater, a 2019-2020 Jerome Hill Artist Fellow, co-founder of the Abundant Space Collaborative (an art-science hub), and artist-in-residence with the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. []

Jacqueline Faherty is an Astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History working jointly between the Education and Astrophysics departments.  Faherty has won numerous awards and grants to pursue cutting edge science questions such as the NASA Hubble Fellowship and the National Science Foundation’s International Research fellowship.  She co-founded the research group entitled Brown Dwarfs New York City (or BDNYC for short) and her team has won multiple grants from NASA, NSF, and the Heising Simons foundation to support projects focused on characterizing planet-like objects.  Faherty has over 90 peer reviewed articles in Astrophysical journals, has been an invited speaker at University’s and conferences across the globe and is a major advocate for utilizing visualization tools for both science and education advancements.  

Research Questions about VR
We are eager to consider each film as a provocation to explore ways of seeing astronomically and culturally, as well as a provocation around ways of seeing in VR. Our research questions about the form are informed by the same.

  1. How might we establish collaborative and collective experiences of seeing within VR, which often appears as a hyper-individuated form?

  2. How might we use pacing, spatialization, and interactivity in ways specific to the VR form, while consistently returning to our narrative and artistic goals?

  3. What guidance might viewers need to bridge into the universes we develop?

  4. How can we make these VR experiences accessible to Deaf and/or blind audience members?