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For the past three years, artists Susan Gamble and Michael Wenyon have been in residence at MIT's Haystack Observatory, using digital cameras, mapping techniques and holography to investigate the visual environment of the Observatory -- and even the astronomers themselves.
The resulting images reflect the human and cosmic aspects of the scientists' world, and are the subject of a new exhibition at the MIT Museum's Compton Gallery, Observing the Observers..., opening this Friday, Feb. 18.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a 16-foot panorama taken by a camera attached to the 120-foot dish of the observatory's radio telescope. "You had to climb up two catwalks to get there," Mr. Wenyon said. "It was pretty scary."
They clipped the camera to the top of a railing and left it there to photograph the architecture of the great geodesic dome as technicians moved the structure to various positions. "[The telescope] was like a very expensive tripod," said Mr. Wenyon.
The resulting panorama, flattened onto paper and taking up an entire wall of the Compton exhibition, reveals the repeating pattern and geometric nature of the telescope's own engineering. It's also an example of what art historian Debra Bricker-Balken calls Wenyon and Gamble's "analytic, conceptual take on the imagery of science... which reveals both its elegance and connections with art."
In a forward to the exhibition's color catalogue, Associate Provost Alan Brody praised the generosity and enthusiasm of the Haystack staff. "The astronomers saw it as an opportunity to experience their work in a new light," he wrote. "The residency offered those possibilities all scientists embrace: enlarged understanding of one's self and one's world, a new creative vocabulary, colleagues who actively share in the pursuit of knowledge and truth."
Mr. Wenyon compared the duo's work as artists with the work being done in Haystack's community of scientists, noting that "although we have very different aims and objectives, we're all involved in making images."
"People don't usually look at technology aesthetically," added Ms. Gamble. "Images of technology are not the first thing that anyone thinks of putting on their wall. Here you have art that addresses technology in a way that perhaps other artists have addressed more traditional artistic concerns."
The artists have worked in two previous observatories, the Royal Greenwich Observatory in England (1986-88) and the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland (1993-94). Their work has been shown at the Whitney Museum in New York, the Art Tower in Mito, Japan, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and most recently at the Boston Athenaeum in 1998. They were awarded a UNESCO prize for the aesthetic development of new technology in 1993.
The February segment of WGBH-TV's "Greater Boston Arts" features a look at Wenyon and Gamble's work in conjunction with the MIT exhibit. The show airs on Wednesday, Feb. 23 at 8:30pm and Thursday, Feb. 24 at 12:30am and Sunday, Feb. 27 at 11:30am on WGBH channel 2; and also on February 27 at 11pm on WGBH channel 44.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 16, 2000.