The James Webb images remind me that the division between science and art can be artificial

To achieve this, I have them sweep the floor under them, collect dust and dirt into a paper bag, and sprinkle it on a piece of 8×10 inch photographic paper. Using the photographic enlarger, expose the paper covered in detritus to light. The paper is then submerged into a chemical developer bath after being cleaned of dust and dirt.

In less than 2 minutes, a galaxy-filled universe slowly appears.

It’s so exciting when they are astonished to discover that the dust under their feet has been transformed into an amazing scene of scientific wonder.

When NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope published the first images of deep fields, I was reminded of this analog exercise. My students’ expressions of wonder in the darkroom are similar to those of my public audience.

The Deep Field images are “the sharpest and deepest infrared views of the universe ever.”

The scientists will be able to unravel the mysteries of our solar system and where we fit in it with this imaging precision.

Creating art of space

Images of the Universe provide a great deal of visual enjoyment. Scientists describe the information that is stored in the saturated colours, amorphous forms, luminosity, shadows, and the dark spots and speckles.

Science and imagination can only imagine the mysteries of the Universe.

Artists have created and imagined proxy universes throughout history: constructions which are lyrical, speculative and alternate worlds, that stand in for what we hope, fear and imagine is “outthere”.

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

There are also the photos-real paintings and drawings of Vija Celmins. Night sky, painstakingly painted or drawn by hand.

David Stephenson has created time-lapse photographs which remind us of our planet’s movement. Yosuke Toda’s starbursts are a hazy mix of light and colour. Thomas Ruff created his sensuous stars by cropping the details from existing science images that he purchased after he failed to capture the Universe with his camera.

The Blue Mountains-based duo Haines & Hinterding also creates incredible works where polka dot stars become, while black pigment becomes the night sky and bleeding coloured ink forms a gas. They harness the energy of the sun to make rocks vibrate and allow us to hear and smell it.

These works of art demonstrate the desire to use science in the service of art. The artificial divide between art and science is a myth.

Read more: How making a film exploring Indigenous stories of the night sky enriched my perspective as a scientist

Pictures of our imaginations

The Webb Telescope shows how science can produce images that are artistically imaginative, expressive, and technically accomplished. But – oddly – these images don’t make any of us feel anything.

I don’t believe that these are stars and galaxies billions of miles away. Instead, I see an amazing landscape that looks like James Nasmyth’s famous images of the moon from 1874.

I imagine the Webb images to be made up of mirrors, black fabric, coloured gels and filters.

The Webb telescope captured this planetary nebula. NASA/STScI, CC BY-SA

Art’s substitutes infiltrate my psyche. Even these “objective”, machine-made images , are constructed. These rays, holes, and gases are photographic experiments that explore what is beyond the human eye.

The technology of imaging always transforms the “outside” and the “inside”. How we perceive it is determined “in here”, by our own subjectivity, what we bring to the image reading.

The telescope is like a camera crawling through space, revealing more of what was previously hidden. Artists will have more resources for imagination, appropriation and critique.

Artists, on the other hand, see aesthetic and performance possibilities to ask pressing questions about space and place.

Art in Space

Webb’s pictures offer a new opportunity to reflect upon the work of American Artist Trevor Paglen, who sent the world’s first artwork into outer space.

Paglen examines the political geographies of space, and how governments use it for mass surveillance.

This is the sharpest and deepest infrared picture of the early Universe ever taken. NASA/STScI, CC BY-SA

Orbital Reflector was a diamond-shaped balloon of 30 meters that he created. It was meant to expand into a huge reflective balloon, which could be seen as a bright light from Earth. The sculpture was launched into space by a satellite, but due to the sudden government shutdown, the engineers were unable to complete its deployment.

Scientists criticized Paglen’s art.

He wasn’t an astronomer, and he didn’t try to solve the mysteries of the Universe. He asked: Is space a place where art can be created? Who is the owner of space, and for whom does it exist?

Government, military, commercial, and scientific interests have easy access to space. Earth is still the place where art will be created for the moment.

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