Shine – a coming together of Science, Music and Art to celebrate the International Year of Light – staged its main event at the Byre Theatre in St Andrews on the 7th of November. For my own part in the project, the ideas and the inspiration, along with the most complete and spectacular range of colours, all took shape in a work that is all inspired by the light – the distant light of the Universe. Our next stage in the project will be to bring together the spectral lines of the art installation with ‘Symphonies of Galaxies’, the new music created for Shine by composer Eddie McGuire. Look out for new postings to be added here.
To be involved in this exciting collaboration with astronomer Anne-Marie Weijmans, composer Eddie McGuire and music director Bede Williams has taken me into some very new and unfamiliar territory and, as I’ve been discovering, the fundamental properties of light that I’ve been tasked to consider can tell us so much more than I could ever have imagined.
In much of my previous work the process of collaboration with other artists has been the driving force behind the ideas and the moulding of our separate inputs into a coherent whole. I’ve worked with a large number of wonderful musicians and composers as well as poets, actors, dancers, sculptors and even a medievalist.
I have never worked with an astronomer before however – a definite first – and, with the help of Anne-Marie Weijmans and the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St Andrews and the insight that this has given me, my use of light will probably never be quite the same again.
An important part of Anne-Marie’s work is as the lead observer with MaNGA – mapping nearby galaxies at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The work involves studying the very particular properties of light from stars and galaxies and the detail gathered from the studies – spectroscopy – tells us a great deal about those stars’ or galaxies’ composition and characteristics.
What I’ve come to understand, and what has then formed the basis of my own approach to the Shine project, is the extraordinary level of detail – and therefore information – that is contained in the spectrum of starlight. We see the whitish light of visible stars but when that light is separated out into a spectrum, and the light of the spectrum is analysed, it is as if we can then see the dna of the star and, by extension, that all the light of the universe could be said to be contained in a series of codes.
It would be a stretch to try to properly cover the science part in any outline to my work but if we talk about how light – and all electromagnetic waves – interact with the atoms of the individual elements that make up all the matter of the universe, then we know that this a unique interaction with each of the known elements.
Atoms and molecules have their own characteristic spectral lines which relate to discreet wavelengths – and therefore colours – of a spectrum. With these colour coded “fingerprints” we can identify the atomic and molecular components of stars and this is precisely what Anne-Marie is doing in her work at MaNGA.
From my own point of view, and on a much more simplistic level, it also helps that the spectrum is an undoubtedly beautiful thing to behold. For me, like most people I’m sure, the sight of a full and perfect arc of a rainbow can never be just glanced and ignored.
In many of my previous installations light and separate colours of light have played a key part in the design. For the last two years I led a project which was in response to the discovery of a small fragment of a 12th century manuscript containing some of the earliest notated music ever found in Scotland. As a way of breaking the project down into separate and distinct components (events) I was instinctively drawn to the colours of ink used in the manuscript and these were blue, black and red.
The research into those colours led me to understand how the colours might have been created in a medieval world – so the mineral Lapis lazuli from the mines of northern Afghanistan for blue, or the carminic acid of Cochineal for red, and oil lamp soot for black. This framework of colour helped to shape the characteristics of each stage of the project as the colours had also been the foundation for the texts and notation of the scribes in its creation.
Now, through the shared project of Shine, and following my own much deeper investigation of light and colour, I’ve had cause to appreciate light and its characteristics in ways that I’ve never previously considered. With the help of Anne-Marie Weijmans and the School of Physics and Astronomy – and with the inspiration of Eddie McGuire’s new music – my own practice has been given a very fresh perspective and with it, great deal of new ideas and possibilities.