July 13, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

By Sofia Hurst
11th May 2022

Illuminated dust particles in soft light, looking more like stars floating in the darkness of space. The interplay of the blackness of an eclipse surrounded by the bright corona of the sun. Lenses, mirrors, century-old drawings of sunspots, calibrators at an observatory… our closest star – one we struggle to perceive and which has fascinated us since the dawn of humanity.

In her latest work as Artist in Residence at the Open Data Institute, Rohini Devasher created a major new film installation where she interrogates our relationship with the sun by looking at observations and experience, information, data, and truth. She does so using over a century of data in different forms, from sunspots drawn onto a diagram of the sun in 1902, to glass photographic plates, and NASA datasets. It is freely available to view at the ODI’s offices in Kings Place, London.

I had never previously thought of myself as working with data. The ODI has helped me recognise that data is how we observe what we care about.

Rohini Devasher

Through her partnership with the Open Data Institute, Rohini learned that data could be more ‘free’ than she previously believed, and that she could combine her own exploration of 12 years as an amateur astronomer with her artistic vision to share her reverence for the sun.

“There are many ways we try to read the sun,” she tells me as we chat over zoom from the ODI to her home in India. “We can’t see it, can’t look at it, it’s knowable only through data”.

The installation is made of four different films that are played simultaneously. They are accompanied by comforting music and sounds that inspire me both with calm and with a sense of deep timelessness. I find out later that the sounds are acoustic renderings of the sun using data, voice, music and sound.

Hannah Redler-Hawes, head curator of the exhibition and director of the ODI’s Data as Culture programme is thrilled with how the work has been produced: “[Rohini’s] interest in the processes of science and her practice as an artist and amateur astronomer means that she brings a unique approach to generating and mining ‘evidence’ in order to gain insights…. It raises questions about the act of observation, how well we know our nearest star, and how knowing the wider Universe brings us closer to understanding ourselves.”

Each film touches on a different aspect of her exploration – or four different ‘paradigms’:

Paradigm 1

Sun Drawings explores the notion of observation over time using naked-eye drawings of the solar disk created between 1902 and 1904. It explores the nature of drawing when faced with an object that is not only unfamiliar, but one which is in most cases difficult to understand, see and draw. There is a palpable sense of ‘beginning’ as I watch the film, the music inciting the idea of a heartbeat, the yellowed paper of old studies, the subtle fading in and out of different diagrams.

Paradigm 1 – Sun Drawings. Photography by Rohini Devasher

Paradigm 2

Twin Suns considers the Sun as both knowable and unknowable. It focuses on the collections of lost, never to be repeated moments, captured using 19th century glass plate photography. Devasher has layered these images with carbon paper drawings on copper sheets. She says: “Most copper on Earth was forged in very massive stars. These supergiant stars later exploded as supernovae, catapulting the newly minted copper into space.” 

This also plays into the idea of digital twins, a popular trend in the tech and data world, where a digital counterpart to a real-life phenomenon or system is used to observe or interact with it at a distance. “On a planetary scale, digital twinning starts with the presumption that something like the Earth is essentially knowable. It got me thinking about the nature of modelling systems, the distance between the ‘truth’ of a model and what it actually embodies. The final piece is less of an alternative digital twin and more of a speculative, metaphoric assemblage of ways in which the sun has been recorded and observed,” Rohini Devasher explains.

Paradigm 2: Twin Suns. Photography by Rohini Devasher

The moment where she visually merges traditional eclipse photographs with the pupils of our eyes reminds us that we have physically evolved precisely in relation to our position in the solar system. Our eyes have formed the way they have to receive the Sun’s light.

Hannah Redler-Hawes, Director of Data as culture programme, Open Data Institute

Paradigm 3

Site features the instruments and people at the historical Kodaikanal Observatory, some of whom have been observing the Sun for four generations. It is an important and historical observatory, key to the study of the sun and proudly part of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. It is one of only two observatories on Earth with 120 years of continuous data on the sun, digging deep into our own human history while we piece together that of the sun.

Paradigm 3 – Site. Photography by Rohini Devasher

Paradigm 4

Eclipse offers a meditation on the light from our Sun caught in the beam of the 60-metre tunnel telescope at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory. The voices of people who chase eclipses who devote their lives to standing in the shadow of the Moon form the soundtrack. There is a sort of reverence here for the very human emotions that come with the celestial phenomenon, a focus also on the unique darkness of the moon as it covers the sun.

Paradigm 4 – Eclipse. Photography by Rohini Devasher

The connection between the Open Data Institute and these artistic endeavours is not a new one. The Data as Culture programme has delivered beautiful artistic results, with several previous artists in residence’s work still displayed around the institute. Art and cultural initiatives serve to challenge the public’s understanding of data, and to expand how professionals in the field think about the power of that data.

The ODI was founded in 2012 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, and Sir Nigel Shadbolt, known for his work in AI and computer science. Its purpose is to inspire data innovation and connect people around the globe.

The artwork is accessible to all by appointment during office hours Monday to Friday from Friday 6 May. Email BusinessSupport@theodi.org to make an appointment. https://culture.theodi.org/100000suns/

Commissioned by Data as Culture, the arts programme at the ODI. This artist’s residency is curated by DaC director Hannah Redler-Hawes. More of the Data as Culture art collaborations can be viewed here: https://culture.theodi.org/

Rohini Devasher’s work spans films, drawing and printmaking, maps the antagonism of time and space. It walks the fine line between wonder and the uncanny, foregrounding the ‘strangeness’ of encountering, observing and recording both environment and experience. Devasher’s work has been shown at the Rubin Museum, New York (2021), the Sea Art Festival, Busan (2021), To the Edge of Time at KU Leuven Library galleries for the Kunst Leuven City Festival (2021), the 14th Sharjah Biennial (2019) among others.

Discover more of Rohini Devasher’s work on https://www.rohinidevasher.com/

Photographs of drawings of the solar disk and images of glass photographic plates held at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory are reproduced here with permission and courtesy of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics Archives, Bangalore.

Sofia Hurst is a news editor and contributing writer for I, Science. She is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London. At undergraduate, Sofia read physics and philosophy at Durham University, and since then has worked in the EV and technology industry. She is passionate about creating kinder connections between science and technology and humans, and continues to explore this both within and outside the course.