Updated: Jun 7, 2020

In the event of always falling back down again is the title of a new work for the public foyer of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St Andrews. I had hoped to be able to complete it in the Spring of 2020 but, like so much else in the world, the coronavirus pandemic has stepped in the way and the installation of the finished work will have to wait for another day. The work has already come a long way though and here's some background as to how it came to be.

In 2019 I was loaned an extraordinary book from the university's astronomy collection by the director of the observatory Aleks Scholz. The large and heavy book is a representation of the spectrum of the Sun and its title is A Photometric Atlas of the Solar Spectrum. Published in 1940 and attributed to the work of M. Minneart, G F W Mulders and J Houtgast, it traces an unbroken spectral graph from the ultraviolet wavelength of 361 nm all the way up to 877 nm - well into the infrared portion of the spectrum. The book is the most complete description of the sun but without the use of words or images. From front to back it is a single, jagged and meandering line which manages to describe the sun in great detail and, if let loose from the constraints of the printed page, would run out to over 120 metres.

With the fascination and familiarity that I already had with the wavelengths of the four hydrogen lines, it was a real pleasure to be able to seek out and locate their respective positions in the tell-tale dips in the continuous line of the spectrum (in this case representing the absorption of the corresponding emission line wavelengths). What the book also offered me though was a new graphical reference to our relationship with and understanding of light - specifically the light of the Sun.

Using the same machining and anodising techniques that I had developed on my earlier work with hydrogen (Once again with Rob Hunter’s help) I was able to re-make these key portions of the line of the spectrum into meeting points of great contrast. I've experimented with contrasts between materials (different metals) and colour (in the process of anodising) and each meeting point for each wavelength can be resolved as a different kind of boundary. These boundaries all take on different possibilities such as water's edge, horizons or even the edge of our knowledge but they all start out as being informed by the inner structure of light.

These are the materials and treatments that I plan to use for the new work in the School of Physics and Astronomy but I should probably also try to explain the title: In the event of always falling back down again.

My background is not in physics or astronomy - or any field of science. In past projects a lot of my work has been characterised by collaboration: I like to think that the point of origin of the new material is actually from somewhere in the space in between the collaborators. My collaboration on the Shine project has brought me to the world of physics for the first time and, as an artist, I like to make the most of the freedom that comes with it - no expectations on the part of my collaborators in terms of what I might be expected to know or understand. The kind of freedom that lends itself to enormous possibilities.

In any study of light and spectroscopy you will fairly quickly come into contact with the world of quantum physics: daunting and possibly confounding but very easily exhillerating all at the same time. It seems to me that the entire realm of physics is well known for its two principal domains of classical physics and quantum physics - the big and the very, very small - and that, as far as we know, no system seems to successfully combine the two.

In trying to find my own way into quantum physics I am struck by the fact that not only does this world not square with the world of classical physics but it also doesn't very readily square with language either. Perhaps this shouldn't come as a surprise as language is surely a product of our relationship with the world as it behaves and as it appears.

So the title of the work is an attempt to address the idea of venturing into an unfamiliar landscape but also of being unable to properly describe what you find there. For me the key word in the title is falling. Many written references can be found to the moment when a photon of light is produced due to the action of an electron in an atom (to put it most simply). A term that I have often read is that an electron "falls back down". The electron receives a packet of energy, it jumps to a higher energy level and once at the higher level it will fall back down again to the level it came from: the level where it normally belongs. My understanding is that all of this is true but somehow it is just as equally not true: there is no "receiving" no "jumping" and no "falling". These are all highly demonstrable actions in the world of classical physics - we can see things jump and fall and know precisely how to describe this. But here is another kind of landscape where process seems to be absent - there are only conditions or potential conditions with no stages in between. In a very strange sense nothing actually "happens".

The intention is that the title acts as a simple description but, in doing so, it manages to invalidate itself and somehow amount to the sum of zero. We begin with an event but an event which appears to have a permanent state: something is always falling. And yet the falling is a return to a place at which we could not possibly have come from.

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Updated: Apr 27, 2020

Making art for The Shine project - or how to get from a meeting in a coffee shop in St Andrews to the roof of a jailhouse in the desert of southern New Mexico.

Machined aluminium - H-alpha block at White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Six years ago a chance came up to join a collaboration which would become known as The Shine Project. Bede Williams - who teaches chamber music, conducting and performance at the University of St Andrews - intrigued me with an invitation to become part of a science/music/art project led by astronomer Dr Anne-Marie Weijmans,in the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of St Andrews. Our aim was to create a series of public events that would mark the International Year of Light in 2015. Little did we realise that we would set something in train that would still be growing and spreading around the world more than five years later.

Collaboration has been a constant theme in my work and I’ve found that it can often lead to a kind of third perspective - an imaginary point in space somewhere between the collaborators that couldn’t be arrived at alone. I’ve also found that the trick is to identify when that point is reached and how best to maximise its effect.

Shine installation at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews 2015

When the three of us first talked about our collaboration it soon became obvious that huge potential lay ahead. However, more than anything, I was most conscious of my lack of any kind of background in astronomy and my first, very simple question to Anne-Marie was “what does astronomy begin with?” The answer that came back was spectroscopy.

Spectroscopy is a means to read and record the very specific wavelengths of light that are emitted at the atomic or molecular level. Each of the elements in the universe have their own unique pattern of emitted light, known as emission lines, which enable astronomers to analyse and understand stellar and galactic structures across the universe. Once I had grasped this fundamental truth of light I quickly became interested in the theme of light as a form of code and of language and that starting point has driven my part of the collaboration ever since.

Works on Paper, in steel and anodised aluminium and detail of SDSS telescope plate

Shine would have drawn to a close at the end of 2015 were it not for a chance encounter which resulted in an invitation to exhibit in Hull during the City of Culture in 2017. That invitation would turn out to be the springboard to all of our continuing output. In quick succession, we were invited to The Dundee Science Centre, Oxford University, then on to Santiago and to New Mexico and with more recent invitations to exhibit in New York and Japan. Not forgetting the old jailhouse rooftop.

Long before the Shine project Anne-Marie was already working with an astronomy survey at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico and that involvement then led to a sequence of connections with the New Mexico State University and the Las Cruces Space Festival. Since then New Mexico has become something of a second home to Shine.

Throughout the project there has been one aspect of the collaboration that has had most impact on my way of working and that has been its interdisciplinary nature.

In earlier work I found it natural to move quickly and easily from one point of focus to another: if a thing didn’t seem to be going anywhere I might readily discard it. But being immersed in a world of physics and astronomy has been an entirely new experience. The first thing to notice is the rigour and the precision which underpins everything. Whereas I might be drawn to an idea which could be described as fragile - that it might only be valid for a brief moment or in an unlikely circumstance - this is not a good place to be in the world of science. I’ve learned that, above all, an idea, a theory or a data set needs to be robust. Everything gets crash tested.

Anodised aluminium pieces with brass, steel and glass

As Shine has progressed that distinction between the fragile and the robust has become more intriguing and I’ve found myself drawn to the idea of balancing somewhere between the two. So, whilst I continue to follow ideas that may well turn out to be fleeting and short-lived - I also enjoy a new sense of intense focus: the act of looking inside something and then looking inside the thing that you find there. On and on.

That was the case with a piece of art which began as a machined block of aluminium – a rendering of the emission line spectrum of hydrogen. That then developed into several site specific ideas which focused much more narrowly to the single red line of the hydrogen spectrum, the H-alpha line.

This line of red - at a frequency of 656.3 nano metres - has been run up the full height of a gallery wall, threaded through the cracks of rock in the Organ Mountains in New Mexico and manhandled around the edge of a desert crater by a busload of volunteers. And still it continues to fascinate.

H-alpha line intervention at La Cueva, New Mexico with visitor in red

That desert crater was Kilbourne Hole, just to the west of Las Cruces, and the location of a commission for the Las Cruces Space Festival. Working with Colorado based artist Jeff Erwin the crater intervention somehow evolved into a film We choose to go to the Moon and in a recurring characteristic of Shine, the film has added to the ever-expanding group of artists and scientists who have been drawn into the project. The film also gave Bede and I the first chance to fully work together with Bede’s trumpet giving us the thread that would properly draw out the film’s experimental nature.

"We choose to go to the Moon" poster

Now, in early 2020, I look to the whole body of work in the context of our original idea and I see an ever strengthening and ever-expanding matrix of connections. Our science/art/music collaboration has developed beyond anything we might have imagined and new links continue to be made at so many levels in our corner of Scotland. Beyond that, and with just as much energy, Shine is happening internationally. A recent development in my gallery-based work takes its inspiration from a spectrograph of the Sun and that work is leading towards a new installation piece for the public foyer of the School of Physics & Astronomy. The early results have just come back from the machine shop and they are incredibly encouraging. I see a whole new body of new work springing out of sunlight.

And so to the jailhouse rooftop.

In 2018 I had the chance to make new work on an exterior wall of an observatory that was no longer in use at the University of St Andrews. It was a nice big slab of wall and to inscribe on it a colourful set of spectral lines seemed the obvious thing. In this setting I ruled out hydrogen for the lack of much excitement - just the four lonely lines. It then occurred to me that the 46 evenly distributed lines of neon would be perfect.. We called it the world’s biggest Neon sign.

The old Doña Ana County Court house, Las Cruces

However, that was short lived. Six months later came the offer to create new work at the old jail in Las Cruces and, like most of the architecture in the city, the building offered a flat white roof to the sky. Here was the chance to go from a seven metre “neon sign” to a new record of fifty metres.

The work was completed over a weekend and I wait with anticipation for Google Earth to update their imagery of the centre of Las Cruces and to finally reveal a work which is best viewed from space.

Neon emission lines on the old Doña Ana County Courthouse, Las Cruces

When they do 32°18’22” N 106°46’46” W will land you perfectly in the middle of a neon style rainbow.

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