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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