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Published 02/05/2016 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Michael Benson: ‘Science is about trying to increase that zone of what we know. Art has a much freer hand. It can leap far ahead of science’

Benson fuses art and science to conjure spectacular images from raw data collected by Nasa and ESA. Here he talks about science fiction, climate change and his exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum


It is not often that Studio International ventures into the gothic vaulted halls of the Natural History Museum in London. But one man has fused art and science so seamlessly that his exhibition could find a home in almost any public gallery you care to mention. Michael Benson is an American writer, photographer and film-maker who has spent more than a decade painstakingly piecing together and processing raw image data collected by Nasa and the European Space Agency over six decades of space exploration. The result is an exhibition of 77 breathtaking images reproduced as framed C-Type prints, a profound collaboration between science and art. As such, these images occupy an important place in the history of photography.

The exhibition itself moves from those planets closest to the sun, out to the furthest reaches of the solar system, taking in a Turner-esque sunset on Mars, the abstract rings of Saturn and the cool beauty of Neptune. But surely the most affecting image is an almost 2 metre square print of the blue-and-green marble we call home. It is so finely realised that the wisps of cloud sitting over South America look as though they could be stirred into action. A pall of sand blows in a beige haze across the Atlantic Ocean, sand that fertilises the Amazon jungle, while a perfect spiral of a hurricane rages over Mexico. This is an immersive exhibition made all the more magical by original music by Brian Eno, which plays almost subliminally in the background.

I spoke with Benson about the roots of this mammoth project and its place in the history of art.

Emily Spicer: When did your interest in space begin?

Michael Benson: I was born in 1962 and when I was becoming conscious of being in the world it was at a peak moment for this great utopian, futuristic project of expanding off the planet. The space race was at its peak and all of that was very exciting. I remember looking up at the moon from Washington DC, knowing that there were people up there at that moment.

In 1968, when I was six years old, my mum took me to see Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which completely blew me away, as you can be blown away by a masterpiece when you’re that young. That experience made it completely unambiguous to me that this content, something that most people would associate with science and astronomy, belongs to the arts.

ES: What motivated you to start the Otherworlds project?

MB: Before the internet arrived, non-specialists who were interested in space exploration had to rely on a handful of images that the photo editors of major magazines decided should be in their short feature story. It was a little keyhole through which just a few images came. But with the arrival of the internet, I realised I could, in effect, explore space in a self-directed way for my own obscure reasons that have little to do with science directly. It’s about aesthetics and an existential needing to know, wanting to inform myself about the larger context in which we live on Earth.

ES: When you first receive the images, are they always black and white?

MB: Yes, mostly. It depends on which spacecraft has taken them, but the vast majority of what I do [involves] single black-and-white frames of limited resolution. I find out if those frames have neighbouring frames, if the same area of the planet was photographed through multiple filters, allowing for the creation of RGB (red, green, blue) colour composites, and then I find out if the spacecraft was instructed to take multiple shots in rows so that a mosaic could be produced. But some of it works really well in black and white. The images in the Venus section that are extraordinary are black-and-white grayscale. They are radar images. But they are really beautiful and unusual. They have their own quality. They remind me of Asian scroll paintings.

ES: Humans seem rather absent from the image taking process. Does the probe take a continual series of pictures, or does Nasa position the camera?

MB: It’s all scrupulously controlled from Earth, but in general terms, if that makes sense. In other words, these are missions of discovery and we don’t necessarily know what we are going to see, but we know where the target will be in the frame. So various sweeps of the camera across the object are programmed and then as we get more and more information on Mars, for example, we’ll have very specific observation runs over various objects of interest.

There are millions of frames and when you have millions of frames, then there’s an opportunity for somebody with more aesthetic concerns to go into this database and find the extraordinary images. In other words, planetary scientists go into these huge archives looking for their kind of discovery, to confirm their theories. I go in looking for a different kind of discovery, one not necessarily of interest to planetary scientists.

ES: At what point does the image stop becoming a piece of data and become a piece of art?

MB: I’m not sure it is for me to say, but, for me, it really isn’t data to begin with. When someone comes in and curates it and evaluates it and produces large format images and presents them in the context of visual art, then it’s obviously being presented in that context as belonging to photography, belonging to the history of image-making.

ES: Do you see this exhibition as an extension of a wider attempt by humanity to understand the cosmos through art?

MB: I see [these images] as belonging to a great history of attempts to visualise the universe and for me the distinction between the art of it and the science of it is not as meaningful as the impact of individual pieces. I approach things as an artist but I’m also interested in science and I write about the science, so I wear several hats.

ES: Do you think art has anything to teach us about science?

MB: Science is about identifying where the border is between what we can identify as correct and verifiably correct and the unknown. So science is about methodically trying to increase that zone of what we know, to expand the borders. Art has a much freer hand. It can leap far ahead of science. It can pose grand questions in a manner more similar to philosophy. As to whether or not art can tell us things about science. Art can do many things, of course it can, as 2001: A Space Odyssey probably did.

ES: Given the increasing influence of the digital world on the visual arts, do you think that the hand-drawn and the tactile will one day be a thing of the past?

MB: It’s obvious that the impact of technology in art couldn’t be higher or more powerful, so science and technology are certainly having their influence on the arts. If anything, that makes the handmade object that much more powerful. It has much more of that aura that Walter Benjamin, the great German-Jewish philosopher and theorist, wrote about in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He speaks about the aura around something that is not reproduced, but handmade, and I’ve thought about that quite a bit in the past few years. As we get more and more virtual, and as things migrate towards screens more, what he considered a mechanically produced object – photography and photos in magazines and so forth – is closer to being handmade than where we’re going. So in comparison with an image on the screen, a chromogenic print framed and hanging on a wall is practically retro. Done with care in an edition of five, it is already an archaic object in the 21st century.

ES: Did you make any discoveries while searching through the thousands of images?

MB: I made all kinds of discoveries, but they are not scientific discoveries, they are aesthetic discoveries. I would submit that some of the images are kind of revelatory images. It’s interesting. Sometimes I feel like a planetary scientist but people who are involved in the missions might say what is he talking about? The missions are the result of big science. US tax payers paid for them and they are run by some of the most brilliant people in the world and I have huge respect for that, so when I talk about making discoveries I have to be very careful.

ES: And is your aim to make a beautiful image, or one that reflects what the human would see?

MB: Well, with this body of work, I feel like it’s important that I achieve a position that is as close to what the human eye would see as possible and from there I use print-making techniques to produce as fine a print as possible. Perhaps if I was running around on Earth photographing subject matter that we all know, I might feel much more free to play with colour, to produce images that are startling or unexpected. But this subject matter is so alien to human experience. So I set some ground rules for myself.

ES: You are the one processing the raw images, so in a way you are the first person to really see these places. Do you feel that you have a responsibility as a kind of explorer to accurately report back what you have seen?

MB: I don’t know whether I would assign myself the role of explorer because there’s a risk of people misunderstanding and thinking I’m being pretentious. But there have been a number of occasions when I’ve finished an image and I’m no longer being finicky about every detail, I’m just looking at it and I suddenly realise with a kind of jolt that I’m probably the first human being that saw that object correctly, as we might see it if we were able to go.

ES: That must be very exciting.

MB: It’s part of the reason why I do it. That’s not to say that the individual elements, the components of the image, were not looked at before: of course they were. Probably 15, 20, 100 planetary scientists and spacecraft engineers have seen the images. But when it comes to assembling them and creating colour images, that takes a bunch of work and the planetary scientists aren’t necessarily going to do it, or do it in the same way for the same reasons.

ES: Are you pessimistic about the future of the planet?

MB: There are grounds for some level of optimism that we’re beginning to address this in a more meaningful way with the Paris Climate Change Agreement, which is not nearly enough. I’m sure you are aware of the recent set of reports that the sea level rise has been faster than we thought and the possibility that the West Antarctic ice sheet could collapse. We could have a very sudden spike in sea levels and that, in turn, could drown major coastal cities, so we are definitely creating a world of trouble. It’s hard for me to know whether I should be completely pessimistic or whether I should have some hope because of the fact that we are beginning to address it.

ES: Do you hope that this exhibition inspires a sense of wonder and respect for our planet?

MB: I’m not sure that what I want is even relevant. The work is there and I think people can take away different things from it. I did consciously include several images of Earth in which you can see the effects of climate change even as they unfold. So I wanted to make sure it was an honest portrayal of the solar system in that way.

I also learned a lot about the unity of the planet. In one of the images, you can see a huge sand storm blowing off the Sahara and extending across the Atlantic and towards South America and that is a system that we know about where sand sort of fertilises the jungles in Brazil. We have known that, but to see it in one image is pretty remarkable.

As time has passed and as I have educated myself about the solar system over the past decade or so I have become more and more aware of how extraordinarily beautiful this planet is. I have become more infatuated, not less, with this planet.

• Otherworlds: Visions of Our Solar System is showing at the Natural History Museum in London until 15 May 2016.

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