World Egg: Jonathan Feldschuh's artistic interpretation of Planck satellite data

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Jonathan Feldschuh’s new exhibition, “The World Egg,” which showcases digital prints based on Planck satellite data, will be showing at the Skink Ink Gallery in Brooklyn until December 6. // www.jonathanfeldschuh.com
Some artists create images based on bowls of fruit, some on groups of people picnicking, and some on images that only exist in their heads. And then there are others, like Jonathan Feldschuh, who create art from scientific data. Feldschuh’s current exhibition, called The World Egg, takes the Planck telescope’s observations — which show the universe as it was in its earliest epoch — and turns the cosmic microwave background into a source not just of knowledge but also of inspiration. The exhibition, which is on display until December 6 at the Skink Ink gallery in Brooklyn, showcases three new digital prints, including one that displays itself as an 11- by 22-foot mural, and an acrylic painting from the older Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) data.

In making these pieces, Feldschuh took the actual numerical data from Planck, chose his own colors and contour ranges, and investigated how the choices scientists and artists make when they visualize data affect how an observer receives the information.

I interviewed Feldschuh about The World Egg and about his artistic/scientific sentiments in general. If you read this interview and still want to know more, check out his FAQ about the exhibition. And if you’re in Brooklyn, stop by to see the real thing.

How did you first become interested in data/science visualization?

My first data/science visualization project was my Macrocosm series. Because my own background was in science, starting to work with scientific imagery was a kind of “coming home.” When I first decided to switch from physics to painting, I immersed myself in the rich history of abstract painting. Gradually, I realized that the images I was drawn to making were intuitive explorations paralleling the scientific process I had been trained to use. As I accepted the scientific concepts underlying my artwork, it seemed natural to bring scientific imagery to the foreground.

Why is data visualization important to you?

The Age of Information has brought access to unprecedented amounts of data. Visualization allows an instant view (and perhaps comprehension) of incredibly complex phenomena. Images communicate ideas powerfully and persuasively. In my life as a data scientist, I often find that visualization is not just a means for presenting the results of analysis, but is actually my primary means of analysis: I see the connections in the data by visualizing it. In my life as an artist, and specifically working with images of data, I want to make a connection in the other direction: I want to show that a visualization of some data is not simply a dry representation of that data set — it’s an image that resonates in a dialogue of images that make up our entire visual culture.

You made some different choices from the Planck scientists in displaying the data. How do you make the decisions?

As a painter, whether you start with a subject or not, it is very clear that you are producing a painting. This work will be seen and understood in the context of painting and all of our expectations of what paintings mean. The painting reflects something about the unique perspective of the artist and will be interpreted in reference to all the other paintings that viewer may have seen. Art has always been at least in part a means for exploring the most fundamental questions of human existence.

If you replace all the preceding references to “paintings” with references to “images,” you will understand the way I think about scientific images. I don’t think most scientists take this approach to the images they produce.

What factors did you take into account when interpreting the Planck data?

I started with the idea of making an image that captured the conceptual grandeur of the project itself — an image of the entire universe, with the added jolt of seeing back to the beginning of time! Awe seemed the appropriate first response. In choosing colors and layering the image, I wanted first to capture the awesome spectacle of the entire universe laid out at once, dominated by the Milky Way. Because the microwave spectrum is not visible, I felt great freedom in choosing colors, and I ended up with a palette that I felt conveyed the sense of a dazzling glow.

How are your choices as an artist useful or illuminating specifically when they’re different from the scientists’?

I pushed beyond my first attempts until I had an image that matched what I had in mind. In this way, my approach was like that of the photographer Ansel Adams, who stressed the importance of “visualization,” which he defined as “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure.” Clearly, there is subjectivity in this approach, and perhaps scientists like to imagine that subjectivity can be completely removed from the process of making an image.

Do you go into a project knowing what will happen visually?

The motivation for this project was the conceptual idea that you can have one picture that encompasses everything. Thousands of people worked on the Planck project and produced something that gave us fundamental information about the universe. I wanted something that evoked that grandeur.

Usually, I don’t know where a project is going to go. One of the things about being a painter is that you’re dealing with paint. A lot of the fun for me is seeing what’s going to happen if I change the chemistry of this paint, if I make it too runny or add something that destabilizes it. It’s like being a scientist. This project is my first all-digital work, and there were some chance operations in the sense that I played around with the images. I played around with the way to mix the layers in a chaotic way. I used all kinds of strange blending modes and thresholds to try to heighten the structure that was already in the image, but perhaps hidden.

Do you think scientists should do more visualization work with the goals of analysis plus inspiration? Or should they leave it to artists?

In general, a very large number of scientists have a strong sense of aesthetics about what they do and are in awe of the beauty of nature. It’s artistic in some way, and they’re thinking of the beauty of what they do.

A huge number of theories are debated on aesthetic terms, the elegance of the mathematics — string theory, for instance. In the absence of data, that’s one of the ways that things move forward.

These distinctions between art and science are arbitrary. Whether Leonardo da Vinci was painting or dissecting, he would have thought of himself as doing similar things. He was investigating the world, using different means to express his ideas. We’ve come a long way from all that. As human knowledge has become so vast, no one person can master it all. Scientists have become more and more specialized as time goes on.

What’s your take on that? Good thing, bad thing?

Most science is ordinary science, which is working with some paradigm, refining it, and developing small nuances. Great breakthroughs come from saying, “There’s another way of looking at this problem.” Once that door is opened, people rush in to do lots more ordinary science. To have that breakthrough, you need a wider view. I think we face huge problems as a civilization and having a broader perspective, as a whole, is a good thing.

You downloaded this data to use. Are you a fan of open-source science?

I think certainly in some cases. In general, these “Big Science” projects aim for the expansion of human knowledge with almost no conceivable application. The idea that as a civilization we can do these things and collaborate on them gives me hope that we can tackle other problems.

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