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Title: The old/new observatory : an artistic and curatorial enquiry
Author: Skinner, Sam
ISNI:       0000 0004 9349 0925
Awarding Body: Manchester Metropolitan University
Current Institution: Manchester Metropolitan University
Date of Award: 2019
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My project explores the history and contemporary significance of the observatory through curatorial and artistic research, principally commissions for a thematic exhibition and an artist book. The key question guiding my research asked: What could an observatory be in the 21st century, in particular, one sited within a public gallery or imagined through an artist book? This research question was investigated via archive-based enquiry into the historic Liverpool Observatory, the co-curation of an observatory themed exhibition at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Liverpool, and the production an artist book. The key objective of my project was to establish a practice-based enquiry, employing both curatorial and artistic modes of investigation, into the observatory and associated contexts of observational technoscience. By researching these subjects, moving from a situated analysis of Liverpool Observatory to the observatory’s contemporary global significance, my project makes evident that the observatory, and specialised observational techniques and instruments more broadly, have become increasingly prevalent part of everyday life across the earth, and demand artistic engagement and reimagining. Furthermore, the project posits the observatory as an important touchstone and unique microcosm for our contemporary technologically mediated condition. Through practice-based research I demonstrate how the observatory’s history is one of continual change and proliferation, shifting from assemblages of instruments primarily contained within a specific site, toward an exploded form, ever more distributed, networked, and enmeshed with human sensesand nature. My research, particularly through commissioned artwork and the artist book, focuses in on the degree to which the observatory and observational technoscience is now embodied at societal, community, and individual levels. I argue that developing and manifesting an ‘old/new’ observatory within a public art gallery, of the kind produced at FACT, entitled The New Observatory, functions as a useful method to simultaneously subvert and reflect upon the historic precedents and contemporary conditions of observation. The project explores how locally embedded and situated research, employing the tools of archival research, media archaeology, and the framework of new materialism, can bring forth what may be called anachronisms of the contemporary. The New Observatory exhibition’s inherent fixity compared to the contemporary distributed character of observation is anachronistic, a contemporary chronological inconsistency, but this renders it with a peculiarly timely and subversive agency. Equally, the artist book I produced, inspired by study of observational notebooks and composed of a narrative drawn from historical and modern observational science, traditionally printed and bound, is an analogous act of contemporary anachronism. Accordingly, the project across book and exhibition, proffers itself as a method or case study for how alternative and anachronistic, yet nonetheless contemporary, observatories and analogous observational practices, may be brought forth and developed, through interactions between historical observatories and artistic practice in collaboration with socio-technical communities. I propose the subject and history of observation as a key bridge between the arts and sciences, through an enquiry employing artistic and curatorial methods. In particular I utilise the public gallery and the medium of the artist book, to examine how the gallery and artist publishing poses unique affinities with the observatory and processes of observational inscription, rendering them useful methods to engage one another. Furthermore, the book and commissions in the exhibition, investigates how observational inscription, measurements, and data, are real in themselves, constitute phenomena in their own terms, and are not simply defined by that which they represent, value, or sense. The results and practices employed in my project suggests that a practice-based enquiry of the observatory is aided by a transdisciplinary theoretical framework, which combines new materialism with the history and philosophy of science and technology. In turn, I articulate how this theoretical framework supports a practice-based study of the observatory, and how collectively they offer a useful means to explore a fundamental challenge at the heart of new materialist and posthumanist philosophy; how to move beyond singular subject-object relations and anthropocentric viewpoints. Finally, I demonstrate how the dual practices of artist and curator may cross fertilise one another, and aforementioned theoretical frameworks, which in turn catalyse the spaces of the gallery, the book, and the observatory, with a lively materiality.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available