Prisms of Peculiarity : Day Eve Komet
1.1) Intro

We are artist and amateur astronomer Rohini Devasher and sound artist Legion Seven. Since the beginning of 2020, we have been working on a project that uses astronomy to explore themes of observation and perception.

On October 20, 2020, we performed The Observatory as part of KIN-SHIP-ING: a series of events curated by Kadiatou Diallo at Kaserne Basel in cooperation with the Centre for African Studies at the Universität Basel. KIN-SHIP-ING sought to actively make room for the suggestion of a connection where there isn’t one, or rather, not an obvious one. Connections not just with other people, but to other beings,(im)material things, places, ideas and times past, present and future.

Within this context, our performative collaboration, The Observatory came together through multiple disciplines to transform the ordinarily immobile observatory into a fluid entity; guiding us past celestial bodies, and through conjunctions of time,space, and event.

The Observatory began as an essay written by Rohini Devasher wthat explored the unlearning of established ways of seeing as a means to plot new constellations, and explore how we observe time and ourselves within the solar system. In this essay, Saturn, the ringed planet, took centre stage. After first observing Saturn in the 1600’s,it took Western Astronomers 50 years to determine that what they were observing was aplanet with a ring. The trajectory of Saturn’s first observations to its contemporaryrenderings reveals the historic complexities of observational astronomy, and the ways in which ‘seeing’ is strange, wondrous, cryptic and more ambiguous than one might imagine.

At Kaserne, The Observatory was transformed into a sonic landscape where Legion Seven used Rohini’s text as instructions for sonic reproduction. For Seven, the realisation that European scientists – whose readings of the world continue to be the standard – were unable to register what they were seeing with their eyes because they could not yet imagine it, was a jarring confirmation. At the core of Seven’s inspiration was the way that external input and internal expectations interact to create an experience that is both an individual and collective hallucination.
‘Saturn’, colour pencil on sandpaper, Rohini Devasher (2020)
"The combined circumstance that we live on Earth and are able to see stars - that the conditions necessary for life do not exclude those necessary for vision or vice-verse – is a remarkably improbable one. This is because the medium in which we live is on the one hand, just thick enough to enable us to breathe and to prevent us from being burned up by cosmic rays, while on the other hand, it is not so opaque as to absorb entirely the light of the stars and block any view of the universe. What a fr agile balance between the indispensable and the Sublime.”

- Hans Blumenberg,

German historian and philosopher who spent his life studying the history and meaning of the sky.
2.1) Essay

Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de' Galilei the Italian astronomer, physicist and engineer, first observed Saturn in July 1610. In his letter dated 30 July to the Secretary of State of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany Belesario Vinta he wrote:

“I began on the 15th of this month again to observe Jupiter in the morning in the East, with his formation of the Medicean planets and I discovered another very strange wonder, which I should like to make known to their Highnesses. Keeping it secret, however, until the time when my work is published . . . . The star of Saturn is not a single star, but is a composite of three, which almost touch each other, never change or move relative to each other, and are arranged in a row along the zodiac, the middle one being three times larger than the lateral ones, and they are situated in this form: oOo.”
Galileo’s sketch of Saturn (1610)
In 1610 Galileo saw Saturn and its ring in a position approaching its edgewise appearance and his telescope represented the planet and the narrow ring to him as three disconnected bodies. Galileo had no reason to suppose Saturn would be any less constant than any of its celestial neighbours and so did not observe Saturn again until 1612.

“I found him solitary! Without the assistance of the supporting stars, and, in sum,perfectly round and clearly defined as Jupiter. Now what is to be said about such astrange metamorphosis? Perhaps the two smaller stars have been consumed inthe manner of sunspots? Perhaps they have vanished and fled suddenly? PerhapsSaturn has devoured his own children? Or else it was illusion and a fraud withwhich the glasses have for so long deceived me and so many others who haveobserved him with me many times? Perhaps the time has come now to revive thehope, already about to dry up, in those who, guided by more profoundcontemplations, have realised that all the new observations are deceptions whichcannot exist in any way?”
Diagram of the orbit of a ringed Saturn around the Sun, with its appearances as seen from Earth, engraving, Christiaan Huygens, Systema saturnium, page 35, (1659), Courtesy of The Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology.
Between 1656 and 1665 a number of models to explain Saturn’s appearance were put forward. The strangeness and wonder of early observations of Saturn say much about the nature of observational astronomy in the 17th century and ways in which ‘seeing’ was not as simple as one might imagine. In the years that followed, Galileo observed Saturn ‘solitary’, or without lateral disks, and sometimes with handle-like appendages also called anses. It was not until 1656 that the problem of Saturn’s enigmatic appearance was solved by Dutch physicist, mathematician, and astronomer Christiaan Huygens and later still before his ‘ring theory’ was accepted.

What caused this shift in perspective? Was it the result of more accurate observations? Better telescopes?
Huygens's theory: Systema Saturnium page 55, (1659) Courtesy of The Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology.
In The Solution of the Problem of Saturn, Albert Van Helden says

“Although the improvement of the telescope was certainly one factor contributingto the solution of the problem, it is simply wrong to speak of the ‘‘resolution of theso called ansae or ‘handles’ into one encircling ring by Huygens.’’ The figures drawn,for example, by Galileo in 1616 and Divini in 1649, show that when the ring was inits most open aspect with respect to the Earth, telescopes were good enough, at avery early stage, to show something which a modern observer could easily interpretas a ring. But neither Galileo nor Divini (nor anyone else) made the ‘‘gestalt switch’’from ‘‘seeing’’ a globe with two attached ‘‘handles’’ to seeing a globe surroundedby a ring.)

What stopped Galileo and the astronomers that followed him from ‘seeing’ a globe surrounded by a ring?

Professor of psychology, Sergio Roncato:

“The planet Saturn is a familiar image for us, but it presents perceptual peculiarities that impeded the discovery of its structure and which can still be misleading today. Saturn appears to be surrounded by rings which hide it to a certain extent and then continue behind the outline of the planet. Saturn was hidden to 17th-century astronomers for half a century because their rudimentary telescopes did not reveal the pictorial clues that are fundamental for discovering such a complex perceptual organization as that formed by a globe surrounded by rings. Moreover, the existence of a celestial body of this nature was inconceivable in light of the knowledge of those times.”
When we see the early drawings of Saturn’s observations the ring is clear. But as Roncato says “The disbelief of his contemporaries was due to the novelty of the ‘‘solution’. One wonders if, when looking at the drawings of Saturn and its rings, they struggled to ‘‘believetheir own eyes."

In Imagining the Unimaginable, Ladina Bezzola Lambert describes in detail the role and importance of imagination in early modern astronomy.

“The combination of the fact that the telescope revealed less than it impliedwith the principle of a material similarity between the Earth and the Moon(and, by implication other heavenly bodies) defined and justified a need tovisualize these remote objects as physical places in the imagination. Inconsequence, both the significance and the role of the imagination underwenta fundamental change. It could now be used as a creative faculty, which bycalling upon, separating and recombining past impressions, activelyparticipates in the creation of alternative material worlds.”

Anna Henchman in her paper on the Telescope as a Prosthesis describes the binary that is often set up, between the astronomer as a kind of seer who can see far and beyond and the machine which, as a kind of archetype of objectivity, transcends the fallibility of the human eye. She argues that this is useful in understanding why some historians have placed greater importance on the role of the astronomer who uses the telescope as a tool, and another who holds the telescope’s work as being almost independent of human agency. She goes on to describe how John Herschel placed particular importance on 'practising to see', on training the human eye and mind over the powers of the telescope.

The solution of Saturn’s mystery then was a combination of closer observation, but also‘seeing’ anew, reasoning, and looking beyond what one knew to be there.
Saturn and its rings from 5.3 million kilometres, image credit Voyager 1, 6 November (1980) courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
2.2) Saturn Grows a Ring

Fascinated by the timeline of observing to actually comprehending Saturn's ring, Legion Seven uses this topic in Devasher's text as instructions for sonic reproduction:

“I am rather struck by the concept of not being able to perceive (or be perceived) until one can imagine. While the implications and demonstrations of this in western science are layered and often heavy, in this specific context, I find them funny too. Choosing this discretion to lean in, I enjoy taking the flat approach of ‘I see, therefore it is’ and making it the method with which I reproduce this part of the essay in my medium.

My medium is a Digital Audio Workstation software (or DAW) called Ableton Live. I most often work with audio recordings, but occasionally I work with MIDI as well, which intrinsically feels more playful and gamified for me. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a method by which music is communicated to digital instruments. MIDI does not record or play audio, but instead transmits data about the action of playing a note; including the pitch, timing, and the velocity at which a note is played. A person can write music onto a MIDI editor grid in a way that is similar to writing sheet music, but MIDI software can assign any instrument to play that music, and notes can be edited even after they are written.

To me, the most obvious application of ‘I see, therefore it is’ in Ableton would be to take these early renderings of Saturn and literally draw them using MIDI notes directly onto the editor grid. Thankfully, there are image to MIDI conversion softwares available to do that for me:
This is my attempt to chronicle the experience of ‘seeing’ in audio software. By converting three of Saturn's early renderings into MIDI and placing them in order of least to most ring-like, I hope to represent the evolution of comprehending Saturn's rings as a visual progression of sound.
Saturn’s ring as seen in 1633, 1644, and 1635, images simplified for midi converter
Image 1 is assigned the astronomers' utter bafflement at Saturn's anomalous bodies, resulting in a destabilised and disorienting sound. At this point, an imagination contained by its own expectations is contending with endless possibility – a circumstance that I imagine produces primarily mono auditory frequencies.
Saturn as seen by Matthias Hirzgarter in 1643.
Image 2 is further along in the ambition to get to the bottom of what is going on with this planet. Higher frequencies of adrenaline and curiosity widen the stereo field to cover more metaphorical ground (and literal air)
Saturn as seen by Eustachio Divini in 1887.
Image 3 embodies the dawning moment of ‘ah, I see – a ring’. With this final image, the revelation of Saturn's ring is played in the fully realised ‘shape’ of Saturn. The heavy core that is the planet's bass and lower-middle frequencies are pulled towards the centre of the stereo field, while the treble and higher frequencies are played on the far edges of the left and right channels. They travel towards the centre of the field, pass it, and travel away from it in a repeating loop; creating in effect – a spinning ring.”
Video: Saturn Grows a Ring! (headphones recommended)
3.1) The Night Sky Observation

The Sagar Observatory, at the Sagar School, Alwar Rajasthan, image credit Ajay Talwar
In our renderings of the planet and other celestial objects, there is a vast gulf between the virtual and the real. Hubble, New Horizons, Cassini and countless other instruments have generated extraordinary images in ultra-high definition; images that have found their way into our lives and taken up places in our imaginations. Entities have been assigned form, shape, and so, meaning. But the experience in the field with a telescope is very different.

On the 5th and 6th of October 2019, The Night Sky Observation was curated by Rohini Devasher in collaboration with astro-photographer and amateur astronomer Ajay Talwar. On these nights, a small group of artists, amateur astronomers and students spent 12 hours from 6pm to 6am observing the night sky. Many of them had never before seen the skies through a telescope, and several participants expressed an initial feeling of disappointment upon seeing the planet Saturn for the first time.

“The practice of observation reminds us that seeing is never unmediated. The technologies and techniques through which we see produce a fantasy of unmediated seeing, as if there is a form of experience that is somehow more real, instinctive or natural if those technologies were put aside. The question of whether or not our experience of the world can be unmediated is fundamental to larger questions of what it means to be human. It raises questions about whether human experience can ever be purely biological, when everything we know about the world and the universe is only through techniques of observation. How else would we even know what we are Seeing?”

- Sabih Ahmed, participant of the overnight observation, October 5, 2019.

There is a distance between NASA's marvellous composite images of Saturn subliminally embedded in our expectations, and the “quiet little object in the sky” that they were seeing with their eyes. On asking an amateur astronomer how he dealt with that moment of “is that all?”, his answer was that you have to remind people of where they are and of what they are seeing – that the light from that object has travelled so far before hitting the light receptive photons in their eye. This contextualising of one's own position on the planet and the almost impossible circumstances that have come together over millennia to enable this action of observation, greatly altered the experience of “looking” for the observers. It had a physical effect on what they saw in a way that they would later find themselves struggling to put into words. As an experience, it is visceral. It is uniquely individual, yet also part of a shared experience of knowing.
Image of the telescope remote tracking Uranus, the Orion Nebula and Saturn in the night sky. Image credit Rohini Devasher
It takes 79 minutes for the light from Saturn to reach our eyes; so when we look at Saturn, we are looking at an echo of the recent past. In order to simulate this distance, I record each image at 79 bpm for 79 bars, where each bar represents 1 minute of transit.

Although the images themselves take less than 30 seconds to play, the delays go on and on, automatically modulating over time by responding to their own feedback. I think that this nicely mirrors how greatly information can transform before it is received, especially when the distance is modulated by one's own anticipation, which is modulated by expectation, which is modulated by memory, which is modulated by internal and external folklore, which is modulated by history and so on and so on.

Video: Saturn's “size” track played in its entirety (headphones recommended).

Audio: Saturn's “shape” track played in its entirety (headphones recommended).
Saturn’s “colour” track played in its entirety (headphones recommended).
The final product of the entire recording process is the 79th bar of each image's delay stacked and exported as a single audio file – around 3 seconds of noise:
Bar 79 of all 3 tracks of Saturn's delay combined, called “Saturn’s Arrival”
(headphones recommended).
The strange feeling of slightly bewildering disappointment that comes from this short-lived result of such an elaborate process parallels the internal disconnect felt between imagining Saturn and then “seeing” it through a telescope.
Saturn’s Second Arrival is a video work by Rohini Devasher and a sound work by Legion Seven, using text from a quote by Jeebesh Basgchi (headphones recommended)
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