Melanie King | text on Awakening

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Melanie King | Cosmic Awakenings

Ancient Light, Melanie King, 2017 - 2022
From the photographic series Ancient Light, by Melanie King, 2017 – 2022

17.10.2022

 

this text was commissioned
by SEA Foundation
as part of the research
fold #05 on Awakening

 

text by:
Melanie King

 

 

Press:

Melanie King

Melanie King is a working-class artist and curator, originally from Manchester, UK. Melanie is now based in Kent, UK. She is co-Director of super/collider, Lumen Studios and founder of the London Alternative Photography Collective. Melanie King is a Lecturer In Photography at Canterbury Christ Church University, and a final year practice-based PhD Candidate at the Royal College of Art. We invited her to contribute to the fold #05 on Awakening by writing a text on the theme in relation to her PhD research on precious metals and ancient light.

Cosmic Awakenings

The telescope allows us to magnify cosmic objects, such as the sun, moon and stars. It allows us to view familiar objects through a new lens, offering us new perspectives we would not have had otherwise. Historically, astronomical observations have radically changed our understanding of the universe. In 1923, Edwin Hubble discovered a variable star, demonstrating that the universe is expanding rather than contracting. As observational technology improved, astronomers looked further into the depths of our cosmos and discovered new stars and galaxies. In 2004, NASA produced an Ultra Deep Field image, focusing on a seemingly empty part of the night sky. Based on these combined images taken between 2003 and 2004, NASA discovered more than 10,000 galaxies. These discoveries have allowed us to better understand the size of the universe. Earth inhabits an area in time and space that is infinitesimal compared to our vast cosmos. Even when we look at the timeline of our universe, life has existed only a short fragment of time. This makes us conscious that human and non-human life on Earth are incredibly precious. Knowing that we are part of a network of living and non-living matter expands our perspective to see ourselves as part of a larger whole.

In 1987, Frank White produced a text “The Overview Effect” which documented the thoughts and feelings from astronauts who had seen the Earth from space. Consistently, the astronauts experienced a perceptual shift, they began to view the Earth as if it were a fragile organism, protected from the void of space only by a thin film of atmosphere. As a result, they felt compelled to protect the environment. As other astronauts viewed the lack of borders from space, they were inspired to campaign for world peace. Both scenarios promote the idea that human and non-human beings on Earth are interconnected. Of course, the environmental credentials of space exploration and tourism are now contested, due to the amount of fuel and resources that are used to send humans into space. In addition to this fact, it is only a select few (mostly white, male) that have been able to gaze at the Earth from space.

However, I believe it is possible to obtain a “cosmic perspective” from a terrestrial standpoint, just by looking at the stars in an area without light pollution. During my practice-based PhD research journey, I have been able to view the night sky from various “dark-sky” locations in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Italy and more. When you stand underneath a sky full of stars in a “dark-sky” area, the night sky arches overhead. It can be an intense, overwhelming experience which can be disorientating. I have felt as if I could jump into the Milky Way as if it were a swimming pool and have needed to lie down against the ground as I felt that the stars were pressing down on me. In these situations, I have felt profoundly connected to the cosmos – whilst also becoming acutely aware of the environment around me. In the darkness our sight can become limited, it is then possible to tune into other senses such as sound, smell, and touch. We may become more attuned to the sound of crickets nearby or the fragrance of a particular flower, such as jasmine or honeysuckle which can emit scent in the evening. Being in darkness can also affect our movement as we might slow down our walking pace so that we do not stumble. As a woman from an urban environment, my experience of darkened spaces has become embodied over time. My photographic skills have improved so that I am able to perform certain tasks without light. For example, I can press a shutter release and reload a medium format film in complete darkness. I walk differently without light, my feet stay closer to the ground so that I can feel uneven terrain. Moving around in darkness requires the body to slow down, using a range of other senses for navigation.

In July 2022, the James Webb Space Telescope produced its first image. This telescope uses a vast matrix of mirrors and infrared technology to look further back in time and space than we have seen before. Astronomy is a field of discovery, consistently investigating unexplored areas of our universe. At the time of writing, the James Webb Space Telescope has already allowed astronomers to see finer details within nebulae, galaxies and supernovae. This information helps us to understand more about the structure of the universe.

“We have never been able to see the intricate fine details of how interstellar matter is structured in these environments, and to figure out how planetary systems can form in the presence of this harsh radiation.” (Habart, 2022)

Astronomers use spectrographic imaging to determine chemical constituents within stars and galaxies. As we learn about the chemistry of stars, we discover that our own atoms are intimately connected with both the cosmos and our Earthly environment. For example, calcium can be found within stars, the white cliffs of Dover and in our own bones and teeth. In addition to this, astronomers such as Camilla Hansen have also detected precious metals such as silver and gold within stars. (Hansen, 2012)

In “Vibrant Matter”, Jane Bennett promotes the concept of vital materiality, an idea which suggests that matter has agency. In addition to this, she describes scenarios which show how humans and non-human beings are interconnected. In Bennett’s text she considers how the concept of vital materiality can affect our understanding of ecology.

“Such a newfound attentiveness to matter and its powers will not solve the problem of human exploitation or oppression, but it can inspire a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are kin, in the sense of inextricably enmeshed into a dense network of relations. And in a knotted world of vibrant matter, to harm one section of the web may very well be to harm oneself.” (Bennett, 2010, 13)

In this time of ecological catastrophe, it can be hard to find inspiration to make a change. However, small productive efforts can be viewed as part of a larger movement. Finding ways to reduce the environmental impact of our practice can be thought of as activism. It is a way to retain hope whilst thinking of new ways to reinvent our future. In her text “Hope In The Dark” Rebecca Solnit discusses the importance of activism.

“Political awareness without activism means looking at the devastation, your face towards the centre of things. Activism itself can generate hope because it already constitutes an alternative and turns away from the corruption at the centre, to face the wild possibilities and the heroes at the edges or at the side.” (Solnit, 2005, 24)

Similarly, Donna Haraway considers that activism is a way to turn away from nihilistic tendencies. To refrain from:

“a position that the game is over, it’s too late, there’s no sense trying to make anything any better, or at least no sense having an active trust in each other working and playing for a resurgent world.” (Haraway, 2016, 3)

Robin Wall Kimmerer shares the importance of hope within her writing. Kimmerer is a Native American woman and a botanist. In her text “Braiding Sweetgrass” she knots together her experiences, recalling ancient braiding practices where many strands become part of a coherent whole. Kimmerer’s perspective is informed by contemporary science as well as her Native American background. “Braiding Sweetgrass” tells stories of communities who are taking positive actions to repair and restore several ecosystems. These groups are working together to make productive changes to the corrupted systems that they are entangled with. Rather than descending into nihilistic thoughts, these communities work together to pull one small thread that helps to unravel a larger broken structure.

As we learn about the intricacies of nature, from distant galaxies to invisible muons, we discover that our atoms were formed in the furnaces of stellar explosions. As a result, we can track the evolution of humans and non-humans, with the knowledge that we are intimately connected with all living organisms on Earth. Thinking on a cosmic scale awakens us to consider that we can protect other forms of life by learning to live symbiotically, thus preserving the planet for future generations.

Bibliography

Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.
Habart, E. (2022) ‘Astronomers Blown Away By First Breathtaking Webb Space Telescope Images Of Orion Nebula; https://scitechdaily.com/astronomers-blown-away-by-first-breathtaking-webb-space-telescope-images-of-orion-nebula/
Hansen, CJ. (2012) ‘Silver and Palladium Help Unveil the Nature of a Second RProcess’. A&A, Volume 54.
Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Experimental Futures: Technological Lives, Scientific Arts, Anthropological Voices. Durham: Duke University Press.
Kimmerer, R.W. (2013) Braiding Sweetgrass. London: Penguin Books Ltd
Solnit, R. (2005) Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Edinburgh: Canongate.
White, F. (2014)) The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. Virginia: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Incorporated.

Melanie King_Headshot