Eyes Wide Shut: Picturing Outer Space

Alessandra Ponte

Reviewed by Nicholas de Monchaux

16 Sep 2015

Atop a high tow­er, as far as pos­si­ble from Earth, there sits a human being who has altered his eyes through gigan­tic opti­cal aids in such a way that they are capa­ble of pen­e­trat­ing out­er space as far as the most dis­tant stars. In its envi­ron­ment, suns and plan­ets cir­cle at a solemn pace. Even swift-foot­ed light takes mil­lions of years to pen­e­trate this envi­ron­ment space. And yet this whole envi­ron­ment is only a tiny excerpt from Nature, tai­lored to the capac­i­ties of the human subject.

Jakob von Uexküll, A For­ay into the Worlds of Ani­mals and Humans, 1934.1

Chile, and in par­tic­u­lar the Ata­ca­ma Desert’s region, has been repeat­ed­ly labeled astronomy’s par­adise.2 Accord­ing to a recent sur­vey, Chile cur­rent­ly hosts 42% of the world’s astro­nom­i­cal obser­va­to­ries while by 2018 it will be home to 70% of world­wide astron­o­my infra­struc­ture, or, fol­low­ing a dif­fer­ent esti­mate, Chile will engen­der half of the world’s astro­nom­i­cal images by 2025. Chile’s attrac­tive­ness to astronomers is main­ly jus­ti­fied by its extra­or­di­nary and extreme geog­ra­phy. The Ata­ca­ma Desert, which cov­ers about 128,000 square kilo­me­tres (49,000 sq. mi) of Chile’s ter­ri­to­ry, is the dri­est and pos­si­bly the old­est desert on earth, hav­ing expe­ri­enced hyper­arid­i­ty for 3 mil­lion years. The aver­age rain­fall in the Ata­ca­ma is 15 mil­lime­tres per year. How­ev­er, some of the weath­er sta­tions locat­ed in the area have nev­er reg­is­tered rain, and skies are clear 300 days per year. Sit­u­at­ed at the west of the Andes Moun­tains, the desert reach­es unusu­al alti­tudes and doesn’t suf­fer from major dust storms. More­over, the very wide­ly spaced set­tle­ments in the region guar­an­tee almost inex­is­tent light pol­lu­tion and radio inter­fer­ence. Such extreme arid­i­ty and min­i­mal pol­lu­tion of course cre­ate ide­al con­di­tions for astro­nom­i­cal obser­va­tions, and the inter­na­tion­al sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty has heav­i­ly invest­ed in the Ata­ca­ma Desert, espe­cial­ly since the 1990s when, with the return to democ­ra­cy and the sta­bi­liza­tion of the polit­i­cal cli­mate, Chile emerged as one of the most secure and flour­ish­ing states in South Amer­i­ca.3

In the words of a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Euro­pean South­ern Obser­va­to­ry (ESO, a 15-nation inter­gov­ern­men­tal research fed­er­a­tion), eco­nom­i­cal and polit­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty are essen­tial to the long time, sig­nif­i­cant invest­ments required to install the new gen­er­a­tion of gigan­tic astro­nom­i­cal obser­va­to­ries. In a 2011 inter­view, ESO’s spokesman focused on three exist­ing or pro­ject­ed schemes locat­ed in the Ata­ca­ma Desert: the Very Large Tele­scope (VLT), ful­ly oper­a­tional since 2000; the Euro­pean Extreme­ly Large Tele­scope (E‑ELT), on which con­struc­tion began in June 2014; and the Ata­ca­ma Large Millimeter/​submillimeter Array (ALMA), now in an advanced phase of devel­op­ment. The con­struc­tion of ALMA, the world’s largest com­plex of radio tele­scopes, which has been work­ing at full poten­tial since 2013 (even if the last of the anten­na did not arrive until June 2014), required the com­bined forces of Euro­pean, North Amer­i­can and East Asian sci­en­tif­ic insti­tu­tions togeth­er with the coop­er­a­tion of the Repub­lic of Chile.4

ALMA sits at 5,000 metres over the sea, on a vast plateau of the Chilean Andes. The com­plex is ser­viced and manned by engi­neers, tech­ni­cians, dri­vers, mechan­ics and con­trollers in charge of assur­ing the smooth flow and pro­cess­ing of astound­ing amounts of data. An astronomer may sit in the research sta­tion, in spaces in which oxy­gen is reg­u­lar­ly pumped to sup­ple­ment the scarci­ty at high alti­tude. But most often astronomers will sit far away, in remote coun­tries, in front of com­put­er screens tran­scrib­ing and inter­pret­ing infor­ma­tion trans­mit­ted by the gigan­tic hear­ing” aids that com­pose ALMA. Sounds are actu­al­ly reg­is­tered by the six­ty-six dish-shaped 12-meter and 7‑meter anten­nas slow­ly turn­ing around in syn­chron­ic move­ment in an eerie mechan­i­cal bal­let, but astronomers would sel­dom lis­ten” to the sig­nals received from far away stars and galax­ies. Astronomers would rather look at the strings of num­bers dig­i­tized by the sen­si­tive receivers that ampli­fy the radio sig­nals col­lect­ed by the anten­na dish­es. Astronomers would then, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with engi­neers and artists, trans­form, enhance, fil­ter and manip­u­late data which extreme­ly pow­er­ful com­put­ers and appo­site pro­grams have already screened and altered. The final results will be mes­mer­iz­ing images and ani­mat­ed ren­der­ings of cos­mic objects and process­es unbe­liev­ably beyond human perception.

ALMA has a res­o­lu­tion 10 times big­ger than the leg­endary Hub­ble Space Tele­scope, launched into Earth orbit by NASA in 1990. Nev­er­the­less, it will be sur­passed by the Square Kilo­me­tre Array (SKA) pro­ject­ed to be com­plet­ed by 2024 between South Africa and Aus­tralia. Accord­ing to design, SKA will have 50 times the res­o­lu­tion of ALMA. Of course, much can be said about the severe con­di­tions imposed on humans and machines by the extreme envi­ron­ments in which these over­whelm­ing and expo­nen­tial­ly grow­ing obser­va­tion tech­nolo­gies are deployed, although even more aston­ish­ing is to reflect on how the data they col­lect are trans­lat­ed, inter­pret­ed, pre­sent­ed, and cir­cu­lat­ed. In fact, what such gigan­tic appa­ra­tus­es pro­duce are images, which are post­ed almost dai­ly on the web­site of each obser­va­to­ry, not to speak of innu­mer­able sci­en­tif­ic papers, reports, grant appli­ca­tions, research pro­pos­als, or works of vul­gar­iza­tion like pic­ture books and even calendars.

But what is the char­ac­ter of these images? Clear­ly they can­not be con­sid­ered faith­ful copies, mechan­i­cal repro­duc­tions, or objec­tive” rep­re­sen­ta­tions of cos­mic objects and events so fun­da­men­tal­ly beyond the grasp of human per­cep­tion no mat­ter how tech­no­log­i­cal­ly enhanced. And look­ing at these images will require even more of an act of faith, like the one sug­gest­ed by Bruno Latour in his famous essay on iconophil­ia: Iconophil­ia is respect not for the image itself but for the move­ment, the pas­sage, the tran­si­tion from one form of image to anoth­er. By con­trast, idol­a­try would be defined by atten­tion to the visu­al per se. Thus, icon­o­clasm may be defined either as what attacks idol­a­try or as what destroys iconophil­ia, two very dif­fer­ent goals. Because it seems so dif­fi­cult to resist the temp­ta­tion inher­ent in all images — that is, to freeze-frame them — the icon­o­clast dreams of an unmedi­at­ed access to truth, of a com­plete absence of images. But if we fol­low the path of iconophil­ia, we should, on the con­trary, pay even more respect to the series of trans­for­ma­tions for which each image is only a pro­vi­sion­al frame. In oth­er words, we should be iconophilic in all domains at once: in art, in sci­ence, and in reli­gion.”5

In the last sec­tion of a book that retraces the his­to­ry of the notion of objec­tiv­i­ty” in sci­ence, epis­te­mol­o­gists Lor­raine Das­ton and Peter Gal­i­son define the most recent gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tif­ic images as pre­sen­ta­tions rather than rep­re­sen­ta­tions. In their words, in the dig­i­tal sci­en­tif­ic atlases of today (includ­ing astro­nom­i­cal ones), images oper­ate as tools, rather than evi­dence, and are used to make and change things. Dig­i­tal images are, at least par­tial­ly, inter­ac­tive: they can be rotat­ed, cor­re­lat­ed, flied through, zoomed, coloured, and cut. Dig­i­tal images present (rather than rep­re­sent) in a triple sense: first, instead of por­tray­ing what already exists, they become part of a com­ing-into-exis­tence”; sec­ond, images are pro­duced to entice – sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly and entre­pre­neuri­al­ly,” to promise things that exist only in incom­plete or fic­tion­al form; and final­ly, lib­er­at­ed from the con­straint of mechan­i­cal objec­tiv­i­ty, they eas­i­ly merge with artis­tic pre­sen­ta­tion.6

Das­ton and Galison’s the­ses are revis­it­ed, expand­ed and refined by Eliz­a­beth Kessler in a recent painstak­ing analy­sis of the spec­tac­u­lar cos­mic images fab­ri­cat­ed” with extreme­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies that manip­u­late and inter­pret data sent to Earth by the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope. Telling­ly titled Pic­tur­ing the Cos­mos: Hub­ble Space Tele­scope Images and the Astro­nom­i­cal Sub­lime, the study demon­strates how the com­pelling images reg­u­lar­ly cir­cu­lat­ed by the astro­nom­i­cal research insti­tu­tions con­trol­ling Hub­ble oper­ate as a hybrid of sci­ence, art, and pub­lic rela­tions.” From frag­ment­ed sig­nals that need to be care­ful­ly sep­a­rat­ed from noise and black and white pic­tures of extreme­ly hazy and dis­tant celes­tial bod­ies, teams of engi­neers, artists, and astronomers pro­duce the most seduc­tive and col­or­ful images that, as Kessler con­vinc­ing­ly demon­strates, are uncan­ni­ly sim­i­lar in com­po­si­tion, palette selec­tion, and study in con­trasts to the cel­e­brat­ed sub­lime” land­scape paint­ings of the Amer­i­can West real­ized dur­ing the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry by artists such Albert Bier­stadt and Thomas Moran.7 Astronomers often refer to these sorts of rep­re­sen­ta­tions as pret­ty pic­tures”, a for­mu­la imply­ing a neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion. Nev­er­the­less, they can­not deny the seduc­tive pow­ers of the images and the way they beau­ti­ful­ly func­tion not only inside the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty but also at large, on the lay pub­lic, who almost inevitably responds to them as to true” depic­tions of the universe.

© UMWELT (Scheidegger and Garcia Partarrieu). Reproduced with permission.

© UMWELT (Scheidegger and Garcia Partarrieu). Reproduced with permission.

© UMWELT (Scheidegger and Garcia Partarrieu). Reproduced with permission.

© UMWELT (Scheidegger and Garcia Partarrieu). Reproduced with permission.

© UMWELT (Scheidegger and Garcia Partarrieu). Reproduced with permission.

© UMWELT (Scheidegger and Garcia Partarrieu). Reproduced with permission.

The pho­tographs pre­sent­ed here were tak­en by UMWELT (Schei­deg­ger & Gar­cia Par­tar­rieu) and Ger­ar­do Köster dur­ing a field­trip and work­shop orga­nized by the AA School (Lon­don) and titled Chile by Night. Direct­ed by Pedro Igna­cio Alon­so (School of Archi­tec­ture, Pon­ti­f­i­cia Uni­ver­si­dad Católi­ca de Chile, San­ti­a­go), the work­shop took place in Jan­u­ary 2013. Tutors and col­lab­o­ra­tors includ­ed Thomas Weaver (AA School, Lon­don), Pilar Cere­ce­da (geo­g­ra­ph­er, Pon­ti­f­i­cia Uni­ver­si­dad Católi­ca de Chile), Fran­cis­co Förster and Elise Ser­va­jean (astronomers, Uni­ver­si­dad de Chile, San­ti­a­go), Igna­cio Gar­cia Par­tar­rieu and Arturo Schei­deg­ger (UMWELT Archi­tects, San­ti­a­go de Chile), and Alessan­dra Ponte (School of Archi­tec­ture, Uni­ver­sité de Mon­tréal). Spe­cial thanks are due to Pedro Igna­cio Alon­so for gain­ing access to ALMA and to Fran­cis­co Förster and Elise Ser­va­jean for intro­duc­ing us to the com­plex­i­ties of astronomy’s extreme forms of imaging.


By Nicholas de Monchaux

The essay above draws a pro­found archi­tec­tur­al dia­gram. First, the lat­er­al exten­sion of the vast array, which the facts of physics allow to mas­quer­ade as a sin­gle, con­ti­nent-span­ning dish. And then, the great, sec­tion­al sweep, from below-ground infra­struc­ture, through the wires and arter­ies of the telescope’s pro­lif­er­at­ing gantries, and out — far out — into the celes­tial void.

This is a vast sec­tion in space. But, vis-à-vis Ein­stein, a sec­tion in time as well. For while it is received and parsed by what the tele­scope author­i­ties announce as the world’s fastest super­com­put­er,” the sig­nal arrives over ages first, the vast dis­tance of space equat­ing pre­cise­ly to eons of time. As out­lined above, these images then con­tin­ue to change and oper­ate through the world, mir­ror­ing the steady flux in soci­ety and ecol­o­gy that pro­duces our cul­ture, one in which only trans­for­ma­tion is fixed.

And here, the dream of a spe­cif­ic image and poten­tial tool. When it is final­ly com­plet­ed, the res­o­lu­tion of the ALMA array will be suf­fi­cient not just to pic­ture (as has already been exam­ined) the pre­his­toric for­ma­tion of stars and galax­ies but, at a fin­er depth, it is planned, to direct­ly image exo-plan­ets, pos­si­bly dis­cov­er­ing the first traces of life.”8

The dis­cov­ery of life on oth­er plan­ets would go a step towards solv­ing the Fer­mi para­dox (named after the famed Ital­ian physi­cist who con­ceived it at a din­ner-par­ty). We are, as far as we have mea­sured, the only ones in the cos­mos who are not just alive but also pro­duc­ing struc­ture and civ­i­liza­tion.9 And so, absent the cre­ator, we are the universe’s only archi­tects. This might be — the para­dox states — because we are spec­tac­u­lar­ly unique. Or, equal­ly, because we are, unfor­tu­nate­ly, not. Which is to say that all tech­no­log­i­cal, plan­e­tary civ­i­liza­tions might (as we are cur­rent­ly threat­en­ing to do) make them­selves extinct almost as quick­ly as they emerge, by trans­form­ing and degrad­ing the ecol­o­gy that sup­ports them.

Indeed, our trans­for­ma­tion of the nat­ur­al cycles of our own plan­et start­ed (one can con­vinc­ing­ly argue) with the very sands that sup­port the vast array. After the exhaus­tion of the guano-encrust­ed islands, whose nitro­gen-rich lay­ers sup­port­ed the 19th century’s vast expan­sion in agri­cul­tur­al out­put, it was only the dis­cov­ery of even larg­er deposits of nitro­gen in the vast, dried seabed of the Ata­ca­ma that avoid­ed a mas­sive eco­nom­ic and social cat­a­stro­phe.10 Until the dis­cov­ery of the Haber-Bosch process for fix­ing Nitro­gen from the air in 1911, the Ata­ca­ma was the glob­al engine, not only of life-giv­ing agri­cul­ture but also of its corol­lary shad­ow, the man­u­fac­ture of gun­pow­der, arms, and bul­lets with which fer­til­iz­er shares essen­tial chemistry. 

A sec­tion through this archi­tec­ture and this desert is then also, per­haps, this: at its base, in the life­less dirt, our anx­i­eties about the many nat­ur­al cycles our tech­nol­o­gy has shaped and remade to our ulti­mate per­il. And at its apex, in the stars, our hopes of pic­tur­ing not just the pres­ence of life on plan­ets through­out the deep uni­verse, but also its con­tin­ued pres­ence, as we know it, here on Earth.



Jakob von Uexküll, A For­ay into the Worlds of Ani­mals and Humans with A The­o­ry of Mean­ing (Streifzüge durch die Umwel­ten von Tieren und Men­schen, 1934), trans­lat­ed by Joseph D. O’Neil, intro­duc­tion by Dori­on Sagan, after­word by Geof­frey Winthrop-Young (Min­neapo­lis, MN/​London, UK: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2010), 133.


See, for exam­ple, Why Chile is an astronomer’s par­adise,” Gideon Long, BBC News, July 24, 2011: www​.bbc​.co​.uk/​n​e​w​s​/​w​o​r​l​d​-​l​a​t​i​n​-​a​m​e​r​i​c​a​-​14205720


For a beau­ti­ful and poet­ic inter­pre­ta­tion of the Ata­ca­ma Desert as priv­i­leged space for astron­o­my but also as polit­i­cal space of repres­sion and era­sure of mem­o­ry dur­ing Augus­to Pinochet’s dic­ta­tor­ship, see Nos­tal­gia for the Light (Nos­tal­gia de la Luz), a doc­u­men­tary released in 2010 by Patri­cio Guzmán.


ALMA is fund­ed in Europe by the Euro­pean South­ern Obser­va­to­ry (ESO), in North Amer­i­ca by the U.S. Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion (NSF) in coop­er­a­tion with the Nation­al Research Coun­cil of Cana­da (NRC) and the Nation­al Sci­ence Coun­cil of Tai­wan (NSC), and in East Asia by the Nation­al Insti­tutes of Nat­ur­al Sci­ences (NINS) of Japan in coop­er­a­tion with the Acad­e­mia Sini­ca (AS) in Tai­wan. ALMA con­struc­tion and oper­a­tions are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North Amer­i­ca by the Nation­al Radio Astron­o­my Obser­va­to­ry (NRAO), which is man­aged by Asso­ci­at­ed Uni­ver­si­ties, Inc. (AUI), and on behalf of East Asia by the Nation­al Astro­nom­i­cal Obser­va­to­ry of Japan (NAOJ).


Bruno Latour, How to be Iconophilic in Art, Sci­ence, and Reli­gion,” in Peter Gal­i­son and Car­o­line A. Jones, eds., Pic­tur­ing Sci­ence, Pro­duc­ing Art (New York, NY/​London, UK: Rout­ledge, 1998), 421.


Lor­raine Das­ton and Peter Gal­i­son, Objec­tiv­i­ty (New York, NY: Zone Books, 2007), 383 – 4.


Eliz­a­beth A. Kessler, Pic­tur­ing the Cos­mos: Hub­ble Space Tele­scope Images and the Astro­nom­i­cal Sub­lime (Min­neapo­lis, MN/​London, UK: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2012).


http://​www​.almaob​ser​va​to​ry​.org/​e​n​/​a​b​o​u​t​-alma, accessed 9/4/15.


See Michael H. Hart, Expla­na­tion for the Absence of Extrater­res­tri­als on Earth,” Quar­ter­ly Jour­nal of the Roy­al Astro­nom­i­cal Soci­ety 16 (1975): 128 – 135.


See Vaclav Smil, Enrich­ing the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Trans­for­ma­tion of World Food Pro­duc­tion (Cam­bridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001).



Alessan­dra Ponte is a pro­fes­sor at the École d’architecture, Uni­ver­sité de Mon­tréal, where she teach­es his­to­ry and the­o­ry of archi­tec­ture and land­scape. She has also taught at Pratt Insti­tute, Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, the Isti­tu­to Uni­ver­si­tario di Architet­tura di Venezia, and ETH (Zurich). Ponte is the author of Le paysage des orig­ines: Le voy­age en Sicile” (1777) de Richard Payne Knight (Les Édi­tions de l’Im­primeur, 2000) and co-edi­tor, with Antoine Picon, of Archi­tec­ture and the Sci­ences: Exchang­ing Metaphors (Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al Press, 2003). A col­lec­tion of her essays was pub­lished in 2014 as The House of Light and Entropy (Archi­tec­tur­al Asso­ci­a­tion Pub­li­ca­tions). Ponte orga­nized the exhi­bi­tion Total Envi­ron­ment: Mon­tréal 1965 – 1975 (Cana­di­an Cen­tre for Archi­tec­ture, Mon­tréal, 2009) and both co-orga­nized and co-edit­ed the cat­a­logue for the exhi­bi­tion God & Co.: François Dal­le­gret Beyond the Bub­ble (Archi­tec­tur­al Asso­ci­a­tion, Lon­don, 2011; ETH, Zurich, 2012; ENS­BA-Malaquais, Paris, 2012). Since 2009, she has been respon­si­ble for the con­cep­tion and orga­ni­za­tion of the Phyl­lis Lam­bert Sem­i­nar, annu­al col­lo­quia on con­tem­po­rary archi­tec­tur­al top­ics. Email: alessandraponte@​sympatico.​ca

Nicholas de Mon­chaux is an archi­tect, urban design­er, and the­o­rist. Since 2006, he has been a fac­ul­ty mem­ber in the Col­lege of Envi­ron­men­tal Design, Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, where he teach­es archi­tec­ture and urban design. De Monchaux’s book Space­suit: Fash­ion­ing Apol­lo (MIT Press, 2011) was award­ed the Eugene Emme award from the Amer­i­can Astro­nau­ti­cal Soci­ety. His design work has been exhib­it­ed at the Bien­ni­al of the Amer­i­c­as, the Venice Archi­tec­ture Bien­nale, SPUR (San Fran­cis­co), and the San Fran­cis­co Muse­um of Mod­ern Art; it has also received awards and cita­tions from Par­sons The New School for Design, the Inter­na­tion­al Union of Archi­tects, Pam­phlet Archi­tec­ture, and the Van Alen Insti­tute. Pri­or to inde­pen­dent prac­tice, de Mon­chaux worked with Michael Hop­kins & Part­ners (Lon­don) and Diller, Scofidio + Ren­fro (New York). De Monchaux’s work has been sup­port­ed by the Gra­ham Foun­da­tion for Advanced Stud­ies in the Fine Arts, the Hell­man Fam­i­ly Fund, the San­ta Fe Insti­tute, and the Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion. He is a Fel­low of both the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my in Rome and the Mac­Dow­ell Colony. Email: demonchaux@​berkeley.​edu