Research: Asterism Exchange

Astronomy as one of the oldest of the natural sciences has a rich history of interdisciplinary scholarship. Its study employs combinations of religious, mythological, cosmological, calendrical and astrological belief systems, which still have influence on the studies today.

This scientific practice, based in the act of observation and interpretation, has for decades included some form of bias, be it scientific intention, the hand of the artist or theological persuasions. The way we choose to document the night sky varies on these intentions. With changing technology, carvings have given way to drawings, which have given way to photographs and other modern was of looking, but they are all based on looking at what is above and around us.

Maria Clara Eimmar.jpg
Maria Clara Eimmart, Phase of the Moon, Aspect of Saturn and Phases of Venus, Late 17th Century

One of the oldest examples of documenting the night sky is the Nebra sky disk (1600 BC Germany) presents a stylized, but accurate depiction of the night sky. Henrietta Swan Levitt, Caroline Hershel and Maria Clara Eimmart, have created depictions of the night sky, which are not only accurate, but beautiful. The history of documenting the night sky is rich and diverse, with examples from all continents, and new depictions and photographs of the night sky are continuing to be taken/made everyday. Some employ more personal, subjective representations, while others are highly methodically recorded using conventions that have been developed over hundreds of years, such as NASA’s, in the hopes of completely objective documentation, but what we choose to look at and study is founded on human curiosity.

Drawing and observations of a comet by Caroline Herschel, 1790.jpg
Drawing and observations of a comet by Caroline Herschel, 1790

This curiosity dawns from the night sky’s seemingly understandable expanse of hot gases, debris and the incomprehensible nothingness. It is a place where so few people will ever have the chance to physically experience. We can see it everyday, practically reach out and touch it, but it is ultimately incomprehensible. The night sky is close, but far, seemingly touchable, but also never possible to touch, and these tensions between the common/everyday and the true mysterious nature of it, causes its desire to be understood.

Rachel Thornton, For Her Cloak (detail), Cyanotype, 2017

This project would aim to encourage participants to take a second look at the night sky, to question what they are looking at and why they are curious about it. By creating an asterism exchange, I would exchange images I have made of clusters of stars (real and imagined, made of cyanotype, silkscreen, drawings, embroideries) in exchange for participant’s drawings, textile, photograph, or other types of representations of the night sky. Each would be accompanied by a form/label tag to document a variety of information, some scientific, some personal, some cosmological. In the aims of conflating ideas of documentation, combining personal information with the scientific, and conflating different scientific means of documentation. By trading slices of the night sky, I hope to activate how people (amateurs, experts, hobbyists, anyone) choose to look and think about the night sky, and validate their hypotheses, no matter how whimsical they may be.

I think this project could transform to include more of a performative element, with me/a performer as a star keeper, actively cataloguing stars as they are documented.  I can imagine costumes, a booth for receiving the asterisms and an elaborate cabinet/filing system to keep the works.

Rachel Thornton, sketch for exchange

Next steps:

Take time to just draw, research and create

make website with information, promote, make pdf of form

Possible questions/categories for the form:

Date observed/created/imagined

Who were you with/what were you thinking about

How bright is the star in magnitude or on a scale of 1-10

Location/What direction were you facing


Questions to continue asking myself about this project:

Who can participate? And why will they want to?

What is the artists transformation? How do I prevent this work from being purely didactic?


How can this work be more accessible?

What about low vision/blind populations, how do they interpret the night sky – how do we share information?

How do I share this project with people who speak languages other than English/French? Is this project mainly for Canadians?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s