16mm film. Color and sound.
To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.
“Theses on the Philosophy of History”,
in Illuminations, London: Pimlico, 1999,
Scientists at different times have sought to observe these phenomena, which, for example, served as alleged evidence of the soundness of Einstein’s relativity theory. Nonetheless, its limited geographic possibilities of observation meant vast mobilisations of resources, both human and technical, to different parts of the world. In many cases, these were facilitated by colonial relations of power that inevitably link the history of astronomy to that of the XIX and XX centuries imperialism.
The film, is formed by images gathered during the course of research. Arranged to point at the socio-cultural history of astrophysics, they create a non-linear narrative that could allow us to gain access to residual, yet significant traces of the non strictly scientific aspects of this history.
The film, titled The Path of Totality – Concepts of Simultaneity, references Einstein’s ideas about the impossibility of two things happening simultaneously when distant in space. It is made of hundreds of moving and still images kept in astronomical institutions in different parts of the world. Easily branded as banal and documenting purely recreational and non-scientific activities during the expeditions, these images gain here a new value both in the aesthetic and political context created by the work which reactualises them as they bear witness to the experience of the expedition beyond the data collected in the seven minutes of the eclipse. While science looks for general, overarching explanations, and tends to discard the “practicalities” of how it reached its conclusions, these documents contain information about the specific work conditions of those invested in the observation and their particular gaze on the place. Furthermore, it shows a different form of impossible simultaneity between the “now” of the social realities happening in the location of the expedition and the “now” of the expedition itself (the apparatus of resources mobilised thousands of miles). In this way, Polo highlights a distance marked by dissimilar political, cultural, economic and social factors at a given time (the “now”), more than a physical, measurable one (determined by the “here” and the “there”).
For if the location of the expedition was determined by the occurrence of the phenomenon at a given time and its conditions of observation at a given place, this point on the map was not a ‘no man’s land’ devoid of history. It was in many cases this history, linked to a colonial past or present, which provided the ideal conditions for the expeditionaries who would have otherwise claimed a purely scientific interest. An international division of labour is at play, as well as a particular proto-ethnographic observation of the place, the traces of which say more about the observer/expeditionary than the observed/local person. The unveiling of these power relations at different levels is enabled by the very same documents generated in the course of the production of the seemingly “disinterested” scientific data.
One could argue that, through these works, Polo adheres to the “constructivist ambition”, as enunciated by Isabelle Stengers, which “demands that we accept that any of our bodies of knowledge, any of our convictions, any of our truths cannot transcend the status of ‘construction’. It demands that we assert their immanence to history, and that we take an interest in the means invented, in the authorities invoked to support their pretention to a stability that would transcend history, for these means and these authorities are, in their turn, constructions, as are the former”[i].
[i] Isabelle Stengers, La guerre des sciences, Paris and La Plessis-Robinson: La Découverte/Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, 1996, p. 69. My translation.
The production of this project has been posible thanks to the collaboration of a big number of experts and institutions worldwide.
The most relevant support has come from:
Tony Misch (Lick Observatory, California), Richard Ellis (CALTECH, California), Jay Pasachoff (Williams College, Massachussets), Elisabeth Davies (Harvard Observatory, Boston), Mary Markey (Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington), Judith Dartt (University of Chicago Library), Gregory Shelton (Naval Observatory, Washington), Dan Lewis (The Huntington Library, California), John Sanford (Antique Telescope Society), Don Nicholson (Canergie Observatories), Andrew Murray (Manchester University), Philip Shane, Peter Hingley (The Royal Astronomical Society, London), Adam Perkins (The Scientific Manuscripts Department at the Archive of the Cambridge University), Mark Hurn (Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge), Serge Koutchmy and Jean Mouette (Institut d’astrophysique de Paris, CNRS/UPMC.), Fonds Daniel Chalonge à l’Observatoire de Paris, Jean-Francois Hochedez (Observatoire Royal de Belgique), Jean Marc Lariviere, Axel Hofman ( Sonnenobservatorium Einsteinturm, Postdam.), Wilhem Kegel (Institute of Astrophysics, Berlin), Rob van Gent, (Astronomical Institute, Utrecht), Godelieve Bolten (Historical Archive Haarlem), Halima Naimova (Observatório Astronómico de Lisboa), Rafael Bachiller (National Observatory of Madrid), Santiago Paolantonio (National Observatory of Córdoba, Argentina), Makiko Aoki (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan).