The discovery of the planetarium and its domed hall as a place where contemporary art and digital technologies are combined creates a spherical experience for artworks that cannot be found anywhere else. As part of the Immersion special programme, the Berliner Festspiele’s „The New Infinity“ series opens this space for artists and creatives.
In this essay Kevin Walker reflects on the political and philosophical dimensions of dome architecture and its relation to ecology. Walker is a researcher, designer, writer and artist working at the boundaries of the digital and the physical.

The dome is only half the story. Half at best. An architectural dome is part of a sphere – generally about half, which matches the spherical geometry of the human eye, which has a field-of-view of about 190 degrees horizontally and 120 degrees vertically. The dome of the observatory is for looking out and around, while inside the planetarium the outside is brought in; the illusion is that we seem to see through the surface, to the stars.

Two complementary acts, too – observation and projection, taking in and shooting out. The Ancient Greek notion that the eye sees by emitting rays conflated these. The math works: in projective geometry you can shoot out a ray (or vector) from a given point to form a collection of points in a line; conversely, the eye sees perspective (from Latin: perspicere – “to see through”) where lines of sight converge at the point of perception. Geometry gets interesting in quantum mechanics, where the Bloch sphere represents two states at once – one half of the sphere a zero, say, and the other a one. But while points on the surface of the sphere represent these pure states, inside are mixed states. The Bloch sphere as a whole is seen from the outside, and as a quantum system contains a myriad of possible states.

 

“Spacetime exploration no. 1”, 2018

 

What happens if we apply such spherical thinking more broadly? Think of the dome of the church – say, Brunelleschi’s duomo in Florence. We might say that the surface of the dome, viewed from the inside or outside, represents the religious binaries of good and evil. But could we say that the people within, and without, are in “mixed states” in between? How about the planetary sphere we all inhabit? We barely go beyond the surface, but even that is hardly black and white. In fact, it’s more helpful to think how we’re inside another sphere – of the atmos or air that sustains us. According to philosopher Bruno Latour, such a sphere represents a complex ecosystem or Umwelt, “in which forms of life define their ‘immunity’ by devising protective walls and inventing elaborate systems of air conditioning.”
The surface boundary therefore defines the identity of the system or organism. But this spherical surface – a planetary atmosphere, a womb, a cell wall – exists inside of something else and in relation to other things. And it is permeable – the earth, for example, exists with and because of the sun. No sphere stands alone. So it was that the Ancient Greeks saw the earth and other planets within nested celestial spheres. This, according to philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, was the first wave of humans overcoming distances. The second was the nautical explorations of the globe in the 16th century. But where these, he says, created the notion of cosmopolitanism, today’s “globalisation” is leading instead to provincialism.
The enclosing spheres of the self and of sameness – from outdated notions of “the public sphere” to filter bubbles – are totalising, and even totalitarian. Central, self-structuring totalities like religion, myth, science or the Enlightenment have collapsed, leaving us in our own spheres, like a sea of foam.

“A powerful lesson for ecology as well as for politics,” according to Latour – “the search for identity ‘inside’ is directly linked to the quality of the ‘outside’ connection…. As if being local and having an identity could possibly be severed from alterity and connection.” We need to think through the implications of existence as “being-with,” as Sloterdijk says – as part of a containing sphere, a space of co-existence. If our individual spheres of identity are permeable, they can be connected. Others can see in, and we can see out. Remember, too, that the spheres of our eyes are two, not one – even as individuals, we already see from multiple perspectives, as Nick Sousanis brilliantly shows in his graphic narrative “Unflattening”.

 

“Spacetime exploration no. 2”, 2019

 

Connected, overlapping, and also nested. Coming back to architectural scale, Tomás Saraceno’s gallery-sized wire sculptures are a network of nested spheres, connected, permeable and interactive. The monumental dome of St Paul’s cathedral in London is actually an inner cone and a double dome, above and below, perhaps unwittingly reflecting the spheres of the eyes and the heavens, connected by our cone of vision.

Immersive theaters, too, are designed in terms of geometrical shapes and spaces. The Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History, designed by James Polshek, is a colossal sphere inside a glass cube, the top half containing the Hayden Planetarium and the bottom, a Big Bang theater. And this sphere, too, works from the outside – the exhibits I worked on with exhibition design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates use the four-storey dome as a measure of perspective. For example, if the sphere was the sun, Earth would be the size of a tennis ball. Conversely, a projected sun, created from real ultraviolet images, emerges counterintuitively out of the floor in another exhibit we created, in a mini-dome mirroring the larger one above.
The sphere seen from inside or out, connects observation and projection, individuals with the collective, consciousness with the cosmos. It gives us a complete story, but just one of many, like mixed states of quantum possibilities. To see is to see through, and to see spherically. At the end of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, a reborn space baby in a spherical womb meets the Earth’s atmosphere. Like it, we see, and we are, simultaneously and surreally inside and out.

 

Sources:

Latour, Bruno, “Some experiments in art and politics”, E-flux Journal #23, 2011.
Sloterdijk, Peter, “Bubbles: Spheres Volume I: Microspherology”, MIT Press, Boston MA 2011.
Sloterdijk, Peter, “Globes Spheres Volume II: Macrospherology”, MIT Press, Boston MA 2014.
Sloterdijk, Peter, “Foams: Spheres Volume III: Plural Spherology”, MIT Press, Boston MA 2016.
Sousanis, Nick, “Unflattening”, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2015.

With new works by Agnieszka Polska, Metahaven and Robert Lippok & Lucas Gutierrez, as well as audiovisual live performances by Dasha Rush and Robert Lippok & Lucas Gutierrez, the programme series The New Infinity enters its second year. After its world premiere in cooperation with the International Summer Festival Kampnagel at the Planetarium Hamburg, the works can be seen free of charge in our Mobile Dome on Mariannenplatz from September 5th to September 22nd.