Kamil Hassim and Ian Purnell conclude their residency in South Africa
‘All these quests for knowledge in astronomy and particle physics demand us to expand our senses’, reflected Kamil Hassim after the first part of their Connect South Africa residency. Ahead of their upcoming stay at CERN, we delve into the artists’ experience in the array of astronomy observatories in South Africa.
‘All these quests for knowledge in astronomy and particle physics push further and further into the past, reaching that critical moment when it all began. Every discovery risks upending what we previously believed to be true and demands us to open our minds, expand our senses and shift our ways of being according to new knowledge. And I think this is an ultimately peaceful and beautiful picture,’ reflected Kamil Hassim after his stay in South Africa with Ian Purnell. The artists have concluded the first part of their Connect South Africa residency in the array of optical and radio astronomy observatories across rural and urban South Africa.
Connect South Africa is the first international residency of Connect – a collaboration framework between CERN and the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia. Between 2021-2024, Connect will serve as a platform to foster experimentation in the arts in connection with fundamental science. South Africa is the inaugural country of Connect’s international strand, consisting of joint residencies between CERN and scientific organisations across the Global South that will be announced yearly.
Hassim and Purnell enjoyed a singular dynamic of an art residency, diving together into the world of cosmos sciences while exchanging their visions and enriching each other’s practices. Their stay kicked off with a field visit to the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) in the Magaliesberg hills in Gauteng, about 50 km west of Johannesburg. Managed by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), HartRAO operates two telescopes for radio astronomy and space geodesy research. The artists had the opportunity to learn about the instrumentation involved in the imaging of complex skyscapes by going inside one of the radio telescopes with astronomers and astrophysicists.
The artists continued travelling to the South African Astronomical Observatory’s (SAAO) headquarters in Cape Town. SAAO is the national centre for optical and infrared astronomy in South Africa. The Observatory conducts research in astrophysics and astronomy, operating four optical telescopes that gather ultraviolet, infrared, and visible light from distant stars and galaxies to better understand our universe. During a tour of the grounds, Purnell and Hassim engaged in conversation with SAAO scientists, including Daniel Cunnama, Science Engagement Astronomer and jury member of Connect South Africa, astronomer Nicholas Erasmus, and mechanical engineer Kathryn Rosie.
In their third week, Purnell and Hassim embarked on a journey to the semi-desert area of the Karoo in the Northern Cape province. The artists explored SAAO’s Sutherland facilities, where the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) is located. ‘We got to experience larger-than-life instruments that collect information from the far reaches of the cosmos. These require positioning in areas with as little human interference as possible, creating new opportunities for nature and technology to meet’, remarked Purnell about the Karoo area, characterised by its clear year-round skies and absence of light and other pollution.
SALT is the largest optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, enabling imaging, spectroscopic, and polarimetric analysis of the radiation from astronomical objects out of reach of northern hemisphere telescopes. Using SALT, SAAO takes ‘snapshots’ of stars in rapid succession, observing modes not available on other large telescopes. As a result, astronomers can study the rapidly changing properties of compact stars, primarily as they pull in gas from their companion stars or surroundings.
Led by Daniel Cunnama, they took night-time walks to observe and engage with the astronomers and operators at work, as well as to stargaze the Milky Way in the early morning hours to reconnect to indigenous ways of navigating the sky and our galaxy. In Hassim words:
One night, alone in the dark amidst the semi-desert region of the Karoo, I was listening to the conversations of nocturnal creatures, most of which could have fit in my palm, as I waited for the Milky Way to become visible sometime in the early hours of the morning. I noticed how the crickets, beetles, frogs, birds and others inhabited their respective frequency band, occupying their own space and leaving room for those around them.
There is something special about visiting places with little noise. I understand noise not as a sonic element but as how it permeates in the form of signals through the human world, which often prevents listening, seeing and perceiving certain things. Only in the darkness and silence of the Karoo, I felt I could observe and listen to the glow and sound of my mind for the first time in my life. No wonder the astronomy telescopes need these spaces because only in these conditions can deep looking take place. And in these spaces of silence and human absence, the extent of our effects on the planet becomes stark.
The artists ended up their time in the Karoo in a rock gong, a type of lithopone that produces musical notes when struck, used for thousands of years in various parts of Africa. Subsquently, they travelled to Carnarvon to stay at SARAO’s radio telescopes field site. From the edges of the cosmos, the artists will delve into the world of subatomic particles in the second part of their residency at CERN this May.
Connect South Africa is a residency by Arts at CERN, in collaboration with SAAO and SARAO and supported by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia in the context of its initiative Art, Science and Technology. Connect South Africa is part of Connect, a collaboration framework between CERN and Pro Helvetia for the period of 2021-2024.
Article by Ana Prendes, Communications and Content Producer