Prof. Tileston collaborates with Astrophysicists on "High Art"

Fri. 31 May

The ARTacama Project is the highest known art installation. 

IMAGE: Collaborators Benjamin Schmitt, Robert J. Thornton, Jacquie Tileston, Kirk McCarthy, Mark J. Devlin (L-R, Credit: B. Doherty/PennDesign)

SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA, CHILE-- Jackie Tileston, Associate Professor of Fine Arts; Painting at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, was commissioned to paint a canvas wrap for ACTPol, a polarization-sensitive receiver upgrade for the Atacama Cosmology Telescope designed to directly measure the Cosmic Microwave Background and probe the structure and evolution of the early Universe. Located on Cerro Toco in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile at an altitude of 5,190 meters (17,030 feet), it is one of the highest permanent, ground-based telescopes in the world--and the highest known art installation.

The ACTPol project is a collaboration led by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and over 25 other partner institutions across five continents. The research is funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, and supported by CONICYT, its Chilean analog.

The site, located on national park land leased from government of Chile, offers ideal atmospheric seeing conditions. But beyond scientific investigations, Benjamin L. Schmitt, Ph.D. Candidate in Physics and Astronomy at Penn and NASA Space Technology Research Fellow also saw an opportunity to interface with the local community.

"We wanted to inspire the community to take ownership of the incredible heritage of world-class astronomy, literally in their own backyard. To foster public engagement, and influence the next-generation of researchers, we wanted the telescope to have a significant cultural impact," Schmitt said.

Schmitt tapped PennDesign's Fine Arts department to explore possible collaborators and was immediately taken with the "cosmic aesthetic" of Tileston's paintings. Tileston's work uses the languages of abstraction to "probe the possibilities of how imagery and worlds are arrived at." She integrates a wide array of visual sources to mediate spaces "between the unseen and material worlds, with forms in various stages of emergence and dissolution." 

Tileston and husband Kirk McCarthy, a sculptor, brainstormed with Schmitt and Reese W. Flower Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics Mark Devlin on ideas to abstractly express their work without depicting the science involved in a literal way. They came up with a 2D mural of mixed media, which was completed in six weeks and then turned high resolution photo panels. McCarthy created the images for the top and bottom of the camera.

"[Kirk] based some of imagery on the patterns of gravitational lensing, and then added some details in glow in the dark paint - including a few small shapes that were based on the diagrams of some of the parts that were specifically engineered for the camera," Tileson described. "I made a 48" x 120" painting for the body of the camera titled "Radical Measure (Not Entirely Random)", and these paintings were digitally printed."

An autobody company worked with team to wrap the telescope with the mural, a process which took 13 hours to complete. Tileston then painted in spaces to smooth the visual transitioning of the panels.

The telescope made landfall to Chile in early March. Currently, Devlin, Schmitt and their colleagues are on the ACT site in Chile working toward the deployment of the ACTPol camera to the ACT telescope, with first light and operations projected in the coming weeks.

"We're using the phrase ‘Show your art aptitude at high altitude' to invite the community to see 'The ARTacama Project' and learn about the exciting research going on here. Towards the end of operations in 2015, we hope we can bring some part of the wrapped camera down to the nearby village of San Pedro de Atacama so that everyone can see it up close. It's really quite something," Schmitt said.

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