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New work co-authored by Art + Design department chair Dietmar Offenhuber and MIT Future Heritage Lab director Dr. Azra Akšamija will be on view through May 11 as part of the Austrian state exhibition Diversity of Life: Showing Styria 2023 which features contributions from art, climate and space research.

Titled Navigating the Sky, the four-minute, room-sized animation explores the relationship between sensory and scientific concepts of the celestial environment. It was commissioned for the traveling exhibition Atmospheres: Art, Science, and Space Research, within the Austrian state exhibition and is on view from March 23 through April 4 at the Mobile Pavillion at the Heldenplatz in Vienna and from April 29 – May 11 at the Herberstein Zoo in Styria.

Building on the exhibition’s consideration of exoplanets and their diversity of atmospheres or “alien skies,”  Akšamija and Offenhuber explore how ideas and knowledge shape what we find in the sky. Navigating the Sky combines two different knowledge systems for exploring the sky, and thus two ways of seeing the world or passing on knowledge

The first part, Manu-o-Kū, is based on narration by Polynesian non-instrumental navigator Nainoa Thompson, who describes how stars, clouds, waves, and living beings form an interconnected system of orientation that can be read, felt, heard, and smelled. This celestial knowledge is not a product of the human mind alone but shared with animals such as the seabird Manu-o-Kū, which indicates the proximity of land. Thompson’s Hawaiian voyaging canoe played a central role in the revival of traditional Polynesian non-instrumental navigation techniques in the 1970s. The close entanglement of celestial knowledge and cultural ideas is also reflected in the visuals generated by an artificial neural network that has been trained on millions of images representing contemporary visual culture.

The second part, SIMBAD, traces how scientific knowledge is shaped by instruments and human culture. SIMBAD, alluding to another mythical seafarer, is the name of an astronomical database maintained by the Université de Strasbourg. It maps every celestial object described in scientific literature to its corresponding place in the sky. Looking at the composite image of all astronomical references, one is struck by distinct geometrical patterns: rectangles, circles, and other complex shapes appear in the map of all known stars and galaxies, revealing the imprints of instruments, publication formats, and changing cultural interests. Sounds and visuals are generated from 28 million bibliographic references extracted from the database.

Navigating the Sky Credits

Research and project development assistance: Merve Akdoğan, Jehanzeb Shoaib; AI animation: Merve Akdoğan (using Stable Diffusion and Deforum); Data visualization and sonification: Dietmar Offenhuber.
Voices: Nainoa Thompson, Polynesian Voyaging Society. Data from SIMBAD Astronomical Database, Centre de Données astronomiques de Strasbourg.
Thanks to: Hōkūleʻa Polynesian Voyaging Society; Thomas Boch, Université de Strasbourg, Prof. Alyssa Goodman, Peter Williams, Alberto Pepe – Harvard University