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Seminar für Filmwissenschaft

Cosmic Images: Astral Aesthetics in Film and Photography

Jelena Rakin, Dr. phil.

The post-doctoral project «Cosmic Images: Astral Aesthetics in Film and Photography» examines the specificity of the representation of the cosmos in film and photography. The corpus constitutes selected material ranging from 19th-century to contemporary 21st-century images. The focus of the examination is the aestheticization of (visual) scientific knowledge about the cosmos as well as the ideologies that inform the production of cosmic images in cinema.
A study of contemporary film / photographic material in astronomy reveals an impressive array of colors, mystical-looking shapes of distant cosmic nebulae, and blurred patches of the deepest corners of the universe. These are awe-inspiring images with a pronounced sensory appeal. It is therefore not surprising that contemporary scholars identify in them the aesthetics of wonder, the sublime, or spectacle mechanisms of capitalism. Fluctuating between scientific measurement and aesthetic knowledge, film / photographic images of the cosmos call for a re-examination of the fundamental parameters of traditional aesthetics in relation to visual representation and meaning-making. At the same time, they indicate the pertinence of aesthetic categories in the visualization of science and space exploration. Using astronomy as an example, it is of importance to examine the processes of aestheticization in a cultural context where the production of knowledge is predominantly characterized by digitization and quantification. Such scrutiny often reveals that the seemingly ‘objective’ endeavors in visual representation draw on the mechanisms and traditions related to the civilizational roles of the myth, the magic, or the metaphysical.
In this vein, one of the particular interests of the project is the historically ascribed affinity of the film / photographic image for animism. This quality, which is argued to bring life to the inanimate world of the filmic images, gains momentum in the current context of the environmental crisis. The cosmos in contemporary cinema is increasingly being situated in narratives that deal with our Anthropocene futures. Some of the recent feature films anticipate a future at a moment when life on Earth is deemed no longer possible. The concept of ‘terraforming’ and colonizing other planets thus regains an awakened interest among filmmakers and artists. Apart from the interest in astral travel, contemplations about terrestrial forms of life also gain relevance; the cosmos and the cosmic become decidedly relevant in their organic dimensions. It is therefore furthermore of importance within the aims of the project to examine how cinema and photography shape the collective imaginary of the narratives of terrestrial and interstellar notions of life and ecological worldbuilding.