Navigating the Sky

Mar 8, 2023

A short meditation in two parts about how ideas and knowledge shape and order what we find in the sky. It was commissioned for the traveling exhibition Atmospheres: Art, Science, and Space Research, within the Austrian state exhibition Diversity of Life: Showing Styria 2023; it will be on view from March 23 – April 4 at the Mobile Pavillion at the Heldenplatz, Vienna, and from April 29 – May 11 at the Tierwelt Herberstein in Austria.


The first part is based on a narration by Polynesian 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 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.

by Azra Akšamija & Dietmar Offenhuber

Technical Notes:

Manu-o-Kū was created using Stable Diffusion 1.5 and the deforum animation script – upscaling to 7200×1200 with Topaz Gigapixel.

The SIMBAD data set used in the visualization consists of 22 million records downloaded via SIMBAD’s TAP query language. The visualization was created in R using the rgl package, the sonification was created using inverse-fourier transformation of the visualization.


Research and project development assistance: Merve Akdoğan, Jehanzeb Shoaib; AI animation: Merve Akdoğan; Data visualisation and sonification: Dietmar Offenhuber Stimme / Voices: Franz Wenzl (Deutsch) und / and Nainoa Thompson, Polynesian Voyaging Society; 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