Here’s how it works: You get inside a coffin-like box with two small “buildings” at either end, one for your feet the other for your head. Your head is strapped into a helmet that keeps your gaze fixed down a long, red tube. As a system of pulleys starts to lift the head of the coffin into the air, the telescope opens and ambient music starts to play.
William Bennett led the project to create “Byron’s Telescope,” a “performance machine” that pays homage to the time when the line started to blur between artistic and scientific discovery.
The artist and UVA professor William Bennett and his students created “Byron’s Telescope” to move people. Now Bennett’s students are staging a campaign on the fundraising site Kickstarter.com to bring the performance machine across the country. Their destination is the annual Burning Man festival, which has earned punchline status on the East Coast as a bloated bacchanal that draws thousands of people—many of them naked, as the New York Times noted—to the Nevada desert. The festival is also a serious destination for artists.
Bennett’s team brought their “telescope” Downtown for a performance last week. As the machine cranks into action, the sky unfolds above you in a thrilling panorama. “Even though you’re on the Downtown Mall on a Friday night, you’re in a very quiet, very dark space,” says Bennett. “The only way you are aware of any change is how your body feels concerning its relationship to gravity and what you’re seeing out of the telescope.”
Bennett calls the sculpture/machine a “one-object parade”; it looks almost like an antique wagon stapled to the front half of a sailboat. It has been turning heads around town since showing up outside a show at Chroma Projects, “Small Breaches in the Firmament,” which featured more of Bennett’s work earlier this year. “The viewer is actually enclosed in the piece, and becomes invisible to the people on the outside,” says Bennett.
The seeds for “Byron” were sewn at the UVA Art Museum exhibit, “From Classic to Romantic,” that ran through January. That show explored art at the turn of the 19th century, when the dominance of classical art and literature was undermined by a variety of technological advances that equally drew the attention of artists. (Think Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was produced in that period.)
“Scientists and artists were all friends” during the Romantic era, says Bennett. “These were people who embraced the power and wonder of the revolution that was happening in science at the time. But they were also careful, and they could see not only the beauty of it, but the terror of it.”
It was in this period that the poet Lord Byron met the astronomer William Herschel, who discovered Uranus. Byron wrote of the experience of gazing through Herschel’s long telescope, and seeing parts of space he had never seen before. As they were building, Bennett realized that the sculpture was more an homage to the Romantic artists like Byron who drew inspiration from science, rather than the scientists themselves.
The telescope is a chance to gaze at “Ye stars! which are the poetry of heaven!” as the poet famously once wrote. “I would hope that it would be a quiet, meditative, simple experience that would somehow remind you that some of the best things in life are not complicated,” says Bennett.
Eat ’em up
What looks like the Silver Jews’ David Berman, smells like Coney Island, likes to run marathons, rides a motorcycle, sells leatherwork at his shows…aw, it’s the big-hearted, foul-mouthed country singer Jonny Corndawg.
Visit the Feedback blog at c-ville.com for an interview with the Esmont native, who releases his debut full-length Down on the Bikini Line on August 30. The impatient can catch him at Alhamraa on July 31 with Colin L. Orchestra and CSC Funk Band.
Going, going, gone
Devon Sproule and Paul Curreri have long set the high water mark for songcraft in town, to say nothing of their annual Valentine’s Day shows and regular appearances on albums by local musicians. But, alas, the time has come to say goodbye: Sproule confirmed by phone last week that the pair is moving to Berlin (no, that’s not a town in Virginia) at the end of August. Though locally loved, the pair does particularly well across the pond.
Catch ’em before they leave town at a “Faretheewell” show at the Jefferson Theater on August 27. Keep your eyes on this paper in the coming weeks for more details.