Most of us don’t know about some of the pioneering women who did scientific research in America — their contributions were denied recognition or simply forgotten. The Dallas Contemporary currently has two shows expressly related to women. The first concerns ‘black sheep feminists’ — women artists who were using explicit images in a sex-positive way back when feminism was often associated with anti-porn activists. In short, it’s a characteristically provocative show from the Contemporary, one that will generate talk. But the other exhibition is smaller, a rare show concerning women in science, including the ‘human computers’ who worked in American astronomy. Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks sat down with the DC’s senior curator, Justine Ludwig, to discuss the two media installations by Aura Satz – and the overlooked history of women researchers.
JLI was really amazed by her ability to make visual things that you normally don’t think about seeing. So originally, I came in contact with her work because she was making works around the visualization of sound, and how we could see sound, and I found that utterly fascinating. And the over time we began talking, and she talked about her interests in sciences and women in the sciences specifically, and that has always been an interest of mine.
The show is ‘Her Marks, A Measure,’ and it features two works. One of them is ‘Her Luminous Distance,’ and its soundtrack is a variable drone. While it plays, we see flickering images of stars, craters and b&w photos of women. What’s all this about?
JLSo these are women that were referred to as ‘human computers’ in the late 1800s. They were working at universities like Harvard, and they were helping astronomers do research, but they really were doing work of their own. And Aura became fascinated on how these women were being referred to as computers rather than as scientists themselves.[Some of the research they did involved comparing photographic plates of stars — to track movements or other changes like variations in luminosity. Which is why ‘Her Luminous Distance’ flickers between images, using a slide projection device called a Projector Blink Comparator.]
Right. I don’t think people fully realize that’s so much of research in astronomy is simply close observation — and math.
JLYes, the head of the department of human computers was actually a deaf woman. And she made many important discoveries of her own. And Aura came to this project because she was doing research on Henrietta Swann Leavitt, who was this woman.
Yes, in particular, Henrietta Leavitt discovered the period-luminosity relationship which, basically, lets us measure the distance to stars. But she wasn’t credited with that discovery.
JLIt’s starting to be rectified. It’s interesting, I did some research a few years ago on something similar, and her name wasn’t coming up. But now you’re starting to see it. Her name was mentioned on the ‘Cosmos’ series recently. We’re starting to see this re-writing of history where women who have done important discoveries across different disciplines are being welcomed back into the narrative, which I think is very important.
That explains the images of stars. Why the images of craters?
JLThose craters are named after the women who did these important discoveries. So Henrietta Swan Leavitt has a crater on the dark side of the moon. And the other craters all bear the names of these ‘human computers.’
Aura Satz’ other art work is called ‘Between the Bullet and the Hole’ — which the Dallas Contemporary co-commissioned — and it’s also about women overlooked or forgotten in research, in this case, pioneering ballistic studies during World War II. And what we see in Satz’ video are — bullet holes. So what did these women do?
JL So what happened was during World War I, people were needed to do these calculations, and men were at war, so women began taking up this role. So in World War II, it was established that women could do this [calculating] and they could it well, so they became more and more established in the field. And what they were essentially doing was calculating the missing data between two data points. So what you’re watching in the video are a series of flashing images, where you have to fill in the space between the images. Hence, ‘Between the Bullet and the Hole.’
What the women are measuring are essentially trajectories.
JL Yes, exactly.
Image of a fired bullet from ‘Between the Bullet and the Hole.’
One interesting detail is that the female astronomers in the 19th century basically did all their calculations by hand, while several of the women working in ballistics in WWII ultimately went into working on the very first electronic computer.
JL Yes, the kind of the research they did, pre-computer, led to early computing. So there’s this interesting narrative from doing everything by hand, with the female astronomers, to the women in World War II actually doing calculations by computer.
Friday, there’s a public talk connected to this exhibition. It’s a talk about teaching STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — to young women. So how did that come about?
JL A few months ago, the director of talkSTEM, Koshi Dingra, and I were talking about specifically in STEM fields, women are grossly underrepresented, and we were talking about our frustration with that. Growing up, I was on Science Team, I started my education being pre-med. So I was always really appalled by the fact that were so few women involved in these fields. And then we began talking about Aura’s project — because women have been involved in the sciences, they have been involved in math for a very long time. But they are often written out of the story. So we thought it would be important to highlight the role of women within STEM fields, and the show seemed the perfect platform through which to do that.
Jerome Weeks is the Senior Arts Reporter/Producer for KERA. Previously at The Dallas Morning News, he was the book columnist for 10 years and the drama critic for 10 years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines. View more about Jerome Weeks.