About The Tip of the Tongue


If you had visited Paris, Barcelona, London, New York or Berlin in 19th-century modernity, it is quite probable that on an evening out you might have attended an astronomy performance. It was, increasingly, a time for mass involvement in science. Public demonstrations and lectures in academic venues and observatories, in public spaces, theatres and opera were widely available to urban publics. These events were often combining theatrical modalities with optical instruments, mechanical devices, moving transparent paintings and magic lantern slides. The shows mingled heavenly and earthly concerns, delivering cosmological narratives that also thematized the place of man, progress and technology in a rapidly evolving world. Witnesses frequently insisted on the sense of wonder, an intellectual and emotional state elicited by shows that turned scientific discoveries and technologies into spectacles. As with many other shows of the 19th and early 20th century such as wax museums, panoramas or international exhibitions, the distinction between sensational entertainment and scientific demonstration was often difficult to draw and prompted debates. The appeal of astronomical spectacles did not wane in the 20th century, they merely took new forms when the first dome-shaped projection planetariums began appearing in German cities in the 1920s. The new modern theatres of the stars were greeted with awe and reverence, and to this day they testify to the vivid public appetite for both myth (about age-old constellations) and progress. In these venues audiences engaged with science, technology and the world; modernity negotiated the contradictions of its own times.


The planetarium has been since the 19th century the ultimate spot where mankind maps his relation to the stars and the galaxies. The architecture of the planetarium is developed with a clear purpose: to give shelter to the cohabition of scientific facts and magic fables. The planetarium is one of the rare places where facts and fiction do not bite each other to death, but move forward. In a planetarium you look into an artificial sky, heaven on earth, the inside of a dome or a sphere, and that old theatrical disposition urges the visitor to retell and redetermine his position to the cosmos, which is outrageously real. The way we describe the constellation of the stars mirrors our material relations on earth. But it also works in reverse, that is the power of archaic myths and fables: by redrawing and retelling our cosmological relationships, we might become able also to rearrange our material conditions. Hence this fundamental cosmological speech exercise on “the tip of the tongue”.


The performance was initiated in dialogue with a research network that goes under the name of PARS (Performing Astronomy Research Society). This initiative brings together an international, interdisciplinary group of researchers from the human, social, and exact sciences as well as artists, visual technicians and planetarium professionals to investigate the history, present state and future of popular astronomical spectacle. Combining academic research with artistic and professional mediation, PARS is dedicated to the investigation of a locus where spatial and visual cultures of modernity were (and continue to be) elaborated and experienced at the intersection of science, technology and spectacle. ‘We look into the performance, the material and technological characteristics of astronomical shows, their social and cultural contexts but also their perception and experience by different audiences. We explore the ways in which the shared experience of astronomical spectacles contributed to foster new senses of the collective and of the world in the quintessential cities of modernity and beyond.’