by Matt Mullican

Navigating the interplanetary medium: a scale model of the solar system, its major bodies, its empty space. Programmed by Patrick Smith.

"Planetarium" was commissioned by Triple Canopy as part of its Internet as Material project area, supported in part by the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston.

The following is Matt Mullican's account of the genesis of "Planetarium," as told to Triple Canopy editor Alexander Provan.

In 1991 I was working on creating a virtual city, which was called Five into One. While navigating the environment, I would sometimes fly upward, farther and farther into the sky, beyond the stratosphere, into pure, white, infinite space. I would go on forever, so far away from this city I had created that I couldn’t find my way back. I became curious about where, exactly, I was when I was out there, in the middle of nowhere.

I became interested in the depiction of empty, limitless, virtual space. If you take away all objects, you’re left with space itself. But without those objects, and without time, there’s no sense of change, no variation—that space might as well be a piece of paper. There is space, but no experience of it as such. The space cancels itself out.

And yet the machinery is there: You are in a space, you are moving around, but it’s impossible to depict, it’s impossible to see. I thought to put an object back in the space, something as simple as a ball. That produced a sense of scale; with scale comes three-dimensionality. And your movement through that three-dimensional space produces a sense of time.

I went from being surrounded by things—dealing with how we name them and how we experience our environment through naming—to the opposite end of the spectrum: starting with nothing, then calling the objects into being. That original space is the absence of definition, as far as I could get from any object. But in the planetarium that space is again bounded by objects.

There’s the planetarium, and then there’s the astrarium, and the astrolabe, and geared Persian calendars from the eighteenth century. And there’s the spherical astrolabe: You look at the outside of what’s meant to represent the celestial sphere, which is actually the opposite of its form. Our position in relation to it is inverted; in fact, we are inside the sphere looking out, not on the outside looking at this globe. But we’ve learned to read it, even though it shouldn’t make sense.

There’s a title I’ve used many times: “The Combination of the Two,” which is the name of a Big Brother and the Holding Company song. I love that title. What I’m interested in is not the planets themselves, but the space in between them.

You could say, “The Space in Between (My Living Room Furniture),” too, or “The Space in Between (My Eyes)”; you could say anything to qualify it. I’m thinking of Bruce Nauman’s A Cast of the Space Under My Chair, which is, of course, a solid cast of the space underneath his chair. It’s a wonderful thought, and it’s significant that he uses the word my. It’s not just any chair, but the chair he’s sitting in. The sculpture represents the space that his body is not taking up.

Recently I went to Newcastle, where I was put into a very deep trance by a hypnotist, then escorted into an MRI machine, where they scanned my brain. The doctors were surprised by what they saw: They expected something along the lines of what you see in the brains of people on drugs. Normally, when you’re at rest, just lying there, even sleeping, your brain is active, and that activity is visible. When my brain was scanned while I was in the trance state, there was absolutely no activity. It was like virtual space. I was empty.

You are a body in space, navigating the solar system.

  • Use the arrow keys to rotate horizontally, vertically,
    and (when holding down two keys at once) diagonally.
  • Click on a planet to view its name and your distance from it.
  • Move the mouse to the bottom of the screen to access the menu.
  • Drag the slider from left to right (or click the tab and space keys)
    to increase and decrease your speed.
  • Click on the circular icon to view and hide the map.
  • Click on the rectangular icon to enter and exit full-screen mode.