Navigating the Sky, a new work by ACT Director, Dr. Azra Akšamija, co-authored with Dr. Dietmar Offenhuber, Chair of the Art + Design Department at Northeastern University, explores the relationship between sensory and scientific concepts of the celestial environment. Their 4 min room-sized animation 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 exhibition Diversity of Life features contributions from art, climate, and space research. It considers the Earth’s atmosphere, which has already been changed by mankind, with the entirely different atmospheres found on exoplanets. Since the first discovery of an exoplanet in 1995, an unimagined diversity of atmospheres has been found on other planets, along with unimaginably different weather phenomena and landscapes. At the same time, this experience of “alien skies” is one that will probably take place on Earth as well, as climate change continues. International artists and scientists have worked closely together to create this exhibition. The fascinating diversity of extraterrestrial skies shows the unique and fragile balance of life and atmosphere on our planet.

Mobile Pavilion, Steiermark Schau 2023, Heldenplatz Vienna, photo: Universalmuseum Joanneum/J.J. Kucek

Within this larger framework, artists Azra Akšamija and Dietmar Offenhuber explore how ideas and knowledge shape and order what we find in the sky. Their animation combines two different knowledge systems for exploring the sky – and thus two ways of seeing the world, or two ways in which knowledge is created and passed on.

The first part, Manu-o-Kū, is based on the narration by Polynesian non-instrumental 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, SIMBAD, 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.

The project was developed with the help of MIT Research Assistants Merve Akdoğan (Computation) and Jehanzeb Shoaib (AKPIA).


Research and project development assistance: Merve Akdoğan, Jehanzeb Shoaib; AI animation: Merve Akdoğan (using Stable Diffusion and Deforum); Data visualization and sonification: Dietmar Offenhuber. Voices: Nainoa Thompson, Polynesian Voyaging Society. Data from 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

Azra Akšamija

Azra Akšamija is an artist and architectural historian. She is the Director of the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology and the Future Heritage Lab. Akšamija’s artistic practice and academic research explore how social life is affected by cultural bias and by the destruction of cultural infrastructures within the context of conflict, migration, and forced displacement. Akšamija authored two books, Mosque Manifesto: Propositions for Spaces of Coexistence (Revolver, 2015) and Museum Solidarity Lobby (Revolver, 2019), and edited the volumes Architecture of Coexistence: Building Pluralism (ArchiTangle, 2020) and Design to Live: Everyday Inventions form a Refugee Camp (co-edited with M. Philippou and R. Majzoub, MIT Press, 2021). Her artistic work has been exhibited in leading international venues, including the Generali Foundation and Secession in Vienna, Biennials in Venice, Liverpool, Valencia, and Manila, Manifesta 7, Museums of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, Belgrade, and Ljubljana, Sculpture Center and Queens Museum of Art in New York, the Royal Academy of Arts London, Jewish Museum Berlin, Design Festivals in Milan, Istanbul, Eindhoven, and Amman. Most recently, her work has been shown at the Kunsthaus Graz, the Aga Khan Museum Toronto, the Kästner Gesellschaft Hanover, and the Venice Biennale of Architecture 2021. Akšamija holds two master’s degrees in architecture from the Graz Institute of Technology (2001) and Princeton University (2004), and a Ph.D. in history, theory, and criticism in architecture from MIT (2011). She received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2013 for her design of the prayer space in the Islamic Cemetery Altach, Austria, the Art Award of the City of Graz in 2018, and an honorary doctorate from the Montserrat College of Art (2020).

Dietmar Offenhuber

Dietmar Offenhuber is an Associate Professor at Northeastern University and the Head of the Art + Design Department. He holds a Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT, an MS in Media Arts and Sciences from the MIT Media Lab, and a Dipl. Ing. in Architecture from the Technical University Vienna. Dietmar was a Key Researcher at the Austrian Ludwig Boltzmann Institute and the Ars Electronica Futurelab and a professor in the Interface Culture program of the Art University Linz, Austria. His research focuses on the relationship between design, technology, and governance. Dietmar is the author of the award-winning monograph Waste is Information – Infrastructure Legibility and Governance (MIT Press) and published books on the subjects of Urban Data, Accountability Technologies, and Urban Informatics. His Ph.D. dissertation received the Outstanding Dissertation Award 2014 from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, his research received the Best Paper Award 2012 from the Journal of the American Planning Association, and the Ascina Award 2017.