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Performing Astronomy: The Orrery as Model, Theatre, and Experience

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Media Archaeology and Intermedial Performance

Part of the book series: Avant-Gardes in Performance ((AGP))


This chapter presents a history of the orrery, from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, presenting it as an inherently theatrical device and establishing a picture of its evolution from a scale model into a performative space in its own right. Also, generically known as a “planetarium”, an orrery is a clockwork mechanism with balls of various sizes attached to copper arms made to scale that illustrate the relative positions of the celestial bodies. The prototype comes in many and often stunningly original forms ranging from elaborate machines mounted on stage and so-called human orreries to landscape installations and immersive environments specifically crafted for presenting performances. In all cases, the orrery articulates recurring questions that derive their substance from the human sense of place and perspective. Its history shows the importance of astronomical discoveries and demonstrations to our understanding of theatre and theatricality.

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  1. 1.

    See: Rylandiana, Newman’s tribute to the Rev. Ryland in 1835, which includes the cards that were used during the performance. Here are two examples: “CARD 1: I represent the great Sun, the centre of light, heat, and attraction to all the planets. My diameter is 890,000 miles. I am above a million times bigger than the Earth and 540 times bigger than all the planets together. I turn round upon my axis in 25 days” (Newman 1835, 120); “CARD 12: I represent stupendous Saturn. My diameter is 78,000 miles. I move around the Sun in 29½ years, at a distance of 907,000,000 miles, and at the rate of 22,000 miles an hour” (ibid. 121).

  2. 2.

    See: See Vanhoutte and Bigg (2014) on the precepts of PARS and the role of CREW’s embodied orrery. Also, for a conversation about CREW’s experimentations and experience of working on the borders between artistic practice, science and technological innovation for over a decade, see, in the same issue the interview with Eirini Nedelkopoulou.

  3. 3.

    According to Maaike Bleeker, who examined CREW’s Celestial Bodies in the context of digital media studies: “[T]hey show the universe itself as a phenomenon that cannot be disjoined from the generativity of the human–technology configurations in which the world and the universe get articulated in an ongoing, open-ended process” (Bleeker in Bigg and Vanhoutte 2017, 256).

  4. 4.

    Charlotte Bigg mentions a handbook written in 1934 by Jena teacher Otto Deinhardt and distributed by Zeiss that shows how “the human planetarium” was scheduled for school groups complementary to a visit to the planetarium: “Each age group was assigned different exercises, from drawing the constellations to measuring the height of the sun at different times of the year. Several of these exercises involved children embodying planets and re-enacting the motions of the solar system’s different bodies”. Accordingly, “schoolgirls were chosen according to size to embody the sun and the planets. They were made to pace along concentric orbits traced with chalk on the schoolyard. The ‘Planetenkinder’ demonstrated in a simple but effective manner that planets closer to the sun were quicker to complete one full circle” (Bigg in Bigg and Vanhoutte 2017, 214).

  5. 5.

    Some contemporary practices are described in an article in Astronomy Education Review, “The Human Orrery: A New Educational Tool for Astronomy” (Asher 2007).

  6. 6.

    For a state of the art report on embodiment theory and education, see Kiefer and Trumpp (2012).

  7. 7.

    Elkins and Morgan (2009), Josephson-Storm (2017).

  8. 8.

    On the phenomenology of this experience in CREW’s performances, see Vanhoutte and Wynants (2011): “In the shifting moment between the embodied and the perceived world, on the fracture between what one sees and what one feels, the distinction between live and mediated is blurred, moreover, can no longer be made. The perception of the body is pushed to the extreme, causing a most confusing corporal awareness, a condition that intensifies the experience and causes an altered sense of presence. In a dynamic cognitive negotiation, one tends, however, to unify the divergent ontologies of the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ to a meaningful experience” (275).

  9. 9.



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Vanhoutte, K. (2019). Performing Astronomy: The Orrery as Model, Theatre, and Experience. In: Wynants, N. (eds) Media Archaeology and Intermedial Performance. Avant-Gardes in Performance. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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