Friday, September 5, 2014

Back to School with Sarah Beck

“There’s a beautiful balance between science and art that’s waiting to be tapped.”

I caught up with Sarah Beck by phone after her return from Montreal as the first artist-in-residence at the International Space University’s Space Studies Program (SSP14), which is in its 27th year.

HS: If I understand correctly, your starting point of the Pioneer Plaque (1972) was the first visual initiative to communicate to aliens. Can you tell me more about it?

SB: Carl Sagan was approached by NASA at the last minute. His wife actually drew it [the design that would become an etching]. It contained a pulsar map, which is like a time capsule; if someone found it, they could tell when it left our solar system. She compressed all body types and ethnicities for the nude figures, and she was heavily criticized because the man was waving and the woman wasn’t.

HS: What was at the heart of the controversy?

SB: He was waving. He was dominant. Also, she was relatively thin. As a pair, they were controversial because they were obviously Caucasian, even though she tried to make the figures cross-racial.

HS: I remember reading that in one of the Voyager missions, images of sex organs and a slightly pregnant woman didn’t make the cut. Do you think we’ve become more or less prudish with the images we’d use to communicate with aliens?

SB: Well, the seventies were pretty swinging! The unfortunate thing is that the Sagans were so obsessed with biology that they overlooked culture. In their defense, with anything that involves tax dollars there’s going to be controversy and it’s going to be seen as ‘space smut.’

HS: What other tactics were used in that time in anticipation of alien contact?

SB: Frank Drake was already sending radio signals into space, then paired up with the Sagans and others to create the ‘Murmurs from Earth’ project. They sent a gold record into space with a uranium spot on it; it’s a way to time stamp because it allows for dating. They wanted to capture sounds of the earth: dolphin sounds, babies crying, even Chuck Berry. There’s a Saturday Night Live skit with aliens asking for more Chuck Berry! They wanted to get people to say hello in every language on the record, so they went to the UN because that seemed the most expedient way. But some countries refused to participate if their enemies participated, or if their favorite songs from home were not included. Some went on to record long-winded speeches, and the whole exercise ended in a bit of a SNAFU. Notably, no ‘Rosetta Stone’ was included, so I suppose there would be no way to decode what was being said in so many languages anyhow. Ultimately this aspect of the recording is definitely a time capsule of earth, and our inability to communicate amongst ourselves...then or now!

The record also makes several cognitive assumptions, first assuming that aliens have ears, and the plaque and operational diagrams assume aliens have eyes. They also assume that if these devices make it through, space aliens even recognize the record as a message and not part of the space probe’s mechanics. Lord knows if I came across the diagram I likely couldn’t operate it myself. Although it has now left our solar system all these years later, the odds of it being intercepted are slim. So it’s more for humans.

HS: What was involved in your re-imagining of the Pioneer Plaque?

SB: The first thing I did was read. Scientists were fascinated to learn that art involves research. 40 years of research seemed manageable to digest at first. I wanted to understand the conversation and identify the key players. During the course of my research, two stories blew my mind: one pointed out that there are two forms of intelligent life on earth—humans and dolphins—yet we have no idea how to communicate with each other. The other story was about two groups of researchers who spent a year devising messages for aliens. When they sent them to each other, one group couldn’t decode the message because they were working with Macs and their counterparts were working with Windows!

The punchline of anything you read is that it’s [alien contact is] not possible. In fact, we may be alone in the universe, which I find as equally terrifying as being one of many intelligent life forms in the universe! Stephen Hawking doesn’t think we should try to contact aliens. He says it’s dangerous. What if alien races are hostile or want our resources? On the other hand, there’s an art critic named Hito Steyerl who says that our messages are already out there, and if aliens are going to get a message, it’s probably going to be one our spam emails about penis enlargements.

HS: Meaning that we need to be more strategic or conscientious about our messages?

SB: Maybe. Carl Sagan pointed out that if aliens are listening to our ‘babble bubble,’ assuming they exist, it’s too late and we might as well be friendly.

I knew I wouldn’t be drawing a new plaque, and wasn’t even sure there was a point to my project. Then I started thinking, what is the ultimate message in a bottle? Space is often compared to the ocean. The odds of a message being scooped out of the vastness of space had me picturing a bottle bobbing along sea waters, waiting for an audience. It’s such an optimistic act to send out a message in a bottle, like a needle in the biggest haystack you can imagine! Using the message in a bottle, the medium itself addresses the hopelessness of interception while it embraces the hopefulness of being found.

I also decided my message needed to be simple, and meant more for my audience on earth. For the alien who intercepts it, the message is ‘you are not alone!’ They may think the object is magic, and in fact, that seems just about right.

As humans, we often ascribe magic to what we do not understand. An important player in the conversation about alien communication is archeology, which is a good way to examine message deconstruction as it’s the only earth-bound example we have to study messages across time. We know that in ancient England, when people found arrowheads, they knew they weren’t from nature, but had no idea what they were. Maybe they were magic? Either way, these early archeologists could tell there was an intervention, and the shape was unlikely to be natural. The rock had evidence of intention. I knew that my message had to include this agency - but that didn’t need to be decoded for the simplicity of the message to be understood.

I was also thinking about math and all of the message composition attempts involving math that I had read about. Ultimately I decided to work with origami because it employs math, intervention, and sculptural poetic aspects. I ended up making origami ships in a bottle. The ship references our history of colonial enterprise, which is the same spirit, for good or bad, that is taking us off the planet and out into space. This aspect of the message is certainly for my fellow humans.

Before folding each ship I marked the small paper with a golden handprint so that if the finder ever unfolded the ship they would be confronted with our hand, the tool used to make the ship. Kind of like the Caves of Lascaux with their hand markings.

I ended up making an edition of 20 and put them into the hands of people who contributed to my thinking around the project, those contributing to space pioneering, and people I know are going into space.

HS: Nice! From the SSP website, I gather that there is an emphasis on team projects. Did you collaborate with professionals and can you describe the process?

SB: The participants don’t sleep. Ever! They spend their first few weeks writing exams. They work morning, noon, and night with boundless energy. I joined them in week 5. I got to do a lot of cool things, like use the Canadarm. I opened the catalogue like it was Christmas and chose the workshops that applied to me most, but I got involved with all of the departments. There are so many aspects to space, it even needs lawyers! And space architects! All these different facets and vantages contributed to my project, but also contributed to my understanding of interdisciplinarity. This is the real deal.

We talk about interdisciplinarity in art, but to see it at work on this scale was really something. People shared their knowledge so freely. When you think about it, each astronaut, cosmonaut, or tyconaut represents an army of people on the ground who made their voyage possible from so many angles. Even the smallest thing needs to be considered, and there is little to no room for ego.

HS: What kind of response did your work get?

SB: A lot of people were like, “OMG! You’re an artist,” which is funny in a room of rocket scientists! Injecting myself into this busy environment was daunting, and as this was a pilot project, we were all figuring it out as we went. People would stop me on their breaks to share their thoughts on the project, or to simply ask questions, but the participants are so busy, so absorbed! Because I had no exams or research keeping me tied up, I had the fortune of interacting with faculty, astronauts, and guests.

I quickly observed that scientists have the same problem as artists; they’re trying to make their discipline more accessible. They need the public to be excited so that funding continues, and future scientists are born! In my work, I’m always trying to expand my audience, and they are too. There’s a beautiful balance between science and art that’s waiting to be tapped. It’s very copascetic. Ultimately, there is a big future for this type of collaboration, and space needs artists to ask the tough questions - space artists need to be born!

Because this was a pilot project, we are already working toward future iterations that further engage participants and the community, maybe even to help them write their own message for aliens.

HS: Speaking of helping other people write messages, on some level, this work makes me think of your Nuit Blanche installation from 2012, Postcards from the End. With disaster tourism, people who aren’t from an area find themselves purposefully in unfamiliar territory, using visual documentation to mark that blending of worlds. Does the work you made at SSP relate to other projects or bodies of work of yours?

SB: While in residence I kept thinking back to the research I was doing for my MFA on Kurt Vonnegut. His brother was a scientist and Cat’s Cradle was written as a warning to scientists. We introduce new technologies like 3-d printed human skin, with no thought of the consequences. I attended a New Technology lecture, and the future seemed so startling, and because I was overwhelmed, I stepped out to the bathroom. I went to wash my hands and the sink wouldn’t work! The future is filled with broken things! It totally reminded me of Cat’s Cradle.

Now I find myself mentally planning an artwork for scientists that is a warning - ‘Just because you can make it doesn’t mean you should.’ In the spirit of Nobel or the Manhattan project. I would also like to write a space opera based on space garbage! Maybe a space artist has been born.

For once [with the origami ships in bottles], I made a project without humour, because there is no irony in space! It was a real change for me because I work with irony and humour a lot. At the SSP14, colonialism was discussed endlessly, and framed only as a positive concept. It was discussed with no derision, no irony. The ‘C word’! Just think! I heard it everywhere as people planned future colonization of Mars, the moon, and beyond. If you think about names like the Voyager, Pioneer, Mariner, Discovery and Endeavor, they’re so optimistic; they sound like colonial ships.

HS: If we look back to the history of exploration, artists’ emphasis was on representing exotic individuals in newly discovered or conquered lands and bringing them back home. The Pioneer Plaque, the Voyager disc images, Murmurs from Earth - they're all interesting because they represent the flipside. You’re right, they really are for the humans and not for the aliens.

SB: Message construction reveals so much about the sender! Like art, it is a mirror back on our society, and likely exposes so much more than we can even imagine.

Message construction is one thing, but at NASA Ames, Berkeley, and many other labs there is serious work being done searching for extraterrestrial communications sent our way. I found myself thinking about these researchers a lot, and wondering how they discuss what they do. It must be tricky going to a party and being asked what you do for a living. The listener probably assumes they are one of those crazy ‘Ancient Alien’ scientists!

HS: I’m curious, were you drawn to this subject matter because it was from the era in which you were born?

SB: A little bit, definitely. But mostly, there’s something about Carl Sagan and the hopefulness and making science accessible that reminds me of art.

HS: Mathematicians designed the Pioneer Plaque, with the rationale that math is the lingua franca, yet the outcome was art. Do you think that art is the common thread among the living?

SB: I know that Linda Sagan was an illustrator as well as a scientist, so art was definitely in the room. But to answer your question, I think the common thread is culture. Culture and smarts are different. We know that monkeys and elephants have made paintings that sold on the market, but would they have made what we think of as paintings without human intervention? Animals use tools. We just learned that bears use tools.

HS: We did?

SB: They use buckets! Otters use rocks! Nature is crazy. Good culture, crappy culture—that’s what makes us different, special. In terms of a lingua franca, it’s impossible to imagine anything outside what we know. We can’t even understanding meaning(s) from the past. We can’t even agree on what good art is or on what masterpieces would be suitable to send into space. To say art is the voice is kind of off. It’s like screaming at the sky. At the end of the day, there’s no Rosetta Stone.

Science is so optimistic that it makes me feel like a cynic. We [artists] are supposed to be the ones who are imaginative. In both fields, there’s a place for both even though artists and scientists can be very solitary. At space school, they’re all actually doing it, with no barriers. It was amazing!

Images courtesy of the artist

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