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Radio Astronomy

Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre (VIRAC), Irbene, Latvia (video)
Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre (VIRAC), Irbene, Latvia (video)
Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre (VIRAC), Irbene, Latvia URSA observatory, Helsinki, Finland
radioqualia straightaway present Radio Astronomy as a conceptual art project aiming to make the supposed silence of outer space audible. The artist collective, therefore, invites us to consider this project from the critical position adopted by conceptual art. But what makes it critical ? In questioning the very notion of art. Always a precursor, Duchamp already set the tone quite some time ago: ideas and meaning have preeminence over form and matter. In short conceptual art questions the sacred status of the work of art as a unique object — with its fetish allure — that assigns it a place within the consumer market logic. The fact that the term "conceptual art" and "dematerialization" entered the art vocabulary during the same period tellingly summarizes the thought of many conceptual artists.

It is clear why the project Radio Astronomy fits perfectly within this artistic movement. To intercept sounds from space and to transmit them directly via internet or radio waves — and to qualify this activity as art — definitively overthrows the traditional status of the work of art. Nothing to see, nothing to sell. No object, but only an experience in the etymological sense of the word: "direct observation or participation in events as a basis of knowledge" (Webster's Collegiate Dictionary). radioqualia affirms that the data that we gather in listening to space is as important and significant for the understanding of the universe as visual observation. What is more, the scientific perception of radioastronomy is largely based on visual data (graphic visualizations, diagrams etc.). But space turns out to be quite noisy: planets, stars, and nebula all have their own sonic signature. And who has heard the sounds emanating from these cosmic objects?

The title Radio Astronomy must be taken literally: a radio station that is dedicated to the interception and transmission of sounds from space. In tuning into the different celestial frequencies the listener may hear planetary noises and cosmic hissing. This project, whose intentions are after all quite simple, nevertheless requires the participation of collaborators. Characterized by a flexible and mobile structure, radioqualia associates itself, depending on the nature of its projects, with artists, scientists and various organizations. For the present project the audio data will be collected by the Windward Community College Radio Observatory (WCC) in Hawaii, USA, and the Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre (VIRAC) in Irbene, Latvia. It will also count on the collaboration of the Radio Jove network to increase the number of radio telescopes and consequently the audio material.

Radio Astronomy consists in hooking the out line of a radiotelescope to a computer which then sends the audio signal to an internet streaming server. The intercepted sounds can be transmitted in realtime on the internet and accessed through a website. They can also be picked up by radio on FM, AM and SW. Finally, the sound sources can be presented in the form of a gallery installation. The Radio Astronomy website will provide information on the conceptual and aesthetic aspects of the project. An innovative experiment stands out in this protean project. In collaboration with the telecommunications engineer Richard Wenner, radioqualia is seeking to set up a temporary planetary wireless network by "bouncing" a standard internet signal off the moon's surface, this will result in a data network that will cover the earth's diameter. The VIRAC radio telescope will be used as a transmitter and the moon as a mirror so that the signal can be relayed to earth. The transmission can therefore spread well beyond the geographical limits of its source. Any user equipped with wireless internet access will be able to hook into this planetary network. This aspect of the project is particularly pertinent in that it highlights the growing importance of wireless networks as a new transmission medium for artistic projects. According to radioqualia, the underlying idea or aim — inspired by Brecht — is to transform the user into a producer and to find an alternative for traditional telecommunications networks. As Brecht states in his text The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication (1927): " ... here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say it would be if we knew how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers." (1) Let us not forget that for Brecht all artistic activity has a didactic purpose

According to the project's instigators, Radio Astronomy has affinities with Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrète — who taught us that the sound object exists in the ear of the listener — and the experimentations of, among others, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The theoretical positions upheld by these pionneers have allowed us to perceive a priori non-musical sound as being music. John Cage is best known for his revolutionary ideas on silence, form, time and chance as an element of composition. As early as 1937 he wrote "I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments" (2) And in an even more contemporary vein: "Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating." (3) For his part Stockhausen affirmed that technological instruments such as microphones, transmitters and recordings are effectively musical instruments. In other words, sounds that are usually perceived as being non-musical can be transformed into music thanks to the intervention of a musician or a sound artist. Furthermore, in using digital detritus in a creative way by making aesthetic use of glitches, contemporary avant-garde music also provides a fertile reference for the project by encouraging us to appreciate noise in a musical context. Finally, and this seems most appropriate, Radio Astronomy can be viewed as the rehabilitation of the poetic resonance of the "music of the spheres" as put forward by the Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler.

Jacques Perron © 2003 FDL

(1) Brecht, Bertolt. "The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication" in Radiotext (e). Ed. Neil Strauss. New York: Semiotext (e), 1993. 15-17.

(2) John Cage, Silence, Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. p. 3.

(3) Ibid.