|Willoh S Weiland, Yelling at the Stars|
photo Tilly Morris
A crowd of 500 gathered under the Autumn night sky to witness the event, which was stylishly introduced by Anton Enus, best-known as a presenter for SBS Television’s World News Australia. The message itself was delivered as a highly subjective letter of approach from Earth; a funny, tender and musical appeal to whatever extra-terrestrial other—or others—might, somehow, be capable of responding. It was created by an artistic team led by writer and performer Willoh S Weiland.
The Music Bowl event was one performative facet of Yelling at Stars, a project of sustained, collaborative enquiry focused on interstellar communication. October 2008 marked a new phase of development for the project: Weiland and researcher Nicky Forster presented Yelling at Stars in Glasgow, at Less Remote (www.lessremote.org), an international forum for cross-disciplinary dialogue about the future of space exploration. Less Remote ran parallel with the 59th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) and, during both events, Yelling at Stars was meanwhile seen in Glasgow as a “performance research installation” at the Centre for Contemporary Art. In anticipation of the UN International Year of Astronomy in 2009, Weiland told me the following about the experience of Yelling at Stars so far, and its evolving scope.
feeling the void
“Speaking for the interstellar transmission was very different from any other performance experience I’ve had. It was like feeling the void a little bit. The sensation was wonderful, but it was a big responsibility to be articulate. I’d been carrying a hope that people would connect with a sense of the impossibility of looking for an answer in the vastness of space. The joyous laughter from the audience was a relief. I was hoping that the large frame of the Music Bowl would hold, would allow the small person to be real, and it worked. I wore a bright orange dress, gumboots and a necklace of pegs. I stood in a simple wooden canoe holding a posy of blue roses, and the canoe was surrounded by a landscape of spheres—our own constellation in close-up. It wasn’t spectacular. It was really, really simple, the simplest thing I’ve ever done, which is hilarious.
“It seems strange calling the message a ‘script’ because I didn’t want to speak on behalf of anyone else in the world. There was nothing in the text of the message that isn’t true, that I haven’t experienced directly, or that one of the members of the Yelling at Stars team hasn’t experienced. In the performance I had to try to say everything as if it was real, not acted, so it felt very vulnerable. ‘I don’t know how long we should keep talking before we let the silence be an answer’—that’s one of the lines that gives a sense of the message. Probably if I were a dancer, I would have danced the transmission, but my background is in poetry, and poetry is integral to my sensibility. The spoken language was always heard in relationship to Pip Norman’s sound design; my voice and his music were structured together, as a conversation, artistically encoded.
“The theories, history and issues surrounding interstellar messaging are immense. From the beginning I wanted to keep informing myself, and wanted the audience for the transmission to be informed. I started collaborating with Nicky Forster, who’s a cultural geographer, trained in looking at the wider human context. She worked on generating the information for phase one of the project, the Yelling at Stars website. We come from different backgrounds, but our similar goal is to maintain the integrity of the science.
“Christopher Fluke, at Swinburne University, was our astronomy consultant for the live transmission. He made us aware that the act of sending a message is highly controversial. He drew our attention to the debate that’s been taking place in the astronomical community about ‘who has the right to speak for Earth?’—and to the SETI Institute’s guidelines on interstellar messaging. Then he helped us crunch all the numbers to work out how the message would be sent; explained the scientific detail. He has a deep belief in the arts, yet the performance was very exciting for him as a scientist, in terms of astronomy outreach: all of a sudden, at a hybrid contemporary arts festival in Melbourne, people were engaging with astronomy because of the show.
“The first motivation for Yelling at Stars came from a kind of disordered fact: reading, via Google, that television transmissions are going into space all the time, and that the American sitcom I Love Lucy was one of the first transmissions sent. My response was, ‘I don’t want to be represented to space as a dumb redhead!’ I studied what I could find of the sent messages: they’re dominated by a white, male, post-Enlightenment, positivist agenda which assumes that the world can be categorised into facts, facts that in turn can be condensed and therefore interpreted in a certain way.
“Whether sent out with the Pioneer spacecraft, or as equations via radio waves, the messages really make no attempt to convey the plurality, chaos and poeticism of existence. And because they’re transformed into code, they’re also dominated by issues of translatability. So they seem to magnify problems of representation that I encounter on this planet all the time. And if the human desire to communicate with outer space is based on an authentic desire to share knowledge, then presenting ourselves as a well-adjusted bunch of geniuses won’t start an honest dialogue.”
being part of the conversation
“From the IAC in Glasgow my impressions are that on the surface, the aesthetic of space industry culture—from NASA down to the satellite manufacturers—is the same as it appears in the footage of the moon landing; still very much like ‘men going forward to plant the flag.’ ...[T]he capacity to have a space program is dominated by appearances of military strength, which is the domain of men.
“The IAC was an environment where discussion focused on the possible colonisation of space, the potential to live on other planets, commercial spaceflight and so on. These are missions that are being actively pursued. As an artist and a woman my concern is whether the discussion and the ventures are going to be dominated by the same paradigms that have failed here on Earth. The cultural utilisation of space, and conversation around avoiding the mistakes that we’ve made here on Earth, are particularly areas that the arts and humanities are able to contribute to. This is what Less Remote was about.
“On an artistic level the use of the personal and the poetic in composing the Yelling at Stars transmission was an attempt to give weight to information that has historically been maligned as feminine, and therefore unworthy of dialogue—especially within the scientific community. That’s the interest for me; to try to hold this ‘other’ information, this mode of awareness, and have the scale of importance of different knowledges a little bit readjusted.
“Yelling at Stars is proving the most creatively satisfying project that I’ve undertaken. The outcomes have integrated the research and the artistic elements—made them inseparable. And the ongoing research has been quite a revelation in terms of the way I work. Being ‘part of the conversation’ in Glasgow has brought up half-forgotten ideas about activism and art; about getting involved in the dialogue, not just reflecting.
“In 2009 Nicky Forster and I will take up a three-month Synapse residency at the Swinburne University Centre for Astrophysics. So the project has opened up for me a wider sense of artistic responsibility to start engaging with this kind of institution, to try to find new ways into these places, so we can help translate what they are into the world.”
the drake equation
“Since presenting Yelling at Stars in Glasgow I’ve started to find the question of an ‘ideal listener’ in outer space more and more amusing. I love to imagine that we might burst through some Truman Show-type barrier, and there’s heaven, or that it’s populated by ghosts—which are, of course, very human ideas. I do think that extra-terrestrial life exists, and my thinking’s been buoyed by overhearing an astronomer saying at Less Remote, ‘Oh, life on other planets will be discovered within 50 years.’
“Back in 1960 Dr Frank Drake, one of the pioneers of radio astronomy and a founder of SETI, proposed the following equation: the number of detectable civilisations in space equals the average rate of star formation x the fraction of those stars with planets x the average number of those planets that are habitable x the fraction of those habitable planets where life actually emerges x the fraction of that life that is intelligent x the fraction of that intelligent life that becomes capable of interstellar signalling x the length of time that those signals remain detectible.
…Don’t wait by the phone! But you know, I believe absolutely in the unexpected. JM Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello [in the novel of the same name] defines herself as ‘a secretary of the invisible.’ Maybe I’ll try for ‘a secretary of the impossible’.”
Yelling at the Stars, project director, writer, performer Willoh S Weiland, research writer, audio documentary Nicky Forster, spoken message introduction Anton Enus, composer, sound designer Pip Norman, video/web Andrew Fraser, Monki Web Design; www.yellingatstars.com; http://www.cca-glasgow.com/; www.seti.org
RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008 pg. 27
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