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Exploring the Ineffable

Jul 24, 2009
By David A. Ross

surface of the MoonThe Moon has always seemed somewhat melancholic, a wistful object in the night sky that remains a favorite subject of poets, musicians and artists even after it has been de-mystified by 40 years of probes, manned landings and scientific exploration.

For the young Scottish artist Katie Paterson, it was the Moon’s amgibuous distance—far, and yet so close in astronomical terms—that piqued her interest in pursuing her own kind of exploration. Paterson is interested in transmission and reception—the basis of human communication—and in a Zen-inspired quest to know and see what cannot be easily seen or known. An artist deeply engaged in science, she’s also interested in exploring the ineffable. In her first well-known work, she placed a microphone into an Icelandic glacier, and callers to a mobile number in England could listen to the glacier as it slowly melted.

In her research, Paterson happened upon a global community of radio enthusiasts who took particular delight in bouncing radio signals off of the Moon’s surface and recording the results. After making contact with a group of Japanese enthusiasts, she proposed trying the experiment with an encoded version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, reconstituting it and playing the resulting transmission through a digital player piano, "performing" robotically in an empty gallery space. The results were, in Paterson’s words, "strange and almost ghostly." 

Because of the Moon’s irregularly cratered surface, bits of the transmission are lost in the process, and there are gaps and missing notes in the playback which Paterson sees as a kind of technological intervention in the musical score. This seemingly simple transformation encourages us to listen carefully for what we can no longer hear.

She then convinced her Moon-bouncing colleagues to take this Zen notion to its extreme, and transmitted a performance of John Cage’s 4′ 33", his famous silent work, which encouraged audiences to simply listen to the sounds around them, and to pay the same careful attention to ambient sound as one would to composed music.

For a recent exhibition in London, Paterson produced a map of all the dead stars in the universe, and her next work is another search for the ineffable: working with several leading astrophysicists to find a way to transmit what she refers to as "ancient darkness," images of the black of deep space from the time of the Big Bang.




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