Amélie Laurence Fortin and Katie Zazenski
This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.former US President Jimmy Carter
The Voyager Golden Record was created in just under one year by a team devised and led by astronomer and astrophysicist, Carl Sagan. Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of audio recordings– musical selections from different cultures and eras, animal sounds, spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and written messages from President Carter and the U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim.1 The record, mounted on both the Voyager 1 and 2 satellites, was sent to space on September 5 and August 20, 1977, respectively, and has been surging further and further from home ever since. In August 2012, Voyager 1 reached interstellar space. Six years later, Voyager 2 joined its kin. Their next anticipated encounter with a cosmic object isn’t expected for another 40,000 years.
Following the path of our ancestors, from the earliest stages of exploration of the terrestrial Earth, when European knowledge was limited to that of their provincial lands and histories, and knowledge of the rest of the world was only the stories reported by figures like Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, first-hand accounts were incredibly limited in comparison to their reach. The tales and knowledge were often translated into fantastic myths that hovered somewhere between the real and the imagined. It was the Imago Mundi, a collection of scientific treatises completed in 1410 by Pierre D’Ailly, which most likely accelerated the ambitious trans-Atlantic journey of Christopher Columbus, who managed to procure one of only very few precious exemplars of the manuscript. While this crossing led to the barbaric destruction of the indigenous peoples of the Americas at the hands of the Europeans, it in turn inspired an age of voyages, both maritime and telluric. The accumulation, collecting, and archiving of global knowledge through experience had only just begun. Later, during the Age of Enlightenment, Diderot and D’Alembert produced their famous Encyclopédie (1751-1772). The need to name, order, and to know runs deep.
Happening alongside these earthly discoveries and conquests, another slightly more abstract and ancestral quest began to infect humanity, that of understanding and naming the night sky and cosmos. By naming the sky we re-defined our relationship to things and to ourselves, and naturally, the same questions would resurface: the body, identity, humanity, animality, time, life— how do all of these things intersect in time and space? By naming the sky, by naming the other, we create a timeline for and give shape to the boundaries and borders of the self, because to know another is to know oneself.
Having reached most lands on earth by the mid 1800’s, the goal-post began to shift beyond our stratosphere. It only took another century before we were able to fly, and by the 1960’s we had planted a flag on the moon. An entire generation was fueled with outward projections of hope, of progress, with power and a certain invincibility. Advancement was accelerating at a rate matched only by the cadence of the production line, the human rhythms becoming replaced by our mechanical counterparts. And as with everything, fear would quickly become a tool deployed against hopes and ideas that didn’t quite fit the political models of the time. However, the terrors were easily projected onto our intergalactic enemies, becoming allegories of alien invaders coming to Earth via UFO, Manichean visions with specific scenarios adapted to the preoccupation of the moment. These stories offered a broad spectrum of response from comic visions (Barbarella, 1968 – The Fifth Element, 1997 – Men in Black, 1997, 2002, 2012) to the apocalyptic (Alien, 1979, 1986 – The Thing, 1982 – Independence Day, 1996) to benevolent visions and saviors (ET, 1982 – The Fifth Element, 1997 – Arrival, 2016). But today, the enemy is not only here on earth but is alive within us. A pathogen so small it travels through a sneeze, on the skin of a carelessly unwashed hand, or in a cloud of breath hanging in between stacked shelves at the grocery. In 2020 we are under the occupation of a virus, a biological element of the molecular scale. Since the end of the second World War, thanks to developments in technology, science and medicine have helped those of us in first-world nations to largely forget the power of such pathogens.
We are of a time when the adversary, the bullseye of fear has become the literal unseen. Our focus and imagination has been re-centered back on Earth and the site that has been most neglected in this outward groping—our bodies—are the landscapes through which this microorganism travels, forcing us into new patterns of behavior. Our aura is the unknown vital universe for this microscopic alien on its own “space voyage,” carrying all information for its own survival and domination. And once again, through this interaction, perception of self is transformed. Whether by the infinitely large or the infinitely small, our fragility hangs in the balance and thus remains prey to redefinition.
Accustomed to dystopian fiction, it is easy for us to predict the worst for the post-pandemic period. What if we were locked up in these homes and holes and spaces oh so tightly for eternity? What if we do not go back to this recent age of affluence, rankings, and extreme social-influence where we, the first-world privileged class, could hop from continent to continent with relative ease, of course depending on where your passport is from or the balance in your bank account. But, what if the structures of power were not top-down but instead, spread across as in a system of links and nodes? What if our impending reality is redistributed into a sci-fi proposition where countries and continents are in fact a cluster of planets in a galaxy called Earth, with dimensionality no longer stacked but enmeshed, and the scale and territories of the known world exploded?
A journey begins with a curiosity and/or a need which is then cultivated and streamlined, reduced to an ordering of space-time relationships. We are confronted with the idea of ‘distance’ and its relationship to linear time, all of which helps us to realize how quickly our notions of travel have changed in such a short period of time. As the French cultural theorist Paul Virilio explained:
“To begin with, if we consider displacement, that is to say the speed which makes it possible to move, we obtain a triptych: departure, journey and arrival. (…) But very quickly, with the transport revolution, there will only be two and a half terms: we will leave again but the journey will only be a kind of inertia, an interlude between home and its destination. (…) With the transmission revolution, everything happens without necessarily leaving or traveling. This is what I call the era of widespread arrival. Speed has changed the conditions of the trip and the route to such an extent that we have gone from three terms to two and finally to a generalized term: arrival. The arrival will dominate all departures and all trips. There is a revolutionary dimension in relation to the city and the political territory, which also concerns the strategic territory.”2
Energy equals speed, speed equals productivity, productivity equals efficiency. Efficiency is progress, progress is knowledge, knowledge is power.
But where does this need for affirmation or for dominance come from? Does it not merely instill a false sense of security, one of stability and stasis in an otherwise heaving and fluid system? And what about the connections built across dimensions, the ones that are complementary and symbiotic, those that are carriers, that are both physical and ethereal? In some ways, it is a product of our approach to storytelling, or at least our reliance on linear time and the structure of categorical record-keeping. Canadian professor of Forest Ecology Suzanne Simard relates network structure very simply: relationships form networks. And, there are examples of these networks in systems both organic and human-made, from forests to neural and social networks; the internet, in fact, is a symbiotically connected, rhizomatic system.3 What if we ate the fruits produced by the trees, ate the animals, ate the plants, and then in return, nourished them in the ways that they nourished us? What if this cycle was ritualized and honored instead of made to be violent and hierarchical—would it only take an acknowledgement of death and time? What would it take to reconcile the notion that at the end of the day, we are all bodies in one form or another. That we all have the capacity to sustain and to give life, and to recognize that the quality of that life is vastly divorced from its’ material properties and its’ assumed purpose, deeply mired in a manufactured scale of oppression and power. Despite its perennial nature, entropy is uncomfortable for us humans—we need to learn to take comfort in the notion that the end of something will always incite the birth of something else. What if we simply accepted the ideas of Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier regarding the conservation of mass: “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.”4 And what if we relearned the criticality of biorhythms and biofeedback, independent of the external din that so often takes precedence.
In the spring of 2020, an epoch of audible stillness began to settle in, forcing a confrontation with the void here on Earth. The sounds of human life, of city life. The cars across the pavement, whipping down the roads. The horns. The motors. The hundreds of thousands, the millions of footsteps not taken. The heating and cooling systems set on autopilot. The elevators resting their weary cables. The hinges and revolving doors, sleeping for longer than they’ve ever slept before. All the sounds and squeaks— large and small, that we produce, were funnelled into an auricularly-based, sentient vacuum, awakening within us the deep need for progress and speed, lived accordingly since the Industrial Revolution at a pace matched only to its fastest component parts… “ the splendor of the world (…) enriched by (…): the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”5
When the cycles of sound that cue physical movement disappear, when they are ground to a halt, we intuit their unoccupied spaces and feel the anguish of the unacknowledged self. Those affected quickly realize that the body adapts to every sound cycle, to its speed and materiality, or lack thereof, and that our relation to performance, speed, and movement is also affected by that change as if these noises are our partners in a tango. On the other end of this spectrum is the very privatized space of an anechoic chamber, where air pressure disappears because there is no opportunity for sound reflection. Silence becomes physical matter with its own weight and pressure. While the contemporary experience of quarantine has produced perhaps only a slight reduction in overall movement, the silencing of the sounds that typically occupied an average of 60 to 75%6 of the perceptible landscape has created a platform for the under-recognized remaining percentage to come to the fore. The waves, frequencies, shakes, quakes, beeps, rumbles, steps, pounces, clobbers, jumps, landings and standings. The singing, growling, rustling, puffing, rubbing, breathing, beating and the changing weather. These sounds became our new, however temporary, center of gravity.
What will remain of these awakenings and what is yet to awaken from this time in terms of body, of mind, of space; of community, of network, of support, of value, of economy, of survival? Is the clamor of the city/the sounds of industry, then, a construction for time— the time that we allow ourselves to move across space, to travel from one point to another? Has this quest for speed fulfilled the visions of centuries ago? This perennial desire to somehow dominate the field of energy, while pitted in the realm of ‘future-thinking’ and advancement, is also one that exhausts both bodily and material resources. Now that our ears have again perceived silence, can we imagine a city, a country, a continent, a contemporary global community that is, somehow slower? Quieter? Less-frequently traversed? Is this transfer of power from the global to the local already in motion? And the cosmopolitan cities have been emptied of their travelers and commuters have metamorphosed private spaces into inert home offices. Are we tempted to stoke the evolution of these local and synergistic living environments or are we simply filled with nostalgic craving for the way it was? City birds have started singing later in the mornings as they’ve not needed to compete for song-space. The grounding of nearly every airline flight has reduced sound pressure, creating space for the sounds in our own heads to be heard. Are we comfortable hearing the rhythmic pulse of our arterial systems or is the relentless confrontation with the self too much to take?
This notion of progressive movement denies the cyclical, fluid nature of all things and is instead couched in the ancient notion of linear, one-dimensional time. We are not only now, but have always been in some level of free-fall (read: motion), it is simultaneously what prevents us from seeing the division of space and class and perceiving the natural order of the world. And, in the words of Hito Steyerl, “…as new types of vivisuality arise…In falling, the lines of the horizon shatter, twirl around, and superimpose.”7 So as the ability to recognize these new visualities awaken within us— inspired by corruption, oppression, disasters both natural and at the hands of humanity, we begin to again look out and up. So when we accumulate knowledge, when we compile, observe, and choose to send it to Space in the shape of a golden disc, are we not choosing not to die? Are we really compiling an organized message of our experience on Earth for the other probable inhabitants of the universe or instead, having arrived at the end of our capacity for exploration, do not we ask others to discover us as we have discovered everything that is within our reach?
In competition with the real automation of the world, in the frenzy of these world movements, the silence of the pandemic has had the effect of a vacuum. What is the sense of performance associated with this time and how is this pursuit brought to us through a compendium like the Voyager Golden Record? And again in this time we somehow rediscover the fork in the road, one path of imagination and the other of fear. Will it be too soon before we realize that they are laid one beside the next, impossibly linked?
We look, question, search, and speak in patterns that shift according to cultural, temporal forms, but these impulses are in fact eternal. Senses absorbed and divorced, and breathed-back across time, with the sobering, melancholic regularity of a dirge. And what is this link between them? Perhaps nothing more than the occupation of a physical body, the ability to have an embodied experience. It is perhaps the only element that cannot be further subdivided by culture, geography, economy, or time. So long as the human condition remains linked to the physical form, conceptualized as the body/mind continuum, we remain linked to these impulses, these somatic shapes. Form corresponds to dimensionality in the way Edwin A. Abbott described in his novel Flatland,8 or as Italo Calvino suggested in his essay ‘How the World Was’, our eyes and minds responding only to that which has been classified.9 Perhaps the New World is already here? As we have seen with the discovery of linear perspective: our ability to perceive is limited by the knowledge we have for utilizing the tools that we innately possess.
What if we approached time as a rhizomatic structure, as proposed by Deleuze and Guattari, “(H)history is always written from the sedentary point of view and in the name of a unitary State apparatus, at least a possible one, even when the topic is nomads. What is lacking is a Nomadology, the opposite of a history.”10 What if we replaced the linear past/present/future with a rhizomatic future, meaning in possession of a pluralistic identity as opposed to a single-root identity? We are looking for ways to tell the story that moves across landscapes with its people, like Aboriginal songlines that are built as both a map and a tale, the ‘truth’(geography) being just as critical as the ‘fiction’(sacred sites). Inextricably linked parts of a whole as opposed to a dichotomy.
Our forms are related to nature, to humanity, to technology, they are repeated in time, space, and at every scale imaginable and perceivable. They are the structures that we construct our physical and social worlds by and with, they give us both stability and freedom. It is complex and dimensional, it is simultaneously above, below, behind, in front, and encompasses the totality of the I and the you. These connections are present in our architectures and technologies and our codes and languages, as with the pictorial weavings of Anni Albers11 which narrate stories to those who know how to read them. Through methodological and metaphorical repetitions: weaving, tying, knotting, looping, threading, structures like lattice, the grid, the network, the cloud, the rhizome, are formed. Embedded within them are the histories and knowledge of discoveries and curiosities, the patterns and rhythms of a space and time that simultaneously once was and continues to be.
If we listen closely, what is the story our virus is recording for and transmitting to its progeny? What is the order of magnitude of our ability to record, to listen, to perceive, and what are the sounds that we would send up today? What are the messages, the ancient, hybrid stories in our cells and skies, in this fabric of machine and body rhythms, that we would now choose to communicate across time in an effort to extend our existence? As we approach the culmination of our communication with the Voyager satellites, their systems will be shut down, one by one. They are expected to retain some level of ability to communicate for a few more years, until their energy sources become too depleted to function. As the life-cycle for the Voyagers comes to a close in interstellar space, a new bio-consciousness emerges here on Earth. The human body is pitted on a wavering point within this spectrum of space, perhaps also entering a new epoch of voyaging and migration. Our continued movement has promoted multiple opportunities for a hyper-connected, more collaborative approach to life, the question that remains is that of our ability to recognize this and our willingness to narrate with continued flexibility. What will we decide?
Amélie Laurence Fortin is a visual artist and the general and artistic director of Regart, a Canadian artist-run centre dedicated to contemporary arts. Her multidisciplinary installations have been shown in solo and group shows, in art fairs, festivals, and it is included in private and public collections both in Canada and Europe. She was awarded the CALQ Studio residency in Berlin for all of 2020. Following this year she will exhibit her work at Galerie des Arts Visuels (Quebec City, CA), in addition to an invitation by Werktank vzw (Leuven, BE) to produce a work in collaboration with the Mois Multi Festival (Quebec City, CA) that will be presented at Künstlerhaus Bethanien GmbH (Berlin, GE) and in KIKK Festival (Namur, BE). https://amelielaurencefortin.com
Katie Zazenski is a visual artist and managing director of Warsaw-based Stroboskop Art Space. Her work has been included in international exhibitions at public and private institutions such as the San Diego Art Institute (CA, USA), the Mercedes Benz Americas Headquarters (MI, USA), and the Zachęta National Gallery of Art (Warsaw, PL). Zazenski received her MFA in Sculpture from the Cranbrook Academy of Art and is a two-time Fulbright Fellow to Poland. She is a lecturer in sculpture and drawing at institutions in both the US and Poland. https://kathrynzazenski.com
- NASA Official website, “Golden Record” https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/golden-record/whats-on-the-record/
- Virilio, Paul, “Dromologie : logique de la course”, Multitude, Futur Antérieur 5, Spring 1991, Article https://www.multitudes.net/dromologie-logique-de-la-course/ Authors translation from French : “Pour commencer, si nous considérons le déplacement, c’est-à-dire la vitesse qui permet de se déplacer, nous obtenons un triptyque: le départ, le voyage et l’arrivée. (…) Mais très vite, avec la révolution des transports, il n’y aura plus que deux termes et demi: on partira encore mais le voyage ne sera plus qu’une sorte d’inertie, d’intermède entre chez soi et sa destination. (…) Avec la révolution des transmissions, tout arrive sans nécessairement partir, ni voyager. C’est ce que j’appelle l’ère de l’arrivée généralisée. La vitesse a modifié les conditions du voyage et du parcours à tel point que nous sommes passés de trois termes à deux et enfin à un terme généralisé : l’arrivée. L’arrivée dominera tous les départs et tous les voyages. Il y a là une dimension révolutionnaire en rapport avec la ville et le territoire politique, qui concerne aussi le territoire stratégique.“
- Simard, Suzanne, “How Trees Talk to Each other” TEDSummit, June 2016, Talk https://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other?language=en
- de Lavoisier, Antoine-Laurent, Elements of Chemistry (1789), New York; Dover Publications, 1984
- Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso, “The Futurist Manifesto”, Italy, 1909
- Acoucité, Soundscape and noise observatory, “Confinement COVID-19 Impact sur l’environnement sonore”, April 29, 2020 *all data was recorded in France https://bruit.fr/images/2020/04/28/Impact_COVID-19_sur_lEnvironnement_Sonore_V1.pdf
- Steyerl, Hito, ”In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective”, The Wretched of The Screen, Berlin; Sternberg Press, 2012
- Abbott, Edwin Abbott, “Flatland: a romance of many dimensions”, London; Seeley and Co.,1884
- Calvino, Italo, “How the World Was” (1976), Boston ; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, Essay
- Deleuze, Gilles, Guattari, Félix, “A Thousand Plateaus” ; Chapter 1 “Rhizomes” (1980), Minneapolis ; University of Minnesota Press, 2005
- Albers, Anni, “Anni Albers”, London; Tate Modern, 11 October 2018 to 27 January 2019 https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/anni-albers