Charles Lindsay is the SETI Institute's very first artist in residence. It's a natural fit: Lindsay's experimental installations, videos and live audio-visual performances have all the rigor and curiosity of scientific experiments, and the questions they pose—about the nature of consciousness, about communication across species and time—resonate strongly with the fundamental mission of SETI, which is to discover whether or not we are, in fact, alone in the universe.
Lindsay will be participating in this year's very-exciting Moogfest, discussing the sounds of space on a panel with astrophysicists and scientists. Since we'll be there too—and as we happen to love our art and science thoroughly frappéd together—we jumped at the opportunity to chat with Lindsay about everything from Humpback Whales to aliens, art literacy, and Morse Code.
OMNI: Tell us about “Code Humpback,” the result of your residency at the SETI Institute. How did the resources you had access to at SETI influence the direction or execution of this work?
Lindsay: CODE HUMPBACK was inspired by SETI researcher Laurance Doyle’s work with Humpback whale communications. Along with scientists at U.C. Davis and the Alaska Whale Foundation, Laurance, my current SETI advisor, applied the mathematics of information theory to determine that Humpback songs have syntax, which implies language, and all that goes with it.
Imagine an ancient non-primate language, global in scale, underwater, alive—one that we don’t speak. This is fantastically compelling to me. What else are we missing? How can we communicate with aliens if we can’t converse with the beings who share not only our planet, but our biochemistry and genetic ancestry? What other unseen information surrounds us? These are the questions which drive my work.
I was working on a sound installation involving Morse code—at the RCA in Bolinas, the last operational morse code facility in the U.S.—when Laurance’s whale work became public. I decided to merge the idea of coded messages, both indecipherable and known, with the promise of inter-species communications.
With the help of RCA engineers Richard Dillman and Steve Hawes, I transmitted and received two coded messages: “What are the whales saying?” and “All we need is love.” Aside from the implied meaning of the prose, these messages become musical when transmitted in Morse code. I’m currently developing this sonic aspect of the work by converting the audio to MIDI, enabling parallel layered expressions of the same idea through software instruments and samplers.
The final installation will consist of a number of hollow metal sculptures informed by the scooped air vents of 20th century ships and NASA spacecraft: an aerospace aesthetic joining the functional with the organic. Distinct audio/visual content will emanate from within each scoop, suggesting worlds trying to communicate with one another. The abstract visuals will become clear as viewers approach and peer down into each sculpture.
OMNI: What parallels do you think exist between the underlying ethos of SETI research and either your practice as an artist, or the pursuit of art in general?
Lindsay: SETI scientists have a drive to explore and a sense of wonder. Their questions and modes of expression are complex. Their work encourages hybrid solutions that join disciplines, and their answers always lead to more questions. Sounds a lot like contemporary art.
There’s an implied willingness, too, to try new approaches, to fail, and to see the world from the vantage point of an expanding frontier. And like SETI@Home, the idea that we are more powerful as a joined collaborative network is equally alive in the arts as it is at SETI.
Part of me imagines that we’re the aliens, the invasive ones. Carl Sagan said “we are made of star stuff;” we come from space. Beyond the initial wow factor of that statement, what are the implications for our anthropocentric species? In sports we play best when we forget ourselves, but for the survival of our species we need to think and act on a large scale, and soon. SETI research encourages thinking very very big—and in exceptionally long time frames. It also accepts a very low probability for success (see the Drake Equation).
OMNI: What value do you think you brought to the working environment at SETI—did your work, residency, or creative approach benefit the researchers there? Did it encourage scientists to think differently? Were you swayed to think differently?
Lindsay: The researchers at the Institute seem to find the presence of an artist refreshing. It’s appreciated, as though the consensus were, “why would it be any other way?” I don’t think I’m the in-house-jester. Maybe the dunce—dancing somewhere between the lay audience and the hard science.
In preparation for Moogfest I was going through recent journals. Between notes about visiting LORAL to witness the fabrication of absurdly gorgeous 500 million-dollar satellites, I found this snippet from a dream: “A french man is walking a fart on a leash.” In the accompanying sketch, a nebulous but well behaved cloud replaces what one imagines was once a poodle. The man is well dressed.
This is to say that humor, absurdity, off-kilter observations, non-sequiturs—whatever gives us new perspective or encourages a diversity of approaches—must be good. A certain kind of artist will bring things out in scientists that might not otherwise emerge.
After working at SETI, I think more broadly than ever. There’s something wonderfully empowering in accepting that we each mean very little to the Cosmos, and that there are people much smarter than us working on such great challenges.
One thing for certain: the SETI Institute needs storytellers, interpreters, cheerleaders. Not simply for greater public awareness (and the funding that might garner) but because these esoteric pursuits need to be seen as options for coming generations. This is altruistic in the grandest sense, a non-capitalist approach to the information about what, and who, we are.
All art is interesting to the artist who makes it. But very little of it is of interest to anybody else. Is scientific research the same, or does the gaze of empirical judgement change the game somehow? One of the things I find curious is how little attention leading scientists pay to contemporary art—the same goes for Silicon Valley leaders. They scuba dive and climb mountains, but their art interest peaked at Cubism and Picasso. Mention Joseph Beuys, Jeff Koons, Pipilotti Rist, Janet Cardiff, or Mathew Barney, and you get a blank look.
So what didn’t happen? Why the gulf between these intelligences? Is it the same gulf that spans the empirical and the supposed, alcohol and placebo, Google and Gagosian? If we draw a Venn Diagram over-lapping the art and science camps we get a minute tribe, all of whom think this is the most interesting place on Earth. Which it is!
OMNI: Your work is imbued with a real reverence for life, and for living things. Is this what attracted you to SETI, an organization which seeks life in the cosmos?
Lindsay: ARE WE ALONE? That’s the great SETI question.
I really do wake up each morning thinking life on Earth, in this universe, at this time, is amazing. The fact that we exist, that we sleep and dream, the way our senses work, that we can be self-aware, that we can know the past, project into the future, and live in so many moments at once, that these ideas are suspended in the form of mind, all accessible.
Then there’s the life outside of us: hairy frogfish, rafts of sea otters, lichen and fungi, comb jellies, eyelash vipers, birds of prey and weather. Even clouds contain microscopic life. The more we look, the more we find. Life is tenacious, adaptive. Astrobiology is the field pushing that membrane. The Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe is under the SETI Institute umbrella, so yes, simpatico.
Spending time in places where there are no humans is something I’ve needed since childhood. It began in tidal pools on the California coast and developed from there. Wild environments, particularly when experienced solo, allow us to invent ourselves without the weight of culture(s) and all the presumptions that come with them. To be in nature this way is freedom, for me. I’m very careful about which of humanity’s existential filters I adopt. My world view is a hybrid, made up of active evolving choices. That’s life too.
One person sees a cuttlefish, thinks it’s food, and cooks it. Another sees a master camouflager, an intelligence, a possibility—literally and figuratively—and lets it be. I’ve done both. I’m not interested in persuading anybody about anything. I ask questions. I believe there are vast amounts of life in the universe. Any other conclusion seems arrogant and fearful. But I’m not a SETI proselytizer either.
OMNI: Another commonality I see between your work and SETI is the idea of communication and transmission to unknown entities—in your case, animals. The gesture—of communicating with the unknown—is very profound, even if that communication is one-sided. As an artist, what do you learn from creating such messages?
Lindsay: Paying attention, listening, observing, learning to learn: just honing these these skills alone is worthwhile. We all love it when our pets recognize and appear to adore us, even if we know it’s mostly about the dog biscuit in our pocket. The sense of communicating across species boundaries is thrilling. Maybe it’s related to our desire for transcendence, to get outside of ourselves, to be other than who we are.
I’m currently developing OSA EARS, a project designed to provide real-time sound from one of our planet’s most biodiverse rain forests to anyone anywhere in the world with internet. It’s based on the OSA peninsula in Costa Rica, a truly amazing place. If OSA EARS develops awareness for the other, the fantastic and the fragile, then perhaps the communication goes both ways. And if that leads to well-funded environmental protection, that would mean we heard the multitude of other voices, of other species. But first we need to listen.
OMNI: If you could compose a message destined to reach an extraterrestrial intelligence, what would it say?
Lindsay: The mega-watt sound of Super Bowl Sunday is already hurtling out into space. How can we compete with that—and what does it say about us?
I’m not important enough to pen a message on behalf of all earthlings, but let’s say I was. My first thought would be: “Give us some time, we’re working things out.” Although that might tell the aliens we’re vulnerable, making us an easy target. If the receiving beings enjoy old-school flesh and mayonnaise, we’d be in real trouble: All You Can Eat Humans....Hurry Up! That might be the message the Siberian Tigers would prefer.
Lindsay: Why not? We entertain each other!
Can dolphins communicate with aliens: