This was to be another “Satellite Stories”, but in the end there were only songs, and this is the story…
The project was part of the astronomy festival Kalpaneya Yatre: Journey of Imaginations November 26- December 5 2010 at the Planetarium, Bangalore. It was a project called “Satellite Stories”, another in the series. I worked with Deepak Srinivasen and two students from Srishti, Gauri Sanghi and Rajasee Ray. The project was about creating dialogues around satellites between children at Madivaala Government School and scientists at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. I think the Institute of Astrophysics thought that making spacecraft lanterns would be a good outreach project and I think the Madivaala School thought this would be a great project about science. We wanted a creative collaboration in which the children would come up with fabulous ideas about spacecraft and the scientists could tell their stories of the satellites they use in their research. The imaginative and anecdotal stories would mix, but so would the people: it would be mutually beneficial, the scientists would learn and the children would learn. It would create dialogue during the festival about satellites, hopefully about the twenty five satellites made in Bangalore and launched now in space.
How to tell the full story of the many nuanced experiences, activities, revelations? We started with a circle of sixty children and Deepak began to ask what was in the sky and the children drew with chalk on the floor or made shapes with their bodies or hands - stars, the sun, the moon. Gauri drew a triangle and a square and asked for it to be turned into a satellite, and it was given satellite wings. So the satellites began - houses, diwali lights, strange fish-like shapes. After they drew, they made the spacecraft out of newspaper and then complicated journeys through outer space, mappings from home across the universe as chalk diagrams.
We spent three days with the children using performance and talking, drawing and making. In between, the four of us would talk about our new insights into what we were doing. We talk of the ethics of providing ‘outreach activities’ for the space/astrophysics institutes, which are actually taking no part in the pedagogy of the project. How children are constantly being drawn into believing in the space agenda, but rarely given the chance to promote their own agendas. The unequal power relations remain intact. We try to tackle this by asking astrophysicists to visit the children and comment on their work: always start with the scientists learning from the children, but no one, as it turns out, does walk around the corner to visit.
Deepak, Gauri and Rajasee develop a performance from the workshop of their own called “Unscientific Storytelling”. They perform it at the Kalpaneya Yatre festival and it includes video of the work with the children with a voice over by the three of them, discussing the intentions and misunderstandings of this supposed engagement with science. It is wonderful and invites discussion from the mixed audiences, including much criticism, because Deepak is not interested in holding back from observable truths.
I stay with the school and we go on our fieldtrips, first to ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organisation where they will see inside a clean room where a satellite is being built, then to the Institute of Astrophysics, round the corner. The next day the children bring to class models of satellites and drawings which they have made at home. The drawings, models and poems are as wonderful as they are devastating. I am too ashamed to take photographs as I see one after the other PSLV, GSLV - rockets and missiles and satellites, all as the children have seen, closely observed, the flipside of the imaginative journey into space that we have been taking, which has raised multiple, extensive questions on all kinds of areas of life, is the reality of the space industry: militaristic and nationalistic. I feel the full horror of having destroyed imagination and replaced it with technoscience.
But this is just one story to tell. On the edges of the ballistic missiles are finely drawn flowers. One boy has carved a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, PSLV out of a chalk piece.
Next we go in a crocodile to the Institute. Here I have spent some days talking with scientists who use spacecraft data and there are some stories to tell, of SOHO, which looks at the sun and of Voyager and the Shuttle. There are many experiences of spacecraft amongst the scientists, but it is an impossibly difficult task to convince them of this: the spacecraft it seems is simply irrelevant. I persuade two Kannada speakers to talk to the children and I record video of the session, not knowing entirely what is being said, but understanding enough to know that my wish for satellite stories is disappearing. It is science that matters and these are scientists and this is a rare opportunity. No one is going to waste this opportunity talking about lonely satellites sweeping out of the solar system, or orbiting a point of inertia near the sun. It is only me who is interested in such things.
In the afternoon we use a huge, unused open space at the institute to make drawings of what is in the sky. The floor is clean, there are windows, it is six times as big as their big room at school. Now the life comes back into the drawings. The rockets have faces and smiles, so do the planets, mysticism and technology wheel around great stormy vortexes. Space is saved from banality.
With the drawings and models created by he children, I design the huge bamboo spacecraft lanterns with the talented Green Chakra group. The children from Madivaala come and visit and help paint their drawings in large scale, using an overhead projector, onto the paper and bamboo spacecraft bodies. They also make their own lanterns on sticks ready for our “Satellite Stories” procession. This will happen on one night of the festival and scientists and engineers from ISRO and the Institute of Astrophysics are invited to come and share their spacecraft tales.
By chance, I also ask two cosmologists from the Raman Research Institute to join in and as it turns out, they are the only scientists who come. They bring with them a friend who plays Ukulele and they bring a collection of percussion instruments. The sixty children from the school who have worked on the project who are invited together with their parents has turned into a group of twelve - Gayatri the steadfast and open-minded school science teacher, five children, Shubaraj who is a teacher and psychologist, two young student teachers, a mother, her mother and a baby. Happily, my Satellite Stories disappear and instead we are a singing. No hierarchies, no boundaries, and best of all no one has told us this is what we should do. We just sing under the enchanting lanterns for the love of singing and the love of being together.
This is my second interview with an artist who has walked into a space institute, asserting their right to an alternative perspective.
This is the moon over Edgware Road.
These artists are pioneers. When you go into a space institute the doors of possibilities open up. Its a magical world where consciousness, life itself can be transformed, but when you enter that world as an artist, what you are confronted with are closed doors. Your right to think, your right to consider that this could also be the domain of an artist, your identity as an artist and your contribution is questioned and diminished. For reasons of circumstance, the universe belongs to science and engineering. As a man in a village near Bangalore said, “the skies belong to the West”.
This is the central problem that Lorelei and I spoke to each other about. From her experience of going on a zero-G flight with NASA about eight years ago, it was clear to her that the aspirations of the space project would never be achieved without artists. Like Ewen Chardronnet, she said that experiencing zero gravity changed you forever - it is a life-changing experience - and yet she was astounded to find that of all the medical/physiological tests carried out, there was no subjective look at the emotional impact, so that this essential life-changing nature of zero-gravity was simply ignored. A quality of the utmost profundity to human existence if sidelined by a space project with a narrowly defined imagination and culture, will result in a project without vision or design. It seems shameful that humanity would push itself into space with a technology of such immense ingenuity, but with no philosophy.
Lorelei is I think a remarkable person who was captivated by a notice she saw on the bulletin board at San Francisco Art Institute saying that art students had been on NASA zero-g flights. She couldn’t believe that this had been possible and through sheer determination she managed to be part of a second group of art students to be taken up. The bureaucracy of justifying their ideas in scientific terms sounded utterly soul destroying and I think that what she did - she kissed a man in zero gravity, or I think it was moon gravity at that point and so she called it “Moon Kiss” - she did unofficially, in one of those faultlines of official projects where human dignity and the human spirit finds a place to assert itself.
What captivated her was the true nature of what the space project meant to a human being. How would people really survive in space, how would that feel? If that was the ultimate aim of the technology she wanted to go to the core of this, so she joined a community living in geodesic dome. She stayed with a group over time finding out about the agony of coexisting on a daily basis with the same people. She researched milleniumists - people who are preparing for the apocalypse and so in a sense thinking themselves into a survival mode, analogous to the conditions of space travel. She talked about finding the Whole Earth Catalog. It has an image on the cover of the earth taken from space and was produced in the seventies, a time when the idea of space travel, survival, drug taking, altered consciousness, alternative communities were all linked philosophies and were nurtured by this new conception of ’spaceship earth’. For her, as an artist, she responded to the possibility of exploring the space beyond earth by finding ways to make that projected future personal. She had to make and experience that idea in herself, through acting out an imaginary state. Boats and flotation are other analogies she works with that begin to simulate a state of being that very few people have the courage to confront.
I was truly fascinated to find out that she had done an imagining workshop with people from NASA (http://www.pietronigro.com/zgac/news003frm.htm). The role of imagination in designing for space which is so clearly evident and yet so strongly denied by the space engineers, has been particularly fascinating me since the global lunar conference, and present throughout these many years of conversations with the people of the space projects. Lorelei had the group imagine a kind of avatar for themselves that would go into space and she had them draw their spaceship. I don’t know the details of the workshop, but my sense was that she used an unstructured format and that for the participants it was a transformative experience. She said that in order to imagine you needed to make a visualisation of what you were imagining, that the thinking and making - materialising the imagination - was a path to thinking yourself into a situation that you have no physical means of experiencing otherwise. It seemed to me that she was pointing out to NASA that the imagination is extremely powerful and under-utilized in the design process.
How imagination features for engineers designing for space, how it featured for the children that I worked with last year, who performed being Chandrayaan, the telemetry and the receiving dish and how it is used by artist’s as a method to foreground humanness is the area of investigation I find myself in now. And thank you Lorelei for your conversation.
Today I had a conversation with Biswajit Paul at the Raman Research Institute, Bangalore. He was one of the original proposers of Astrosat at a TIFR meeting in Bombay ten years ago. He was deeply involved in building instruments then in Bombay till 2006 and then moved to software development and now is working on expanding the community that will eventually use Astrosat.
What begins as an idea amongst a group of people, takes form in the making of instruments, which then need to be reimagined as a set of questions. A new group of people start to think about what they will see when when they look through the spacecraft.
The satellite is put through every imaginable condition of other-worldiness that can be created in the clean room and is protected in every conceivable way from the earth. It journeys to its rocket and then for a few minutes is a public spectacle before disappearing. It goes and it won’t return. Its material presence is just a memory. It only communicates. It transforms utterly from its awkward solidity back to the imaginary.
On December 4th 2009 I recorded an interview with Ewen Chardronnet. I’d heard that he’d been to space places in Russia.
I want to interview people, artists who I think have pioneered, have gone into space agencies as sort of the first artists. I want to find out what their impressions are because I have a hunch we all get affected more or less by the same set of things.
He’d been part of the artists Zero-G flights in 2003. He traveled from Paris to Moscow and then Star City is not far. There were a group of them. A European grant and various partners - The Arts Catalyst, Project Atol maybe and the artists had given in proposals and the group had come from that. His was about drug-taking in space. He was interested in thse altered states of mind and then that the astronauts had taken scopolamine, a hallucinogenic, and amphetamines to cure the sickness, but lines and reasons are interestingly blurred. The proposal hadn’t gone down well with the Russians. but he was there anyway, on some other premise.
I asked him to tell me the story starting from his home so I could relive the narrative. It turned out that this narrative had also been what he became interested in. He made a film about the procedure. He wanted to show the tensions in the process. Today I watched it for the first time. I wish I could put the video here, but here is the link to the Association of Autonomous Astronauts video blog.
There was a week of training and then the zero G flights where the plane goes up and down following parabolas that give about twenty seconds of no gravity at the top and bottom of the curve.
It wasn’t so unusual to have a group of artists there because the Russians had for some time been dealing commercially with film crews etc. and Ewen said that also, they were able to switch between the technical and metaphysical realms. All the same the procedure was military.
“They do it as so-called commercial, but they are quite willing, they are interested in the artist’s crazy ideas and they really make a fuss so it is possible. Its not like, ‘oh no this is science and you are crazy’, no no they are really like arts in a way. Cosmonauts are, the Russians they have this different approach I think from Europeans. They are more sensible to lets say metaphysics or if you look at the nineteenth century the Russians were the first to write essays and astrological treaties, also metaphysics about space travel. So they were the first people to take this seriously in a way. So they have this tradition of Cosmos and Cosmonauts. So they are quite sensitive. There are also many Russian Cosmonauts…who make paintings and have a sensitivity to arts, maybe more than engineers and rocket pilots from Europe.”
People would say “Niet, niet” to any request, but then it would be maybe and then it would happen. So the film was about these things, the tensions and briefings. Its not that easy, people get sick, the military people are screaming…
He’d gone to Russia at the time I’d started to get interested in satellites. I told him about my experience of going to space places and how it felt to be an artist in that situation. That you are taken seriously and treated in a demeaning way, there is interest and put downs and its hard to go through.
He said that after the flight he felt very lonely. The experience was intense and there were big parties afterwards. Everyone was on a high - people are comparing the Zero-G to different drug taking. It makes you feel ecstatic. Everyone drank a lot and talked and clubbed. But coming back to Paris, it was hard to share the experience. When you start to talk about it, you are stressed. Then you find that you cannot make people understand what you are feeling. There is something around explaining this centre of gravity, this new experience of where your centre is that is too ineffable for words.
He said you get feedbacks too: the G-force feeling in the metro brings you a memory and you feel you might take off again.
He talked about the Association of Autonomous Astronauts that started in the ’90’s from a collection of people interested in mail art, having no money…they were interested in looking at space as metaphors, such as ‘gravity of life’. They were a fake activist group against the monopoly on space exploration challenging why working class people couldn’t go into space. He was interested in space in literature, in Proust, Klebnikov?, Cerano de Bergerac. At that time they weren’t trying to make actual connections with the space agencies, that came later. Zivadinov and Marco Pelihan, Slovinian art group NSK - they were doing abstract theatre in ‘99 about zero gravity.
I asked is it relevant to go to the real space bases to explore the metaphor? He said exploring the metaphor is more about exploring earth, life on earth. You can say of a child they are always on the moon, come down…all this language is used.
I asked about how being there might change things inside the culture of the space community.
Ewen said “I felt it was a big achievement that the Russian Cosmonauts heard about the Autonomous Astronauts” and we talked about these encounters that happen through the project of the work of artists. The artwork gives you the premise, but the real work is in the poetics of the encounter.
On Monday there was a lecture at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore by William D. Phillips, Nobel Laureate called “Time, Einstein and the Coolest Stuff in the Universe”. It was the Vainu Bappu Memorial Lecture, with a huge crowd, a packed auditorium. Why I’m writing about it is that it was like a good old fashioned science lecture, full of wonderful, spectacular experiments. I realised I was actually on the edge of my seat!
He was talking about atomic clocks and that the cooling down of atoms increases the accuracy of measurements and timekeeping and this can matter for systems like GPS. He said that somewhere he went to, he walked past a door that said “Director of Earth Rotation”. The rotation of the earth is one kind of ‘tick’, its regular like a pendulum or the vibration of an atom, but, apparently the rotation of the Earth isn’t always the same - fantastic news - and so every so often the clocks and the Earth have to be synced back together.
The video is from the end of the lecture when everyone was crowding round and asking more questions. He used lots of liquid nitrogen - he was chucking it down the aisles - because he was wanting us to understand cooling. He wanted us to understand that his experiment is about cooling atoms to four million times cooler than the temperature of outer space. Its something too abstract and extreme to understand, so he must have wanted us to understand the relative strangeness of nitrogen’s freezing and boiling points as a step to believing what he was telling us. He said it was about “the adventure of getting to colder temperatures”
The atoms are cooled by lasers. As the resonance of the laser approaches that of the atom, it moves towards absorbing it and in the process looses energy and slows, which is what cooling is, slowing down. The other part of the problem was having a container for the atoms in which the atoms wouldn’t touch the sides and condense. This is to do with BEC: Bose-Einstein Condensation. So he explained the magnetic bottle with this levitating magnet experiment.
He had IIA work hard to include the experiments in the talk. In his vote of thanks, Bhanu Das said how loved he is as a teacher and scientist. You could see by the generosity of his explanations this was true. He gave us the keys to understand something very complex and extraordinary. He told a great story.
At the Solar Eclipse the skies belong to the people again and that’s why I had to go there, to see how I could make my own connection with the Solar System and how other people did too.
Hinduism contains an ancient science of eclipses that now manifest in rituals: not eating during an eclipse, not looking at an eclipse, taking a bath after the eclipse. The particular, unusual circumstances of an eclipse, more than likely create atmospheric disturbances that could make it wise to be indoors and not eat. The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre were making tests at Dhanushkodi, so maybe they would rediscover this.
I took a night bus to Madurai and then at six in the morning, a car to Rameshwaram. The sun rise was impressively rich and red-orange, it looked ready for a special day. With the morning mist it turned white like the moon. I was going to the place where the Bangalore Astronomy Society were meeting. I wanted to get a sense of how they helped people participate in astronomy.
The first people I found had this viewer, made with a mirror in the tube, a reflector to take the image down the box tunnel, a lens to focus and the tracing paper to catch the image.
Other people set up cameras with filters to take photos, but these were for one person at a time. I liked how these people had made something that let lots of people watch at once. I liked how the momentous singularity of the eclipse became reproduced on a tatty piece of tracing paper and a cardboard box, how it became part of the things on earth, not separate.
This was another device, made with a waste paper bin. Really like the little boy putting the goggles on to look. So funny!
The eclipse takes time and during that time we all found different ways to see the eclipse. What I found curious was tht you can’t look at the eclipse. You look most directly through your goggles, but even that feels like such a barrier and gives such an abstract black and white flat image. Its hard to think that this really is the moon passing over the sun. This was what I was trying to feel, that these were two celestial bodies and there was a distance between us, but the feeling didn’t come easily.
There was a tree on its own across the sands and I realised people must be looking at the shadows and for some time we all played with the pin hole-shadow-camera obscura.
A woman was making a pattern of holes, she made a paisley shape and together the group figured out how to cast the eclipses. Someone said we should make a heart next.
Then making the eclipse appear with our hands. That was very poetic. To use your hands instead of your eyes.
As the moon entered the sun entirely there was great excitement and crowding round the viewers. This was what people wanted because they could photograph and look at the same time.
Two ladies lay on the ground watching through the goggles and it seemed to me that was the best way to look, forget the photos. So for this first or second contact that’s what I did. There is something extremely beautiful about this shape with the inner circle just touching the outer circle. Its the point at which everyone cries out to see ‘Bailey’s Beads’, the slightly bumpy edge, and this I was told later is actually caused by the craters and mountains of the moon. The texture of the moon itself is what you see, very wonderful.
I wear my Grandma’s wedding ring when I travel alone here sometimes. A gold ring. I look at other people’s photos now of this annularity and it gives me time to remember how beautiful this gold ring of the sun was to see, even in this very patchy, messy way that we were seeing.
Somebody said that the skies use to belong to everyone equally, but now that science, scientists and scientific instruments have discovered so much more, when we look at the skies we are ignorant. We know that what science knows is way beyond us. The cities too have taken away the stars that we could know.
As an artist interested in creating group viewing experiences for watching the cosmos, it was easy to see that these contraptions could be pushed a further, that if the image was projected into a dark room, like the meditation hall we were right next to, the number of people able to watch and the quality of seeing could become much richer, by paying attention to the aesthetics.
I was using a mirror to put the eclipse on the Swami Vivekanandar Memorial Hall.
The little boy who looked like a Bollywood star wanted to do the same and he put the image momentarily inside the doorway of the hall and there it was, the eclipse inside a dark building, very stunning. I don’t have the picture and the rush towards annularity was starting, but that would have been the thing to do.
This is a picture my friend Rohini Devasher took of the eclipse chasers she was with from Delhi S.P.A.C.E. (Science Popularisation Association of Communicators and Educators) in Varkala, just to see some more of this range of instrumentation for looking at something, the sun, that lets us see, but which we can’t see directly, that blinds us.
I’d love to make a building and a mirror for next time. But at the eclipse I liked the makeshift technology, the hands on processes, th way we formed a group helping each other to see. On the way back I was talking to the three amateur astronomers who gave me a lift about putting in a proposal to use the Kavalur observatory. Pavan didn’t think non-professionals would have any hope of access, but I got really defensive and said yes they could and that its only when you bring in people from other backgrounds to understand and use technology that new applications can be found. Rishi said that was what had happened with computers. It was suddenly very clear that the instrumentation of cosmic observation is proprietary and attached to hierarchies of knowledge and that this solar eclipse was a rare opportunity to break that down and for people to create their own observatories.
I went back to the Mullard Space Science Lab one year after doing the Satellite Stories event there.
I wanted to find out what people remembered from it and if anything had changed. I’d thought that the sunset to darkness walk round the grounds with the scientists and engineers telling their stories, would be a memorable event, a way for people to remember what was being said better than through a formal lecture. At least what happened is that people surely heard things they wouldn’t have heard in a formal lecture. The memory part: I’m not sure if people really remembered what was said. Maybe what they were left with was a memory of what happened, that some thing unusual had happened with the science and the things that were said and the way they were said.
My day was that mixture again of exhilaration to be allowed to be included and listen in on the extraordinary circumstances of the place and that isolation of being the person from the opposite side of the world asking question and hoping for things that will never really come into existence, being misunderstood and being wrong about my assumptions.
Things had changed. Lucie said that the local people had been included in the planning process for the next open day. That instead of them deciding what people would like, they asked. The locals had a list of topics. I don’t know that they wanted Satellite Stories again. I don’t think that would ever have come about through asking people what they wanted. People like to stay to the paths. Satellite Stories was about creating a new path so that if somebody did want to walk along it, they could. There are the boundaries in people’s heads to deal with. For the moment though the Lab and local people want to be friends now they’ve met.
I think I underestimate too, how much interaction the scientists there have with visiting groups. I should ask Lucie for a typical week, because there is a constant flow here. She said there were motivators starting to appear. There’s a section in the grant application forms for ‘impact’ and it means describing the connection with the public. I’ve been reading “Science in Public” and it traces the science/public debate in UK from around the 80’s, so I imagine these kinds of inclusions derive from this and public policy making.
Lucie said of the meeting:
“We’ve agreed that as well as us doing events where the community come in, we’ll also (start to go out). Another thing they wanted, a lot of then have got telescopes so thought it would be fantastic if we had an evening when we all brought our telescopes up and we had an observing event. So that will be the next thing I organize…I thought that’s such a good idea. I’d never thought about something where they actually bring their telescopes in…It was really nice to have the opportunity to hear what they wanted, rather than trying to second guess. Yeah and it was a direct result of having Satellite Stories and starting to think about a two-way dialogue and having something on an equal footing, rather than just saying this is what we’re going to do.”
So next I talked to Myrto. I wanted to know about her conversations with people. She told me about this point of interaction. She said she was really amazed at how much interest there was in what they do, in astrophysics/space science. It made her sure they should be doing more of it, these interactions. She came across a difference in the kind of interest she has, as a professional scientists and the kind of interest she met. In the work she does, she said that things like counting galaxies can be as pedestrian as counting boxes. There are few moments when you encounter the ‘bigger picture’ and it was this ‘bigger picture’ that people were interested in. She said it was odd how big a step it was to get into their mind set, but that it was a good thing to do. She knew that what she was saying was very curious. I thought that what she was saying was that these thoughts she was expressing only happened through an encounter, in conversation. The one we were having and the ones she was describing.
“Its very difficult to understand how the public views this whole science, its, its very difficult for me and I guess for a lot of other professionals because we’re in it and its hard to see it from someone who’s not, from the point of view of someone who’s not in it, but from the reactions that I get, it shows that people are fascinated, they want to know more, they’re very interested. But I don’t understand, I sort of understand why they would find it fascinating but I can’t feel what they feel.”
Then I talked to someone who’s name I’ve mixed up and it was that encounter that makes me feel like giving up. He hadn’t been at Satellite Stories, but I wanted to know what he thought had happened. I wondered if anyone had talked about it after or if everyone had gone silent about the ‘weird thing’. He said, it was something about pictures - people told you stories and you drew pictures of what you thought they were. Nightmare, the usual story of the artist drawing pictures. Really demoralising. Much later, I realised that he had actually listened to what I’d said. When I was first researching I’d been saying things like, I like the picture people draw in my head when they tell me about the spacecraft they work on.I mean what would anybody make of that. And really, he had a good idea for me. That’s exactly what I should do, or do with a group of people, children, artists, students - a drawing class. Bring people in to talk only and see what can be drawn. It would be a great collaboration - call it “artists’ impressions”!
Then the engineers in the drawing room. It wasn’t the best day for insights. Last time I left with the richest descriptions of Baikonour and Kourou launch sites. This time, I couldn’t really gauge whether Satellite stories had been a good idea. But what was anyone suppose to make of it. I think by this time I was hoping that maybe somebody would realise that I hadn’t done this as a workshop, I’d done it as an artwork and it had form and depth and structure, it was avant garde, a hybrid of materials and media. Many things and as often happens with artworks, many things taken for granted and seemingly lost.
I asked about the change that happens when a spacecraft leaves the earth. Yes, the Japanese change the name of the spacecraft once it is launched. Good for them. At least there’s the possibility there of someone in the space science field acknowledging that a philosophical change also happens. But nobody in the drawing room seemed to want to have the conversation about perception.
My favourite thing is to talk to Andrew Coates. He loves to talk about what he does and as Associate Director, I suspect that he has the choice to put himself on the most imaginative and exploratory of missions. The next morning at 7 am Cassini would be passing through a belt of ions, around Enceladus and he couldn’t wait to pick up the data and have that feeling of being the first to know, see, experience a new view of that planet, of the nature of our solar system and the universe. That night he was to be giving an after dinner speech for a group of Actuaries. He wasn’t sure what he would talk about, but I thought he should tell them what he’d just told me about Cassini and 7 am the next morning.
I wrote in my notebook - it seems like he’s constantly communicating and in this mindspace of finding out what people are interested in. There are these great communicators (in science) – I realize I’m hatching a theory that the public participation is the thing that generates the realization of what is exciting, that creates the drive and uncannily rich thinking-
Before this I’d sat in the Common Room, feeling the project to be a waste of energy for the lack of interpretation. I guess I thought I’d tried to help people at the Lab, but nobody seemed to realise, when Hervé came by. He hadn’t been there either, but we had a long talk nonetheless about what I’d been trying to do. He thought it was about bringing the old stories of the place to people there now, which it partly was, well very much was, bringing the stories of the people together.
“I thought for me you were trying to make people remember everything that happened, in a creative way, an artistical way. I think somehow you did it because you approached the problem differently. People – I don’t know, I wasn’t there! Its difficult for me to comment. ”
But it didn’t really matter that he hadn’t been there and didn’t know: he made me feel better about the whole thing. And the feeling bad is about finding the invisible boundaries. Its kind of like commando work.
Am looking back through books. One page is about the symposium at NIAS ages ago. I had been trying to find the presentation that Shiv Visvanathan gave and I think I’ve found it. It was wonderful, about the imagination of science and the imagination of democracy. Here in England, its truly difficult to get anyone to pay attention to India, to what India might be, to what science and technology might seem like there, to what people think. England is truly insular and its hard to figure out what’s useful about that.
The talks were inspiring and I thanked Shiv Visvanathan in the car park afterwards and shook his hand and some time I want to find him again and talk to him. But after the talk also people didn’t want to talk and in the questions, Yashas asked all the artists to put up their hands and there were a surprising number and somehow it seemed that there was a disconnect with what was being said on the stage and the experiential research practices of these Bangalore-based artists. So in my book I wrote:
“but everyone kept the safe hierarchy of the stage and the auditorium and the microphone. No one realised that to achieve what they wanted, they would have to do the stupidly simple thing of stepping off the stage into a hallway or canteen or garden or street.”
Then there’s something that he must have said in the talk:
“For every poetics of Innovation we need a theory of waste”
and then on the next page:
“The stars are beautiful because of a flower one cannot see…”
I haven’t been here for a very long time. Its nice to write my password and go through the gate. I feel like I’ve been staying in somebody else’s house for a while. Today and yesterday felt more familiar. We built the geostationary orbit and making things is like a cipher, the thing you are making tells you things about itself, through the medium.
This is about visiting the Indian Deep Space Network this week. The huge white dishes follow the moon every day, East to West. While we were there, a movie was streaming down, live, of the surface of the moon. It took me a while to realise that it was live. I didn’t know what to think of it, how to watch it, take it in. It was on a computer screen, a gradual sweep of the Fore, Aft and Nadir cameras. Very spectacular encounters can happen in the world, but still your brain, my brain, may only think of them as ordinary and incidental.
Everything is brand new and its all working fantastically. The engineers are incredible and completely understated in describing what they have done there, created cutting edge technology for India, built it from scratch, with breathtaking speed. They are generous with their time and explanations, hospitable and friendly. Just a handful of men, speaking Telegu, liking their work.
I want to say something that strikes me about this visit, because the last thirty two metre dish I visited was in Goonhilly in Cornwall, UK. There the engineers were fighting to stop the demolition of the sixty four dishes on the site. In 1962, the first dish was built as a ground station for Telstar and it received the first live transatlantic message. It had been the brand new future then. I wanted to say something about this, but luckily nobody was listening to my foreigner voice. I didn’t really want to say it as a dire prediction, just that I was struck by the timescales of the future and this as a renewal of energy. I suppose I was trying to make a connection where there wasn’t one. I suppose I thought these engineers might be interested in the stories of the retired and redundant engineers in Cornwall, but in the future, histories don’t repeat. I felt really proud of them and pleased that they were making everything themselves and keeping a disconnect with the past. Glad that nobody listened to me, because, what was I thinking, I find it impossible to think about the future. I’m thinking of a time when these men have stories to tell of what it was like in the beginning and why the dishes need to be preserved. I suppose, its not that I’m seeing the future of the Deep Space Network in the Goonhilly Satellite Station, its that I’m seeing the past of the Goonhilly engineers in the wonderful people I met last week at ISTRAC.