On an unusually warm June afternoon, conceptual artist and freelance art critic Jonathon Keats stands atop the stairs of his narrow San Francisco apartment building dressed in a custom-tailored tweed wool suit, his round spectacles flanked by wisps of his Beethoven-like hair. Mirroring his appearance, Keats' book-filled apartment is devoid of modern technology apart from his iBook laptop and, in his dining room/office, small black-and-white scans of a graph marked with a few dots. The dots represent radio signals detected by UC Berkeley's SETI@home project, which scans data from Puerto Rico's mammoth Arecibo radio telescope for signs of extraterrestrial life.
The signal, known as radio source SHGb02+14a, was picked up three separate times a few years ago and sparked scientists and alien fanatics to speculate publicly on the possibility that it was an intergalactic communication. But SETI@home chief scientist Dan Werthimer retracted the announcement almost immediately, noting that the signal could be "noise" or manmade interference.
Yet the dispute got the attention of Keats, who decided not only that the signal might indeed come from intelligent beings, but that it might actually be alien art. That conclusion is the basis of his new exhibit, the First Intergalactic Art Exposition, which opened July 31 at Berkeley's Magnes Museum. "I thought, 'Aha, here's a way in which I can look at them that doesn't seem to be the way in which people are looking at them otherwise, but which kind of makes a lot of sense,'" he said.
Figuring out how to translate the dots into art took some imagination. Keats admits he's not much of an artist. So he chose three simple ways of interpreting the signals. In one, he connects the peripheral dots to a central one, forming an asterisk of sorts. In another, he draws vertical lines straight down from each graph point. In the third, he charts the dots as a series of concentric circles, like planetary orbits. For color, Keats laid down different segments of the spectrum along the horizontal portion of the graph, and chose the colors depending on where the dots landed. The results simple geometric lines and circles created on his computer have been blown up and printed on canvas because, he said, "it seems like people look at art on canvas."
If the whole project sounds ridiculous, well, that's partially the point. "I think the absurdity ... it's employed to a pragmatic end," said Alla Efimova, chief curator of the Magnes. "You're challenged by it all the time. You know that it's so meticulous and aestheticized. Even the pseudoscience, it's very well researched. He also uses the right terminology and the right equipment, but at the same time you see the bigger question is absurd."
Keats said he regards the seemingly arbitrary process as a thought experiment. "At a broader level, what's interesting me ... is the question of communication," said the former Amherst College philosophy major. "I think that we tend to oftentimes think that we understand one another more than we do, or we go the opposite way, we assume that we know or understand one another a lot less than we do. And as far as how to explore that, I think that this was a way in which I was leading myself to that exploration, testing the limits of it."
Keats will reciprocate the alien signal by attempting to beam his own artwork into space. He says he hopes one day to afford a CubeSat, a small, relatively inexpensive ($100,000) satellite. In the meantime he's using a CB radio. This "intergalactic" work is part of the Magnes' Revisions series, in which contemporary artists rethink Jewish culture and artifacts each receives a grant of $10,000 to $15,000. For his piece, Keats "abstracted" a photograph of a wax seal from a 15th-century transaction into two triangles facing one another, with a narrow rectangle bar protruding, and color borrowed from two paintings in the museum. To translate the image into a radio signal, Keats created a series of beeps with his Audacity audio-editing software, rhythmically dictated by the distance between the points of the triangles and bar, and tonally dictated by the colors.
The resulting beeps and clicks don't sound too far off from the five-note keyboard communication between the mothership and scientists in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The sounds, which will play on a continuous loop throughout the six-month exhibit, are picked up by a microphone connected by hundreds of feet of coaxial cable to the CB radio outside, and transmitted via a thirty-foot-tall stretched-out Slinky. Keats hopes the microphone also will pick up sounds from visitors to the exhibit and add to the transmission.
"The fun thing about this project is that the more layers of controversy and doubt there is, the more it fits the story," said Saul Perlmutter, a UC Berkeley physics professor and senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley Lab, who met Keats when he joined a small group of West Coast scientists, artists, and writers who share ideas. "In the end, he wants it to be something that could be authentic, but if it's still debatable, then it reminds you what would the authenticity have meant in the first place; [that] is also part of the art."
Keats' tendency to take scientific assumptions and turn them upside down has gotten praise from both the artistic and scientific worlds. A couple years ago, his God project attempted to scientifically engineer God by exposing cyanobacteria and fruit flies to tape recordings of prayer. In another project, he exhibited a carbon block the same weight as his body's calculated carbon content.
"He's eccentric in the best way," said UC Berkeley engineer and artist Ken Goldberg. "He really engages with popular culture, but particular ideas about science and technology in a way that's critical but with a great sense of humor and irony. ... If you're not paying attention, it might go over your head."
Keats admits that not everyone gets what's he's trying to communicate, such as when the television show Evening Magazine covered his God project and failed to mention that his endeavor was artistic. "I'm sure plenty of people were watching that and saying, 'Who is that idiot?'" he said. "And I don't mind being that idiot so long as there is some sort of strain to the work that somehow lingers in any way at all in the back of somebody's mind that might make them think about anything at all interesting, relevant or not relevant to what I've been doing. So for me, it's worth it."
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