Samantha Clark: According to astronomers we can only actually perceive about 4.7% of the universe. This is the ‘shiny stuff,’ the atoms and particles that we can actually see, the ‘things’ bit. The rest of it, the ‘nothing’ bit, is made up of ‘dark matter’, which is about 27%, and ‘dark energy’ which makes up about 68%. These percentages are not absolutes, not slices of a finite pie, but expressions of relationship, a ratio between the visible and the invisible. They speak eloquently of the relationship between the material and the ineffable. According to modern physics, the material world is only this 4.7%, a tiny fraction, our only point of contact, the tip of an iceberg, a keyhole to peep through. Behind it lies a vast hinterland of strange, dimly seen, uncanny something-nothingness, which is only seen through the effects it has on see-able matter; through its gravitational effects, in the case of dark matter, and in the accelerating expansion of the universe, possibly caused by dark energy. I took part in a short residency this August at Allenheads Contemporary Arts in Northumberland, and together with a group of a dozen or so other artists we explored this notion of the 95% of the universe which we can’t perceive, and had fascinating conversations with an astroparticle physicist who had also been invited. Particle physicists use non-detection as a means of detection – they look for the gap, the hole, the nothing, and voilà! An invisible particle! It turns out that mass, the very solidity and weight of the material world, is not a property of matter itself but a result of the interaction between matter and Higgs particles. We swim through the Higgs field like fish through the sea (and it through us) and its pull we experience as gravity, a phenomenon that remains a great scientific mystery. For the purposes of this one-week residency I quickly made a series of ‘sketches’ in response to the ideas we explored together – ‘Instruments for Exploring the Universe’ – including these ‘gravity boots’ and accompanying piece of text::
‘Walking up a hill is a good time to remember that gravity is a mystery to science, though knowing this doesn’t help the climb much. How strange it is that this firm press of my two feet upon the ground should be felt so keenly by the body, yet seen so dimly by the mind. They say that cold dark matter, the unseen stuff that makes up most of the universe, trawls through us all the time. Like all of the visible world I am fat with the unseen fullness of empty space. Dark matter, slow, lead-heavy, its dull pull clumps galaxies together like dust seeding rainclouds. Puffing uphill I am clogged with it. I feel my own weight as it leans into me. Yet this whole shining world would drift away without its dark ballast.’
Judy Spark: Gravity, a fundamental element of our own make up, yet we generally talk of it as something separate from us that ‘happens’ when we drop something. I really like the way that what you’ve said here emphasises the relationship we have with this ‘ineffable substance’. This notion of ‘relationship’ is so vital to a fuller appreciation of the things and processes, both natural and technological, that are present or taking place around us. I note that alongside the boots was another Instrument for Observing the Universe in the form of an old valve radio tuned to what’s between stations……
This printed and bound text, was exhibited in a two person show Back to the Things Themselves with Lesley Punton in the Briggait in Glasgow as part of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art 2012. The work consisted of a series of written descriptions detailing what could be heard during a concentrated period of listening in the gaps between broadcasts over the FM spectrum of a Robert’s R25 analogue radio (88 – 108 FM) on the 25th May 2011 between 4.20 and 6.15pm.
The notion that the ‘spaces’ between broadcasts themselves hold ‘content’ is of great interest to me. It seems to say a lot about the presence of what appears, on the surface of things, to be absent, and I’m drawn to the parallels between this and the experience of what is between thoughts, i.e., nothing, the Buddhist conception of ‘pure consciousness’? Again it seems to pertain to the idea of a ‘gap’, a stillness, that quells the chatter about what and how things are, leaving a space for things to be more fully disclosed in different ways. Phenomenology has it that consciousness is always consciousness of something.
It may be something cynical in the quality of my observation but it seems that in our culture, we generally find that we must name what occurs in a gap, rather than simply experiencing the quality of this space itself. An extract from the text pictured above reads,
“102 – 104
Soft hiss, like rain in trees, but at a distance. The spinning high-pitched sound
is there but less keen. The odd crackle, like dust on a record, can be heard.
These sounds play around the edges of deliberately broadcast ones.”
A parallel work Instructions for Creating a Gap, shown in the adjacent room, consisted of a pile of A4 folded sheets of printed instructions. Visitors were encouraged to take a copy away with them that they might try ‘listening in gaps’ themselves at home. Over the course of the exhibition, around 1000 of these texts left the gallery; however I have no information as to whether the exercise was undertaken by anyone who holds a copy.
Still with the notion of radio and ‘gaps’, both these pieces of work used mini FM radio transmitters to transmit sound through radios. In Morning Broadcast, the cynic takes those ‘universe observing tools’ and plugs gaps through which it might be listened to with her own sounds……in this case, birdsong.
(The sound of birdsong in the room in which this discussion was taking place became apparent at the appearance of this slide.)
This ‘confounding’ of the ‘natural’ with the technological is designed to address the ways in which we attend to things. Because of the acoustics of the Briggait it sometimes seemed to gallery visitors as if the sound were coming from outside the building. The Things Themselves consisted of two radios broadcasting a series of softly spoken descriptions, in both male and female voices. The descriptions articulate the natural forms that are the subject of the drawings A Sort of Visual Rhythm (Symphoricarpos) also situated in gallery 1 and Orrery (Galium aparine) in gallery 2. The soundtracks coming from the two radios were slightly out of sync with one another, so that two different voices could be heard at any one time. I think that my interest in this latter radio work, lay in the fact that neither in the reported descriptions, nor in the drawings of the things themselves, could even an approximation of the content of the original experience, that of encountering the forms in the landscape, be made. The real ‘listening’ could only really have taken place within that original experience.
ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.
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