Friday, August 22, 2008

40 000 years past, 40 000 years future

It pleases me to no end that some of the oldest artworks on the planet, and the one furtherest from it (and presumed to last the longest) are sound works.

Recent studies suggest that Upper Paleolithic people, who lived from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, created cave drawings with a direct relationship to sound. In 90% of the case studies, cave drawings existed in areas of the cave with maximum resonance, indicating that the artists liked to sing or hum while painting. In some instances it is even suggested that the paintings and petroglyphs represent animals whose sound the echoes best mimicked. Scientists hypothesize that the Upper Paleolithic people also used their voices in the low light caves as a kind of sonar, to help them navigate.

As of 2006, the spacecraft Voyager 1, launched in 1977, moved beyond our solar system, making it the furthest man-made object from earth. It contains a golden record compiled by Carl Sagan, intended to be intercepted by other lifeforms, as a greeting and document of life on earth. The record includes both sounds and images, and instructions on how to play it. The audio includes greetings in 55 different languages, sounds of earth (footsteps, heartbeats, laughter, monkeys) and music (Bach, Chuck Berry, Blind Willie Johnson). The disk is constructed of gold-plated copper, with an ultra-pure sample of the isotope uranium-238 electroplated on the cover. Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.51 billion years. The Voyager is not expected to reach its destination for 40 000 years, but the disk itself is designed to last a thousand million.

The graphic artist who designed the disk, Jon Lomberg, lived in Toronto at the time. He is also responsible for the Nuclear Waste Marker project, which requires a marker that will indicate to up to 500 future generations that the site is unsafe. He used the example of the Airman's Memorial (below) on University Avenue as a reason to avoid a symbolic marker. Designed to honour Canadian pilots, the sculpture is mostly known as "Gumby Goes to Heaven."

I can't find up to date information about the project online, but I've just ordered Greg Benford's book on the subject, Deep Time, and Lomberg (now in Hawaii) has agreed to be interviewed. I hope to start work on a film this fall called Sounds That Say Hello, Sounds That Say Surrender, that will look at the sounds used for interstellar communication, and those used in warfare. A baby crying, for example, is used to illustrate humanity on the Voyager record, but is also employed as 'non-lethal' torture at Guantánamo Bay.

No comments: