In my art I portray other intelligences in the universe that would like to commune with non-human life on Earth, proposing that this life is active and meaningful, leveling the importance of all life. An aspect of my art making can be thought of as serving as a translator between the different agencies that I am collaborating with: hardware, software, plants, and electricity. This trans-species communication is the subject of my animations Hello/Goodbye and The Earth is Getting ET Downloads. Both are made in a similar way: I create the subjects to be animated using digital drawing. I then bring them into real-time animation software in which I use my body gestures to move the characters around, translating my body onto theirs.
For each video I use a modular synthesizer to generate and manipulate language. The synthesizer is made up of discrete “modules” serving different purposes: some generate sounds, some record and manipulate those sounds, others adjust the pitch or volume. There are no predefined connections, so that each time the synthesizer is “patched” a new network is formed for producing sound. My task when working with it is to find forms and patterns among the electrical signals that can be translated and shared as a form of communication, creating sounds that feel like language, even if it is a language we are not immediately privy to.
In The Earth is Getting ET Downloads, the anthropomorphized word “Earth” is singing and dancing in acknowledgment of its connections to other intelligences. The sound is the religious scholar Diana Pasulka saying “I’m getting ET downloads, and they’re helping me.” Pasulka is paraphrasing Silicon Valley inventor-types who believe they have been contacted by otherworldly intelligences that enable them to create new technologies, from iPhones to medical implants to space craft. The sounds are manipulated into granularized phonemes, and then fed into the animation software. There, the software attempts to match the hand-drawn visemes (the shapes human mouths form when making particular sounds) to the sounds. This takes several passes, as the software (and the human operator!) need to be trained on how to match the visemes with the phonemes.
In Hello/Goodbye I animated three “alien” flowers, imagining that they are trying to communicate with us in the form of an abstracted song-and-dance routine. This work is inspired by Monica Gagliano, a plant biologist who investigates how plants use sound to share information. The modular synthesizer was connected to a plant, the electrical signals generated by the plant translated into voltages that could control the sound forms generated by the synthesizer. This is, in a fashion, translation of the electrical language of the plant into the electrical language of the synthesizer. I then used the animation software to have the animated plants lipsynch to the “song” the plants were singing to us. In this case, there are no English language phonemes to which to match the visemes. Rather, it is raw sound that is formed into patterns of utterances by both the plant and the animation software.
Making stories of flora and fauna having exterrestrial contact experiences displaces humankind as the center of importance. My hope is that through imaginative exploration, we can find ways for cross species communication. My fear is that humankind will be unable to enter into a common language with other intelligences.
1. Documentation of Plant/Synth set up
2. Hello/Goodbye, Digital Video, 2020
3. The Earth is Getting ET Downloads, Digital Video, 2019