Text Art in Space

Planet earth blue and white clipart

Want to put (text) art in space? Let us brainstorm.

The Arts Catalyst has been awarded a contract by the European Space Agency to carry out a 6-month study into cultural utilisation of the International Space Station. According to the announcement:

Artists and cultural practitioners are being consulted on the features of the International Space Station and its ground-based support facilities, including launch sites, astronaut training facilities and national user support centres across Europe that would be of interest to them.

The European Space Agency believes strongly that the cultural world should have a say in the future of space exploration.

“But what does this have to do with text art?” I hear you ask.

Don’t you mean “what does this have to do with text art… in space?”

First, I think we can all agree that text art belongs in space. Our current preeminent extraterrestrial text artist is Carl Sagen, who headed up the committees behind both the Pioneer 10 and 11 plaques and the Voyager 1 and 2 “Golden Record” - a multimedia extravaganza whose instructions were also pictographically encoded in what I’d call ‘text’ (although some might call it ‘math’).

The goal of scientists was to encode identifying information about humanity, earth, and our solar system. Unlike the more established genres of communication, however, which lie wrapped in the warm blanket of presumed literacy, the means and method of interacting with the text were not know, so the message should be completely decodable from a very few first principles.

In other words, it was a chatbot / Turing Test / IF design challenge from hell: assuming absolutely no literacy on the part of your interlocutor, and forced to design beforehand the system of information with which they will interact, how do you arrange the puzzle of your message in such a way as to be solvable?

For Sagen et. al. the answer was to fall back to what anyone could be expected to know: binary math, the, um, signatures of nearby pulsars, and, er, hyperfine state transitions of hydrogen atoms… of course.

Critics of these choices are invited to interview our alien beta-testers whenever they show up. Did they find the puzzles too hard? Too obvious?

My first concept for text art in space would be to continue the grand tradition of the letter-to-the-stars, but open it up to different interpretations and possibilities. Proposed communications would either be transmitted to the station and printed / materially embedded there, or else brought up at some point. Sure, the station would be more of a mailbox or a dead letter office than a delivery truck, but the whole project has a certain Post Secret / time-capsule charm to it - postcards to the great beyond, held in trust and possibly to be delivered at some future date.

[via The Guardian]

4 Responses to “Text Art in Space”

  1. 1 Christy Dena

    I hope The Arts Catalyst commission is not another Tate in Space hoax/fiction/work of art!

    I really like the idea of ‘a chatbot / Turing Test / IF design challenge from hell’. I agree entirely that was the task for Carl Sagen. I’ve attempted my own message for potential alien visitors to encounter:

    …. . .-.. .-.. — / …- .. … .. - — .-. … / - — / — ..- .-. / .–. .-.. .- -. . - .-.-.- / .– . / -… . .-.. .. . …- . / - …. .- - / - …. .. … / -.-. — -.. . / .– .. .-.. .-.. / — .- -.- . / .. - / . .- … .. . .-. / ..-. — .-. / -.– — ..- / - — / ..- -. -.. . .-. … - .- -. -.. / ..- … –..– / -.-. .- ..- … . / .– . / -.. — -. .—-. - / .-. . .- .-.. .-.. -.– / ..- -. -.. . .-. … - .- -. -.. / — ..- .-. … . .-.. …- . … .-.-.- / .– .. … …. / -.– — ..- / .– . .-. . / …. . .-. . .-.-.-

    Which, for those who don’t know morse code, translates to:

    Hello Visitors to our planet. We believe that this code will make it easier for you to understand us, cause we don’t really understand ourselves. Wish you were here.

    Here is the neat site I found to do this translation, a place where you can get your morse output in sound as well…of course. But this play brought up a thought for me: what if our text transmissions are ‘read’ by aliens as a score, or even program code? Is it accurate to see our text as not these already?

  2. 2 Orflin G. Champion

    On the basis of present knowledge and the most likely explanation of the extraterrestrial hypothesis, we have been and are being visited by intelligent life forms who appear self disguising in and out of the narrow band of human perception. These continuous direct and indirect multifaceted alien manifestations demonstrate we are connected beyond the universe as we know it and are part of a much more profound cosmic process, the connecting of two species.

    Th web site listed below is devoted to human beings open to a sober examination and response to the big questions phenomenon that has occurred since the inception of the Internet.

    Off The Grid Home Page

  3. 3 Jeremy Douglass

    Recently, more text-art-in-space in the news: a Guardian article by Michelle Pauli, “Poem about being human chosen for alien contact”, explains that the Adrian Mitchell poem “Human Beings” was selected by a vote of the British Poetry Society. Of course, selection is a bit different from an actual launch date:

    Human Beings will be displayed at the National Space Centre in Leicester, and the Poetry Society has said that it will continue “to investigate ways to launch the poem into space”.

  4. 4 Jeremy Douglass

    Even more recently, we received this email as regards our submission:

    Dear Study Respondent,

    My apologies for the delay since your response to our consultation on Cultural Utilisation of the International Space Station for the European Space Agency.

    From the responses to the consultation phase, the study team submitted its preliminary report to the European Space Agency in early September. This report comprised:

    1. Draft Policy Recommendations
    2. Selection of Project Ideas by Type/ISS Feature
    3. Historical Contextualisation of Art in Space, Space Habitats and Related Facilities

    At the beginning of November, a 2-day workshop was held at the European Space Agency’s International Space Station - Erasmus User Centre, ESTEC, Noordwijk in the Netherlands. The aim of the workshop was to discuss and refine the draft policy recommendations for cultural utilisation of the International Space Station. It brought together representatives from the European cultural community and from the European Space Agency for a stimulating 2 days of discussion. These discussions will inform the recommendations that will be presented to ESA’s Director of Human Spaceflight, Microgravity and Exploration.

    From these recommendations, we hope that there will be put in place a structure within ESA for considering and assessing cultural proposals for utilisation of the International Space Station and its ground-based facilities. It is also possible that, prior to or alongside this, a small number of “demonstrator” projects using ground-based facilities may take place.

    We will, of course, let you know of such developments as they proceed.

    As representatives of the cultural community (however diverse), our aim is for the cultural community to be accepted within ESA as a user group for ESA’s ISS facilities.

    My thanks again for your contribution.


    Nicola Triscott

    Nicola Triscott
    Study Leader
    ISS Cultural Utilisation (Arts Catalyst, Leonardo-Olats, Delta Utec, MIR)

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