Saturn’s Rings, Cassini’s Dreams: Playing the Universe

China Blue’s multidisciplinary installation Cassini’s Dreams (2019) is a remarkable visual arts and sound project that is partly scientific and partly poetic. Intrigued by sound as a medium that is still underexplored, she has undoubtedly been influenced by the experimentation of early avant-gardists such as John Cage, as had many subsequent artists. For China Blue, however, it was the experimental composer and electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016) whom the artist felt closer to. Today, sound is increasingly evident in a range of creative practices, no longer outside the mainstream, as artists, ever more expansive in their points of view, strive to realize works that shatter former boundaries across the spectrum of cultural production. As technological innovations are added to the mix to become more and more immersive, the results are perhaps the most complete examples of the Gesamtkunstwerk to date.

China Blue, a pioneer in her own right, has made sound art works for over two decades. She widened the scope of her investigations when she received two NASA/RI Space Grants a few years ago. Her husband, Seth Horowitz, is a neuroscientist whose expertise also includes acoustics, robotics, data actualization, and more.  Through intensive, exhilarating conversations with him about his research, she was further inspired to push her projects involving “hidden acoustics” towards the more scientifically oriented, in particular toward data sonification as a way to identify space and place—without foregoing the imaginative, the intuitive.

She became riveted by the exploration of Saturn and its icy moons jointly undertaken by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency, called the Cassini-Huygens mission. NASA had developed a robotic spacecraft for the Saturn mission that it named Cassini, after Giovanni Domenico Cassini, a French Italian astronomer who discovered four of Saturn’s moons in the 17th century. (Huygens was a probe to explore Titan, one of Saturn’s great moons, created by the European Space Agency and named after Christiaan Huygens, a 17th century Dutch astronomer who discovered Titan). Cassini, the size of a mini-bus, was sent to learn more about Saturn and its multiple moons and magnificent rings (which in actuality is more of an annulated disk of varying densities and brilliance, with thousands of narrow gaps and ringlets). It was designed to last roughly four years upon reaching its goal but it far exceeded its expiration date (like the prodigious twin spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2). It took Cassini seven years to reach Saturn and then orbited the planet for 13 years. During the spacecraft’s hundreds of flybys over Saturn, it took nearly half a million images that it sent back to Earth, a billion miles away, providing a trove of unexpected information as well as breathtaking images of that most spectacularly beautiful of planets, correcting misconceptions, resolving former mysteries and changing the way we think about the solar system.

In the very last phase of its mission, Cassini angled through the gap between Saturn and the planet’s innermost ring, providing extraordinarily clear views of the rings and the planet itself before ultimately plunging downward toward it like a dazzling, spent star. As planned, it disintegrated in Saturn’s atmosphere to end its journey on September 15, 2017, 20 years later, mourned by many.

Always speculative, China Blue asked herself, in thinking about the mission, how Saturn’s rings might sound (as she had asked herself how the Eiffel Tower might sound, among other sites and objects not usually thought of acoustically, as “instruments”), a query that resulted in a riveting 11-track CD called Cassini’s Dreams (2018), made in collaboration with Horowitz and composer Lance T. Massey.  At the edges of human perceptual faculties and beyond, she likens “listening to the unheard with seeing the unseen. It brings areas outside of human range into a field that we can comprehend.” When asked what the source of the data she used was, the artist explained it came from the rings themselves, from data sent back from Cassini that was correlated and converted into sound by means of a complex and novel method. The rings are made primarily of water ice and small particles of rock, and as these materials streamed around the periphery of the planet, they have the potential to collide. Caught in the gravity field of the planet, each particle has its own motion, its own events, as waves of movement rippled through the planet’s rings and billions of particles. Over time, the sound field that is produced changes; “it isn’t a fixed keyboard,” the artist said.

So, truly music from space (with titles such as Cassini’s Dreams, Cloudboarding, Saturn Remains), the data was extracted, consolidated and translated into pings and pongs, whirrs and clicks of different tones, frequencies and duration, the sound clipped, brushed, floated, reverberating, the superfluous noise edited out to create a haunting soundscape of a specific place in space and time. The resulting tracks have an eerie, ethereal, echoing beauty and their own hypnotic lyricism. The compositions recall Brian Eno’s space music from the 1980s, his inspired by the Apollo 11 landing but, unlike Cassini’s tracks, not based on actual data.

The visual elements of the installation are centered upon a large suspended model of Saturn in a dark gallery hung with some paintings of Saturn’s rings, executed in infrared colors. A 3-D model of Cassini housing a laser to simulate the passage of the actual spacecraft around the planet is another element. The technology used is a laser-to-sound conversion in which the image captured by the laser is transformed into sound (the same method she used to discover the sounds of Saturn’s rings). The imagery of the rings is transformed into sound in real time, and mixed with the audio from Cassini’s Dreams, the CD, adapted for the installation, the sound projected through speakers.

I thought of David Byrne’s project, Playing the Building, conceived in 2005 but presented in different iterations since then, predicated on the architecture of the selected construction as the instrument. In Cassini’s Dreams, China Blue might be said to play the universe–or perhaps beyond—composing a song about origins, evolution and ultimate destiny.

Lilly Wei

Lilly Wei is a New York-based independent curator, writer, journalist and critic whose area of interest is global contemporary art and emerging art and artists, reporting frequently on international exhibitions and biennials. She has written for dozens of publications here and abroad and is a longtime contributor to Art in America and a contributing editor at ARTnews. She is the author of numerous artists’ catalogues and monographs and has curated exhibitions in the United States, Europe and Asia. Wei lectures frequently on critical and curatorial practices and sits on the board of several non-profit art institutions and organizations including AICA/USA (the International Association of Art Critics), Bowery Arts & Sciences, and Art Omi International. She was a former board member of Art in General, and is a fellow of the CUE Foundation. Wei was born in Chengdu, China and has an MA in art history from Columbia University, New York.

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