Close Encounters with Alien Technology

The following article first featured in April 2004’s issue 9 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.

This article discussed the phenomena of sci-art and the alien aesthetic.

Close Encounters with Alien Technology – Reflections on the Sci-Art phenomena and the metamorphosis of an unidentified ‘image-object’

Just off the Cotswold Way beside the A46 an eerie light show reportedly took place during March of this year. At dusk each evening, a series of fluorescent lighting effects were seen mysteriously flickering randomly and interactively within a circle of anoraked devotees – drawn like awe-struck moths to an aetheric flame. “You affect the lights by your proximity to them,” explained one enlightened sole “Because you are a much better conductor than a glass tube. And there’s sound as well as light – a crackling that corresponds to the flashing of the lights. There’s a certain smell too, and your hair stands slightly on end.”

Happily not the spaceport ramblings of a wanabee-abductee these, but simply the enthused observations of one Bristol-based artist called Richard Box, who was describing his own superb temporary ‘Sci-Art’ installation, called Field. In it, row upon row of un-powered strip lights had been planted below an electricity pylon, to apparently tap freely into extra-terrestrial energy. In actual fact, the tubes were powered by residual emissions from the overhead lines, causing them to flicker randomly as darkness fell and enthral the assembled cultural diehards (and no doubt the odd deluded UFO spotter).


Such collaborations between science and art are happily on the increase, and include increased applications for advanced technology in both the visualisation and fabrication processes of art. In more hallowed circles, there is also a desire use science to try and ‘morph’ from an object-based obsession towards dematerialisation – a process artist Dan Flavin likens to creating “Image-Objects” that are more reliant on the art of perception than the aesthetic appreciation of solid matter.

Flavin, along with two other pioneers, Robert Irwin and James Turrell  (two of the greatest living American artists and first recipients of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant) can currently be seen together in an installation called Illuminations: Sculpting With Light, at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art in Chicago. On show, fluorescent pieces by Flavin emphasise the relationships between painting and sculpture, whilst Irwin’s work – a disc of cast acrylic illuminated to focus the observer – allows its shadows to eventually disembody itself from the viewer’s gaze. Turrell’s piece Afrum-Proto, a projection of a rectangle into the corner of a room, ‘shape-shifts’ as viewers move through the space until reaching a point at which the projection seems to spring into a three-dimensional solid.

To compliment these ethereal pieces, in another corner of Chicago there is an advanced proposal for a sculpture by 1991 Turner prize winner Anish Kapoor, that also wrestles with its physical form – by reflecting a dynamic immediate context and wider Chicago skyline. When receiving recent acclaim at the Baltic and Tate Modern respectively with his red translucent Tarantantara and Marsyas installations Kapoor claimed, “I want to make body into sky”- incidentally also achieved in his 2001 Skymirror at Nottingham. His work of course has always been metaphysical, being described as concerned with ‘material and immaterial, weight and weightlessness, place and non-place’. It creates both a physical and spiritual response in the viewer – to a point where Kapoor likes his art to ultimately “slow time down”.

The currently unnamed elliptical capsule is to be fabricated from seamless mirror-polished stainless steel. It is to be placed in July in the central Ameritech Plaza as part of a larger $200 million Millennium ‘art-theme’ Park – sitting alongside eventual works of other luminaries such as Frank Gehry’s music pavilion and Jaume Plensa’s video fountain. The leviathan, measuring 66 feet long and weighing an estimated 125 tons is conceived to appear almost magnetically levitated like an alien spacecraft – with a 12 foot high arched passage passing below it. It will appear like a huge fluid-solid drop of mercury, reminiscent of the Academy Award winning digital-metamorphic effects achieved in The Abyss and Terminator II. This is just another phase on the exploratory journey continually being undertaken by Kapoor, though of course, such experimental approaches to art-architecture and the subject of physical form; space and ‘presence’ are not without their potential pit falls. As Kapoor – recently back from his sojourn in Finland with collaborators Future Systems at the annual Snow Show – knows too well, developmental explorations into alien technologies can as equally end in crash landing as receive rave revues.  Kapoor is currently developing other ‘real’ creative architecture for the Italian Metro with Future Systems, but at Snow Show they jointly conceived and built a red-saturated and internally lit elliptical igloo – looking like “a skinned whale at a childs birthday party” as Icon magazine so aptly called it – to disastrous effect. It was to collapse mysteriously only a few hours after the artist’s departure. Some conspiracy theorists blamed Kapoor, claiming he destroyed it himself because he was unhappy with the final product – but more likely, other dastardly earth-forces were at play (such as radiant heat and gravity!).

Unlike Millennium Park in Chicago, Kapoor has of course not been commissioned for Mystery Park in Interlaken, currently being created by science-heretic Erich Von Daniken in an obsession to also build an ambitious theme park for Switzerland – this one with huge temples, domes and pyramids instead of designer-name creations. Like Chicago however, the project will attempt to showcase abstract global concepts – including the Nasca Lines of Peru that made his name through his boasts of spaceports and an alien-aesthetic. Shamelessly abducting Von Daniken’s claim for Mystery Park, Kapoor’s new unnamed ‘sci-pod’ (my suggested name) also shares the projects global ambition and will hopefully “show the greatest mysteries in the world, but will give no answers”. Those, we will have to work out for ourselves.

Categories: Writing

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