A light sometimes seen hovering over marshy ground
by JO PESTER
- View Jo Pester's Biography
Jo Pester is a London based artist working with video, sound, installation and performance.
A light sometimes seen hovering over marshy ground
by Jo Pester
Amanda Rice and Lewis Richards
Lewis Richards and Jo Pester, created in Media Molecule's 'Dreams'
Director, videographer and editor
Last summer I went on a number of local night walks, inspired by amateur projects that track glow worm and firefly numbers and share knowledge, creative writing and sometimes poems in DIY journals. I've been enamoured by The UK Glow worm Survey which began in 1990 but, as yet, has no official status. 1 Its only purpose is of information gathering, most of which is submitted by the general public and glow worm enthusiasts.
Fireflies have a complex visual and embodied form of communication, the meaning of which remains somewhat of a mystery to humans. You can buy a hand-held LED light, specifically designed for firefly communication, that is flashed quickly on and off with your thumb. 2 It's programmed with different flash sequences and response time intervals that provide the correct reply to various species. There's also a 'freestyle' mode for more spontaneous and open interactions. In the video Morse code-like firefly signalling is entangled with human's historical attempts at communicating with extraterrestrials. Many of the work's visual and audio sequences are a combination of sound and radio patterns received from space, messages sent into space by humans, as well as flash patterns and movements following from different firefly and glow worm species.
Much deliberation has gone into ways of communicating human's 'intelligence' to other potentially intelligent life beyond Earth. Questions often revolve around whether humans could reach any understanding with aliens at all. Would aliens be able to learn a human language? How can symbols be connected to reality, and therefore meaning, without context? Do universal rules of grammar exist? At least since the nineteenth-century, contemplations around such conundrums were developing (Raulin-Cerceau 2010). During the eighteen-hundreds The French medium Hélène Smith claimed to make contact with Martians, channeling a fictional Martian language and its written script for her séance audiences (Flournoy 1900). Around the same time Austrian astronomer Joseph Johann von Littrow proposed digging giant canals forming geometric shapes in the Sahara desert to be filled with burning Kerosene, hopefully bright enough to be observed by aliens on the Moon. Communication methods using mirrors and light were also popular at this time, a trend that persevered into the early twentieth century (Oberhaus 2019). The mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss proposed using a heliotrope with sixteen mirrors to signal to life on the Moon. In the late nineteenth century the English polymath Francis Galton, offered an attempt at a self-interpreting method of communication with Martians also using light and mirrors, that was based on Morse code (Crowe 2008). However, work around radio communication overtook such proposals, as it began to offer a far more effective way of transmitting messages out to the cosmos.
Since then a myriad of information and objects have been sent into space in the name of extraterrestrial communication: lists of names; signatures; mathematical codes; music; drawings; haikus about Mars; flags; an audio recording of Carl Sagan laughing; Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster; plaques communicating the essence of human life on Earth; a chatbot named Ella; 116 images encoded in analog form; spoken greetings in more than 50 languages; a compilation of field recordings from Earth and a message of love from Paul McCartney. Multiple examples of these appear throughout the video.
These various messages reveal plenty about the historical technological sophistication of our civilisation, yet perhaps more interestingly they reveal the ways we frame human intelligence, often in relation to the non-human. In interrogating these attempts and their inevitable failings, partly due to an unfathomable lack of shared context between us and those we're sending the messages to, we can turn back to human's relationships with non-humans here on Earth.
Often categories of language and communication are used as a tool to draw lines between human and non-human intelligence. In the video work, hierarchies between human-centric spoken or written language and more-than-human communication are flattened. A wide array of written, gestural, audio and graphical forms of communication are depicted, from abstract shapes discovered on cave walls that reoccur across space and time throughout Europe during a 30,000 year timespan, to self-interpreting languages designed specifically for teaching aliens how to communicate with humans, to visually complex patterns carved into the sand by pufferfish through the medium of dance.
Chomsky distinguishes between human language and other animal communication, stating that the primary function of human language is to order thoughts rather than serve as a means of communication (Berwick and Chomsky 2016). However, as with fireflies, so much of non-human communication is still beyond our understanding, as well as what they're using their communication for, with senses entirely distinct from our own. It's clearly inadequate to measure these against human language and impossible to decode and translate into human language. Scholars struggle to decode ancient human languages without context, yet we still assume that we're capable of decoding non-human or even extraterrestrial languages. 3 This makes me think of a quote from Stanisław Lem's Solaris, in reference to the potential knowledge of the alien life found on the planet Solaris:
Yet all this constitutes uncommunicable knowledge, and if one attempts to translate it into any terrestrial language, all those sought-after values and significations are lost, they remain on the far side (Lem 2014).
The extraterrestrial being is entirely inaccessible to humanity and therefore any suggestion of intelligence is largely dismissed by scientists of Solaristics. Language is situated, embodied and rooted in our physiology, therefore we're unable to see beyond our own position (Kershenbaum 2020). Rather than the ultimate example, human language is just one evolutionary possibility.
In 1899 Nikola Tesla received promising radio signals from space, one seemed to suggest an almost Morse code-like numerical pattern (Corum and Corum 2003). Other signals even sounded similar to whale song (Wolfram 2018). Whale song follows many rules and patterns that are shared with all human languages, including rhyme-like features. Tesla's numerical code is likely to have been the result of kilometric signals from Jupiter. Yet, as Oberhaus states, this reveals the ways in which it can be almost impossible to distinguish between communicative signals and those created seemingly without meaning or intent (Oberhaus 2020).
The video work considers language and communication in relation to power, categories of intelligence, translated meaning across context and lopsidedness in human/ non-human entanglements. In acts of translation, the Other is always the one having something done to them, and never the one doing the translating. Lyotard proposes the differend, a space which reframes non-humans as semiotic agents, regardless of whether we understand them or not, by focussing on 'utterances' (Lyotard 1988). Withholding of communication can count for an 'utterance' so long as an agent is choosing to be silent. However, this still has the humanistic problem that it doesn't account for when non-humans aren't communicative, but not because they are choosing to be silent. Also there's still the focus on interpreting the utterances within humanist semiotics. Is it possible to imagine intelligence as passive and non-communicative, or intelligence that is reactive rather than predatory?
Haraway's suggestion of contact zones, which are formed in a process of displacement to the space of the Other, offer an alternative (Haraway 2003). Responsible interactions between agents can occur within contact zones, open spaces where beings merge in cooperative entanglements of becoming. Not through interpreting or classifying, but instead through methods of embodied listening, following and incomprehension.
Berwick, Robert and Chomsky, Noam. 2016. Why only us? Language and evolution. Cambridge. MA: MIT Press.
Corum, Kenneth and Corum, James. 2003. Nikola Tesla and the Planetary Radio Signals. Adapted from the 5th International Tesla Conference: Tesla. III Millennium, 1996, Belgrade, Serbia. Available: https://radiojove.gsfc.nasa.gov/education/educationalcd/Books/Tesla.pdf [accessed: 21/03/21].
Crowe, Michael. 2008. The Extraterrestrial Life Debate: 1750-1900. Indiana. University of Notre Dame Press.
Flournoy, Théodore. 1900. From India to the planet Mars: a study of a case of somnambulism with glossolalia. London. Harper and Bros.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. 2003. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago. Prickly Paradigm.
Kershenbaum, Arik. 2020. The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens - and Ourselves. UK. Penguin Press.
Lem, Stanisław and translated by Bill Johnston. 2014. Solaris. Kindle Edition. Pro Auctore Wojciech Zemek: 150. Available: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Solaris-Stanislaw-Lem-ebook/dp/B00Q21MVAI #detailBullets _feature _div [accessed 05/04/2021]
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1988. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Manchester. Manchester University Press.
Oberhaus, Daniel. 2019. Extraterrestrial Languages. Cambridge. The MIT Press.
Raulin-Cerceau, Florence. 2010. 'The pioneers of interplanetary communication: From Gauss to Tesla'. Acta Astronautica 67: 139-1398. Available: https://www.academia.edu/12935035/The _pioneers _of _interplanetary _communication _From _Gauss _to _Tesla [accessed: 21/03/21].
Wolfram, Stephen. 2018. 'How to Design Beacons for Humanity 's Afterlife: A time capsule meant to teach aliens about humans could consist of math, DNA, a bot, or a brain---or something else entirely'. WIRED. Available:https://www.wired.com/story/how-to-design-beacons-for-humanitys-afterlife/ [accessed: 21/03/21].
- You can access the survey run by Robin Scagell via the The UK Glow worm Survey Home Page ↩
- The device was named 'The Firefly Communicator' by its inventor Joey Stein. ↩
- The writing system Linear B, used by the Mycenaean civilisation is the oldest known preserved form of written Greek. Although discovered in the early twentieth-century, many of its features remain unclear. Another example is the ancient Egyptian writing system of hieroglyphics, which would have been lost to modern civilisation if it weren't for the Rosetta Stone. ↩