Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 15 - the X issue
Log 15 - the X issue
Acoustic Space Lab
Zita Joyce

[What we did in our summer holidays... The Acoustic Space Lab was held in Irbene, Latvia from 4-12 August 2001. A gathering for new media artists, sound artists, broadcasters and theorists, and a hotbed of cultural cross pollination, extra terrestrial concerns, and a bunch of ex-pat new Zealanders. It was organised by RIXC, the Centre for New Media Culture in Riga. The plan was to explore an ex-Soviet Radio Telescope extracting sound materials and anything else we could find, followed by performances and a `streaming party' in Riga. There'll be a cd and a book next year. <www.gracies.org/spacelab>]

On the northwest coast of Latvia, the point that sicks up into the Baltic towards Sweden, the Irbene military facility is hidden in a totally dense green forest. It's very very green, and this huge dish just sticks out of it like some huge khaki metallic mushroom. It's hard to believe it was a secret until 1993, but this whole area was a secret, property of the Soviet military and carefully eliminated from maps. There was a town here as well: two thousand people, families, a school, classic apartment blocks like any other in the country, now just empty with broken windows, some early nineties pop stars drooping off the walls. It's all very Stalker. You do expect to find a big black dog watching from the grass and sand dunes in the basement.

The existence of The Dish was revealed to Latvia in 1993, after 13 years of spying on the region and plotting missile trajectories for the Soviet military. It's one of the 10 or 12 best radio telescopes in the world - 165 feet tall on its tower, The Dish has a diameter of 32 metres, and it's extremely accurate. Its official name is RT-32[1]. When the Soviet withdrawal from Latvia was negotiated in 1993, the Latvian government decided it didn't want responsibility for RT-32 or its 16 and 10-metre cousins. They were taken on instead by the Latvian Academy of Sciences, who occupied it on July 22 1994 as the last soldiers left the area. The Academy's Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre (VIRAC) have rebuilt RT-32 and have it running again (the retreating army didn't blow it up as threatened, but they poured sulphuric acid in its drive motors, drove nails in its cables, and threw pieces of metal in its mechanical drives), but they still need about US$2m to make it genuinely useful, to add frivolous details like toilets and showers - deemed unnecessary by Soviet officers, but desirable for astronomers who wish to spend any time there. Our hosts brought in a portaloo especially for our delicate new media constitutions.

sound artists Honor Harger and Adam Willetts  at Irbene radio telescope
sound artists Honor Harger and Adam Willetts
at Irbene radio telescope
photo by Zita Joyce

We were there at the invitation of Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits of Xchange/e-lab/the RIXC Centre for New Media Culture in Riga[2], the parents of the Xchange network for creative net.broadcasters. Together with Derek Holzer[3] they conceived the lab as the basis of their 5th annual `Art and Communication' festival - to consider radio waves as aspects of `new media', explore a discourse between art and science, and reclaim this tool of the Soviet military.

To be honest it's kind of hard to explain what we did in our four days in a former cold war outpost. Some people had specific ideas of what they wanted to achieve, most of us mostly thought it would be really cool to be there. For a start, obviously, we wanted to find out what outerspace sounded like. The more obsessive broadcasters amongst us wanted to turn The Dish in on itself and get outerspace to listen to us. We had a host of radio transmitters, listening devices and fancy plug ins brought in by those new media poster boys from Macrolab[4]. We realised we could hang our own microphones off The Dish's feedhorns and use its mighty curve to listen to the trees and bugs around us. Mostly, we filmed, recorded and photographed each other. The Dish majestically turned on its axis and we recorded its groans and soaring harmonics. The Dish stood against a sunny/brooding/scudding-cloud sky and we photographed each other against it. The forest from The Dish. New-media artist with soviet techno-relic. Theorist admires scenery from ladder above Dish. Video artist films web documentary maker interviewing Latvian scientist about his discovery of The Dish.

There is a small group of scientists and technicians from VIRAC who work with the telescope. Juris Zagars was the first to find it, after he and his wife searched the forest with military maps after Latvian independence in 1991[5]. He gave us our first tour and got nervous about the legality of pirate radio broadcasting and listening to communications satellites. Our main man on the controls was Engineer Dimitri. He listened to us wax unscientific about cool stuff we'd like to do, and said `it's possible'. He posed for photos, was interviewed endlessly, let us fill his telescope with cables, microphones and powerbooks, and patiently explained how long it takes to actually find a space body to listen to.

Planets, as it happens, sound much like Merzbow. Most space-stuff happens at much higher frequencies than the human ear can detect and so needs to be `stepped down' to be audible. What you're left with is noise, and while it's definitely exciting to know the noise is extraterrestrial, there's not much more to it than that. Besides, you can never be quite sure that you're listening to Jupiter itself or the enormous distance between here and there. Whether that's a problem or not is very relative of course. Space is after all just that. There was plenty of other sound art going on anyway. Latvian musicians Clausthome set up camp in a research room and stayed firmly attached to their computers for 4 days straight[6]. Voldemars played his didgeridoo in the dish at night. Francis composed a fantastic pop song about our experiences over the top of a Russian trash pop song that sang something about drug dealing DJs (in Russian), and got us non Russian speaking guests in trouble with the Riga student radio station. The machinery, its concrete tower, and the submarine body that comprised its upper chamber were full of shrieks, clunks and weird echoes. The microphones in the dish recorded hours of forest sounds. And a few satellites happened to stray across our paths and deliver up their conversations.

Acoustic.Space symposium at Irbene radio telescope
Acoustic.Space symposium at Irbene radio telescope
photo by Manu Luksch

In a way The Dish was too big for us, too precise, too perfect. We hadn't thought big enough and we hadn't thought precisely enough. We didn't know what to think before we got there, and I'm not sure we'll know what we thought for a long time yet. Radio telescopy is a very slow and painstaking process, it takes ages to prepare fully and ages to fully process the outcome. Even in its military heyday The Dish itself did limited processing. It was mostly a recording device, with the encoded results sent to Moscow for interpretation and storage. At the risk of being cheesy, I think the participants in the Acoustic Space Lab will keep on interpreting and decoding the experience for a long time to come. Any theoretical or artistic considerations are so overwhelmed by the huge physical fact of this thing and the experience of being there.

It couldn't help but take on the air of a summer camp, landing in the best Latvian late-summer in years, settling down in a `Kempings' on the edge of the sea with cabins, meals, a bar in the shape of a boat, and early morning splashing on the edge of huge Baltic rips. In the evenings Austria's Kunstradio broadcast reports of our activities - put together by Honor at the dish, sent to Austria via a dodgy phone line, and re-received by shortwave in our coastal camping ground[7]. Steve Jobs would've been proud to witness the latenight laptop jam sessions. The Latvians introduced us to the delights of very cheap local vodka, vodka with chilli and honey, and Rigas Balsams, nectar of the Baltic. Mr Snow and Adam Hyde introduced everyone else to that fine New Zealand tradition the drinking game, with a rousing game of Whizz Bang Bounce. Or Whizz Boing Bounce depending on your regional affiliations. The next day it seemed like a bad idea to introduce such games in a country with so much excellent cheap vodka.

Zita Joyce is currently roaming the world... or variation thereof.

The Space Lab participants were: Zina Kaye and Mr Snow (<http://laudible.net/>); Adam Hyde and Honor Harger (<http://www.radioqualia.net/>); Marco Peljhan, Aljosa Abrahamsbe and Borja Jelic (<http://makrolab.ljudmila.org/>); Steve Kovats; Nina Czegledy; Adam Willetts; Zita Joyce; Susan Kennard (http://radio90.fm/) Elaine Bomberry (Renegade Radio); Maizun Jayoussi; Shane Breaker; Francis Hunger; Guy Van Belle; Nat Muller (V2), Derek Holzer; Sara Kolster; Robert Adrian X; Manu Luksch; Mukul; Fee Plumley (Superchannel, The Phone Book); Heath Bunting (<http://irational.org>); Rasa Smite; Raitis Smits; Signe; Ugis; Lauris Vorslavs; Girts Radzins; Martins Ratniks; Peteris Kimelis; Voldemars Johansons; Gonzalez; Oskars Poikans.

[1] <http://www.astr.lu.lv/virac/virac.htm>

[2] RIXC is a joint project between a number of Latvian cultural/film/youth organisations, including e-lab, who also run the Xchange mailing list and network of net radio broadcasters. <http://www.rixc.lv/>

[3] Radio Jeleni - provided audio from the streets of Prague, Czech Republic, during the IMF/World Bank Protests to broadcasters in five different countries: <http://www.radiojeleni.cz/>

[4] Portable media project of the Ljubljana Digital Media Lab, even mentioned in the October issue of Wallpaper* <http://www.ljudmila.org/>

[5] <>

[6] <http://re-lab.net/f5/clausthome/>



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room