WIRE sept2001

"It's beyond anybody¹s imagination to be able to climb around on a multimillion­dollar machine like this and play with it."‹Robert Adrian X

When the invasion of a precision scientific laboratory by assorted media artists quadruples the available computing power, one can forgive a rush of optimism about a possible dialogue between science and art. Seven years after the withdrawal of the Soviet Army, a 32m diameter radiotelescope in the Irbene forest near Ventspils, an oil transit port in western Latvia, was occupied once more‹this time, by a 35­strong army wielding laptops, camcorders, scanners, kilometres of cable, crates full of jacks and plugs, and enough theory to confound the observatory physicists. Organised by Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits, cofounders of E­Lab/RIXC (Riga Center of New Media Culture,, and Derek Holzer, the symposium took place on August 4th­12th between the Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Center (VIRAC) and Riga. Media artists and activists gathered to explore the interface of art and communications technologies, and to launch an International Acoustic Space Research Programme. Participants who travelled for the opportunity to slide around the dish included L¹audible, RadioQualia, Sara Kolster, Robert Adrian X, Radio 90, Siksika Media, Digibodies, Irational, Makrolab, Clausthome, and ambientTV.NET.

In 1993, the Soviet Army withdrew from the Baltic States, revealing the existence of an espionage centre near Ventspils used to eavesdrop on Western satellite communications. Of the three antennae at the site, the Soviets took the smallest dish, but the 16m and 32m dishes were too big to move. Under pressure from the international radioastronomy community, the army held off from blowing up RT­16 and RT­32, instead gifting them to the Latvian government. A handover team did, however, "prepare" the dishes, throwing metal debris into the mechanics, driving nails through cables, and pouring acid into the electronics. Thankfully, the antennae were built like ships‹having been drastically overengineered by the Soviet Navy. So, despite only nominal support from the Latvian government ‹ VIRAC is classed a "Scientific Company with Limited Responsibility" ‹ enthusiasts from various Latvian scientific institutes determined the properties of the antennae, repaired the damage, and transformed them into operational radiotelescopes. The larger antenna, RT­32 ("Little Star"), is remarkably precise‹through all the manoeuverings of the 600 ton structure, the dish distorts less than 0.5mm from its paraboloidal shape. With the installed feed horn tuned to 11 GHz (2.5 cm wavelength), RT­32 has been used to detect radiation from the planets, the moon (some due to lunarquakes), the sun and other stars, and extragalactic sources including possible black holes. It has also been used for VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry), in which widely separated telescopes are coupled to produce a giant antenna of a size equivalent to the distance between them. But lack of funds to repair leaks in the labs and upgrade the toilet facilities from the Soviet­era wooden hut means that RT­32 is not overrun by astronomers‹leaving it open for takeover by a bunch of media vagabonds. (In true festival spirit, we brought in a green portaloo). set up three working groups at RT­32 under the guidance of Dmitrijs Bezrukov. Dimo deals with all aspects of the telescope‹electrotechnical, software, making of observations‹and is also, if needed, guard, cook, and driver. He was trusting enough to allow us unlimited access, and assisted with all types of reception, but ruled out transmission (since noone had produced the requisite licence).

RT­32 is mounted on a 25m concrete tower. Just under the dish is the "submarine" room, complete with portholes and a 15m conning tower that gives access to the dish surface, the feed horn at the secondary focus, and‹after a shaky climb up the supporting lattice‹the small reflector at the primary focus. Three groups established residency in various parts of the superstructure. Makrolab mounted their own L­band (1.5 GHz) feed at the secondary focus. True to dish¹s original purpose, they eavesdropped on communications satellites. Analogue channels on an Inmarsat yielded familial chatterings in Tamil and a minor drama about a stowaway, which rapidly took on bureaucratic overtones. In the spirit of their earlier webstreaming/feedback experiments, ambientTV.NET hoped to place a call and route it via one of these channels, intercept it and then feed it back, but logistically this proved impossible.

Fuelled by borscht and Black Balsams (the other black gold of the Baltics), the acoustic group scaled the dish and rigged up microphones at the primary and secondary foci. Dima lowered the dish to zero elevation and scanned the horizon. Above the wind noise, the mikes picked up rustlings from the Irbene forest, occasional bird cries, conversations on the ground, and a screeching handbrake turn. Movement of the dish also generated spectacular sinusoidal groans and squeaks, consonant in thirds and accompanied by excited squeals from the submariners.

The radioastronomy group attempted to observe Venus, Jupiter, and the Sun. With only a few hour¹s observation, it proved difficult to isolate any planetary signals amongst the noise, but data from the solar scans is being incorporated into Java applets and translated into MIDI by Zina Kaye (L¹audible). Attempts to step down the GHz frequencies into the audible range yielded, predictably, white noise. But this was food enough for Clausthome, who spent hours manipulating the nondescript audio into warm, full industrial soundscapes.

Back in Riga, the material gathered and processed during the four days at the telescope was webcast in a 6­hr programme from the LMS Galerija with remote participation from Kunstradio (archived at­

So, "science and art": one massive dish in hand, and we didn¹t cook up anything approaching what Alvin Lucier did with a couple of tape recorders. There was no space for significant dialogue between scientists and artists. But we hope to use as a launchpad for deeper, more theoretically and technically informed collaboration. The fact that much of what is observed is not only very far away not only in space but in time, the reflexive nature of VLBI measurements being used for geodesy‹these are departure points for more specific and substantial projects. At the close of the symposium, VIRAC director Edgars Bervalds expressed his delight that the antenna had been explored in so many ways, adding that, though the antenna ought to be used primarily for science, "artists can use it to fill the vast spaces in our Universe that science cannot reach."

Recordings and theories developed from will feature in the forthcoming reader (­

Related programmes:
Sep 8, Riga: Projekt Atol present SIGNAL­SERVER!, an open­air satellite audio performance
Sep 24­30, Rotterdam: V2 presents and wiretap discussion (
Nov 18, Riga/Venstpils: "Little Star Began to Sing", a symphonic work about RT­32 by Michael Omer

Picture captions: 1. In true festival spirit, we brought in a green portaloo (RT­32 in the background).
2. Makrolab installing their feed at the secondary focus (view from primary focus, looking down into the dish).

­ words by mukul (ambientTV.NET) ­ pictures by manu luksch (ambientTV.NET)