On January 15th, 2005, after a 7 year and 3,2 billion kilometer piggyback ride through space, the ESA (European Space Agency) space probe Huygens detached from the Cassini orbiter and parachuted into the thick atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. Two years later the Montreal based artist Jean-Pierre Aubé parsed the scientific data the probe sent back to Earth into a video installation that reimagines the historic descent in Kubrick vision.
Titan, and Beyond the Infinite (Titan et au-delà de l’infini, 2007), Aubé states upfront, is direct reference to the famous Jupiter, and Beyond the Infinite scene in the 1968 science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Stargate Sequence, as it is also called, was created by Douglas Trumbull, an American special effects pioneer with NASA credentials who adopted the slit-scan technique used in photography in order to shoot the psychedelic warp tunnel we see in the film. Recreating the same slit-scan technique in Processing Jean-Pierre Aubé generated an 11 minute Stargate Sequence out of actual data obtained from an alien world.
After analyzing the 2 minute and 30 seconds radio signal that Huygens transmitted upon touchdown (available as a sound file on the European Space Agency’s website) Aubé’s software organized the contained data – the probe’s altitude, speed or the density of Titan’s atmosphere – into a database. From it the Processing sketch then generated images (2D renderings that were later treated in After Effects) and sound (OSC input signals feeding a set of analog and digital synthesizers). “The ESA mission is extremely well documented. A lot of my research went into reading fact sheets about the type of sensors and the way they collect data,” says Aubé about approaching the scientific material over email.
The original installation – shown within the exhibition Making Real / Rendre réel (Ottawa, 2007) and at the Société des arts technologiques (SAT) (Montreal, 2008) – involved two computers reading the scientific data and post processing the audio in real-time. A rendered video version was last shown at Montreal’s Eastern Bloc as part of the 2011 edition of Elektra.
“Given the cinematographic reference the design parameters of Titan, and Beyond the Infinite were pretty fixed,” says the artist, who’s currently busy preparing a new piece for this year’s Elektra in early May. “In retrospect however I’d like to think that each of Huygens’ sensors was “played” and “visualized” by a set of rules inspired first and foremost by the science behind it.”
[below: the original installation of Titan, and Beyond the Infinite at SAT (Montreal, 2008) and Making Real (Ottawa, 2007)]