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Usman Haque

Sky Ear

Usman Haque, Sky Ear, 2004 (video)
Usman Haque, Sky Ear, 2004 (video)
Usman Haque, Sky Ear, 2004 Usman Haque, Sky Ear, 2004 Usman Haque, Sky Ear, 2004
"Why is there no art in space, why do we have no exhibitions in the sky? Up to now we have left it up to war to light up the sky..." Otto Piene (1)

Usman Haque appears to be seeking an answer to this question with his new project Sky Ear by temporarily occupying the sky with an installation based on the reception and the transformation of electromagnetic waves into light signals. The artist has set out to make explicit our interactions with this normally invisible territory by offering an event that allows a wide public to not only see and hear electromagnetic waves, but to actually interact with them. According to Haque, very few works using hertzian space as a concept in the social arena have actually seen the light of day.

But to really understand what interests Haque in his practice — and more particularly in this project — one must present the conceptual tools with which he works: “hardspace” and “softspace”. Though architecture has traditionally been understood as those physical, static objects that make up our environments, and enclose us, like walls, Haque is more interested in the non-tangible and non-physical: the sounds, the smells, the heat, the colors, and — the latest addition to their repertoire — the radio waves. This stance or attitude regarding architecture clearly indicates that the softspace is defined by the interactions that form our experience of space. Haque uses technology in order to provoke interactions between people, and between people and their spaces. Softspace encourages people to become performers within their environments, while hardspace provides a framework to animate these interactions.

We know that we live in a world that is traversed by electromagnetic waves (radio waves, electric waves, microwaves, etc.) Sky Ear is a "cloud" that listens for electromagnetic radiation. A carbon fibre structure 25 metres in diameter, it contains 1,000 helium-filled balloons and is tethered to the ground by six cables. During the event, the "cloud" hovers 60 to 100 metres overhead for several hours. Each balloon is equipped with a sensor that detects different levels of electromagnetic radiation according to different frequencies and six light emitting diodes (LED) capable of generating millions of colours. The wave-activated sensors, in their turn activate light emitting diodes (LED).

The Sky Ear project also draws on the idea of performance. Taking advantage of the most common forms of interaction with hertzian space — making a phone call— the public is invited to participate in the event. Several cellular telephones will be installed in the structure, and by dialing a number, the spectators will be able to hear the sounds in the sky. These telephone calls will cause local disturbances in the electromagnetic field, which will be detected by the cloud. Feedback in the sensor circuits will create a wavering light resembling that produced by a roaring thunder. In order to reach the largest audience possible, Haque will provide realtime internet access to the event. The active participative dimension of the event is fundamental for the artist, who questions the distinction between the performer-artist and the passive audience by further blurring the status of the work: installation, sculpture, performance, public art project, Sky Art, etc.

This project which masterfully combines art, science and technology calls for research along several lines at a time: how to detect electromagnetic waves, how to make the cloud float, how to conceive a modular structure, how to find the necessary permits to launch the cloud, how to find an appropriate site, how to guarantee the health and safety of participants, how to develop the event logistics etc. The different areas covered by these questions bear witness to the project's interdisciplinary interest.

As sources of inspiration Haque cites individuals who travel in remote areas to listen to the sounds generated by the planet's electromagnetic field, enthusiasts who tune their AM radio to the frequency of a thunderstorm, and those who venture forth to admire the magic of northern lights. As artistic predecessors he mentions Skyline (1967) by Hans Haacke, a line of helium balloons floating in the sky; Silver Clouds (1966) by Andy Warhol, an environment made up of shiny silver pillows quietly drifting in the gallery space; and Panamarenko whose work deeply explored the idea of flying machines and the drama of flying. Furthermore, could one not also evoke Baudelaire's "marvellous clouds" along a path that points to the romantic aesthetic of the sublime? In fact, who could affirm that technology has completely obliterated this artistic dimension — or affect — that is still very much visible and readable in many contemporary works of art, particularly in the Land Art of the 1960s and 1970s?

Electromagnetism has fascinated scientists and artists for some time now. One need only think of Mesmer, the forerunner of Charcot, Janet and Freud. But also Nikola Tesler, the inventor of contemporary industrial electromagnetism; Faraday who considered electromagnetism as a universal principle of life on earth; Léon Theremin the inventor of the first electromagnetic instrument; Nam June Paik, the father of video art; Walter de Maria, with his famous Lightning Field; and the list goes on... This ongoing interest was reflected in the Electre et Magnete colloquium recently held in Montreal in 2003, that gathered artists interested in the scientific phenomenon of electromagnetism. (2)

To these references one must add the works of Otto Piene who invented the term Sky Art in the 1960s. His first public project, which was presented at the Center for Advanced Visual Research (CAVS) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1968, titled Light Line Experiment, involved twenty participants, 1000 tubes of helium filled polyethylene and two projectors. Piene described the project as a "celestial event." According to this pioneer of art in space, Sky Art wants to give a positive image of a world — and a sky — where war machines proliferate. The holding of an annual conference on Sky Art testifies to the importance of Piene's work.

These considerations support the goals at the heart of Haque's project: to see and conceive the sky as a creative space, which is only furthered by the fact that this creativity is no longer perceived as the sole province of artists but as a common resource to be shared. In this sense, what animates his practice is the emphasis he resolutely places on the performative (softspace) rather than the installation-object (hardspace).

Following a series of test flights, Sky Ear was launched for the first time on July 4, 2004, in Fribourg, Switzerland, during the Belluard Bollwerk International Festival. It was presented next on September 15, 2004, at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich Park on the outskirts of London, England. An abbreviated version of Sky Ear was also included in the transmediale.05 program and drifted in the skies over Berlin for one hour on February 3, 2005. Sky Ear was awarded the Excellence Prize in the Art category at the 2004 Japan Media Arts Festival.

Jacques Perron © 2005 FDL

(1) Piene, Otto. "Ways to Paradise" edited by Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, ZERO, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1973; original edition: ZERO 3 (Düsseldorf, 1961).

(2) For more on this matter consult the excellent text by Charles Halary on the main themes of the colloquium Les rapports ondulatoires de l'électromagnétisme avec les arts (in French only), (accessed February 3, 2004):