July 25, 2011

Musical Space Art

On October 2nd 1991, Franz Vieböck (an engineer and former assistant professor at the University of Vienna who enjoys playing the piano, water polo, and tennis), became the first Austrian citizen to venture out beyond Earth's atmosphere and into orbit. He was sent into space within a Soyuz spacecraft launched from Gagarin's Start in Kazakhstan, and accompanied two soviet cosmonauts on the 13th expedition to the Russian space station Mir.
Herr Vieböck was one of 220 people to respond to an ad placed in Austrian newspapers three years previous. The ad called for emotionally and physically fit individuals with a university or equivalent professional degree to apply for the chance to become Austria's first ambassador to the stars. After a grueling battery of mental examinations and tests of physical prowess and stamina, the field of candidates was winnowed down to a final 5 who then began their official astronaut training at Star City--a soviet facility near Moscow--in preparation for AUSTROMIR: the first Austrian space project.

Among the 18 AUSTROMIR experiments Vieböck was asked to oversee during his 175 day sojurn above the planet, was the project ARTSAT. Conceived by multi-media artist Richard Kriesche, ARTSAT was meant to unite aspects of science, technology, and culture into one symbolic creation...which I happened to run into yesterday while hanging out on top of the Graz Schlossberg...

This huge steel disc inscribed with raised cryptic figures across its face sits rather unassumingly in the middle of a large grassy lawn. It seems to be a favorite among kids 5 and younger whom I've seen crawling around its shiny surface playing with the funny shapes and musing over their opaque and shadowy reflections. My curiosity was piqued when I noticed this plaque--hidden behind some hanging vines and heavily vandalized--on which was printed in several languages...

A cosmonaut message encoded in the Blue Danube? Huh...

When I first saw the disk I figured it was just a random collection of interesting figures without much meaning beyond the aesthetic, but now I was curious! After searching through bizarrely-translated austrian websites and then confirming some connections through a couple of very sparse Wikipedia articles, here's the gist of what I found out...

On October 6th, 1991 tv cameras watched on as artist Richard Kriesche (pictured at right) sent an image of his hand to Franz Vieböck, the newly famous Austrian astronaut who had recently boarded the Mir space station. The Blue Danube waltz was piped out as continuous background music for the crowd assembled outside the Graz broadcasting house where artist Peter Gerwin Hoffmann was digging a symbolic ditch--a "time sculpture"--representing the period of a single Mir orbit. On that day Mir's orbit was such that it would be within radio distance of Graz for a short time, and upon receiving Kriesche's symbolic "hand shake," Vieböck responded with his own message via the amateur ham radio facility AREMIR.

The code of his response was used to affect the sound of the waltz "like an imaginary conductor's hand," and those altered musical details were simultaneously "distilled by spectral analysis," recorded in a PC, and then sent on to play a specially prepared piano. A welding robot had also been built outside the studio and once the space station was out of range it took all the recorded data and welded an encrypted version of it into a large steel plate. It is this plate that now makes its home on the Schlossberg.

Interestingly, that same encrypted code was later passed on to 10 composers who had been commissioned to create short radio pieces based upon it. Their creations were broadcast on KUNSTRADIO and subsequently collected onto a CD designed by the aforementioned "ditch-digger," Peter Gerwin Hoffmann. The CD is no longer available for sale, but the pieces are accessible HERE for anyone interested in experiencing a rather unique set of soundscapes. Rod, this is right up your alley!

Man...I just can't get over all the quirky little stories I keep running into here in Graz...can't wait to see what I find next!

Here are links to the websites I referenced for this blog:

1 comment:

  1. Boy, this was so very interesting! Every day something new and amazing! Sad, though that vandalism is everywhere.