dear friends from red stars
For some time, we’d all been wondering why that McDonald’s was built beside the mortuary. When we went by at night, the visual incongruence of the two buildings was even more glaring: one illuminated by the massive M of the fast-food restaurant chain, and the other outlined by the glow of lights in the mortuary chapel, at that hour tinted by the stained- glass windows. Sparks burst from the utility poles as we passed. And Adrian couldn’t understand how they were still being neglected after what had happened. A little over a year ago, the power lines had caused an accident on the road that claimed the life of one driver and injured several people travelling in both lanes. The press, reporting the neighbours’ testimony, pressured the local authorities to take responsibility for the faulty installation, compensate the victims’ families, and put up new poles and lines. Even after that, the equipment was constantly malfunctioning and causing damage on the streets, and no one lifted a nger. Changes in the region’s weather over the last decade had deteriorated the overhead lines and poles as well as the local power plant. But apparently no one cared enough to do anything. They all seemed preoccupied with other new developments in town.
Storms went hand-in-hand with cyclones in the Tucson valley, and in recent years they had steadily grown in size and violence. In fact, that part of the state had earned a new name: “The Lightning Fields”, a tribute to Walter de Maria’s famous work. But it was also an apt description of the recent electrical landscape. And although lightning had only scarred the city once in mid-1985, when a bolt struck City Hall and set it on re, that single hit resulted in the loss of part of the municipal facilities, o ces and, above all, city records. That accident made a lasting impression on local residents. They never forgot that a symbolic piece of their history had been lost when the archives and databases went up in smoke. But when the U.S. Department of Energy began building the Nevada Test Site or Nevada Proving Grounds in the neighbouring state, no one foresaw how nuclear tests would alter the terrain and atmosphere. Across the southern
United States, a series of transformations caused by nuclear radiation were taking place in the earth’s crust and the skies above. But no one guessed that these events might be related.
The locals didn’t seem fazed by the lightning or the change in their mountain ranges. It may have been because they were all thinking of Walter de Maria’s recent (1977) work at Quemado and the other he created in their own backyard later that same year. His new lightning eld, more natural than the one in the New Mexico desert, drew a di erent sort of crowd: initially scientists, artists, curators and others from the worlds of art, aeronautics, astrophysics and astrology, as well as TV personalities who made those “lightning elds” the epicentre of a new occult tradition. But in time the valley attracted hundreds of tourists eager to observe that marvellous landscape. A famous Danish singer even shot her music video Nuclear Sunbeam at that unusual location.
At Quemado, De Maria had sunk some 400 steel rods into the ground to draw the electric discharge of lightning storms, but in the Tucson valley it was a very di erent story. The atypical form of that valley bore no relation to the fabulous electrical storms staged by practitioners of Land Art, for the rocks in that Arizona soil had a strong magnetic charge. The highly conductive rocks, vestiges of prehistoric times, had inspired countless Navajo myths about the healing powers and energy of that place.
Navajo legends in southeast Arizona often featured a stone man, an anthropomorphic figure, like an Amerindian Golem with the power to both heal and annihilate. The Tucson “lightning elds” enriched this mythology when, after De Maria’s installation appeared in the valley, various Greenpeace activists, encouraged by geologists’ ndings, began touting the potential of those stones not only as cultural heritage but also as an energy source. None of this had to do with the volcanic past of Tucson or “Black Spring”, the Spanish name for this area, revived by activists who defended the rights of its original inhabitants. It also had nothing to do with its legends, or with Walter de Maria’s interest, and certainly not with the mining concerns in the Santa Catalina Mountains. The red stones were said to be chunks of a meteor that fell from the sky. And since they were red, it was soon conjectured that they came from Mars, the red planet. That explains why De Maria decided to call his prospective work Mars Land. It also explains why many people took advantage of the situation to hawk false gems at roadside stands. They used the claim that those rocks were potentially curative and came from outer space to keep business booming for decades.
While coal had existed as a natural resource, diamonds as a source of wealth and petroleum and plutonium as instruments of power, the rocks of the Tucson valley were cultural enigmas. They had a correlation to coal and plutonium, but their chemical composition de ed classi cation by physicists and geologists, who could not explain the heritage of these stones or their similarity to rock forms found on natural satellites in outer space. It’s also true that, for some years, the U.S. Department of Defence and the Department of Energy maintained a small base beside the astronomical observatory. But everyone saw it as normal. “[...] we are witnessing an unprecedented event. Tucson is the land of men and women who will outlive the dust of this land to become stars.” So said the mayor during his annual speech in 1978.
Indeed, the stones collected in the valley were dubbed “red stardust”. Their colour ranged from red to magenta, depending on the circumstances in which they were found. They looked like rocks that had fallen from the stars, and they also attracted electrical storms.
In an ArtNews article on new paradigms of enigmatic beauty, art critic Joseph McCornick wrote:
"There are two spectacles of the postmodern sublime: De Maria’s Mars Land landscape in the Tucson valley, near the “A” Mountain, and Red Star’s Love by French artist Pierre Huyghe. While the image of the desolate valley leads us to think of how De Maria could never control that challenge, it also warns us of a message that is only revealed over time. Nature took up the gauntlet of the American master and, absorbing the electricity that rained down from the sky with every storm, produced a eld of rubies. Creating a eld of scarlet glimmers, the red stardust welling up from the ground composed a beautiful picture that can only be likened to the long dreamt-of Martian terrain. [...] The Frenchman, noted for his association with cultural ruins and the resurrection of nature in the framework of retro-Futurist narrative, surprised us yet again on the 40th anniversary of the construction of De Maria’s park. Invited to commemorate the occasion, Huyghe has taken over the old astronomical observatory and placed a number of stones taken from the mountains that ring the valley inside. Those same sparkling rocks that produced Mars Land now star in a new drama at the intersection of nature and history. [...] Huyghe has also enlisted the aid of expert Adrian Stoker to determine the behavioural relations between the stones on display. According to the theory of the American astronomer and geologist who assisted Huyghe in his eldwork, the pieces of “red stardust”, genuine stones from Pima County, may interact under emotional in uences. In other words, when a rock is placed closer to the others, its colours change, and the surrounding energy eld becomes greater than it would be if they were not in proximity. [...] Thus, with Huyghe’s creation of vertical tower-like stacks of acrylic glass boxes, a computational system allows us to observe how energy rises in a straight line, creating a red beam that reaches up to the heavens. This phenomenon indicates an exponential increase of the stone tower which could even expand into the universe, according to Stoker’s hypothesis. [...] Pierre Huyghe has conquered us once again with the love between those rocks from Mars. After beguiling us with the romantic relations between lampreys and tadpole shrimps in his Zoodrams, today he invites us to meditate on the eternity of our desires, which seem to travel beyond all times, eras and the universe itself. The loves born on our planet will live on in other forms and on other planets".
Although art critics in the 1970s and 80s were not particularly keen on Walter de Maria’s Mars Land, the work seems—as we have seen in 2017—to have recovered its full vitality through the agency of Pierre Huyghe. In fact, the number of visitors to Tucson surged in the months following the presentation of Red Star’s Love at the Tate Modern. The funds donated by certain national museums for the conservation of De Maria’s work began to increase when they learned that Huyghe was working on this project.
Adrian Stoker’s childhood was marked by hundreds of visits to Mars Land and the epic adventure of the Voyager mission. Until 1977, no spacecraft had managed to travel so far from the Earth. As a boy, Adrian spent long hours gazing at the heavens from the observatory. The Tucson astronomical observatory was the rst built in Arizona, exactly 6 months before the structure of Walter de Maria’s work was installed. Both projects, De Maria’s land art and the observatory, were seen as attempts to combine humanity’s dominion over the earth with its power over the universe. This idea encouraged the young Stoker to study astronomy and geology. He later returned to Tucson, where he remodelled the old observatory as part of a research project backed by the Department of Innovation and Research of the state of Arizona.
The new observatory had been redesigned based on the requirements of the study led by Adrian. That study aimed to diagnose the condition of the rocks in Mars Land, analysing their origins, behaviour and potential applications. Although the complexity of those chunks of “red stardust” had initially de ed all attempts to study them, science had progressed to a point where it might be able to provide some answers—at least in Adrian’s mind, after a lifetime devoted to this idea. For him, researching the “red stardust” was the rst step towards charting a history of communications through geology and taking that discipline to a higher level, seeing outer space as the ultimate eld of intercommunication. Conversing with the stars. This image came to mind daily when he returned home at night. The walk from the observatory to his house was accompanied by the reddish tone of the earth that illuminated the valley. The power lines gave o another shower of sparks. That night Adrian smiled as he gazed at the mountain stones. He recalled all the times he had strolled there, eager to reach the observatory and understand the origin of that extraordinary event. A sudden bang sounded behind him and the road was plunged into darkness. A transformer had blown out, and the entire area had lost power. Adrian looked back at Mars Land. It was a wonderful sight. He took comfort in the glow of the stones. A current of frigid air started to slide downhill, ooding the valley. A driving rain quickly followed. The storm was on its way, and Adrian only had one means of escaping it: to return to the observatory and take refuge there until it let up. He picked up his pace, and when he stepped inside the lightning bolts began falling to earth. Mars Land was a powerful magnet for electricity, and one ash followed another in rapid succession. The discharges began to strike the observatory itself. Adrian feared for the building, but never thought of his own danger. The heavens fell silent, and then a blinding bolt entered through the observatory skylight, creating a beam that penetrated the tower of “red stardust” built by Pierre Huyghe. A perfect red line returned that intensity and power to the sky. And suddenly, nothing.
* * *
Greetings from an Unknown Land
The Future Archaeologies of Natalia Domínguez
Fiction is not always just one fiction. A fiction is a tangled web of other fictions or a ghostly plot built atop another fiction
The law of fictionality always entails an operation of literary or, in a broader sense, creative ction, thus encompassing not only the literary form of ction but also all those related to the arts. Thus, the reader— in this case, the reader of artworks, the public or audience—must adopt an attitude of suspended disbelief. A work of ction is not going to deceive us, as we know it is not anchored in truth. Therefore, we might say that ction is truth within its narrative form. And so it follows that everything approaching reality is true. Yet we are forced to wonder what might happen in situations where the mind conjures up a desire, a real image of some intangible thing or half- truth. To answer this question, or to plunge into an inconclusive denouement, we turn our thoughts to art. With increasing frequency, the visual arts, caught up in their determination to dissolve all boundaries, latch on to an experience situated halfway between imagined reality and true ction. Post-truth seems to be the best means of exacting de nitive accountability in a situation where our social, political or economic history is mixed up with a string of uncommon events that make us wonder from what perspective (hi) stories are actually told.
If we dig deeper into Greetings to the Audience, an intense research project that Natalia Domínguez has been working on for the past year, we see that that dissolution is absolutely implacable with our history and our forms of representation. In her artistic practice and research, Natalia Domínguez has made a habit of constantly questioning how the roles of both artist and audience are represented in the visual arts. At times her works may seem naive and even elicit an innocent smile, yet the punctum of her portrait of the art world is not easily digested, for it o ers proof of fraudulent relations of power, hierarchical structures and the empowerment of certain systems of reading or interpretation. Everything is a lie. And yet, I turn a lie into a truth. In these processes of identi cation, use and abuse of images and their reception, Natalia Domínguez adopts a critical stance to analyse the subtext of a message, a set phrase, a song or a visual document about our culture.
Sometimes truth is disguised as nonsense. And in that uncomfortable place where we feel strange and awkward, Domínguez explores the role of the reader. Greetings to the Audience addresses readers directly, involving, imploring and giving them tools to embark on an exploration of contemporary knowledge. In this way, the audience, becoming more than mere spectators, interact without realising that they are part of the work. In other words, they are confused manufacturers of a falsehood of true facts.
One of the first pieces that Domínguez devised for the show is a neon sign which welcomes us with these words: Greetings to the Audience. Stylistically similar to NASA’s corporate image, the glowing words seem to tell us that we are about to enter a space unlike anything to which we are accustomed—perhaps because it is an exhibition, or because what it aims to show us are the vestiges of an expedition to outer space.
In 1977 NASA initiated a new journey into space when it launched the Voyager I and Voyager II probes from Cape Canaveral. Both were sent out with the mission of reconnoitring the solar system. Natalia Domínguez uses the epic adventure of exploring unknown outer space to draw spectators into a world full of riddles, which may also be the enigmas of art. That event is narrated to us in a kind of theatrical tableau. On one side, we see the image of 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic (2017) in the form of a stage curtain, a view of Earth from Voyager I supplied by NASA. And on the other, we nd a suggestive model of the middle section of the two identical Voyager probes (Voyager I, 2017). But Voyager I and Voyager II also emitted messages about what the Earth was like at that moment. This remarkable mission is associated with two metallic records which contained sounds from Earth, recorded greetings in 55 di erent languages, and other information explaining who humans were at the time of their launch. Domínguez has revisited the two phonograph records that NASA decided to put on board the Voyager I and Voyager II probes, known as the Golden Records, and manipulated their content. Like a time capsule that memorises and formalises Earth’s inhabitants, the crafts launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration greet those distant beings: those yet to come in time and space. These pieces are joined by the text that Jimmy Carter, president of the United States, wrote to accompany the expedition, expressing a desire for future unity among intergalactic civilisations. Finally, one of the gallery walls beside the NASA mission tableau bears a pertinent Carl Sagan quote: There were other cultures and there would be future times. As the American scientist accurately remarked, there have indeed been other cultures in times prior to our own: other arts, other ways of thinking. But we also trust that in future times there will be new ways of life, expression and culture.
Natalia Domínguez’s tribute to the Golden Records in Greetings to the Audience includes two records with instructions on how to listen to them. The original discs, one per Voyager probe, were made of metal and had an engraved diagram illustrating their correct use. Alongside them is a sound installation where visitors can hear greetings in 55 languages recorded for extra-terrestrials as on the Golden Records.
However, these recordings are routed through a mixing console that renders all the greetings and languages incomprehensible. The distortion of the message puts us in the place of a being from outside our solar system, who probably would not understand anything.
One of the main ideas that Natalia Domínguez aims to extract from the ction of our histories, the truth of our facts and the illusion of our desires is a vision of a possible future: an idea of what our lives might be like, expectations of existence beyond our planet or conquests of the unknown. She therefore poses questions through images and message, using objects and artefacts that existed or could have been imagined in the past. And she does this with the intention of spurring us to seek and nd our role as productive agents of our own history. In this way, she hopes to divert our gaze to an attempt to rise above our own existence, just as art has tried to do in the history of our culture, ultimately becoming a symbolic part of our identity. What would we be without certain pieces of art history?
With the idea of constructing a common imagery, Domínguez shares with us her Archivo de relaciones casuales [Archive of Chance Relations]. A vintage slide projector contains what might have been an archive that o ers a vision of humanity in the future. However, in this visual archive of the yet to come, Domínguez randomly alters the order of the images to compose Universe Random Files. Here we nd images of the famous researcher Carl Sagan, an illustrative image of the New York World’s Fair with the slogan “The World of Tomorrow” (1939), a photograph of a printer, a print made by Austen Henry Layard in 1851 of an expedition removing a Lamassu, or an excerpt from the lyrics of a 1990s song which the artist altered to create a karaoke version in which the word “summer” is replaced by “future”.
What will tomorrow be like? What fate awaits the society of the future? Rather than spectators passively waiting to see what tomorrow will bring, Natalia Domínguez o ers her audience the possibility of creating and dreaming about their future. In fact, the extra-terrestrial/spectator game casts us in the role of intruders venturing into a new world. The audience’s involvement is crucial to Black Holes, a kind of time machine4 in board-game format created by the artist. This piece urges spectators to take control and choose the kind of life they would like to have. The “black holes” let them pick which period of art history they’d like to live in and spend some time there. In Domínguez’s hands, this heterochrony explores the potential of time travel as a means of interpreting history. The way the 50 boxes in Black Holes are piled up to form a gure also reminds us of how consumer items are stacked in American shopping malls. In the late 1960s, Pop artists, spearheaded by Andy Warhol, began drawing on consumer culture to represent a new art market. Natalia Domínguez’s board games seem to be a continuation of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1968), in that both were created with the intention of o ering visitors a consumer product, as if they were shoppers in a supermarket. This notion revisits the active role of spectators as consumer or users, but it also addresses the way in which artistic objects are displayed in museums.
Perhaps Natalia Domínguez is venturing into a place where she can situate knowledge, the questioning of our images and actions—a place cloaked in darkness from which a voice welcomes us. Perhaps she is drawing up a plan for expeditions to moments that will never come, a time sowed with the seeds of imagination. She may also be building an archive of causalities that have no cause but every intention. Archives are narratives of a memory of the present. Despite all the doubts that may be attendant on a ction about truth, we can be sure of one thing after wandering the paths of uncertainty in Greetings to the Audience: from the future we will continue to make up stories about our past. And, once again, we must distrust everything. We must heed the message of one of Natalia Domínguez’s latest pieces, a text in a programmed LED light installation: Warning! This is not a true story (2018). So which one is?