Monday, May 20

A “holographic poem” for the cosmos

The other day the artist Eduardo Kac was in his gallery in New York to show a journalist his work: a hologram encoded on a sliver of glass resting inside a tiny metal case. This little package is the cornerstone of Kac’s career to date: an artifact he created in 1986 that is now, finally, about to find its home in space. On January 8, he will be aboard the Vulcan Centaur rocket as it lifts off from Cape Canaveral and heads into orbit around the sun. This holographic work of art — a “holographic poem,” Kac calls it — may or may not be discovered in hundreds of thousands of years by whatever creatures are around to find it. But for now he was here, at the Henrique Faria Gallery, just off Madison Avenue, about to be seen by a human being.

Carefully, I picked up the small round case. “OK,” Kac said. “You just unscrew it.”

“Unscrew it?” The object was just over half an inch in diameter and had no obvious handholds.

I tried. She immediately fell to the ground clattering.

Kac (pronounced Katz) seemed unfazed. “This thing is titanium 5” – the strongest titanium alloy there is. He opened it deftly.

The tiny square of glass inside looked pristine, untouched. But when Kac lifted it between his thumb and forefinger and pointed a small handheld laser at it, the word AGORA appeared in vivid green letters on the opposite wall. This is his holopoem: in his native Portuguese it means “now.” But the name engraved on the outside of the titanium case is ÁGORA: a subtle but important distinction. With the accent, the word in Portuguese changes meaning, from “now” to “place,” as in the ancient Greek word “agorà” for “gathering place.” (The Greek agora was similar to the Roman forum.)

So holopoetry refers to time and space. Space time. In perpetual orbit around the sun.

“Kac has always been interested in radically new forms of distribution, but these really take it to a new level,” said Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance at the Museum of Modern Art. “It completely re-situates the way we think to art, to language, to communication: we don’t communicate very well, so why not try space?”

Kac assumes that his holopoem will eventually be discovered by an undetermined species he calls “homo spaciens”: space people. As for when, he knows better than to rush. “It’s like I had an exhibition in a gallery and no one showed up for the opening,” he said. “But it’s a permanent show, so you hope that over time they come.”

His main concern seems to be not time but space. “Immersing a work of art in the depths of the cosmos is an attempt: it means creating this public space with the simple act of creating the work within it,” she said. It is not the first time that you have tried to create a public space, an agora. “But now, with this spatial poetry, my agora is the cosmos.”

Kac ventured out first in public space and the art world, at 17 years old in Rio de Janeiro. It was then that he founded the Porn Art Movement with a friend. It was 1980, towards the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship. The pornography movement wasn’t actually about pornography; it was more subversive than that. In his “Pornogram 1,” for example, a naked Kac lay seductively before the camera, his hairy legs spread just enough to reveal a plausibly rendered vagina. Almost as radical was the idea of ​​performing in public, because under the military regime any form of gathering was prohibited. Public space did not exist legally. So Kac wore a pink miniskirt and staged guerrilla shows in Rio’s central square and on Ipanema beach. He had a couple of run-ins with the military police, but nothing he couldn’t get out of.

“Paulo Freire had the pedagogy of the oppressed,” he told me, quoting the left-wing philosopher. “Back then there was liberation theology. I created emancipation pornography.”

Kac was raised by his maternal grandparents in the elegant seaside neighborhood of Copacabana. Polish Jewish refugees who arrived in Brazil in 1939 supported his unorthodox activities. They financed a book of poems about his pornography. His grandfather even came to the printing shop to make sure the job was done correctly. “The problem for them was: How will this boy survive? With art and poetry? The fact that I was dealing with the body and wearing a miniskirt, they weren’t concerned.

Enrolling in a Catholic university in Rio, Kac found its art and literature programs unbearably conservative. He chose communication because this would open the door to other disciplines: sociology, anthropology, semiotics, cinema, philosophy.

In 1982 he was approaching digital technology. Years earlier, when he was 12, he had devoured a current affairs encyclopedia that contained entries on such topics as cybernetics, digital art, and holography, whose inventor, Dennis Gabor, had recently won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work. Back then, digital art had to be created on a mainframe; in the 1980s Kac could make art on a personal computer or on the Minitel, the French videotex service, a version of which was available in Brazil. And this meant that his agora was no longer Ipanema beach or Cinelândia square. His agora was bigger, wider: the net.

Examples of his Minitel art are now in the permanent collections of MoMA and Tate. However, just as he was planning the Minitel, Kac began experimenting with holopoems. In 1986 he was granted a residency at the Museum of Holography in New York, where he created “Ágora.” But when he returned to Rio and tried to start his own holography lab, he found nothing but frustration. He was unable to obtain the materials he needed. His laser stopped working. One of the most advanced holography laboratories for artistic practice was at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. So he moved to Chicago, earned his Master of Fine Arts in 1990, began teaching there a few years later and has remained on its faculty ever since.

Kac created 24 holographic poems between 1983 and 1993. He also began experimenting with telepresence and robotics, and then with what he calls “bio-art.” This culminated in a blaze of controversy over Alba, the “GFP Bunny,” a cute albino bunny who, thanks to some fancy genetic combinations, turned fluorescent green when you put him under blue light.

Meanwhile, the enthusiasm that had greeted holography in the 1970s and 1980s was fading. The Museum of Holography closed its doors in 1992. The C-Project, an ambitious program that saw artists such as Louise Bourgeois and James Turrell experiment with holography, began in 1994 but closed five years later. A second Museum of Holography, this one in Chicago, remained standing until 2009. Today the scene is in limbo. It jolts from time to time: an exhibition at the New Museum in New York in 2012, a C-Project exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles next summer. “He’s not dead,” said Matthew Schreiber, a holographic artist who worked on C-Project and runs his own holography lab in Brooklyn. “He IS just very small.” And Kac? “Wherever the cutting edge of technology is, that’s where Eduardo is.”

In these days, that seems to be the space. Kac’s first work to venture beyond Earth was “Inner Telescope”, a paper sculpture developed under the auspices of the cultural arm of the French National Center for Space Studies and created in 2017 by Thomas Pesquet, an astronaut aboard the Station International Space. It took him 10 years to organize it. A small glass work, “Adsum,” is scheduled for the Moon’s surface in 2025. If Vulcan Centauro launches on schedule on January 8 and successfully enters solar orbit a few weeks later, it will have finally reached the objective he had set for himself. set for “Ágora” in 1986. “I conceived the work for deep space,” he said. “And ever since then I’ve been trying to find a way to complete it.”

It will be the maiden voyage of the Vulcan Centauro. The rocket system was developed by Centennial, Colorado-based United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that competes with SpaceX and others for contracts with NASA and the Department of Defense. Its primary payload will be a lunar lander that is expected to separate from the Centaur V upper stage 92 minutes and 20.9 seconds after liftoff to make a delivery to the Moon for NASA. The Centaur V upper stage rocket and its forward adapter will continue into deep space, settling into orbit around the sun with a “memorial payload” for Celestis, a Houston-based company that sends tiny fragments of human remains into the space. cosmos.

Among those whose heirs hid them on the rocket’s second stage, fellow travelers of holopoetry, are Apollo 14 astronaut Philip Chapman, “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and his wife Majel, and actors who played three key characters in the original “Star Trek” series: Lieutenant Uhura, Lieutenant Commander Scott and Doctor “Bones” McCoy.

The correlation of “Ágora” with science fiction seems appropriate. “I’m still amazed by the technology that Eduardo uses so brilliantly in that work,” said Jenny Moore, who curated the holography exhibition at the New Museum and now directs Tinworks Art, a new exhibition space in Bozeman, Mont. “And what a fantastic time to reach the moment of him,” she added, in the wake of the extraordinary success of the James Webb Space Telescope, whose images bring us ever closer to the moment of the Big Bang. Even so, Moore points out, getting into orbit won’t actually complete the job.

“Will it be sensed by some other entity?” Moore said. “Think about the Rosetta Stone: how will that word be received? Because until it is perceived, its potential remains unexpressed.”

Neither Kac nor the rest of us will be present for the answer.