MKE Journal Sentinel

tweets in space with national geographicArtists and National Geographic both race to space
This article by Mary Louise Schumacher appeared in both the online and print editions of the MJS

When I heard the news, a scene from “The Right Stuff” flashed to mind, the one with a young Jeff Goldblum sprinting down the halls of power, bursting into a darkened room of bureaucrats to announce “They’ve got a man up there! It’s Gagarin!”Like the Cold War-era competition between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., two independent artists recently found themselves in a rivalry with National Geographic for supremacy in space. This particular space race, though, is about sending the Twitterverse into the universe.

We reported recently that two artists, including one from Milwaukee, planned to dispatch a multitude of tweets to the stars, more specifically to GJ667Cc — the closest Earth-like planet, 20 light years away.

After our initial report, the story was picked up around the globe, by Scientific American, the New York Daily News, Time, Forbes, the Daily Mail, BBC and others. Then, the artists were contacted by NatGeo. They, too, had precisely the same plan, to send tweets spaceward as a way to promote a new television series Chasing UFOs.

I’m not sure who’s Russia in this analogy, but I’m thinking it’s NatGeo, since it is bigger and about to be first, too. The artists, Nathaniel Stern and Scott Kildall, had announced their plans first but their scheduled lift-off was slated for September, during the International Symposium on Electronic Art in New Mexico, while National Geographic planned its launch for late June.

In the race for space, being first is everything, and the artists felt a little like the Americans caught off guard by Yuri Gagarin’s surprise orbit in ’61. Instead of chilly diplomacy, though, National Geographic and the artists decided to work together to send 140-character bursts of texts into deep space.

National Geographic licensed the artists’ custom Twitter software and made their “Tweets in Space” project a partner. National Geographic will use the software to collect tweets with the hashtag #ChasingUFOs from 8 p.m. to midnight Eastern time the night of the new series premiere, June 29. They will then beam a digital package containing those tweets into deep space.

Then, the artists’ project “Tweets in Space” will go forward as planned, too. Stern and Kildall will gather tweets tagged #tweetsinspace between 8:30 and 9 p.m. Mountain time on Sept. 21 and project them into space during a live performance at the 18th International Symposium on Electronic Art in Albuquerque.

It’s a purposefully short window, they say. The artists are hoping that participants will consider not only what they’d want to say to aliens perhaps inhabiting the exoplanet, one of the closest planets that some say could support biological life, but to engage with each other, too. The idea is to send a conversation to the cosmos.

“Tweets in Space asks us to take a closer look at our spectacular need to connect, perform and network with others,” the artists state on the website for the project. “It creates a tension between the depth and shallowness of sharing 140 characters at a time with the entire Internet world, in all its complexity, richness and absurdity, by transmitting our passing thoughts to everywhere and nowhere.”

The artists say they see their project and National Geographic’s as benefiting each other. They are “two conceptual frames, two performances, two transmissions, and two different destinations.” With the help of National Geographic, the art project is closer to meeting its fundraising goals, too. They are raising funds at Rockethub until Monday.

Stern is an artist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Kildall is a San Francisco-based cross-disciplinary artist. They were also the initiators of the Wikipedia Art project, a public artwork initially composed on Wikipedia.

[videos created by the artists and National Geographic to explain their projects.]

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