Murmurs from Earth

Murmurs from Earth
Paul Laidler, Murmurs from Earth, 2010

IMAGE DIMENSIONS: W 30.5 cm x H 30.5 cm
MEDIUM: Laser Engraving
SUBSTRATE: Black Somerset Paper

The text below has been adapted from a much larger article due to be published in 2014 by the Brazilian Journal Porto Arte. The (currently unpublished) article is a conversation between myself and Prof Paul Coldwell that discusses the convergence of old and new technologies in art practice – aptly entitled Printmaking New and Old Technologies – A Conversation.

Anyway I have more recently been revisiting (with a view to restructuring) my interests in post digital artworks and the thinking that gets assigned to such things. So following on from the article topic of old and new technologies I thought it might be interesting to present some thoughts on a digitally engraved work that I made in 2010 entitled Murmurs from Earth.

Before discussing the work I reckon it would be useful for me to say a little bit about the production of the work – or more specifically, how the laser cutting process works, and therefore what the viewer sees in the photographic recording of the artefact Murmurs from Earth.

As its name suggests, the laser cutter is a burning process that cuts through and into materials. The laser’s function can be controlled in one of two ways: by either cutting straight through a material, or by engraving into the surface. Murmurs from Earth is a digital, photographic image that has been laser engraved into the surface of a black, cotton based paper. The varying levels of engraved depth in the paper refer to the tonal information that is present in the digital, photographic image. The tonal information in the digital file is read as numerical values of grey (255 levels of grey, with black and white at either side of the scale). The laser cutter then transcribes these numerical values as different power intensities, creating a depth field for the engraving process. For example, where the image is darker in tone the laser will cut deeper into the surface, and where the tonal information is lighter, the depth of the engrave will be shallower. As a result, the engraved vinyl image in Murmurs from Earth is made visible because of the different tones of black paper fibres that are present in and on the paper surface.

Diagrammatic I
Diagrammatic I

The artwork Murmurs from Earth is developed from the same sentiments that were employed by the NASA space exploration programme that took place in the 1970s. The mission involved the deployment of a spacecraft that would carry a message from Earth beyond our solar system with the intention to communicate our sights and sounds to an extraterrestrial audience. The recording of these images and audio were transcribed by engraving the information into a gold-plated copper disc to produce a twelve-inch phonograph record known as the Voyager Golden Record. The latest celluloid film technology of the time would not withstand the conditions that the journey would subject upon the recording, so a more sustainable format from the past was revisited to resolve the present and future technological issues of the mission, hence the use of the phonograph record.

Without telling the whole story, the Voyager Mission prompts technological considerations that occur when we move from one technology to another; such as transferability, readability and compatibility. These transition periods, or the state of ‘in between’ bring together the relationships with form and function, analogue and digital that are central to this work.

During the conversation between Paul Coldwell and myself, Paul  mentioned how the development of photography moved toward a ‘greater and greater fidelity to the real’. This progression has increased with the advent of digital technology and its potential to simulate space and enhance material qualities from photographic capture. It is this potential to digitally record and render material properties that led me to combine the laser engraving process with black paper. The combination produces a facsimile quality, in that the exposed black fibres of the engraved paper mimic the material appearance of black vinyl. Here, the possibilities of reproduction become more than photographic, as the transfer of the analogue object retains a material form although the function is lost.

The appearance of form without function in Murmurs from Earth refers to the possibility that the Voyager disc will be unreadable in some distant world or inevitably, the disc may never be heard – it is a one-way message. Here, the Voyager Golden Record is best seen as a time capsule or a symbolic statement, rather than a serious attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial life. To some degree it is this sense of failure that allows the laser engraved record in Murmurs from Earth to function.

The digital recording and rendering of an analogue format initiates the combining of old and new technology that has been central to this article. Murmurs from Earth has developed from a historical event to communicate with another world, yet we might surmise that there are two communicative worlds within our own; the analogue and digital.

Snippet of video from Impact 8 about the process and thinking around Murmurs from Earth