Extraterrestrial art show

This Sunday, Jonathon Keats unveiled the world’s first exhibit of extraterrestrial art — art generated by intelligent signals he claims were received by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. That’s a sample above. A press release from the Magnes gallery, where the art is one display, calls it “most significant addition to the artistic canon since the Mona Lisa, or even the Venus of Willendorf.” Ahem. As the artist himself notes:

“This is the ultimate outsider art,” notes Keats. “Historically our culture has ignored extraterrestrial artistic expression. Exhibited at the Magnes, the art becomes accessible to everyone … It’s a familiar story. Researchers expect intelligent life elsewhere in the universe to behave just like them. Since scientists are mathematical, they expect extraterrestrials to broadcast the digits of pi or the Pythagorean theorem.”

Keats began seriously to question the wisdom of these assumptions while conducting independent research early last year. “If I were an extraterrestrial trying to communicate with beings elsewhere in the universe, I certainly wouldn’t transmit something they already knew,” he argues. “I’d try to express something about myself, as profound as possible, in the most universal language I could imagine: I’d send art.”

At first I thought, man, this Keats guy is off his rocker. But then I did a bit of research and realized he’s off his rocker in a calculated fashion. Keats is famous for prank-style art projects, including one in which he sat in a chair and thought for 24 hours, then sold his thoughts to patrons as art. In 2002 he held a petition drive for the city of Berkeley, California to pass a version of A=A, a logical law, as statutory law (“every entity shall be identical to itself,” as his proposed law read).

So once I realized he was pulling our legs, I also realized he’s made a sort of interesting point. Why do we expect that an extraterrestrial race would broadcast mathematical concepts — such as a sequence of prime numbers — as a transmission? Obviously we suppose that math is universal, and thus transcends whatever weird tentacle-based language the aliens speak. But the fact is that we humans broadcast our first official message to aliens — a series of recordings sent aboard the Voyager interstellar mission — we included, yep, art: The first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, among other things.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Search This Site


I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

More of Me


Recent Comments

Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson