San Bernardino

Sun Records: Hackstronomists Make Art From Solar Sound


It's the afternoon of June 20, 2012, the summer solstice, and it's hotter than Satan's skillet. We're in the middle of the deep desert close to Joshua Tree, a terrain comprising boulder gardens, weather-beaten mesas and rattlesnakes too lazy to show their faces. As the sun reaches its zenith, artists Mark X. Farina and Matthew Horne tinker with their fancy audio gear, seemingly oblivious to the heat. Their mission today is to record the "sounds of the sun", they're acting as super producers to a super star, documenting the little-heard voice of a brilliant but soft- spoken giant.
Photo: Caroline Ryder.
Mark and Matthew set up their radio telescope so that it absorbs the sun's rays, transforming the waves into audible sounds, high-pitched blips to Yoko-esque wails to white noise like the ocean. Think "ambient glo wave" or "molten digital glitch core." The nature of the sounds depends on a few variables--what's happening on the solar surface is the biggest factor, as well as how many clouds the light has to radiate through on its 870,000 mile journey to the earth. The recordings they are making will later be edited into a CD or DVD -- are these two men recording the sun's debut album, the closest thing to Metal Machine Music ever created by a celestial object?

Mark and Matthew, who go by the name Object Control, have been waiting four years for this day. The conditions are perfect--it's the longest day of the year, and we're in the middle of a "solar maximum" (a year with lots of solar flare activity). It's also 2012, the end of time or beginning of a New Age, depending on how stoked you are on Mayan prophecy. They're calling their experiment "Sun Children: Call and Response", and it is being presented by High Desert Test Sites, the curatorial catalyst that creates spaces for so much art magic in this dusty corner of the world.

Mark and Matthew's fellow sun children have come along not just to witness the experiment, but to participate. After all, who doesn't want to jam with the star of our solar system? They lug all manner of musical instruments and props into the sands, and gather in a clearing about 100 yards into the wilderness, away from the dirt road amid the rocks and creosote bushes. Mark and Matthew want to encourage the call and response aspect of the experience, an "everybody in the house say yeah" except that the MC is a rotating ball of lava, and the crowd is made up of (amongst others) an interpretive dancer with balloons, a harmonium player, and a musicologist who looks like Richard E. Grant and wants to share his essay about performative listening with the sun.
Photo: Caroline Ryder.
"The idea is that the sun is always providing for us, giving us heat and the light and now audio, so we want to show our appreciation by responding in different ways, whether its with our voices, with instruments, or any other form of performance," says Farina, an artist and DJ (not to be confused with Chicago house DJ by the same name). He met Horne at Otis School of Art and Design and they founded Object Control in 2008, the aim being to create sound-based experimental art. "When both of us noticed the whole doomsday 2012 thing, we thought it would be cool to collaborate on an art project which combined both the 2012 prophecy movement and our desire to work with sound," says Horne.

How this all came about? Matthew watched a video showing how one could build a simple radio telescope to capture the different sounds emitted by various planets, stars and moons. The gear is not as expensive as you might imagine -- Mark purchased their solar radio telescope online for around $80 -- but building it involved two weeks of soldering components to circuit boards, testing and ordering parts that were missing from the kit. It was challenging, even for tech nerds like them. "I think Matthew said once that we're not junior astronomers, we're freshmen hack-stronomers," says Farina. "Because we really have no idea what we're doing. The whole idea is that this is a new artist's tool, and as such, we have to figure it out as we go along--it's a Duchampian kind of move, because we're not really using it as a radio telescope anymore."

Their first experiment took place in Los Angeles, close to Venice, where they both live. Recording the sun in a city environment is less than ideal, because of interference by power lines and cell towers, but they didn't care--they were just dying to turn the telescope on for the first time. They took their gear to a park in Santa Monica and set it up, sticking two 16 feet antenna poles in the ground about 25 feet apart, and running a copper cable between them. "There was a kid's birthday party going on and I think they were a bit confused by what we were doing," says Farina. They documented everything they heard--which wasn't much, thanks to interference. The desert, they figured, would be a far better environment in which to record the sun.
Photo: Caroline Ryder.
They got their chance in 2008, when they were invited to take part in a High Desert Test Sites event at the Wonder Valley Institute of Contemporary Art. "We were just kind of shuffling about like weird science geeks, and it turned into a bit of a performance, campy even," says Farina. The piece was called "Solarmancy 2012", which roughly translates as "sun magic 2012". "We wanted to use the telescope as a divination tool, our way to divine a message from the sun with regards to 2012."

What with their 2012 fascination, this Sun Children experiment was an opportunity for Object Control to finally commune with the sun in the way they were meant to. The whole operation was solar run ("that's not cannibalism, is it?" wondered Farina) in an area without any cell phone reception, and no power lines. Just rocks, lizards, and art.

One performance artist writhed among the rocks in a plastic sheet, eventually climbing inside a cardboard box. A musician played the harmonium along to the radio signal from the sun. And Matthew closed the performance with a piece based on an audio sample he had recorded when his father was in hospital, battling the cancer that would take his life.
Photo: Caroline Ryder.
"He was on morphine for the pain, talking, joking with us, and giving us what amounted to his last lecture, his revelations about life," says Horne. "He said, 'you know what, in the end, we're all sun children'. So that, for me, was my reason for doing this whole thing. I wanted to open up to everybody and have this day which was for arts and celebration. Regardless of whether 2012 is the end of time, today was the end of my mourning."

Around 7 p.m., as the sun dipped behind the mountains, Object Control and their friends packed up and continued the solstice celebration, gathering at a house nestled among the boulders on Coyote Trail where they danced under the stars for hours. Each of them, suffice to say, was fully solar-charged.

Photo: Caroline Ryder.

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Top Image: Photo by Caroline Ryder.

About the Author

Caroline Ryder is a music, art and culture writer who splits her time between the high desert and Los Angeles. She has written for the LA Weekly, LA Times, New York Magazine, Variety and Dazed & Confused Magazine. She lives with a...
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