Last Saturday evening I sat in the silver-painted Lower East Side studio of clothing designers Three As Four, listening to Gabi Asfour cryptically explain how their 2006 season was based on the E8 fractal group. I came here looking for a costume for an opera singer, playing a physicist about to enter higher dimensional space. I've clearly found the right designer for this project. I arrived with only one criteria, the costume should not be black. When I leave, I will have not a 'costume' but an 'aura' for the singer. It's beautiful. And it's black.
This Thursday, March 11, the noted physicist Lisa Randall, the composer Hector Parra and myself are going to try and perform one of the most perilous intellectual high wire acts possible; the simultaneous presentation and interaction of art, music and science. Unlike Einstein on the Beach, or Doctor Atomic, this collaboration doesn't just present the history of science; it references a contemporary and highly advanced theory of extra dimensional space. Not only that, we're going to do it in the Guggenheim Museum, built as the big top for abstract ideas, home base for the higher dimensional aspirations of Wassily Kandinsky and Hilla Rebay.
The key to this project is balancing Hector Parra's music, which took its formal cues from the ideas in Lisa's book Warped Passages and her libretto, which is a kind of science-romance and giving both a visual form that helps the audience to follow the concepts. In Paris we performed this piece at the Pompidou Center with subtitles, two singers articulating the story, an orchestra and a four-part stage divided between the world and the higher dimensional space. At the Guggenheim there will be one singer, whose voice will be completely distorted by the nautiloid curves of the museum and a PA system, so I'm going to have to break down the visual vocabulary of abstraction and directly connect it to the forces and geometry described in the Randall/Sundrum model.
Why are we doing it? For a hundred thousand years, humanity has wrestled with two urges; to both understand the universe and to narrate it. It is not enough to simply describe the universe; we have to make sense of it, to share what we learn by telling stories. The real story of the real universe is just too strange and interesting to allow the fantasists, denialists and know-nothings to tell a fake story instead.
On Sunday I was in Dallas for the formal opening of the Dallas Cowboys Art Collection. Just about the time this project got started I began to try and imagine a cultural space where narrative and science could overlap, and where animated abstraction could offer a coherent visual space for these complex but fundamental ideas. I made this piece for Dallas during the same period. What, you might ask, can football and physics possibly have to do with each other?
Well, both involve the consequences of things hitting each other very hard. And both are representations of hierarchical rule based systems involving transitions through carefully divided spaces, much like myths. In some significant ways, complex ideas of multi-dimensional space have subtly supported every representation of the universe since human culture began. From the abyssal deeps of Mesopotamia to the void of El , with their sun-pulling chariots, rainbow bridges and crystal spheres, every culture has sought to describe a cosmic infrastructure, a hierarchy of spaces and agencies that contain and harness the fundamental forces of light, matter and entropy. The falls of Icarus and Seven Macaw are not just about pride, they are about gravity too. And in all these stories, movement through the secret forces and spaces of the universe defines the narratives. No matter their details or their various and peculiar heavens and hells, myths evolved to try and explain why things move around each other, why the Evenstar, whether you called her Astarte or Lucifer, rose at dawn and returned at dusk, to summon the night of the world. No wonder all mythology often seems like one vast overlapping story.
Bringing science into the larger culture is not for the timid. Lisa Randall and I first met at an Einstein centennial conference in Berlin. I was filled with a mixture of traumatized pride and ecstatic dread at being the only artist invited to speak to the gathered Nobel laureates as they put forward the implications of Einstein's theories for the 21st century. In an audience of intellectual giants, Lisa stood out by virtue of her kindness and curiosity. She was about to publish her game-changing book that introduced a logical and plausible argument for the existence of a new, fifth, dimension, occupied by gravity. It turns out that space isn't the final frontier. In passing, in a kind and curious way, she expressed an interest in visual art along with her belief that an inaccurate image was worse than a thousand words. Her book had almost no pictures.
Despite this, we kept in touch and a few years later, I met with her and the composer Hector Parra in the gardens of the university in Barcelona to discuss their idea of presenting elements of what had become widely known as the Randall/Sundrum model, or five-dimensional warped geometry, as an opera. A warped space-time opera.
Lisa's point about inaccurate images was perfectly reasonable. Can these kinds of advanced ideas really be visualized? Pure abstraction, as everyone who saw the Kandinsky show at the Guggenheim knows, began as a modern attempt to visualize similar higher orders of reality. But along the way, most artists became deeply confused about the difference between inner and outer orders of reality, possibly because the mathematics grew too hard. The journal of the theosophists was called Lucifer after all, not "Einstein." As high abstraction grappled with the counter-culture, it fatally mixed process with content, and confused the idea of a journey with a trip. Ironically this all happened just as the groundwork was being laid in physics for a new understanding of real higher dimensional orders. The language to describe a new form of physical reality amazing was developed prematurely and exiled in its youth.
But I'm convinced it's just waiting to be properly used, map and vessel both, ready for the real voyage. Not the journey towards some mythic self, beloved of Jung, Campbell and George Lucas. Not the trip into the body delivered by chemicals and Terence McKenna but the real final frontier. Not some transcendental mumbo-jumbo but the operating system of reality itself. Despite their complexity, easily distorted by new-age philosophy and episodes of Lost, these theories are potentially real. They are being subjected to real experiments at real places like CERN. Depending on what we find out, the whole idea of what the universe really is--and how human thought is part of it--may change profoundly in our lifetimes. Trying to tell the story of this moment, to grasp how we are dealing with the changing ideas of the universe, seems to me one of the most wonderful ways I, as a non-scientist, can enter the greatest story of human culture, at one of its greatest moments. Politically too, this is a vital moment for science. At a time when everything, from warfare to farming, is defined by whose information is the most believable, we must seize the opportunity to present science and experimental thinking as both challenge and inspiration.
I'm not sure if we'll be able to do all that on March 11, but we can try. At least the costumes will be great!
Hypermusic: Ascension will be presented by Works & Process at the Guggenheim on Thursday, March 11, 2010, at 6:30pm and 8:30pm. For tickets and more information please visit www.worksandprocess.org.