Nina Katchadourian «Indecision on the Moon» 2001.


"The...uh...like the uh...of my...uh...this is Houston we're copying...the uh...the uh...the uh...do uh...it's a...we're uh...uh...I can see uh...there uh...but uh...o.k. we're ready to uh...duh...uh...uh...duh...and uh...the...uh...the uh...uh...and uh..."

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Apollo 11 Neil Armstrong «one small step..»

In Indecision on The Moon, the audience enters an entirely darkened room suggestive of the vastness of deep space. Inside, the listener hears an audio recording of Neil Armstrong's historic 1969 lunar landing. The artist, however, has altered the disk to play only the recorded static and interjectory pauses spoken by the astronaut, reducing the event to a pattern of static and stutters. Nonetheless, the recording is immediately recognizable. Intrigued by the perplexities of translation, encryption, and comprehension, Katchadourian considers the empty spaces to be as telling and encoded as the event itself. The static void is unmistakably familiar, and the beeps, bursts, and tunneling background noise are the sounds of time and distance. In a thoughtful balancing act between human and mechanical elements, Katchadourian highlights the event's era and remoteness by decontextualizing it and putting it in an abstract form.

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Apollo 11 countdown launch

Daniel Rosenberg, Fall 2002, www.collegeart.org/artjournal:
The notion of the extraterrestrial has always been close to the inexpressible and the incomprehensible. Beyond mythologies of lunacy, the technical idea of going out from Earth vividly suggests the problem and the possibility of a foreignness too vast to bridge. Already in the seventeenth century, the English writer Francis Godwin proposed that an extraterrestrial language might be made entirely of melodies, and a few years later in Cyrano de Bergerac's Voyage to the Moon, space is a place where animals and objects speak for them selves, where language is detached from that which is human. Here, the problem of the extraterrestrial externalizes and allegorizes questions of distance and difference. In the fantasia of Cyrano, space is the perfect linguistic no-place or u-topia.

But times change and utopias do too. And somehow, by the late twentieth century, the gorgeously baroque fantasy of space flight turned out to be a technical possibility. Somehow it has come to pass that a world public can listen to real spacemen live on air. So what happens to the imagination under the pressure of the literal? In the official version of the story, this union is the very definition of progress: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." And in this light, the event of the first moon landing in 1969 is staged with excruciating precision and broadcast live as testimony to the art of the technological, bureaucratic state.

On radio and television, the experience is amplified by a secondary stagecraft. The CBS television network gives us the politicians, the talking heads, the scientists, the wives, the reporters on the scene--at a "soul festival" in Harlem and on the banks of the Danube in Budapest. It is an opera of self-congratulation. In the TV studio, the announcers themselves begin to sound like antennas channeling voices from the ether ...

Boy, what a day....Man on the moon!...Oh, boy!...Whew! Boy!...Boy!...My golly!...The way it's gone, they certainly have built our confidence in these machines....Neil Armstrong, a 38-year-old American standing on the surface of the moon!...Oh, thank you television for letting us watch this one!...Isn't this something! 238,000 miles out there on the moon and we're seeing this....Gee, that's good news!...Oh, boy!...I sure hope there's no area in this world that's blacked out from television right now.... There it is, a little U.S. flag on the surface of the moon!...Look at the powder come up there.... They're beginning to get pretty frisky up there....

President Nixon himself gives definition to the event when he tells Armstrong that they are undoubtedly having the most historic phone call in history. Mission accomplished: speaking human being on the moon.

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Apollo 11 Moon landing

Few artifacts in our aural history have the immediacy of these first moments of lunar experience, and few seem less subject to decomposition. But this is what Nina Katchadourian explores in her striking sound installation Indecision on the Moon (2001). The piece, which is entirely composed of sound, plays in a room darkened to pitch black and screened off like a gauzy maze. Entering Indecision is like falling off the edge of the world. Every sound in the piece is extracted directly from the audio of the Apollo 11 moon landing. But in Katchadourian's version of the event, two hours of sound have been cut to 28 minutes, transforming the uncertainties that haunt the recordings into their dominant feature. With perfect fidelity to rhythm and order, Katchadourian has reconstructed a lunar soundscape out of the material of indecision: out of confusion, miscommunication, repetition, ellipsis, interjection, and the many noises, vocal and otherwise, that populate the lunar transmissions. In short, she has faithfully reproduced the lunar broadcast while omitting everything that the broadcasters intended for us to hear, down to and including Armstrong's 'immortal' first words.

In Indecision on the Moon, the soundscape of Apollo 11 is a mass of fumbled communication and machine noise--weeds among the semantic paving stones. What is strange is that there is nothing mysterious here at all. What's more, we know this jumble intimately--so intimately that it is worth asking whether we were ever really listening for words in the first place, or whether the power of our shared auditory memory of this event might not rely more on the dense drama of the sonic background than on the thin surface of language in which it is clothed.

In Indecision, the story of the lunar lander detaches itself from the history of exploration and conquest and descends toward a much more equivocal history of noise and language. In this history, the key event is not a breakthrough in propulsive power or guidance technology. Rather, the new age dawns when Alexander Graham Bell first successfully stages a long-distance shouting match with his assistant, demonstrating the possibility of nearly limitless transmission of mechanically reproduced noise. At the same time, he demonstrates the affective value of combining aspects of noise and language. There is a wealth of sound in his first, distorted, barely audible "Come here," a wealth that translates into distance and time and art. The very act of Bell yelling into a funnel focuses our attention on the acoustic character of language. It marks out utterance as something other than saying, as a material event.

Indecision on the Moon illuminates this lineage and this threshold. It begins with speech fragments: a duel between the definite and the indefinite; stabs at possession; broken attempts at comparison; ditto, repetition, and echo. But even before the first sharp noun pierces this phatic bubble, we know exactly what void we're listening to. The static and the staccato are unmistakable: it sounds like 1969 and just exactly like the moon. From beginning to end, Indecision plays on this familiarity. It builds through observation and cut-up. There are things going on up there, but the work resists saying exactly what. In Indecision, there are strong elements of abstraction, a decontextualization of the artifact, a balancing of mechanical and human elements, an emphasis on time sequence over narrative. As in the sculptures that Katchadourian has constructed from the material of road maps and spider webs, here too the force comes not from abstraction itself but from the interrogation of the process by which such abst raction is typically naturalized and overlooked.

For Katchadourian, speech is a peculiar and even secondary species of sound. In another piece, entitled 'Talking Popcorn' (2001), she inverts the terms of 'Indecision on the Moon'. Here, she has fitted a movie-theater popcorn machine with a microprocessor programmed to interpret its popping as Morse code. The result is a cascade of as-if language collected and marked meticulously by the artist with transcripts and time signatures that resonate strikingly with the Apollo artifacts. This "language" is material in the most literal sense, as Katchadourian suggests in a bronze that she has cast of the machine's first words and by the injunction to eat that channels the coded fragments of popcorn language back through a kind of reverse orality.

In another extraterrestrial piece, Katchadourian has once more asked where meaning inheres. In 'Asteroids' (2001) she has magnified photographs of popcorn until they resemble extraterrestrial bodies, bringing us full circle to Indecision on the Moon and exposing the literally fragmenting surfaces of her objects.

As Katchadourian suggests, at the moment of lunar landing, noise and language reveal their common cause. But the pull of meaning is powerful. And in moments of narrative overdetermination such as those produced by the governments of the United States and Russia during the Cold War, its appeal is almost irresistible. Among the most remarkable of the sound productions of the 1950s and 1960s was the Soviet satellite Sputnik. Its simple, regular beep elicited from American observers a parallel and equally persistent stream of interpretive discourse. And the sound war didn't end there. In coming years, both the Soviets and the Americans launched human speakers into space. All of these developments culminated in that remarkable moment in 1969 when the United States successfully landed a speaking human being on the surface of the moon.