Special to the Armenian Weekly
The year was 1971. The Cold War was in its full, frigid swing, and tensions between the United States and Soviet Union were riding on thin ice. But in the sunny little village of Byurakan, located in the Soviet Union’s smallest republic, none of that seemed to matter.
The Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory (BAO) was founded in 1946 by Soviet Armenian scientist and a founder of theoretical astrophysics Victor Ambartsumian, but it raised to international prominence in 1971, when 44 of the world’s most renowned scientists from the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., including Nobel Prize winners Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, convened there for an international conference with a title that reads curiously like a science fiction novel: “Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI): The First International Conference on Extraterrestrial Civilizations and Problems of Contact with Them.”
CETI was the first conference of its kind, and it ended up being a pivotal moment for the history of global interest in extraterrestrials. Organizers of the conference shaped their discussions around philosophical questions and the Drake Equation, a formula that operates on a number of hypothetical variables to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy. The results of the conference yielded a scientific research method that laid the groundwork for the field of astrophysics.
The six-day conference was an important moment for Armenia and the international scientific community, but as with many remnants of the Soviet era… the story of the conference and the BAO’s contributions to the development of astrophysics has faded into the background of history.
Today, the observatory is still functioning. Although its exterior is as breathtaking as ever, nestled serenely on the slope of Mount Aragats, it is no longer the innovative scientific institution it once was. The fall of the Soviet Union, combined with Armenia’s fledgling statehood, has made it difficult to maintain its former momentum. Walking through its campus, one is reminded of a rich past that has long been forgotten.
Forty-six years after the CETI conference, the BAO hosted yet another pivotal event that brought people in numbers to its grounds—this time, under much different circumstances.
“At first, it was the observatory’s Soviet-style architecture and its emblematic astronomy tower that sparked our interest,” wrote Charlotte Poulain, a co-founder of HAYP Pop Up Gallery, in a recent blog post. After learning of the mysterious 1971 conference, Poulain and her cousin and HAYP co-founder Anna Gargarian decided to organize an art exhibit that would honor the past of the historic Soviet Armenian institution.
The exhibit, named CETI Lab after the famed Soviet-era conference, took place in September, after months of preparation, and brought over 700 visitors to the Observatory premises.
In line with the original conference, the the event invited artists and scientists to convene to tackle some of the same questions around communicating with extraterrestrial intelligence. It featured a group of diverse artists from Armenia, the U.S., and Germany, including photographers, architects, sculptors, writers, and sound and installation artists.
HAYP Pop Up is an artistic NGO founded in 2014 as the first pop up gallery in Armenia. In just three short years, HAYP has organized dozens of events in Armenia and internationally, including an installation at the Venice Art Biennale.
In many of its past exhibitions, HAYP has invited artists from abroad to participate and contribute artworks, but CETI Lab is the first time organizers hosted an artist’s residency program. “Most of the residency artists were local,” explained Gargarian, “we merely transplanted them 40 km out of the city, but even that small displacement was enough to transport them into a totally different mind-work space. The bonds they formed—amongst each other, with the environment, with the Byurakan engineers—were significant, and surfaced in the work.” Riffing on the success of this one, Gargarian says, she plans to continue hosting residencies in future exhibits.
During the residency, artists had the opportunity to explore the many facilities of the observatory, meet with researchers, and learn about their processes. HAYP Residency Coordinator Hasmik Badoyan worked with BAO to organize lectures, brainstorming sessions, star-gazing nights, and tours of the institute so that artists could deepen their understanding of astrophysics and the history of Byurakan, and find inspiration for artistic research.
Manan Torosyan, one of the participating artists, was captivated by the atmosphere. “People [at BAO] are in harmony with the place. Their minds and their interests are not concerned with this Earth but rather with the distant,” she explained. The residency’s resulting artworks reflected questions of language, communication, and interaction, as well as philosophical concerns of free will, perception, and what it means to be “alien.”
In parallel, a sound installation took place at the Herouni Radio-Optic Telescope in Orgov, just outside of Byurakan village, by visiting Berlin-based artist Lvis Mejía. The installation, called “The Unaccountable to the Non-Observer,” transformed the dish of the Herouni Radio-Optic Telescope in Orgov—which has been inactive for five years—into an interactive sound mirror. The ambitious site-specific installation involved manipulating the shape of a 177-foot diameter parabola, with the aid of four speakers and four omnidirectional microphones, in order to stimulate audio feedback triggered by the observer and the environment.
Mejía also debuted his new conceptual album, “The Anthropology of Amnesia,” during HAYP’s “Event Week,” with a listening session and panel discussion. The panel, moderated by Gargarian, addressed questions of collective memory, sound, and space within the post-Soviet context. Among the panelists were Dr. Arevik Sargsyan, professor at NPUA and former chief scientist of the Herouni Radio-Optical Telescope, whose uncle, Paris Herouni, founded the telescope project, and Ruben Arevshatyan, historian of Soviet Modernism.
The telescope, explained Dr. Sargsyan, had been idle due to a lack of financial resources, but seeing and hearing the telescope put to artistic use posed a “new investigative question from the point of view of acoustic waves versus radio waves.”
“Working for many years on the instrument,” she said, “I had the opportunity to listen to the Voice of it…[and now] the instrument has a ‘breath’ and a voice through this installation after a long period of being forgotten.”
“The first day of the exhibition was one of the most crowded days in the history of the Observatory,” said Areg Mickaelian, the BAO’s director. Curious audiences from Yerevan, the U.S., France, and Russia brought new life to the observatory and telescope throughout the program of events, which included performances, workshops, and a musical jam session at the observatory’s largest telescope. There was a true sense of community as art and science lovers alike gathered around eternal questions on the ambiguities of outer space, other life forms, and our place in the universe.
Among these participating guests was internationally known researcher and haptic scientist Margaret Minsky from Boston, the daughter of the late Marvin Minsky, considered by many to be the “father of A.I.” and one of the members of the 1971 Byurakan conference that prompted CETI lab.
“On Sept 15, 2017, I stood in the same spot as my father, courtesy of the HAYP gallery invitation,” reflected Minsky. “I couldn’t believe that I could be in the place I had heard about all my life. I was at the center of the map, and the narrative of my life has been changed. I had driven to the constellation-studded gates of BAO, and entered a magical realm.”
Minsky explained that her father and his colleagues took communicating with other intelligences seriously as a scientific and engineering venture, a way of educating the public, a way of exploring, a way of perpetuating some gentle mischief, and a way of having deep fun.
The CETI Lab exhibit offered the same kind of opportunity for artists, she argued. “Artists were finishing their pieces…their ideas and art forms were getting last-minute tweaks, and from them I learned that their collaboration with each other, and with the engineers and scientists at Byurakan, was as strong, exploratory, serious, mischievous, and as much fun as the that of the Nobel-prize-winning, spacecraft-launching, telescope-building, field-creating folks at the conference that sparked their interest,” she said.
Visiting independent researcher Anastasiya Dmitrievskaya from the ICA of Moscow noted how intriguing it was to see an “intervention of fantasies, daydreams, worries, and fears” within the context of “a place dedicated to producing objective and reliable knowledge works.”
For Gargarian, the contrast between art and science boils down to finding a common language. “Artists and scientists are similar in that they’re both concerned with identifying, asking, and framing the right question. We’re both concerned with expressing and understanding a specific paradigm, but our tools and formalisms for articulation are different. That’s what made this project so fascinating. When you’re dealing with totally different building blocks for communication, I mean artistic versus scientific ones, how do you still get your message across? This is essentially the same question that the scientists of 1971 were asking themselves when trying to conceive of communicating with alien intelligence.”
Many visitors to the exhibit were compelled by the observatory’s history, but stunned by the lack of awareness about it prior to the exhibit. CETI Lab’s biggest contribution might be reacquainting many locals with a history they did not realize existed, honoring the site once more in a new context.