Venera 13

1 May – 8 July 2012, Adam Art Gallery, Victoria University of Wellington

The Venera 13 works, Kamera 1 & 2 and Groza were created for Dark Sky, an exhibition marking the final Transit of Venus this century, on 6 June 2012. Curated by Geoffrey Batchen with Christina Barton, Dark Sky explored the relationship between photography and astronomy.

The Venera Programme

The third brightest object in the night sky, Venus was once full of the swampy promise of life. Now we know of its crushing heat and acid haze, it serves as a cautionary tale of a runaway greenhouse effect. For Dark Sky, I drew on data from the Soviet-era Venera programme to reimagine the sounds and sights of Earth’s closest neighbor.

Despite technical limitations and often limited resources, the achievements of the Soviet space programme were impressive. In its early days, the Soviets cobbled together second-hand and remaindered parts, using film from captured American spy missions for its space probe cameras. The improvisational approach described in contemporary accounts make it seem in some ways more humane and accessible than the parallel activities of JPL and NASA. There’s something intriguing about the opacity of the Soviet space programme, its silence broken by the occsional propaganda film, compared with NASA’s doctrine of availability, transparency, of televised launches and teachers in space. Until the breakup of the Soviet Union made more information available, Western articles on Soviet researches tended to be illustrated with degraded images photocopied from old scientific journals.

On October 18, 1967, the Soviet Venera 4 probe landed on Venus, becoming the first human object to enter the atmosphere of another planet. The exotic engineering required to operate in the hot, dense and corrosive atmosphere of Venus made minutes of survival a triumph.

A series of twin probes followed this landing. Venera 5 and 6 deployed probes bearing scientific instruments and medallions of Lenin. They transmitted 50 minutes of atmospheric information before succumbing to the temperature, pressure and corrosive environment. On December 15, 1970 Venera 7 was first to make a controlled landing on another planet’s surface. On June 8, 1975, Venera 9 returned the first images from the planet’s surface and on June 2, 1983, Venera 15 performed high-resolution radar surface mapping.

venera 13 3

Was Venera 13, which landed on the first of March 1982, and was the first probe to take colour panoramas of the surface, also the first to record sound on another planet? This work takes the audio and video data from Venera 13 as a starting point in imagining a landing on Venus.

The only information I could locate on sounds captured by the Groza (Russian for thunder) experiments was these graphs. I could not establish if any audio exists, but the question aroused my curiousity: what can we hear at 100 atmospheres and 450 degrees? Does it make sense to consider it in terms of sound?

There is critique of these alien audio recording as minimally useful. What do we hear? Whistling wind? The pulse the probe’s electronics like the nervous buzz and swishing blood audible in an anechoic chamber? But audio, more than video, has an unbounded way of making us present in another space. We can imagine faces in the moon and hear voices in the wind, but in some ways we are less physiologically progammed to anthropomorphise sound. Perhaps we can hear alienness more than see it. But how can we imagine another world, when our physical experience must always be of Earth, and we have such screwed up ideas about ‘nature’ anyhow. What does alien nature tell us about our constructions of the natural?

The vacuum of space is silent; planets and moons with atmospheres are the only possibility for sound. For the Venera 13 audio work I collaborated with audio physicist Dr Ian Whaley. In attempting a 5-channel reconstruction of the sounds recorded by the Groza instrument on Venera 13, we were informed by the classical notion of the music of the spheres, the history of field recording, music concrete, ambient music and science fiction soundtracks. Installed in the ceiling cavity of lift of the Adam Art Gallery, the work turned the metal box of the lift into a plantary lander, sonically transporting visitors through the Venusian atmosphere.

venera 13 2

Links and References

The Collected Writings of Michael Snow by Michael Snow and Louise Dompierre, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1994, p.53
Russian panetary exploration: History, Development, Legacy, Prospects by Brian Harvey, Springer Books, 2007, p.190