A colourful painting sits in the distance in the middle of a dark landscape. The sky is dark and has pink planets floating overhead.

FEATURES – Other Skies: An Exoplanetary Festival

In ALL, FEATURES by Sara Truuvert

At this point in time, I’m no stranger to loneliness. I’ve had many conversations with the plant on my desk, and some days I swear it answers back. Perhaps the last subject I thought to explore in an attempt to assuage the ache of isolation is the empty, black void of outer space. But I’m certainly glad I reconsidered.

Other Skies: An Exoplanetary Festival was an online event that ran on March 20th, 2021 via New Art City’s 3D virtual exhibition space. Organized by CLOT Magazine, SciArt Initiative, and Multiverse, Other Skies was a fascinating amalgamation of multi-media installations, musical performances, and educational lectures. The festival investigated what exoplanets might look like, how we communicate with and through space, and what it means for our place in the universe if we are not alone out here.

Large luminous blue sculpture shaped like an oval with vine-like extensions. It sits in front of a series of images showing various light patterns.
(Left) VESTIBULAR_1 series (2020) by Albert Barque-Duran & Marc Marzenit; (Right) Inner Ear; Screenshot by Sara Truuvert
A black wall displaying a series of images, which shows stacked rows of glowing pink cubes and close-ups of pink and purple leaves.
Astroculture (Eternal Return) series (2015) by Suzanne Anker, installation view of plant chambers; Screenshot by Sara Truuvert

And, likely, we’re not, according to Dr. Michael Albrow, a scientist emeritus at Fermilab and the festival’s keynote speaker. Massive on the virtual livestream screen, Dr. Albrow used artist renderings of exoplanets to show the enormous variety and quantity of planets outside our galaxy and the high probability that life exists beyond Earth.

“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,” he said cheerfully, quoting Carl Sagan to emphasize how relatively puny we are.

I was particularly small that day. I was a little pink diamond with randomly-generated username “murwtsart5,” floating amongst my fellow bizarrely-named, diamond-shaped patrons. We glided through the art exhibition, Exoplanetary Dust, which was impressively configured to portray the surface of an imaginary exoplanet. Artists’ works were embedded in gleaming black rock formations and housed in towering domes. Like the main livestream screen, pieces with audio began playing as I approached, and captions appeared as my mouse hovered over them.

Dark series of hills next to a large screen showing the shore of an ocean. Behind them is the top of a large pink planet.
Patrons gather around Other Worlds Near and Far by Ed Bell, motion graphics; Screenshot by Sara Truuvert

The exhibition included pieces like Vessels (2021), a series of nine images by Nicole L’Huillier and Daniela Catrileo, who collaborated with an artificial intelligence program to combine visuals of technological instruments for space exploration with organic elements. The images were accompanied by a sonic poem, the opening of which sounded like a voice calling, “Hello? Hello?”. Forgetting for a moment that I was the silent murwtsart5, I opened my mouth to respond.

Another intriguing installation was Ani Liu’s Olfactory Time Capsule for Earthly Memories (2017), a small capsule with three chambers. It contained, the caption said, “the unique scent of three memories of Earth: that of a loved one, that of a home, and that of a natural resource.” In her artist talk, Liu emphasized her interest in imagining what human connection will look like as the possibility increases of humans taking trips through outer space.

Four images in a row. The images look like combinations of organic and man-made materials.
(Left to Right) Vessel Cuatro, Vessel Cinco, Vessel Seis, and Vessel Siete (all 2021) by Nicole L’Huillier & Daniela Catrileo; Screenshot by Sara Truuvert
A series of black and white photographs showing a woman floating upside down, a woman wearing a capsule around her neck, two fingers holding a capsule, and a capsule with small clear beads around it. The images sit amongst dark rock formations.
Olfactory Time Capsule for Earthly Memories (2017) by Ani Liu; Screenshot by Sara Truuvert
A series of three images, two of which depict orange bacteria-like forms, one of which shows a scientific diagram, are displayed on a large glossy black rock formation. To the right is another image on a rock formation with green organelle-like protrusions.
(Left) Space Bacteria series (2012) by Raphael Kim & Jae Yeop Kim; (Right) Velocity Holomatrix Warp 7 (2020) by TSun Araw & Theo Triantafyllidis with Tomo Jacobson, motion graphics; Screenshot by Sara Truuvert

While Liu considered how smell can link us to Earth from space, composer David Ibbett explored how sound can connect us to space from Earth. The Multiverse Concert Series, performed via the main livestream screen, included songs from Ibbett’s debut album, Octave of Light. It boasted one of the most niche concepts for an album I’d ever heard of—put simply, celebrating exoplanets by translating light waves into sound waves.

“If we can’t see these planets, maybe we can hear them,” Ibbett said excitedly as he unpacked this process. Powerful telescopes pick up fluctuations in a star’s light as an exoplanet passes across it. A spectrograph splits those images into wavelengths, which we can analyze to determine which wavelengths the planet’s atmosphere has absorbed. That tells us the atmosphere’s chemical composition and, therefore, which exoplanets’ atmospheres contain compounds that might hint at life, like water vapour.

Ibbett lengthened these light waves to lower their high frequency and “translate” them into sound waves the human ear can detect. The result was haunting pieces of music that let us listen to the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

Large screen showing a graphic converting light waves to musical notes. Video of presenter is in top right corner.
David Ibbett demonstrates how he turned light into sound; Screenshot by Sara Truuvert
A black wall with two images. The images show purple, paint- or cloud-like swirls, mixed with greens, blues, and lighter colours.
(Left) Ceres by Marlena Bocian; (Right) Water by Marlena Bocian; Screenshot by Sara Truuvert
A light blue sculpture shaped like a ship sits next to a screen showing a river. These sit in front of a huge black sky and glossy black hills.
A rendering of a boat from Tunein (2021) by Alien Jams & Recsund, video game; Screenshot by Sara Truuvert

So, where does that possibility leave us? Potentially, in a spiral of existential peril, but luckily Dr. Lisa Messeri, an anthropologist of science and technology, has done a lot of overwhelming thinking for us. In her lecture, she discussed how finding another Earth-like planet may “facilitate finally knowing our place in the universe.” When we face our minuteness and fragility, especially in conjunction with the possibility of extraterrestrial life, Dr. Messeri said there springs “a desire to feel connected, especially in the face of the cosmic expanse.”

And I did feel connected, somehow, there amongst my diamond-shaped crew, with our upbeat chat stream scrolling by in the corner. Surrounded by creative articulations of our human instinct to explore, contact, and connect, I enjoyed my day-long vacation from loneliness. And when it strikes again, I’ll definitely have interesting topics of conversation for my plant.

A dark landscape with a portion of a large pink planet to the left on the horizon, smaller pink planets in the sky, and glossy black rock structures. Two black walls and a dome sit in the landscape.
My view as I explored the gallery; Screenshot by Sara Truuvert

The Exoplanetary Dust virtual exhibition is now open to the public. 

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About the Author

Sara Truuvert

Sara is a writer, freelance journalist, and teacher from Toronto. She holds an MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of St Andrews, a Graduate Certificate from the Humber School for Writers, and a BA from the University of Toronto. At U of T, she discovered her passion for the history and philosophy of science and the intersection of science and the arts. As a freelance journalist, she enjoys interviewing a diverse array of individuals, from scientists to children’s book authors. In her spare time, Sara writes short fiction and likes to shoot hoops in local playgrounds, where she is routinely outshone by children. Twitter: @struuvert