The Space Between the Real and the Imagined:

Microwave Sculpture in Deep Space



By Michael L. Heivly with Michal Reed

from Leonardo - The International Journal of Art and Technology, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1992


Microwaves, Form and Deep Space

Microwaves are part of the vast complement of electromagnetic energy that composes 98% of the universe. Microwaves are matter, yet also wave forms; microwaves are real, yet unavailable to the senses. These electromagnetic phenomena exist in incredible space, presenting an astounding perspective of form and energy. Since space is not empty---space itself has form- - - it can be used as a medium to hold form, as well as a medium into which form can be projected, much like water holds the form of the bullet for that moment that the bullet shoots through it. As artistic phenomena, microwaves can exist in both the deep space of the human mind and sprit. When we truly embrace our collective journey into deep space, it will be because of a fundamental shift away from the idea of a Specialized myopic universe to a knowledge of our own personal as well as collective oneness with a greater universe. Going into space may not change us, but the paradox of looking into ourselves while reaching for a new paradigm of deep space will.


Markers and Mark Makers

Art is not about technology or objects. I believe that at the core of all art, from the first 'cave paintings' to present-day artworks, lies a common denominator: the creation of a dialogue within the artist, involving one's relationship with the ultimate mystery of life. Sometimes it has served artists to share this dialogue, by leaving markers of their journeys. We call some of those markers paintings and sculptures; others, we call atom bombs and microchips. Those markers that endure stand as a testament to the efforts of humankind to understand its own existence on this planet, showing a particular moment in our physical and intellectual evolution: where we were and what we believe.

Traditionally sculpture, with its intentional manipulation of materials, has been defined as a three-dimensional volume with aesthetic intent. The forms of microwaves or light beams have volumes as real as those of traditional sculpture; a cone is a cone whether made of ice cream or light. Aesthetic intent refers to the imagined form, the spiritual context or the ideological purpose. One starts with the imagination, an idea, and then documents it by the use of sounds, objects, images, energy, words or some other form that our culture perceives as real and tangible.

Microwave forms encourage the exploration of a different perception of that which is real. If we use the descriptions of what scientists define as real, then these microwaves are real---but, at the same time, they are not real in the sense that one cannot touch them, see them, taste them or feel them; they are not perceivable in the form of traditional sensory-based reality. These microwaves do exist in reality, but they set up a paradoxical process within themselves, mirroring that artistic process that utilizes both an idea and its intangible result. The microwave form, detectable yet unavailable to the accepted senses, represents simultaneously the idea of the real and the imagined.


Early Works

Early on, when I was first exploring the effects of technology, I was fascinated by how technology had allowed us to compress time and space---for example, through the use of a telephone, I could actually communicate directly with someone thousands of miles away in New York, or I could fly from here to Italy in less than 10 hours. I began to incorporate soil from different places to which I travelled into my paint, in side-by-side strips, on to one surface (Fig. B). To me, these soil paintings created a clear, concise metaphor for the compression of space and time. Soil next to soil, literally place next to place--the real and the imagined.

I realized that when I had taken soil and changed it into paint, I had synthesized that soil, that place, into a metaphor for static space. With this metaphor I began to wonder: if I could abstract the place from its distilled physical essence, (Fig. C) could I take matter (the soil-paint) and expand it again into what was before (the place)? But there was a tremendous gap between the soil and the process of reconstituting that soil into 'place', real or imagined. I tried to think of how I could move it through space from one place to another. What if I actually wanted to move the entire site? I considered using hydrogen balloons to lift up whole sections of land and actually move them from one place to another.

I took soil samples and made paintings of them moving through space; little piles of dirt piled on clear plates, lined up one in front of the other, in regimented sequences, like regimented land forms. (Fig. L) As I viewed these objects they began to appear to me as data: as sequenced events, sequenced quantities, time-dependent objects. Somehow through the idea of moving the little piles of dirt through deep space, I finally made the conceptual jump to microwaves as a carrier of the idea. Microwaves created a translation into form (sculpture) that was the perfect metaphor for the translation of place and space. This jump was intuitive rather than intellectual. I then spent years unsuccessfully trying to interest the scientific community into letting me use their radio telescopes and microwave transmitters. In 1984 I acquired a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) experimental license and proceeded to build my own microwave-transmitter array.



Since 1979, I have been collaborating with musicians, engineers and other artists to translate landscapes into musical sound-pattern compositions that have been transmitted into the universe through the use of microwave technology. The compositions are derived by assigning musical pitches to the topographical contours of specific sites. Computers and synthesizers (Fig. M) organize the data to develop and play patterned sounds. Each site, due to its unique topography and a unique computerized interpretation of that topography, produces a different sound-design pattern. Large, wand-like transmitters (Fig. N) change these sound patterns into microwave energy, which is then projected into deep space. The microwave energy becomes a cone-shaped sculptural form that moves through space at the speed of light and retains its form for many millennia.


Microwave Transmissions

From the beginning, my microwave sculptures lent themselves to both instrumental and vocal performance. I believed that since these transmissions were to be part of the universe, they should also be made accessible to the individual viewer. It was natural to invite people to listen, to employ at least one of their traditional senses while they explored that part of themselves that perceives both the real and the imagined.

To date I have arranged seven transmissions. Due to the complexity of the technology, my lack of knowledge and the 'newness' of it all as an aesthetic adventure, the first transmission took much longer to prepare than have the others. I worked on it from 1979 until 1984. On 8 June 1984, with a portable transmitter and the help of a crew, I sent the first of the microwave sculptural volumes into deep space. Aimed at the constellation Ursa Major, which was directly overhead at the time of the transmission it described the topography of Batiquitos Lagoon, near Del Mar, in San Diego County, California.

This first transmission was witnessed by only a handful of people, but I received an enormous amount of collaborative input and encouragement that directed my work in a profoundly different way than had I not allowed this participation. People, the participants and collaborators, became part of the work itself.

In August 1985, the second piece was launched toward the constellation Draco during a conference on the arts held at Lake Tahoe, California (Fig. D). This event departed from my original plan in that it became a wonderful collaborative effort that included poetry, music and dance. This is where I met Allen Strange, a composer and electronic musician who has been an integral part of most of my performances since then.

From 1986 through 1990 I transmitted microwave sculptures into deep space from State University College in Buffalo, New York; California State University at Bakersfield (Fig. E); San Francisco State University (Fig. F); the Ruben Fleet Space Center, San Diego, California (Fig. G); the San Jose Museum of Art, California. I also collaborated as a visiting artist with Joel Slayton and the Tandy Beal Dance company in Santa Clara, California (Fig. J). Every time I performed a transmission I met someone new and received a new idea or new input; each time there was a change in how the work was manifested.

The audience members, as participants in live performance, have become more and more important to me. I like the fact that the existence of these forms in deep space, however imperceptible, invites the audience to re-evaluate that which is essential for art and, perhaps, to learn to use their subjective and objective experiences in new ways. The intention in all of the work has been to create an environment that confronts individual participants with the known and the unknown, something that requires the audience-participants to use their imaginations in the actual construction of the piece in deep space. I would like to think that by participating in the work they allow themselves to be taken out into the universe.


The Role of The Ritual

These performances, by the pure nature of what they are and how they are presented, lend themselves to a type of ritual that urges us to re-evaluate those parts of ourselves that have become distanced from us due to our technology, organizations and institutions. My work is intended to evoked those kinds of awarenesses that were once evoked through ritual participation in experiences of a more primitive nature.

Formerly, people went into the mythical universe by going through very specific rituals of preparation and purification, followed by participation in the rituals themselves. When someone at a performance says," I was out there, I was really out there", I know that in some way they were moving into their own place in the mythological universe.

The performances, then, in an unconscious way recall a historical ritual process. However, they do not have the authority built into them that society places in recognized, organized ritual. If one is Catholic, First Holy Communion is a very significant ritual in one's life; it is part of a cultural initiation. When one experiences Communion one experiences the power and the authority of centuries of spiritual ritual.

My pieces, which recall the power of ritual, without having the social authority behind them that the few remaining rituals of our time have, seem to force participants to give authority to themselves. Authority begins to develop from within, as the participants catch glimpses of their connection with all of humanity and with the universe itself.


Spirit and Technology

I believe that we must become more aware of a technology of transcendence- - a technology that can use the power of the unknowable, of that which cannot be spoken, that which predates individual or collective memory-- to incorporate a vast and seemingly incomprehensible 'technology of humanity'.

Through my work I have consistently explored the idea of the impact of technology on human experience. Technology, in eliminating or reducing many of our human limitations, has changed human experience in both physical and spiritual ways; at least it has changed how we perceive these two worlds.

Unlike our ancestors who lived by the stars, very much connected to the changing earth for their physical and spiritual survival, we are no longer aware of our sequential relationship to the natural phenomena of the universe. We have moved away from our collective, mythological center. Alarm clocks wake us up before the sun; cars and planes move our bodies distances much more quickly than they could naturally move themselves. Our food, flown and trucked in from various climates, transgresses seasons. All of this allows us to entirely ignore any relationship we might have with the natural world. How does this affect who and what we are and how we relate to our ancestors, to the earth itself, to the universe?

As we eliminate from our lives any and all connections to the natural world, we risk severing much or our connection to our individual spiritual genetic forms, or at least we place them in such a small recess of our minds or spirits that they are no longer accessible to us. When, as an entire culture we abandon spirituality while assuming that technology will take care of us, we remove ourselves from the information available to us through our spiritual genetic forms. In thinking that technology can take care of us and make our lives easier, we try to bypass that which the core of our humanness has to offer--our ability to trust and use our collective, historical, primitive and mythical perceptions and wisdom to experience our existence in the here and now.

Throughout the various forms that the work has taken, I have attempted to describe human experience as it directly relates to technology and how that affects our spirit. By transmitting into deep space the description of a very real volume, an area on the surface of the Earth, I leave a mark of where and what and who I am at this point in time.


Communications: The New Mythology

I believe that the new mythology in Western society will centralize around mass communications. As people become more comfortable getting into and exploring that space between the real and the imagined they might find a universal form of communication. If human beings could develop the talent to communicate intuitively, I wonder how that would fit into our everyday lives. We may discover that there is a limit to that which we should allow machines to experience for us, and that in many cases it may be easier to rely on ourselves than on machines.

I have no idea what particular form these new myths will take. I simply hope that my work will help to sensitize our culture to the need to create and enact some kind of mythology that is relevant to our humanness, where we are allowed and encouraged to ride that space between the real and the imagined: the space of play, of curiosity, of learning-the place of the spirit.


This article first appeared in Leonardo-The International Journal of Art and Technology, Vol. 25, No.1, 1992