In retrospect, the jump from scanning the infinitely vast cosmos for signs of extraterrestrial life to signing an artist-in-residence seems like a stroke of utter brilliance. What, after all, is the role of the SETI Institute in light of a popular culture where discussion about alien life forms most devolves into boring repetitions of stereotyped archetypes or else petty snark? What to make of an institute which, by virtue of the sheer magnitude of its field of observation, has failed to capture the public’s attention for any lengthy period of time? Dr. Jill Tarter, who holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair at the Institute, explains that SETI exists as a reserve of mind-expansion, of an alternative to the ennui of Hollywood’s formulaic approaches to aliens:
“…we are trying to get people to put themselves in a different frame of reference, to step back [...] Charlie’s art encourages us to think in those terms.”
Indeed, looking at Charles Lindsay’s work, one cannot help but wonder in awe at his approach to photography. Though he has an impressive portfolio of work earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship, he has become best known for a technique which forsakes cameras altogether. Using a process he invented in which a carbon-based emulsion is spread over plastic negatives, Lindsey hails the abstract birth of photographic art: an 1826 heliograph which was exposed for almost a full 24-hours, rendering the image almost indecipherable.
Toying with recognizability is precisely what makes Lindsay’s art so effective: by taking the viewer out of the familiar (and even strains of abstraction have become rather familiar at this point in time), he forces one to consider all of the manifold forms which aliens might take. Whereas even the most grotesque cinematic interpretations take anthropomorphic form for granted, these photographs open up the possibility that aliens might be (and most certainly are) like nothing we’ve ever imagined before. They could, for example, not be made out of matter at all, but clusters of photons and energy fields.
Or extraterrestrials could appear to us minuscule, or we mere specks of life to them: more than anything else, Lindsay’s art brings to mind electron microscope scans: playing with how we as a species see size serves as a powerful insight into the problems of even conceptualizing deep space. The problem with encountering life beyond is, quite simply, one of size. Distances become unfathomable after a certain point, and never do we experience sublime depth as when we are looking up at the night sky and realize that we are in fact looking out.
What makes this partnership a stroke of brilliance? Well, Charles Lindsay isn’t only making abstract photographs, he is making art about science, about the fragile beauty of sensitive instruments and about the Sisyphean tragedy of mankind’s quest to discern the depth of our celestial solitude. We will likely never find many answers in the night sky; save for a few anomalies like the 1977 WOW! signal, our questions have all been answered with silence. Charles Lindsay’s art may not bring us closer to the moment of encounter (which, if it ever happens, will likely be the most significant event in all of human history). What he can help reveal, however, is why we continue to search the dark, indifferent universe for answers to our most profound questions.