To see and be seen: intersecting poetics of the M87 Event Horizon and the film, Galaxies [a love letter]
by Melody Woodnutt

"If immersed in a bright region, like a disc of glowing gas, we expect a black hole to create a dark region similar to a shadow — something predicted by Einstein’s general relativity that we’ve never seen before, explained chair of the EHT Science Council Heino Falcke of Radboud University, the Netherlands. "This shadow, caused by the gravitational bending and capture of light by the event horizon, reveals a lot about the nature of these fascinating objects and allowed us to measure the enormous mass of M87’s black hole."

An extraordinarily unified and durational gaze toward the Messier 87 galaxy revealed the haunting images of the event horizon and the shadow of the M87 black hole. The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) network drew from eight ground-based radio telescopes positioned in challenging high-altitude sites worldwide to create one Earth sized telescope with over 200 researchers and multiple calibration and imaging methods. We can now see an illuminated periphery cradling the black hole which emanates an ambiguity in perception; the limitations of our autonomous or human senses giving an occult quality to the apparition. The gravitational and metaphoric void becomes an elusive phenomenon that is awakened to us through our desire to know it, mirroring the human desire to both see and be seen. Likewise, the short 16mm film, Galaxies [a love letter] works with fragmented imagery to piece together an elusive phenomenon at the threshold of love with the poetics of the (im)measurable.

Things we cannot see but can sense in other ways instils a certain eeriness or apprehension. In December 2012 a massive unidentified sound known as the Jodhpur Boom shook the desert region of Rajasthan in northern India. It created widespread panic but still remains a mystery. Ayesha Hameed considers an (as yet) unseen Black Atlantis under the sea specifically in response to the musicians, Drexciya who proposes that pregnant slaves thrown overboard on the transatlantic slavery shipping routes may have established Black Atlantis due to the evolution of their foetuses. Hameed notes that in 1997, ‘the bloop’ was discovered by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration off the southern coast of South America. An incredibly powerful deep sea sound detectable from over five thousand kilometres away it was exponentially louder than the largest animal, the blue whale. Decidedly mysterious, the bloop held animal sound signatures but was later dismissed as an ice quake from the bottom of the ocean. In January 2009, NASA observed an unidentifiable booming sound when the Goddard Space Flight Center used a balloon instrument called ARCADE to search the sky for heat from the first generation of stars. While galaxies do emit hissing or static noises, this sound was six times louder than anything expected or identifiable under analysis and remains a mystery. It is conceivable then, that the world-in-itself performs without us behind a thin white curtain threshold, it leaves us sounds or glimpses of moving shadows which become evocative, we identify it as something familiar – a quake, an EHT image, a feeling; we strive to see it though we see the threshold.

A poetic notion in crossing the threshold is a search for the ‘other’ within the limitations and inertia of ourselves. A black hole mass cannot be known without the interrelation of the event horizon. Galaxies are seen because we look for them. In the likeness of this mutual embrace, Galaxies [a love letter] was made at the threshold of falling in love; it is a howl into the depths of the unknown and a glance skyward to a visceral embodied galaxy. The film grasps at a very human tipping point confronting both apprehension and awe. It finds the complexity of emotional landscapes entangled in a siren song of forgetting, ominous hope, and celestial dreams – here in love, time and space collapses. This love (a world-in-itself) dances upon 16mm celluloid film, a hand extends from nowhere, another event horizon glows (or sings) seductively, we become a moth to the stars. The film, a moving and fragmented interior world peering at the threshold of an emotional wonder relates to the decentralised EHT network of spacecraft and telescopes as it sits nestled in the shared human need to articulate something obscured, distant, and indeed romantic.

Galaxies [a love letter] utilises the sound of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft passing through the plane of Saturn’s rings before settling into orbit. In the film it creates the backdrop of a rough tactile static, we can imagine weathering the planetary turbulence ourselves amidst its beauty and excitable terror; the dichotomy unresolved. The second NASA sound used in the film was ‘Kepler: Star KIC12268220C (Light Curve Waves to Sound)’ a smooth excited pulse, mysterious yet familiar; it sounds akin to a sped up heartbeat. The Kepler space telescope observed some 145,000 sun-like stars near the constellation Cygnus. The star KIC12268220C (is it you I’m looking for) was originally documented as light waves but then converted to sound - synaesthesia not uncommon in observational technology which expands our sensory capacities (and the poetic reaching hand of humanity).

NASA’s public release of documented sounds to the creative commons encourages events or data to embrace the sensory: research made human through culture. Film, sound, and photo imagery are conduits working to bridge our internal and external worlds. Both the Kepler and Cassini samples lend a strangeness or cosmic expanse to my film, Galaxies [a love letter]: these acousmatic or disembodied sounds plucked from space are drawn inward to heart or belly “all inside me”, becoming a quasi-exogeology (exo-lux/exo-sonic) fabric that embeds its symbology into my microcosm of heady love. The sounds then leave my orbit, pulled through me, in a bid for our shared humanity through film and cosmic metaphor. Rebecca Elson, an astronomer, sucks the stars down from the sky after facing non-Hodgkins lymphoma and they, too, leave her orbit. After her death they hang still for us to gaze upon in the poem, Antidotes to Fear of Death. A piquant excerpt:

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

We eat the stars shone from lovers and kisses blown from children because we look for them, forgetting our threshold of apprehension and awe. To embrace the EHT image of the event horizon is to embrace a human desire: to see and to be seen. In love, we build a constellation to witness the other as far as we can see in the quenching dark. We must keep looking at the galaxies, pepper hot and sharp as they dance all inside us, an antidote to fears and an embrace of little deaths.