Why Cosmic Praise?

“Faster! Pedal faster!”, I yelled at the stranger above me, as she madly peddled her bike and I dragged the ropes attached to her bike across the dust-swept playa surface. “If you pedal faster,  you’ll go faster!”. Ofcourse, that was patently false. The bike was suspended mid-air and her speed depended on how fast I and my fellow acolytes pulled the ropes, sweeping the bike through the sky. The whole contraption looked like a windmill on its side, with the bike dangling off the end of the would-be sail. And we dragged the sail round and round, the bike swooshing overhead. “Fly a bike” they called it. And I ran the contraption for five hours straight that day under the playa sun. Hundreds must have ridden it. One by one, eagerly clambering onto the bike, faces grinning in anticipation of what was to come. We dragged the counterweight down, and up the bike went! Soaring into the azure blue sky, silhouetted against the sun. “Pedal faster!” we yelled as the bike went round and round.

There was a certain satisfaction in that labor. In happiness delivered. Instant happiness. On the faces of strangers you saw for a fleeting moment and nevermore. As they were swooshed up onto the bike for their minute of playa perspective delivered. They got off, giddy and willing to pull the ropes and get the next person up. And the next. And the next. We flew that bike for hours. And that was how I met Doug and Doug’s art.

I learnt that there is something visceral about participative art. About art that draws the spectator in. That delivers an experience unlikely to be forgotten. As we hauled burners onto that bike over and over again, they experienced the joy of strangers exchanging happiness. It is part of what made me sign on to “Cosmic Praise”,  Doug’s art project for this year.

The value of art lies in the instant connection it forges with the viewer. Art has the power of communicating an idea instantly, clearly, and viscerally. And, what begs to be communicated today? What is beautiful yet complex, elegant yet obscure? Science! Science illuminates the structure of our world. The complex, differentiated structure. The whorls of a flower, the phases of the moon, or the motion of the tides. There is science behind them. And art can lend its voice to that science. Bring it to life. This is what “Cosmic Praise” does.

Think of the playa. A few square miles of salt plain. Zoom out. North America, a continent. Zoom out further. The Earth, the planets and the Sun. Just another star in a nondescript part of the Milky Way, which is just another spiral galaxy in a the Local Group of galaxies, itself part of the Virgo supercluster of galaxies. If you think about it, it’s funny, even absurd, that we live our quotidian lives seldom thinking of the magnificent cosmic dance that encompasses us. The universe abounds with all manner  of strange and exotic objects, from neutron stars to gas giants. If only their presence could be made real. Visceral. Visible to the naked eye.

We’re already there. Almost. Every day you, me, and everyone else is bombarded by the fingerprints of cosmic happenings. They’re called “cosmic rays”. Think the regurgitated byproducts of cosmic happenings and you have cosmic rays. Supernovae give off cosmic rays. Black holes give off cosmic rays. That cosmic ray that just passed you by? For all you know, it could’ve come from a supernova in Andromeda, a galaxy 2.5 million light years away. It’s been travelling for 2.5 million years to get to you. From a time before humans existed.  Too bad your eyes could never see the passage of a cosmic ray. If only you could, and then partake in the cosmic wonder of our universe.

And this is what “Cosmic Praise” is all about. A cosmic ray detector atop a 50 foot high tower. You, curious, intrepid  traveller to Black Rock City, mount the steps to this atrium perched atop the tower. You enter, and you see flashes of light. Each flash of light announces the  passage of a cosmic ray. And as you gaze at each flash, you feel the universe speaking to you. You look up at the inky-black night sky and think of all the supernovae, the black holes, the neutron stars, the quasars, the Suns and Earths of the universe that must be out there. You feel them. And suddenly, that feeling of transcendence rushes up at you. You’re part of something much larger. Much grander. The story of the cosmos. Cosmic Praise.

-Karan Gill