The conference in Indonesia was the strangest I'd ever attended. This was partially because it was a mix of scientists, artists and space enthusiasts. And partially because there was an alien in the foyer.
The meeting had been organised by an Indonesian media artist named Venzha Christ. Venzha has a strong interest in space exploration, and works with scientific organisations around the world to incorporate genuine data into his exhibits. The result is similar to a giant outreach project, except that this is art that uses science for inspiration, rather than science that uses art for accessibility. Many of his projects can be found on the webpage of the HONF foundation, which he founded.
Venzha is a difficult person to get a handle on. He is soft spoken and friendly, quick to understand scientific concepts yet believes in UFOs. His art however, does not match the modest demeanor. See exhibit (A) as an trailer for one of his shows.
The man thinks big. Tales from his other projects include hacking into satellite data in order to explore technology-rich sustainable farming and highly questionable (self-inflicted) medical practices in the name of body music.
In the exhibition in the video, Venzha turns his outfit into a giant radio receiver, and synthesizes music with the noise received from terrestrial and extraterrestrial signals. Strangely, this brings us to the alien. Or not so strangely, since there was perhaps no normal lead in to this topic.
Outside the meeting room was a model of an beaked and tentacled alien trapped in a glass cylinder and restricted by wires. It looked sufficiently pissed to have the whiff of realism to it. The colours reflecting off the alien's skin were based on received radio waves from the surrounding environment in real time. The Universe itself was colouring its imagined creation. Or possibly, the car engines turning over down the street.
It was weird. It was crazy. I saw a young boy clap his hands together in a gesture of awed respect and realised this had probably communicated more science than I ever would in my lifetime.
My first suspicions that Venzha was very well connected was when the story of him hacking satellite data did not conclude with him in prison. The second was when the prince gave a speech at the opening of the meeting.
Since he spoke in Indonesian, I did not realise we had been welcomed by royalty until later. While I did not confirm this, I assume this was Prince Notonegoro; married to one of the daughters of the Sultan of Yogyakarta. I could not swear to this, since I had been told only about an hour beforehand that my talk would be in the first session.
Venzha holds to every artist stereotype; including the one about being hopelessly disorganised. I'd struggled to get the details about the meeting for weeks; a problem since I was recording this as a research trip and the details for scientific meetings are typically finalised months in advance. Meanwhile, Venzha wrote the order of talks in the program the night before. The meeting was also supposed to begin at 10am, but we were still drinking coffee outside past 10:30am. Despite this, there was not only an alien but a gigantic 6 ft x 6 ft banner advertising the meeting, with my name topping the list.
Can't lie. That was cool.
The presentation slides for all the talks were in English, but speech could be either in English or Indonesian. (More strictly, Bahasa Indonesian --meaning "the language of Indonesia"-- since hundreds of indigenous languages are also spoken across the archipelago.)
Broadly speaking, the first session in the morning was for pure science talks. This included my own on Solar System exploration and another by a researcher from the Observatory in Indonesia, talking about dark matter and cosmology. The second session focussed on art as a way of visualising scientific results. This included a presentation by a Tokyo-based artist whose exhibits include "Mission G"; a way of visualising the huge quantity of data we receive about the Earth. Another concept by the same artist was to use transparent glass so visitors could line up their hands with genuine outlines found in cave paintings that date from 40,000 years ago.
The third session was on aliens.
While the talks were in Indonesian, I watched the slides as we moved from a science-based discussion on searching for habitable planets to ....
The next few slides concerned "proof" of alien abductions, including the consistency with which the aliens are described and the fact the victim's story seemed consistent with whatever bumps they had on their body.
So. Must be aliens.
Or they all watched the same X-Files episode.
I did learn that the source of the UFO sightings in Roswell were actually high altitude weather balloons the US were using to attempt to monitor Russian nuclear tests (they failed because the Russians weren't doing nuclear tests). Since the project was classified information, these were UFOs in the very literal definition of the term, if not involving nearly so many probed orifices as the usual understanding.
The talks were open to anyone and the audience had an impressively equal split of men and women. Outside the meeting room (overlooked by the heavily restrained alien) the walls became steadily decorated with space-inspired art contributions during the day.
We were due to end at 5pm. We finished some time after 8:30pm. I have a tee-shirt, copies of the poster that look like a movie print with my name either as lead actor or director, and the amusing fact that my presence resulted in a government space agency's logo sitting alongside that of a UFO club. The last fact is typically omitted in reports about my activities.