Earth’s first ‘welcome’ mat for aliens looks like a standard doormat. See pic
It’s not that the mat itself is small: it’s standard doormat size, perhaps a bit larger.science Updated: Oct 02, 2017 09:28 IST
The planet’s first cosmic welcome mat – on Earth to welcome extraterrestrial life to the Adelaide Convention Centre and the 68th International Astronautical Conference – seems comically small and slightly askew.
It’s not that the mat itself is small: it’s standard doormat size, perhaps a bit larger. But conference venue entrances are built to compensate for masses of foot traffic, and it’s here that the mat finds itself: between the oversized doors and the oversized floor sticker covered in sponsor branding, welcoming delegates to the conference.
But then again: who is to say how big the aliens who could be joining us in Adelaide are? Perhaps they will be tiny. This welcome mat could be huge.
The mat is an art project from experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats and space archaeologist Alice Gorman, and in the context of the IAC it’s hard to know what to make of it. Most people seem to make nothing of it at all, walking determinedly through the doors towards the exhibition hall, the presentation of papers, the major talks on a new Australian space agency or Elon Musk’s plans to colonise Mars . The mat just sits there, small and largely ignored. I watch occasional feet step across it, but just as often I notice a small side step: the body’s reaction to the subconscious realisation that something is out of place.
The mat was inspired by the Fermi Paradox, a serious but simple scientific question about our place in the universe: if our modelling shows a high likelihood of the existence extraterrestrial civilizations, why haven’t we found any yet? Or, to put it another way, “Where is everybody?”
Here, Keats’ response is: maybe we’ve not been welcoming enough: “Maybe the reason we’ve never encountered aliens is that they never felt invited,” he says. “From an outsider’s perspective, human behaviour can appear pretty unfriendly – and the impression has some truth to it.” Maybe there is some value in looking for aliens not on planets in other galaxies, but in simply saying, “welcome”, and looking for them on Earth.
The mat itself is a splotch of red on blue, fading to purple: there is something distinctly 70s about the colour scheme. The red, the press materials tell me, represents “the alien” – an “amorphous blob” chosen for its lack of similarity to known beings on our planet – while the blue represents the sky, and the violet represents artificial indoor light. Any alien – which, I read, will be aware of the fact that it is alien – will see this red blob, sitting in the purple, and understand it has been welcomed from the outside in. The welcome mat will have done its job.
The mat at the IAC is one of four deployed in Adelaide for the first stage in this project; Keats hopes to eventually see a welcome mat on the International Space Station. The other three are at Flinders University, where each day archaeology students study the mats, visually at first and then by collecting material deposits for analysis.
The students seem, like university students often are, trapped between earnestness and incredulity: in white lab coats and face masks to avoid contamination, they lean in close to the mat, peering at its surface. They diligently record the weather conditions. They sweep half the mat and then start laughing at the idea they have to sweep the whole thing – but then they sweep the whole thing anyway.
It’s tempting, having seen the mat, to consider its failings: why is a cosmic welcome mat still just a welcome mat? Why does it assume that sight is the primary communicator, and not noise or touch or smell?
But these questions are hardly the point. As it often is with conceptual art, the physical object isn’t the most interesting facet. The mat itself may be a bit silly, but there is a surprising profundity to it.
The conference is filled with people whose ambitions and careers rely on a profound faith: that humanity can achieve greatness, that the universe is more incredible than we can ever know. They imagine the impossible: and then do the science and the work to make that impossibility a reality. Why not then imagine, if only for a moment, that aliens could have come to the Adelaide Convention Centre and felt welcome – even if just for a moment.
• The Cosmic Welcome Mat is on view at State Studio in Los Angeles from October 11-29 . Jonathon Keats and Alice Gorman will be speaking about the project at an event at State Studio on October 11.
(Published in arrangement with The Guardian)