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Introduction Science /Space 


Hanna Styrie

Art historian and cultural journalist


The resources and capabilities of science seem limitless.

Exploration of the universe is progressing, with the Hubble telescope and the James Webb telescope, due to come online in 2022, offering fascinating glimpses into distant galaxies and unknown star nebulae.


Ever new razor-sharp images of space islands located at unimaginable distances of billions of light-years, and processes in the depths of the cosmos, are being disseminated worldwide. Even space tourism is no longer a vision.


Space as a place of longing, as a source of inspiration and projection surface for utopias has long since found its way into the art world. Artists are approaching the subject with a variety of means. "Space is the Place" has been the motto since the 1960s. NASA, the space agency, was open to the idea and willingly supplied the relevant information and materials for the various projects - even today.


By the way, NASA itself added a gold-plated copper plate to the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes as a message to possible extraterrestrials. The "Golden Record" contains, besides sounds like heartbeat, birdsong and frog croaking, greetings in many different languages, and masterpieces of classical music by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Conversely, Voyager 1 was the first probe to record the "sound" of the cosmos.


For Cologne-based media artist Joanna Vortmann, the "sounds" in the universe exert a similarly strong attraction as the images from outer space. Vortmann, who has always been interested in stars and the firmament, began in 2017 to transform sound files from various sources - NASA, ESA, various universities as well as private astronomers who provided her with their data - into compositions after extensive research. In 2021, the visualization of the "Sounds of the Vacuum" took place in a further step.


In elaborate technical processes, she artistically transformed the image and sound material in such a way that a carefully balanced, captivating interplay was created, which unfolds a strong pull and catapults viewers from everyday life abruptly into distant worlds.


The "Sounds of the Vacuum" took the form of a four-movement symphony. In a six-channel installation, one gets to hear spherical, galactic, perhaps even apocalyptic sounds as well as a quietly floating, introverted whirring that takes place in infinite distances.


In addition one must know that only the fewest cosmic sounds are recorded with microphones. Exceptions are for example the landing of the small satellite "Huygens" on the moon Titan and the wind on the planet Mars. 


So far, recordings outside our planet are made by other instruments: magnetometers, radio plasma wave instruments or radio antennas.

They mainly measure electromagnetic radiation in all frequencies, magnetic fields in their fluctuations, and the particles of the solar wind in their interactions with our planet and other celestial bodies of the solar system.

The "sounds" ultimately consist of data packets that can be transposed into an audible range by technical translation. They can be enhanced and amplified by appropriate processing. The result are spacy sound mixtures, some of which remind of a cacophonous symphony.


The vibrating sounds with their distant hissing, their mysterious roaring and humming are not clearly identifiable and invite one to intensively engage in new listening experiences in which one believes to perceive thunder, storm and other sounds of nature.

Some sounds, however, also seem surprisingly mundane, suggesting birdsong, drums, or air flowing through a bellows.


The complementary visuals, with their sheer inexhaustible wealth of never-before-seen images of cosmic events, reinforce the fascination emanating from the sounds. Sometimes they line up in organic succession, sometimes they flicker as lightning-like sequences of seconds.

The technically adept artist has digitally processed recordings from outer space for this purpose. Through different processing steps and the use of different speed levels, the impression of constant movement and change is evoked - analogous to the permanent movement in which all cosmic bodies find themselves.


 In Joanna Vortmann's work, the sounds from outer space are now used in many ways. They are used - occasionally in a combination of real and cosmic sounds - for example in videos such as "Deep Space Ocean" from 2019 and in "Die Verwandlung", created in 2021. They lend both the constant wave motion and the almost static shots of a snow-covered forest an otherworldly, sometimes ominous, threatening impression.



Joanna Vortmann:

"It is my concern to point out that our existence on this planet is only a tiny speck of dust within the cosmic events. We like to rotate on our own axis. But we are not the center of the universe, but a small planet orbiting around a medium-sized sun, at the edge of the galaxy, which revolves around itself with billions of other galaxies in infinite space. 

Also, in every fiber and molecule of our bodies, we are in effect made up of "stardust." In the original universe of the first time after the Big Bang, there were only two elements: Hydrogen and Helium. Only by the collisions or the collapsing of early gas clouds, and later the explosion of stars "supernovae" such enormous heats developed that the higher chemical elements could form as in incubators. And these make up our bodies today: Iron, oxygen, carbon and all other minerals and elements.

That we are from the stars is not a romantic notion, but very real, and for me personally a profound fascination."



So far in six works, Joanna Vortmann has devoted herself to images and/or sounds from outer space, most recently in "Voices of earth" in 2022.


Voices of Earth



This work, created on the Atlantic island of Madeira, consists of photographs, video recordings & original nature sounds, as well as sonifications from NASA. The principle of "Panta Rhei" (everything flows) becomes particularly tangible on Madeira through the constant currents of natural elements such as ocean, wind, clouds and fog. Vortmann makes visible that even forests and mountains are not exempt from this.



This view is confirmed by quantum physics. It defines reality as "particle-wave dualism": objects are particles and waves at the same time. Everything flows, nothing has a solid core. The inside of matter is empty, vibrating. This permanent micro-movement is just as little tangible for us as the "black holes" which hold all galaxies together.



Our physical world has emerged from massive large-scale events in the cosmos: Atomic fusions in super novae. All elements remain completely present, transform and remain invisible in essence.



The island of Madeira, often hidden under wandering nebulae, artistically conveys this streaming state of reality in "Voices of Earth" through the interplay of various media.



Not least of all, the spherical soundscape ensures rapture and fascination for the viewer, inviting him to engage with the universe, which - despite all scientific and technical knowledge - still seems mysterious and unfathomable to us today.



Hanna Styrie

Art historian and cultural journalist

Brühl, December 2022

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