AIR History

SETI AIR’s Launch: The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

The launch of the SETI Institute’s Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program is due to an encounter between multi-disciplinary artist Charles Lindsay and the then Chair of SETI Research Jill Tarter in May 2010. Tarter was fascinated by Lindsay’s series of camera-less photographs titled CARBON, for which he had just received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In retrospect, it was a critical moment for both of them and the SETI Institute. Tarter immediately invited Lindsay to visit the Allan Telescope Array (ATA) — SETI’s observatory on the flanks of Lassen National Park in northern California. Shortly after their meeting, she recommended him as the SETI Institute’s first artist in residence. When Minor Matters Books published CARBON in 2016, Tarter wrote in the book's foreword, "Artists and scientists each have a role to play in telling our human history, and placing us in a cosmic context."

SETI AIR’s Early Days: Humpback Whales and Fluid Mechanics
After meeting many of the SETI Institute’s scientists, Lindsay paired with Dr. Laurance Doyle to expand upon Doyle’s information theory-based research with humpback whale communications. Their collaboration resulted in the installation ‘Code Humpback,’ which debuted at the Bolinas Art Museum, subsequently showing at MassMoCA in Lindsay’s initial ‘FIELD STATION’ installation. In parallel, Lindsay harnessed the opportunities he had been granted at NASA Ames, completing three performative research projects: in the world’s largest wind tunnel, at QUAIL (Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab) with the D-Wave2 quantum computer, and in the fluid mechanics’ laboratory.

With proof of concept firmly established by 2013, Tarter and Lindsay moved forward with the dream of establishing the art program they had envisioned during that early visit to the ATA. Lindsay invited MassMoCA curator Denise Markonish to lead the initial SETI AIR advisory committee, and the experiments began with the first invitations going to a select number of artists.

SETI AIR Moves into the Spotlight
Under Lindsay's directorship, the SETI AIR program has grown into an international player in the movement to integrate art and science.

“Meeting Jill Tarter and subsequently working at the SETI Institute changed my life in the most fundamental ways — as an artist, of course, but far beyond that,” stated Lindsay. “I coined the phrase ‘astro-altruism’ to express the spirit of immense curiosity, camaraderie and enabling that SETI AIR provided me and which the SETI Institute now shares with a small number of exemplary creative individuals. Positive feedback from SETI’s scientists about the AIR program was also enormously encouraging. Our possibilities are galactic in scale — and just getting going.”

Passing the Torch
After ten years of personal research, program development and the welcoming of 18 artists to SETI AIR, Lindsay transitioned to the position of SETI AIR Senior Advisor. Stated Lindsay, “SETI AIR encourages new modes of artistic expression. Change is good. These transitions at SETI AIR usher in our next promising chapter.” Former SETI AIR Researcher in Residence Bettina Forget stepped into the role of Director of the SETI AIR program in June 2020. “I have been in SETI's orbit for a few years now and have seen the AIR program thrive,” says Forget. “It is a constant delight to see our phenomenal group of artists create projects at the cutting edge of artistic and scientific practice. I look forward to continuing to explore this shared ground”

SETI AIR Advisory Committee

The SETI AIR Advisory Committee members are contemporary art curators, SETI Institute scientists, and individuals who have a broad awareness of current trends and developments in the contemporary artistic territory where science, technology, and art intersect. Near Orbit Advisors are the most active, whereas Far Orbit Advisors are former advisors and supporters of the program. The advisory committee works with SETI Institute management to select future artists so that the program is broad-based in terms of discipline, race, and gender. The AIR program aspires to encourage all audiences to experience the exciting possibilities emerging at the nexus of art, technology, and the sciences.