Katie Paterson’s work has always been deeply mired in the scientific. Having taken on the position of artist-in-residence at University College London’s Department of Physics and Astronomy in 2011, she has acquired an impressive body of knowledge about outer space. Through her audiovisual installations, she prompts us to ponder over the evolution of the universe and our place in this natural process. She states that her works have ‘no intention’, and are only meant as a springboard for our imagination to explore the rest of the cosmos.

We recently interviewed Paterson about her latest work, Earth-Moon-Earth. Using radio transmission, she sends Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to the moon in Morse code. These messages are reflected back to Earth, although some of the information remains trapped in the craters on the moon’s surface. The result is a new interpretation of the Classical composer’s original score, punctuated with otherworldly gaps and absences where they didn’t exist before. This reworked rendition of the Moonlight Sonata is then performed on a self-playing piano. 

Here’s what Paterson told us about her practice and her most recent artworks.

Self-Introduction: If I were to describe my profession, I would say I’m an artist. That’s easy, but to describe what my practice entails is more complicated. With every idea comes an almost entirely different approach: this means new subjects, new methodologies, new techniques, new technologies, new materials, new places and new thoughts. From being on the peak of a mountain, to looking to the edge of the universe, to casting a minute grain of sand adrift in the desert, to searching for fossils in the snow, I’ve found myself in many extraordinary situations. 

The Inspirational Wilderness of Iceland: Spending a lot of time in Iceland adjusted my view of the world, and later, the universe. The earth underfoot is warm and exploding with life. I experienced the deepest silences, the vastest skies (watching the midnight sun set and rise in the same moment), the immensity of changing light and weather, monochromatic landscapes, and otherworldly nature. It was the first vivid experience I had of being on a revolving planet passing a sun. Iceland’s landscapes prompted me to look into space.

Second Moon: Second Moon is an ongoing project where I’ve been posting a small fragment of the moon around the earth. When I conceived the idea I was imagining the different flight routes above my head and the countless everyday objects that have orbited the earth for centuries. It got me thinking: what can I send into a new orbit? A new moon, of course!

The artwork manifested itself through an App for phones and tablet devices, which I designed with graphic design company Fraser Muggeridge and application development studio Supermono. People can track the movement of the moon fragment in real time and in relation to other planets. The lunar meteorite is couriered using an express service. I want it to stay in ‘orbit’ for as long as possible. The route of this ‘second moon’, which begins from London and passes Shanghai, Adelaide and San Francisco, follows the path and direction of our moon. It will take around 12 days to circle the earth once. In September 2014, when Second Moon returns to earth after its final journey, it will be exhibited in my solo show at Ingleby Gallery, as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival. At that point, I hope to be able to display a full collection of all the various tracking slips and documents of the moon’s journey. 

Aural Power: With all my work, imagination is key. This is particularly evident in Earth-Moon-Earth, where the viewer’s/listener’s imagination fills the gaps in the score that’s been bounced from the moon back to earth. I hope that the lack of sound will transport the mind miles away to the surface of the moon, where it can visualize the notes drifting in space, lost in the lunar shadows and craters. Sounds and silences for me can be a very visual trigger, and certainly convey time and distance in a way that images cannot. This summer, Earth-Moon-Earth will be presented daily at Jupiter Artland.

The Prevalence of Space: I believe that space is not ‘out there’: it is right here, inside us, outside us, everywhere. We are made of the same atoms that arose some 13.2 billion years ago or so. These atoms have recycled themselves and now continue to transform themselves in infinite and astounding ways. The remnants of stars that exploded millions of years ago are inside our blood, and are apparent in our breath. We are intimately connected with the larger cosmos.

The Dying Star Letters: I’ve been writing letters for a while now, each time a star dies. I simply write ‘Dear XX, I’m sorry to inform you of the death of the star, GRB 2013b’ on a variety of letter paper, and post these messages from wherever I happen to be. I receive the info via an electronic telegram directly from the telescopes, which turn themselves towards the bright explosions in the sky. Sometimes the letter writing is a very ordinary experience, much akin to doing the dishes. Other times it can be more deeply affecting, when I imagine the impact of this great stellar explosion which might have led to the existence of other planets and life.

Effectuating Meaning: My works aren’t intended to provoke a particular response. I think of them collectively as a butterfly effect that begins like a shadow and ripples out quietly. My own creative processes are pretty similar. Ideas come to me often through a process of writing, while images appear in my mind in a matter of seconds. These ideas are discrete, and later if I’m lucky their ripples might catch up with me, and I’ll think about bringing them into existence.

Upcoming Projects: I will be launching a 100-year-long artwork in Oslo this June, which I’m extremely excited about. It involves a forest and a library and will outlive me. I'm also really looking forward to my major solo show at Ingleby Gallery as part of GENERATION, which is a landmark event celebrating 25 years of contemporary art in Scotland.

Earth-Moon-Earth will be shown at Jupiter Artland from 17 July to 28 September. Ingleby Gallery will also present other recent works by Paterson including Fossil Necklace and Second Moon. Both exhibitions are part of the Edinburgh Art Festival.

Get the summer issue of Elephant with the special feature on artists and outer space here.

Image courtesy of the artist and the galleries.