Shards of sky pierce through Louvre Abu Dhabi’s latticed dome. As the sunlight enters, it forms pools of light across the museum’s walls and floors.
The water around the building glistens an electric blue. It is unmistakably Louvre Abu Dhabi, but more eerie and dreamlike. That’s because we are not in the present day. We are thousands of years in the future. The museum is no longer in Abu Dhabi, but hurtling through the cosmos.
This is the premise of the "cinematic podcast" We Are Not Alone, created and produced by the experimental Soundwalk Collective, comprised of artists Stephan Crasneanscki and Simone Merli.
Written by Crasneanscki, the piece was originally created as a 40-minute audio guide that visitors could listen to as they walked around Louvre Abu Dhabi. Due to the closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic, however, the artists and the museum decided to create a 20-minute video adaptation and condensed version of the audio, which was released on Louvre Abu Dhabi’s website on Sunday, May 31.
The film splices together images of the museum’s hallways and plazas with renderings of outer space, offering an otherworldly view of Louvre Abu Dhabi with elements of science fiction and abstracted visions of its architecture.
It is available in six languages, and is narrated by Emirati singer Hussain Al Jassmi (in Arabic), actor Willem Dafoe (English), actresses Charlotte Gainsbourg (French and English) and Zhou Dongyu (Mandarin), singer Nina Kraviz (Russian) and filmmaker Wim Wenders (German).
“It came to my mind that the scale of the museum, of the architecture is a bit like the Pyramids in Egypt … It made me think of how human beings thousands of years from now will think of our society when they see Louvre Abu Dhabi,” Crasneanscki says on the futuristic setting of the work.
“What struck me about the museum is the structure of the dome, the curving of the dome and the technology it has required to achieve this perfect balance of how much light can go through … The spaceship feeling of the museum is calling us to go away from gravity.”
The piece opens with a message from Louvre Abu Dhabi architect Jean Nouvel, voiced by an actor. “There are thousands of years between you and my voice,” he says. “My ambitions and my obsessions have driven me to focus on imagining the way architecture has drifted over time, attempting to impose a fleeting oasis of calm throughout the ages, from birth to ruin.”
The story of We Are Not Alone unfolds through the voices of two androids. At its core, the piece contemplates the future of artificial intelligence, its implications on society and our relationship with robots.
“In AI conversation today, there is a very strong topic on what consciousness is; if the AI will be able to accept consciousness or not. Will they be able to kill? Or would it be absolutely impossible for them to develop a sense of attachment?,” Crasneanscki says, adding that these are some of the questions explored in the work.
The first android character, voiced by Dafoe, is a Louvre Abu Dhabi museum guide who educates humans about the universe. He is equipped with a personality and complete self-awareness. Through him, we learn that humans have become a “multiplanetary civilisation” that exist across the universe. Their surroundings, including the museum and people milling about inside it, are merely simulations woven from dreams and memories.
In this future reality, however, humans seem to have “missed alien intelligence by a few million years” and are still searching for their message in the stars. That’s where the second android, played by Gainsbourg, comes in. Tasked with finding life in the cosmos, she speaks of her journey through audio logs, seemingly meant for a lover or a loved one. Towards the end, she decides to continue her mission, even if it means never returning home.
“At the end of it, something is shifting. She decides to go for a mission instead of returning or longing for Earth … This longing and curiosity is tied to our own human experience. And also, this sense of sacrifice. We have in literature the concept of sacrifice and longing, and the idea of achieving something at the cost of something else,” Crasneanscki says.
Despite its tragic end, We Are Not Alone gives the androids agency, a chance to decide their fate and the consciousness to know the consequences of their actions.
There is much imagination in the work’s ambient sound, too – Soundwalk Collective’s experimentation of sound in space, with resonating electric hums and glitches of machines. “In the vastness of the universe, there is no more sound, or not the kind of sound that humans can detect. In the sense, it was very interesting for me to actually think about recordings from space. The sound of space and the sound in space,” Crasneanscki explains.
He hopes people would focus on the audio, rather the visuals. “I would recommend people to listen to the podcast without the images, just to sink into the storytelling.”
For him, the museum is an ideal setting for a story that goes beyond interstellar journeys, but gets to question how we are creating our reality and our future today. Fast forward a few millennia, what will new generations say about us? He calls Louvre Abu Dhabi a “quintessential museum of humanity because it encompasses many different cultures … It is centred on the human experience”.
'We Are Not Alone' by Soundwalk Collective can be viewed on the Louvre Abu Dhabi website.