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Beyond the Extremes: Contemporary Narratives of Exploration



The “age of exploration” is long past. We’ve charted most every inch of the planet, So what’s left to explore?

It seems we’re no longer sending men and women into space, and even if you make it to the arctic or the top of Mount Everest you’re sure to have cell phone service. Well, at least you can tweet about it.

Maybe the novelty and romanticism of exploring the unknown no longer exists. But some modern day “explorers” are still getting excited about going “beyond the extremes” -- today we hear from a panel I hosted last week at the University of Hartford on “Contemporary Narratives of Exploration”

We were joined by modern day explorers looking at land, sea and space. And we’ll explore the intersection of exploration and art. 

** Audio Extra: Clare Rossini reads several poems on Joseph Banks

Opening remarks by Ravi Shankar: 

            I wanted to begin by sharing with you some of our impetus for putting this panel together and to underscore the urgency with which we regard the idea of “exploration,” which is exceedingly becoming an afterthought in today’s economic and cultural climate. We need look no further than widely publicized decommission of the Space Shuttle “Atlantis” last year and the end of NASA’s space shuttle program to see evidence that the age of exploration is grinding to a halt. However, it’s my contention that exploration is actually ageless, and is an intrinsic and fundamental part of the human endeavor to extract and create meaning from existence. 

   When I think of exploration, I think of the earliest human activities, arising from prehistory to determine what was sustainable, what lethal, and how this learned knowledge was passed down and built on from generation to generation. And yet, the term exploration itself, etymologically, is a relatively new construct. It actually comes from the late 16th century, from the Latin “explorare,” or “to investigate, search out and examine.” There also an interesting aural tinge to the word, coming from a hunter’s term to “set up a loud cry.” But still, to this day, when we think about exploration, our mind gravitates, perhaps because of what we were taught in primary school, to the Age of Exploration from the early 15th century to the 17th century where Europeans established contact (and colonialization) of Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania, and began to extensively map the planet.

   But of course the first explorers came much earlier; for example, the Phoenicians from around 2000 BC are credited with first using Polaris, the pole star, as a navigational aid and building up information about trade winds and currents. Some scientists believe that even over ten thousand years earlier, small groups of people who originated from what is now Siberia crossed a land bridge into Alaska and then moved as far south as South America. Then there are figures like the 10th century Arab nobleman Ahmad ibn Fadlan who travelled with the Vikings and produced one of the great travel documents of world history. Or someone like the 14th century Chinese naval explorer Zhang He, who travelled to India and Ceylon and even as far as East Africa, travelling along the ocean waterways further than anyone before him had ever done.  So the notion of “exploration” being a narrowly stratified, particularly European endeavor is patently erroneous.

   Drunken Boat – which is just about to publish its 15th issue – is a magazine that is dedicated to bringing together more traditional forms of representation like poetry, prose and photography with works of art endemic to the medium of the web like video, hypertext, web art and digital animation, as well as with the fields of science and medicine. We believe very much in what scientist and fiction writer C.P. Snow called “the third culture,” one that synthesizes the culture and vocabulary of the sciences with that of the humanities, two areas that too rarely communicate but that yet seek to answer a similar question of what it means to be human.  So in the past, we have published a folio on “Aphsia and the Arts” coupled with a look at Connecticut’s own Pulitzer Prize winning poet William Meredith who had a stroke and was without speech for nearly three years.  And in speaking to historian Michael Robinson, who we will hear from on this panel, we decided that there could be no better folio to put together than one on exploration, not just of external frontiers, such as space, the rainforests and the sea, but also internal ones, such as the brain and our sense of the divine. It seems to us that the very sense of wonderment that spurs us onto new discoveries is one of the most crucial motivating principles that we have at our disposal and, unfortunately, one that is at risk of disappearing. As a result we are in the process of putting together a dossier of work from contemporary explorers, such as the people we will hear from today, but also neuroscientists, deep sea divers, and visionary artists, with the hope that we will inspire the next generation of explorers. 

Apollo 14 Astronaut Edgar Mitchell, one of the first dozen men to walk on the moon, returned from that interstellar exploration to write, “What I experienced during that three-day trip home was nothing short of an overwhelming sense of connectedness. I actually felt what is described as 'the ecstasy of unity.' It occurred to me that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft itself were manufactured long ago in the furnace of one of the ancient stars that burned in the heavens about me. And there was a sense that our presence as space travelers, and the existence of the universe itself, was not accidental, but that there was an intelligent process at work. I perceived the universe as in some way conscious."

It is giving voice to this expansive  consciousness that we are after and why we wanted to put together this panel of experts to talk about the history of exploration and where and how we might move forward from here? What new frontiers and boundaries exist to discover, whether manifest in inner or outer worlds? In this era of GPS mapping and orbiting satellites, what role do tools and technology play in allowing us to conceptualize the world in ever original ways? What indeed does the modern explore look like and what is left to explore? Are we, as some have surmised, at the end of exploration or at a new starting point? What relationship does art to have to this often scientific process?  We hope to answer some of these questions today in our discussion and hope that at the end of it, you might bring your own insights and queries to our panel, whom I now have the pleasure of introducing. 

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