Image from <i>Antiprism</i> installation, 2015. (Courtesy of Jon Bernson)
Image from Antiprism installation, 2015. (Courtesy of Jon Bernson)

The Vessel XII Controversy: An Otherworldly Tale

The Vessel XII Controversy: An Otherworldly Tale

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In the de Young Museum’s Kimball Education Gallery, an investigation of intergalactic proportions is underway. During a month-long residency at the museum, artist, playwright and musician Jon Bernson and collaborators have explored the Vessel XII controversy, described as a series of 12 unexplained broadcasts that interrupted television sets around the world over a period of 23 years. The transmissions mysteriously end in 2009, the year digital conversion rendered our old cathode ray tube sets obsolete.

Antiprism, as the residency is titled, inhabits a strange and nebulous place on the space--time continuum. Antiquated technology like VHS tapes and turtlenecks sit alongside talk of time travel. Playing with sound, image, object and narrative, Bernson and co. craft an otherworldly tale of distant journeys, complete with words of advice from a wiser, post-Earthly future.

Image from Antiprism of "Theoretical Physicist - Carol C. Sydney," 2015. Courtesy of
Image from Antiprism of "Theoretical Physicist - Carol C. Sydney," 2015. (Courtesy of Jon Bernson)

According to Bernson and project co-creator Michael Falsetto-Mapp, expert (and amateur) opinions on the source of the Vessel XII broadcasts differ widely. Are they from a distant spacecraft? An alternate dimension? The future? Or can they be explained away as sophisticated signal hacks?

In the Kimball Gallery, research into these competing claims takes an aesthetic turn. Video projections of the colorful broadcasts fit well on the gallery’s spacey floor-to-ceiling glass panels. On two opposite walls, a map of the vessel’s path through the universe matches perfectly with a view of the broadcasts’ appearances around an inverted globe. Irregular geometric shapes scattered around the room are sculptural approximations of the “vessel” itself. And in one corner, a mirrored sculpture by Andy Diaz Hope replicates the Antiprism, a mystical navigational device discovered and used by Vessel XII on its travels.


Friday, May 1, 6-8pm marks the third and final live performance of Antiprism at the de Young, an event that melds documentary film, theater, live music and academic conference into a disorienting and imaginative production. The night includes a reenactment of the Distant Future Symposium (directed by Jennifer Welch), a chance for the minds behind the Vessel XII theories to make and stake various claims of authenticity, attacks and counterattacks. Their drama is often contentious.

Again, the high- and lo-fi binary is wonderfully blurred. Panelists make allusions to string theory while an assistant offers visual aids in the form of black-and-white images on letter-sized paper. In the background, the musical group Exray’s (Bernson, Michael Falsetto-Mapp and Jason Kick) provide a live soundtrack of deadpan electronic tunes and spoken passages from the vessel’s logbook. An EP inspired by their investigations into Vessel XII is available as a limited edition cassette or digital download.

Only one of Vessel XII’s broadcasts interrupted U.S. airwaves, landing in Reno, Nev. in 1994. In a short documentary, resident witnesses describe the experience as sounding “like a very very slow nature program.” In this surreal vein, Bernson’s project creates an alternate dimension of its own. Delving into the tropes of fringe science, New Age mysticism and conspiracy theory, Bernson renders a living theater of spooky uncertainty, inviting Kimball Gallery visitors to open their minds to the inexplicable -- and all the creative possibilities therein.