Humans have always been attracted to the idea of life “out there.” It boggles children, fascinates adolescents, and mesmerizes adults. But what do we really expect to find “out there”? Little green men? Tall lanky human-animal hybrids? Telepathic light beings that can travel without vehicles but instead by thought? Speculation fuels the unknown but serves to assuage what humans desperately want to believe: we are not alone.
In 1977, two identical spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, each carrying the same gold-plated record containing messages from Earth: twenty-seven songs, 115 images and greetings in fifty-five languages. Carl Sagan and his team had assembled a message to the beings in the universe, a compendium of items portraying the people of Earth.
When I came upon Anthony Michael Morena’s The Voyager Record: A Transmission, I experienced fascination—and then a bit of existential relief. The strange and interesting Golden Record as the subject of its contents, Morena’s series of poetry and prose passages are woven together in a hybrid form to speculate upon the meaning and significance of this cultural artifact and its launch into space.
In conversation with Anthony about his new hybrid work, The Voyager Record, we discussed the cultural, historical, and political implications of timeless art and artifact. I found that Morena’s reflection and response to the late-1970s Cold War event lead by Sagan’s team is a reminder that artifacts don’t have to be launched into space to have far-reaching intimations.
—Kelly Lydick for Guernica
Guernica: The Voyager Record, in its hybrid form, points out the irony of timelessness inherent in creating a permanent cultural artifact. Why the choice to create a hybrid work that blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, particularly with the subject of The Voyager’s records?
Anthony Michael Morena: The record is a hybrid thing too, but that connection came after the fact. The Voyager Record’s style wasn’t preplanned; it really developed organically. Around the time I was writing the first pieces that became the book I stopped at Wikipedia, of course. People can spend hours reading article after article on Wikipedia. It’s exactly what infotainment means. It’s thrilling, it’s a type of narrative, the encyclopedia entry. I wanted to offer that level of factual engagement in the pieces but also comment critically on the record and still sing along with the songs as they played. And that was how I balanced the material. It was possible to be informational and educate people, and that carried a lot of weight that supported the places where I wanted to subvert the facts, or invent outcomes for the record, or fantasize Carl Sagan’s life, or inject my own. It felt like its own genre, and one that could be contra-factual and still true. Here is an account of an event—in this case the creation of a record launched into space to represent humanity—and the text is busy presenting how different alien species will respectively misunderstand it. Even the fictional parts are trying to explain something.
Guernica: How does The Voyager Record serve to recontextualize how we view “history” and the delineation between what we call “history” and what we call “storytelling”?
Anthony Michael Morena: The record isn’t a historical narrative, so it doesn’t have a plot. It’s a collection of data and artifacts, and the book kind of emulates that. Not too long ago somebody asked me what kind of value the Voyager record has since it’s an object of its time. I don’t think that this person had ever looked into what’s on the record. If they had, they might know the contents are somewhat timeless. Yes, there are pictures of westerners wearing mass-produced late 1970s fashion, but there are also people from indigenous societies who aren’t wearing mass produced clothes. Nobody’s using a smart phone but there also aren’t any pictures of cannons firing from tall ships either. Styling choices really don’t matter much when you’re trying to give an alien intelligence and idea of human life and the Earth’s environment. I think that person had the idea that the contents were dated because the record is a record. Most people think records are very dated technology. They’re also a very effective way to preserve data in space for an unimaginably long period of time—longer than the Earth is expected to exist. It’s a lot more effective than say, flash memory, which is what we think of as a very up-to-date technology. A message on flash memory would start to degrade within the first hundred years, so you can see how that would fail even on the level of Voyager being a time capsule. If another message were created today, a record would still be the best way to keep it intact. The format has limited storage, but that’s the constraint that makes the project a challenge for curators. What do you pick? And what story are those choices going tell? And people still buy vinyl. Vinyl sales are up.
Guernica: Do you believe that history is outdated the moment it becomes documented?
Anthony Michael Morena: That’s not an easy question to answer because so much of what happens never makes it to the level of documentation. Technology is changing a lot of that. Our behavior, as it becomes more intertwined with tech becomes more documentable. Obviously, this can be as problematic as it is useful. There is so much still that can escape ever being recorded, and there is a lot that people want to keep hidden. It makes me think of Kurt Waldheim on Voyager. He was the Secretary-General of the UN whose speech opens up the Golden Record. What no one knew at the time of the recording was that he had kept his extended service as a Nazi officer and his possible knowledge of war crimes out of the history books. He lied about it. Srikanth Reddy wrote an interesting poem about this called Voyager, one part of which is an erasure of Waldheim’s memoir, pulling this story out of the absence of the truth that Waldhiem was presenting to the world, and now to space.
Guernica: You mention that the message from Jimmy Carter on the Golden Record is intended to speak for all Americans. Despite that only a few people hand-selected its contents, how does The Voyager Record serve as an instigator to question what is deemed culturally important, and who has the authority to choose what cultural artifacts will or won’t be documented into a larger canon?
Anthony Michael Morena: As Americans, we’re allowed to take a certain amount of ownership over the record and Voyager: It was funded by tax-payer dollars. It was a product of the space race, a front in the Cold War, and on that level it’s propaganda. It’s an everlasting victory over the Soviet space program. Just because the record tries to represent humanity doesn’t mean it succeeds. The project team was predominantly American and exclusively white. I think for all of that they did everything they could to make the contents of the record as inclusive as the decision-makers at NASA allowed them to be. Of course they failed. The music is a good example of the imbalance. Out of the twenty-seven songs, there are three Bach tracks, one by Mozart, and two by Beethoven. A lot of the non-European recordings are only heard in snippets, and their performers aren’t named. The good thing is that no one has to agree that this record represents them. But at least it was an attempt. The results could have been so much worse. New Horizons launched in 2006—the spacecraft that just passed Pluto is also going to journey beyond the solar system—and it doesn’t carry any message on behalf of the world. I think there is an American flag pin on board, that’s about it. Corporate space companies could start to launch interstellar probes someday, we have that to look forward to. I live in Israel now, where the state-backed historical and cultural narratives are at odds with the Palestinian ones: geographical features and regions are renamed in Hebrew, archeological finds are politicized, whole neighborhoods can suddenly be bulldozed. The end goal is erasure: Things have always been like this, there is no memory of it being any other way. It’s a bad situation, and it’s dangerous. Jimmy Carter knows all about it. I wouldn’t want to see that record.
Guernica: The notion of life on other planets is a persistent fascination of contemporary culture. How do you see that The Golden Record represents another attempt by humans to seek meaning within the larger context of the universe?
Anthony Michael Morena: Imagine that there is no other life in the universe. It’s possible. Eventually the entire planet will disappear—the sun will grow so big the Earth will be swallowed up—and us with it, too, if we haven’t gone already. The record and Voyagers will be the only evidence of who we were. Evidence is the wrong word: the record can’t be evidence if there isn’t anyone out there using it to prove our existence. Tree falling in forest stuff: without observation the phenomena doesn’t even exist. That is what having no context would be like.
Humans have always supplied ourselves with beings to ensure our own context in the universe, whether those beings were there or not. Gods, angels, spirit ancestors. Aliens as we usually think of them are a fairly recent addition to folk mythology. There’s a certain baseline for them in the popular imagination, but I’m not sure the fascination is expressed the same way all over the world. I think on the record you see that difference when cultures take different tacks when it comes to what to say to the aliens. To some extent the greetings were really individual efforts, but they do reflect some cultural identity as well. Some people address the aliens as they would elders, with reverence and respect. Others are standoffish. Some scientists think that contacting alien life forms is a bad idea, and tried to dissuade Sagan from even making a record. Stephen Hawking has said something like this. That in contacting an advanced alien society we would be inviting the same kind of exploitation and violence that colonialism wreaked on Pre-Columbian cultures in America.
Guernica: The Voyager Records, far as we know, have yet to be found by any beings. If it were found today, what would you hope that the recipients would conclude about the human race based on its contents?
Anthony Michael Morena: Unless aliens have taken some Riker-in-full-alien-facial-feature-prosthetics, keep-the-Enterprise-behind-the-moon sort of low-key observations we can be certain the records haven’t been found. NASA is still in contact with the Voyagers, telling them what to do. If any creature were already close enough to find the probes, they would be close enough to see us, too. Which means they could compare the two, do the side-by-side comparison: Earth on the record, and the Earth as it is. I hope they don’t judge us too harshly. I hope they at least keep the record in mind when they do.