In near total darkness, the Walter Phillips Gallery seems huge and impenetrable like never before. The space is painted black, carpeted and seemingly empty - save the projection work by British artist Steve McQueen, Once Upon a Time. Images are glimmering in the distance and a soundtrack of indistinct speaking echoes through the space. The projections become fully visible on the gallery's furthest wall after our eyes forget the light of the afternoon outside and adjust to the dark expanse.
McQueen introduces his work using the familiar first line of many a fairytale, "Once upon a time," as the title. The story itself goes back to 1977, when NASA worked with Carl Sagan and a committee of 6 others to select images, diagrams, sounds, music and greetings to be included on a phonograph record aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts. The compilation, called the Golden Record, and the messages it carries to our neighbours out in the universe, are still hurtling through space today.
This slideshow features the entire index of images from the Golden Record, including a wide pan of our planet Earth and the Milky Way, an inventory of modes of transportation, various mathematical equations, diagrams of the human life cycle, and picture-perfect landscapes. For 70 minutes, the images cycle at the same maddeningly metered pace with a soundtrack of glossolalia superimposed by McQueen - by now, readers of Shotgun-Review.ca and Prairie Artsters will be familiar with where we are, and what we're doing there - and walking out is not an option. For me to abandon this work would mean loosing the challenge, but in a broader sense, leaving the installation before the cycle completes would be like turning one's back on human civilization.
McQueen's renaming suggests that the original is a fiction or a fairytale, something that starts innocently enough, but comes with a moral message embedded in the telling, and gains even greater poignancy in the re-telling. By showing the Golden Record under this new guise of storytelling, he invites our speculation about the original work.
As a record of human activity on the planet, the original selection of images is shockingly affirmative - it shows the many areas of human progress, innovation and the miracle of our natural capacities as living, breathing, breeding creatures. Many images of natural spaces are populated only by evidence that humans have been there, peacefully toiling away: lighthouses, simple dwellings and cultivated daffodils. Architectural feats of the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House and the UN Building are also represented in quick succession. Here, these iconic places are haunted by the specter of way too many Hollywood movies, and they seem to pronounce: Oh alien race, please don't destroy us! We are the fruits of human ingenuity and labour!
In retrospect, we see that the Golden Record shares its year of realization with several other monumental works of science fiction. 1977 is also the year in which Isaac Asimov founded Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, Steven Spielberg made Close Encounters of the Third Kind and George Lucas launched the Star Wars empire that would become one of the highest grossing movies of all time, and arguably the most influential in terms of its impact on popular imagination. It is from this blockbuster era of science fiction that NASA's Golden Record materializes. But even by 1976, the relationship between popular science fiction and the 'serious' stuff happening at NASA was already well established: its important test spaceship was christened "Enterprise" with cast and crew of the Star Trek television series attending.
Where the Golden Record significantly departs from other science fiction of the period, is in the radically different relationship that it proposes with whoever is 'out there.' Many of the other narratives from that time imagine vast destruction at the hands of the spacefairing strangers who the Golden Record seeks to address. If the alien beings that dwell in our imaginations and on our movie screens ever get hold of the Golden Record and figure out how to play the damn thing perhaps they'd be more benevolent.
US President Jimmy Carter certainly hopes so in his contribution to the original disk: "We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe."
Even in Carter's era, the trouble is infinitely deeper than it appears in the heavily edited Golden Record. Perhaps the mood of NASA's compilation will inspire understanding from an alien civilization, rather than the kinds of destruction that we as human beings have ravaged on each other and our planet. The question is: do we really deserve good will?
So let's presume for a moment that the audience isn't 'out there' somewhere, but instead, as McQueen has implied, here: in the gallery. The exhibition context allows us to see how the snapshot of our civilization circa 1977 seems to have been cleansed of all the things we don't like about ourselves. Missing are the images of genocide committed against First Nations peoples, of the charred bodies of Hiroshima, the results of radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. In three decades since, our record hasn't improved much. Now, we have a few more genocides, the tar sands, and gigantic piles of technological waste from the first world leaching toxic waste into the rivers - and bloodstreams - of people halfway across the world. In this act of making our experience of the world legible to others, and our complicity in this rosy view, we're also committing massive self-deception.
Perhaps we must look to McQueen's observations about his gut-wrenching film Hunger, for the complex psychological wrestling with our darker sides that the Golden Record seems to avoid at all costs. Of the film, he says, "certain things that I was interested in were not recorded in history books, that [is] what intrigues me more... I am more interested in things between the words." Or in the case of Once Upon a Time: the things between the pictures. The re-presentation of these specific pictures gives us the opportunity to read between them, to critique ourselves at a precise moment in history, and challenge the original document - not as a universal study, but as a piece of fiction.
Very short cat naps provide some relief from the meditative cycling images and audio track's frantic lullaby, and Once Upon a Time seems all the more like a far-away dream that fades in and out of focus as we try to decipher it.
Anthea Black is co-editor of Shotgun-Review.ca
Image credit for Once Upon a Time: Steve McQueen, Once Upon a Time, 2002 Sequence of 116 slide-based colour images through a PC hard drive and rear-projected onto a screen with integrated soundtrack, 70 minutes
Images courtesy: Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
Cross-posted with Amy Fung's Once Upon A Time