Searching For Signs of Intelligent Life
Suzanne Bloom and Ed Hill, jurors in a recent HCP contest to provide significant images of life on Earth, for alien consumption, discuss their criteria.
What makes these photographs suitable messages to be launched into cosmic space from Planet Earth? This problem was dealt with previously on a serious scale by Carl Sagan and his associates when they chose 118 images for inclusion in NASA's 1977 Voyager project. At the time, artist John Lomberg was given the specific assignment to construct a pictorial message, or "picture package," for extraterrestrials.
The problem, of course, was which pictures of Earth and humanity should be sent. In determining the final selection Lomberg was guided by two criteria: first, the images had to contain as much information as possible; second, they had to be easily understood, i.e., unambiguous.
Messages from Earth,a competition exhibited at HCP last spring, invited photographers across the nation to present an alternative, unofficial view of the terrestrial scene. The show could be thought about in two ways. In the first case it could be considered as a collection of heterogenous photographs, each piece appreciated independently of the others. The second approach would be to allow oneself to be guided by the extraterrestrial theme and to assume that photographers chose the work they submitted with such a hypothetical purpose in mind.
Certainly the second approach is the more interesting because it provokes greater response from the viewer's imagination and simultaneously raises several difficult issues.
Anyone who has contemplated the epistemology of photographs will immediately recognize the complications involved in "reading" photographs, especially if the anticipated audience happens to be an alien intelligence (ETI). We take so much for granted in the highly developed pictorial language of photography, that it is nearly impossible to imagine ourselves outside the realm of photographic intelligibility or, for instance, unable to make sense of a familiar photograph such as Ansel Adams’ Snake River and Grand Tetons, 1942 (one of Lomberg's selections).
The NASA photographs were chosen quite didactically not only to tell Others about our human world, but to be self-instructing insofar as possible; what might be learned from one image would then make the next more understandable. Lomberg, Sagan et al,in their final selection, adopted a "family of man" model which tended toward the reductive, bland, and non-controversial - ultimately producing a highly ambiguous (or should we say, one-sided) construct of Planet Earth for the unknowing alien.
Would the 68 photographs in the HCP exhibit offer a less representative picture of our world? Would they be any less accessible or intelligible? Is it not, indeed, possible that they might convey a stronger senseof our world rather than communicating the ostensive "facts" of human existence?
For example, David Kelly's wonderfully absurd and subtle photographs of measuring - a zucchini, a dogwood blossom, and plumbing a sapling - not only demonstrate the concept of calculation, they also comment on the extreme value we place upon quantitative science and, like so many other photographs in the HCP show, they revealed a gentle sense of humor that is completely lacking in the NASA photographs. Shouldn't we inform Others about the capacity humans have to laugh at themselves, to recognize (on occasion) the mythology of their everyday lives?
Jake Seniuk's three photographs from the Sniperseries point out (through an extreme telescopic persective) the anxieties, vulnerabilities and paranoia present in our modern civilization and its paradoxical condition of an atomized society in which our individuality persists in an unsteady state riddled with contradictory meanings.
Seniuk engages the negative/positive tension of our situation whereas NASA consciously attempted to suppress it. Shouldn't our messages from Earth, if we are to be honest, contain implicitly both an invitation and a warning, as it were? Or, to put it another way, doesn't the dialectic of positivity and negativity give a truer diagram of human history?
This last remark may lay a much heavier Hegelian purpose on these works than they should be asked to bear. We are trying to suggest that there were qualities in the 68 HCP photographs which displayed aspects of human life no less real, no less significant than those so predictably emphasized by Sagan-NASA. It might also be said that these "alternative messages" were not simply a compensation for the aesthetic interest seemingly deferred by NASA. En fact, there were very clear aesthetic values at work in the NASA choices, the standard aesthetics of middle-class order. This is not at all surprising.
It is our view, however, that many of the photographs submitted to HCP's Messagesrevealed more directly our collective aesthetic values and in much more insightful ways.
To take seriously the task of determining appropriate pictorial messages for other worlds is accepting an extremely demanding set of problems. We do not mean to be glib in our comparison with NASA's efforts; neither do we mean to be satisfied with their solution, which ultimately was bolted, in the form of a photograph record, onto the spacecraft and presently is travelling through interstellar space toward its potential encounter with ETI.
We close with a more discomforting possibility for your contemplation. Suppose a moment came when we all had to vacate the Earth because its surface was no longer hospitable to life. E. M. Forster wrote a story in 1928 of such a time, The Machine Stops.His displaced society found its new home within the interior of the Planet Earth, and among some of its citizens there grew a painful and potentially deadly nostalgia for the surface of their former world.
Can you imagine yourself in this situation? Can you farther imagine that in departing you are restricted to taking with you only a handful of photographs? Of what would your photographic Memories of Earthconsist? Do you think these photographs would be significantly different from those you would consider worthy of sending off to other worlds?
It is a curious fact that the origins of HCP's Messages from Earthlie in a photograpic assignment not unlike what we have just described, Paul Hester, the person principally responsible for the HCP exhibition, has related how the idea evolved from a similar problem given to him by an imaginative teacher at Rhode Island School of Design long before Voyager was launched.
What sort of exhibition would have resulted, we might wonder, if the theme had remained in its original form?
In any case, jurying Messages from Earthhas given us the opportunity to consider certain issues of photographic intention from an extraterrestrial perspective, to try to imagine what such a mode of perception might be, and to speculate about the difference between sendingpictorial messages into the cosmic unknown and taking with us photographs of an Earth we were about to depart forever.