When worlds collide
This article is from 2008.
A collaboration between artists and comedians suggests that aliens want to know about supermarkets, science and the Welsh. Mark Fisher hears the spin on The Golden record
It was a more innocent time. Despite the better efforts of the Sex Pistols, 1977 was a year of happy people waving flags for the Queen’s silver jubilee and feeling the force with Star Wars. When the two Voyager spacecrafts left earth from Cape Canaveral that summer everyone was filled with optimism. There was no question about it: intelligent life was out there, and not just any old intelligent life.
We were banking on the aliens having hi-tech record players. That way, they’d be able to play the 12in gold-plated copper disks that were left in each spacecraft. Nobody thought it was naïve to imagine the occupants of interplanetary craft would figure out how to see the images and hear the sounds we’d sent to reflect life on earth. ‘I know what a record is and there’s just no way aliens could decode it,’ laughs Mel Brimfield, associate producer at the Collective Gallery. ‘There’s something about the futility of it that seemed like the perfect start for an art undertaking.’ In an enterprising fusion of art and comedy, Brimfield is curating a show based on the contents of the phonographs which, by now, are beyond the gravitational pull of the sun and more than three times as distant as Pluto; although still 40,000 years away from the next star.
Like the original Golden Record, which was put together by a NASA committee chaired by Carl Sagan, Brimfield’s project features 116 images and 55 greetings recorded by her fellow Earthfolk. Unlike the original, however, the messages come from some of the country’s funniest comedians and sharpest artists. ‘We’re using the Festival to generate the content for a new version,’ she says. ‘It’s a giant project, especially for a small gallery. It just seems like such a good opportunity when you have all those performers and so many different audiences in one place. It surprises me it doesn’t happen more often and how little art engages with the rest of the stuff going on.’
The starting point for the gallery images are the titles given to the originals. Artists including David Godbold, Ruth Claxton, and Bob & Roberta Smith are giving their own interpretations to ‘Old man with beard and glasses’, ‘Snowflake over Sequoia’ and ‘Forest scene with mushrooms’. As Brimfield explains: ‘The originals are things like scientific diagrams and anthropological studies and they do have that 70s, Open University feel; they’re quite sweet. It’s nice to make it abstract by offering the artists the titles to interpret.’
Instead of the greetings in 55 different languages, there are 55 three-minute films being recorded by the likes of Stewart Lee, Josie Long and Simon Munnery, as well as theatre practitioners and artists. They’ll be explaining to the aliens all about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, being Welsh, Sainsbury’s and the economy. ‘I’ve asked them to describe an aspect of life on earth,’ says Brimfield. ‘Some of them are loose interpretations, but we are sticking rigidly to the numbers.’ The short films will show alongside a not exactly truthful documentary made by Brimfield and art critic Sally O’Reilly on the history of intergalactic communication, focusing on the supposed relationship between Carl Sagan and Karen Carpenter. ‘It’ll be presented as a serious anthropological display in a museum,’ she says. ‘It will contextualise the exhibition in a fictional, ridiculous way.’
To cement the crossover connection between art and comedy, Brimfield is staging a series of midnight hustings at the Pleasance in which nine comics will compete for the right to deliver a keynote address worthy of Kurt Waldheim’s original. Stand-ups such as Robin Ince and Alex Horne have 15 minutes each to win your vote. ‘Because there’s a starting point that we all get, it makes it easier for everyone to come and have a look, instead of it being just an art audience or a comedy audience,’ Brimfield believes. ‘I’ve invited emerging artists alongside more established practitioners, and the same with the comedy. That’s what the Festival is supposed to be about. If you ask comedians to make art, they don’t realise that some of their practice is very close to it and if they made a video of what they normally do, it’s perfectly legitimate to show it in a gallery.’
The Golden Record hustings, Pleasance Dome, Bristo Square. 0131 556 6550, 9, 16, 21 Aug, midnight, £9 (£7.50). Preview 2 Aug, £5; The Golden Record exhibition, Collective Gallery, Cockburn Street, 0131 220 1260, 1 Aug-13 Sep, free.