British artist revisits Nasa's alien view of Earth

When Nasa dispatched the Voyager II space probe more than a quarter of a century ago, it contained dozens of photographs depicting life on Earth to educate extraterrestrials about our planet.

Starting today in a gallery in Peckham, south London, visitors can see what the aliens were offered as the artist Steve McQueen presents the same array of images in a striking artwork entitled Once Upon A Time. The sequence includes a newborn baby, mountains - as recorded by the great American photographer Ansel Adams - and supermarkets packed with food. But there is no war, poverty or disease.

The project began when McQueen, a Turner Prize winner and Britain's official war artist for the Iraq conflict, set out to track down the Nasa scientists who selected the photographs, spurred on by childhood memories of the 1977 space mission. Nearly 120 images were originally selected from sources including books on the birds of America and the history of toys by a team which included the scientist and television presenter Carl Sagan.

Working closely with William J Clancey, a Nasa researcher and adviser to the Seti (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) laboratory, McQueen was able to find and buy the rights to the entire sequence, which was still in the hands of another scientist, Frank Drake.

In 1977 they were encoded from picture form into sound to be stored on a record which was sent into space with a player and instructions on use to anyone - or anything - who seized or acquired the Voyager II probe. But more than 20 years later, the original slides were in poor condition so McQueen brought them to Britain to work on restoring the colour. He then created the installation in a curious evocation of life as the Americans wished to portray it.

Speaking at the South London Gallery yesterday, Mr McQueen, 34, said the selection had its absurdities yet seemed fundamentally "true". "For me, this isn't about aliens or extra-terrestrials or other things in space, I think the images can represent humanity. I think there's a gravity to it," he said.

Jon Lomberg, another of the scientists involved, said in 1977 they decided to omit war and poverty because: "We felt that we were making something that would survive us and our time - something that might be the only token of Earth the universe would have."

While the Americans sent whale songs and Beethoven into space, the soundtrack to McQueen's installation is of different voices "speaking in tongues" - a phenomenon known as "glossolalia" and mostly associated with evangelical Christians. The examples used by McQueen came from the archive of William J Samarin, a Canadian linguist.

The installation Steve McQueen: Once Upon A Time is at the South London Gallery in Peckham until 7 November. Entry is free

Arts and Entertainment
A host of big name acts recorded 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' in London on Saturday
musicCharity single tops chart
News
people
News
peopleChildren leave in tears as Santa is caught smoking and drinking
Sport
premier leagueHull vs Tottenham match report
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
tvStrictly presenter returns to screens after Halloween accident
News
peopleFormer civil rights activist who was jailed for smoking crack cocaine has died aged 78
News
Boxing promoter Kellie Maloney, formerly known as Frank Maloney, entered the 2014 Celebrity Big Brother house
people
Sport
Dwight Gayle (left) celebrates making it 1-1 with Crystal Palace captain Mile Jedinak
premier leagueReds falter to humbling defeat
Arts and Entertainment
Morgana Robinson
arts + entsIt is not easy interviewing Morgana Robinson. Here's why...
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin